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The Many Languages of Christianity

A letter from Josh Heikkila, serving as Regional Liaison for West Africa, based in Ghana

June 2017

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Not too long ago in the United States, one’s denominational affiliation and ethnic identity went hand in hand. Presbyterians were Scottish, Lutherans were German and Scandinavian, and Catholics were Irish and Italian. In West Africa, denominations have likewise come to be defined and dominated by the particular ethnic groups with which missionaries from particular denominations began their work.

In Ghana, many people think that Presbyterians only come from the Akan and Ga ethnic groups, while the Evangelical Presbyterians of Ghana and Togo are only Ewes. On a number of occasions in Nigeria, I’ve heard people refer to the Presbyterian Church in that country as the “Igbo church.” While these exclusive ethnic associations are inaccurate, the legacy of the past still has a strong influence on the present.

At the Akrofi Christaller Institue in Ghana, faculty often speak about how Protestant missionaries’ embrace of local African languages for Bible translation, prayer, and worship eased the way for the Gospel to enter the culture. They explain that when you speak to God in your mother tongue, and listen for God to speak to you in that same local language, it becomes easier to embrace Christian faith as your own. By engaging local languages and traditions, Christianity has become woven into the fabric of the culture, such that it is no longer seen as a foreign religion spoken in a foreign tongue.

However, this embrace of local languages and cultures does present a contemporary challenge. In West Africa, where there are hundreds of languages spoken, if you embrace your own language, it can shut you off to other ethnic groups who speak something different. Another alternative—using the national languages of the region, French or English—can make Christianity seem foreign and distant. The dilemma therefore becomes “How do you embrace your own language and culture, but also make space to welcome others?”

Just a few days ago, I returned home to Accra after a visit to the north of Nigeria, where I saw some of the mission work the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria is doing in that part of the country. While it was exciting to see what is going on, the challenges are also great and obvious. The Presbyterian Church of Nigeria needs our prayers and support!

Most Presbyterians in northern Nigeria are migrants from the south who have moved to the north for employment opportunities. They don’t speak Hausa, the indigenous language of the region, but they know that if the Presbyterian Church is going to put down lasting roots in the north, they have to train Hausa-speaking leaders and plant congregations that use the Hausa language for worship. This is a challenge when they don’t speak the Hausa language.

During this visit to Nigeria, I was able to see some of the first fruits of the church’s work. I met an ordained Presbyterian minister who has a very interesting story. As a young man, he was part of a task force sent to impose strict Islamic law in the region, on both Muslim and Christian residents alike. And much like the Apostle Paul, who came to faith in Jesus Christ while on his way to Damascus to persecute the church, this man experienced a conversion.

Rather than trying to impose Sharia on people who didn’t want it, this new convert now began to preach the Gospel to his Hausa-speaking brothers and sisters. He was welcomed by the Presbyterian Church, trained and ordained, and is now charged with evangelism and outreach in the region.

I also learned about a newly ordained female pastor from southern Nigeria who— even when all her colleagues advised her against it—agreed to go to a part of the country that has been ravaged by Boko Haram. In these places where Boko Haram has been active, although the church is comprised mostly of migrants from the South, it is using the strength of this base to reach out and lift up people from the northern indigenous ethnic groups.

The Presbyterian Church of Nigeria, Synod of the North, which is based in Nigeria’s capital of Abuja, oversees all of the mission and ministry in the northern half of the country. The Synod is moving ahead with plans to open a school in Abuja that will train evangelists and pastors for work among the northern ethnic groups that use the local Hausa language.

The Synod of the North also has dreams of expanding its health clinics in the region, and of making clean water more accessible to rural villages without it. I was particularly interested in a proposal the church has to start vocational training programs, geared towards young women, among the settlements of people who have been displaced by Boko Haram. If you are interested in supporting any of these programs financially, I would be very happy to share more information with you about them.

As always, I thank you for your prayers and support, which make our Presbyterian mission in West Africa possible. As you know, it takes financial resources to keep mission co-workers like me in the field, so I am grateful for any support you can give. God bless you!


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