Scripture In Mission: Three Major Priorities In Eradicating Bible Poverty

The Scripture in Mission Multiplex Resource Team 01 Jun 2010

Editor’s Note: This Cape Town 2010 Advance Paper was written by the Scripture in Mission Multiplex Resource Team as an overview of the topic that was discussed at the related session on ‘Scripture in Mission’ at the Cape Town 2010 Congress. Responses to this paper through the Lausanne Global Conversation were fed back to the authors and others to help shape their final presentations at the Congress.


Peter and Angela are busy with their middle-class lives. Next door, Lucy is a Buddhist from East Asia and her housemate is into New Age religious matters. Mma Echu has no Scriptures in her language, and the chief of her village has built a shrine for his god. Amin is interested in Jesus but is illiterate, while Hussein is deaf.

What do all these people have in common? They suffer from a malady that afflicts billions of people scattered throughout every nation in the world—Bible poverty. But none of them realize it.

What are the signs of Bible poverty? It is present where people are hindered by barriers from having access to the Scriptures in a language they understand well and engaging with them in ways that transform their lives. It cuts across economic levels, social status, religious identity, ethnic groups, and languages. Bible poverty affects regions of religious persecution. It affects the non-literate, the deaf, and the blind. Still others, like the Befang of Cameroon, simply do not have any Scripture in their language. And a host of professionals in cities from Shanghai to Munich to Bogota have no confidence in any truth but their own experience. Barriers to engaging meaningfully with the Scriptures show up everywhere: in urban contexts, in rural contexts, in regions where other major religions dominate, and in the post-modern West. But once we identify these barriers, can we also work to build bridges that enable people to overcome these barriers?


Peter and Angela are busy with work, family, church responsibilities and entertainment. They spend a lot of time listening to political commentators on television and Christian talk-show hosts on the radio. They have at least ten Bibles in their home, but many weeks, the only verses they hear are those read during the Sunday morning service. But even their pastor spends more time preaching his own thoughts than walking them through the Scriptures. The Scriptures, which used to occupy center stage in their lives, have moved to the periphery. As a result, many of Peter’s and Angela’s values and attitudes about issues in their society are set by other people rather than by their engagement with the Scriptures.

Lucy and Julie live next door to Peter and Angela. Lucy’s family emigrated from East Asia. She is a Buddhist. Her housemate Julie is interested in spirituality. She is positive about New Age materials and events but is also interested in the mystical elements in Buddhism and Hinduism. She also believes that Jesus rose from the dead. She thinks it is ‘cool’ that he did.

Mma Echu became a follower of Jesus a few years ago. There is no Scripture in her own language. When she attends church services, the pastor only preaches in the dominant language of the nation, which she does not understand well. When she leaves the Sunday worship service, she is always hungry for something more. So she only goes to church occasionally. Meanwhile in her village, Chief Ekone built a shrine for his god next to his house, asking the god to protect his family and bless them. He has heard of Jesus, but as far as he knows, Jesus speaks only the dominant language. He does not speak his language. Jesus is a foreigner.  Therefore, Jesus cannot really enter into a dialogue with the ideas and beliefs of Chief Ekone and his people.

Amin heard about Jesus once and wants to learn more about him. But he has never found a follower of Jesus in the town where he owns a small shop. So there is no one to talk with about Jesus. He did see a book that people said was about Jesus, but he cannot read. So it would be no help to him. He does own a radio and a DVD/CD player.

On the other side of town is Hussein. He is deaf. He lives in a very different world than those who can speak. He has strong ties to the few other deaf people in town, but they all fear those who can speak. They have often been mistreated. In all of this, no one communicates about God to them. God is not just foreign to them. He does not exist.

Peter, Angela, Lucy, Julie, Mma Echu, Chief Ekone, Amin, and Hussein all suffer from the same condition. They suffer from Bible poverty. Bible poverty is global and it is the result that occurs in any context or setting that blocks or hinders people from having access to the Scriptures in a language they understand well and engaging with them in ways that transform their lives. Surprisingly, both individual Christians and churches can hinder that transformation based on the Scriptures. So can those involved in missions and their mission agencies. The issue is universal. Its origin is found in the heart and in the human being’s separation from God.

What would our transformed lives look like? Jesus said that if we were transformed, we would love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and we would love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-31).  Our behavior would be pleasing to God and bring delight to our neighbors (1 Corinthians 13:4-7; Galatians 5:22-23; Ephesians 4:1-6, 25-32; Philippians 2:1-11; Colossians 3:12-17).

The lives of the people described above are blocked from knowing the transforming love of God. Can you identify what blocks or hinders the Scriptures from bringing about transformation? Each of these situations represents a major challenge for the role of the Scriptures in mission. And each situation raises a major question to ponder:

  1. Why do the Scriptures not transform lives where and when they are available?
  2. Why do more than one billion people not have adequate Scriptures in their language?
  3. Why are the Scriptures that are available so often available only in written form?

Before exploring these specific questions, let us start by asking ourselves about the place of Scriptures in mission. What is the value of the Scriptures in mission? Is there a difference between what role we think they should play and what role they actually do play? How central are the Scriptures in your ministry? What evidence would others see that demonstrates their centrality?

The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy that two key purposes of the Scriptures are to make us wise about the way of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and to equip us for every good work as God’s people (2 Timothy 3:14-17). Paul wanted his son in the faith, Timothy, to have the same confidence we can have today, that the Scriptures are essential to sharing the good news found in Jesus Christ as well as to experiencing Christ-like transformation.

Timothy was fortunate when he was young. The Scriptures were available in his community in a form and language that they could use and understand. They were in a written form, probably in the Greek language. This would have been the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. In addition, either someone in his family read them to him since he was a child, or some in the larger Jewish community read them publicly for all to hear. Paul mentions that Timothy’s grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice had ‘sincere faith’, and that the same faith lived on in Timothy (2 Timothy 1:5). Paul also mentions that it was ‘from infancy’ that Timothy had ‘known the holy Scriptures’ (2 Timothy 3:15). These three people had come to faith in Jesus Christ. They had also engaged with the Scriptures. This led them to live with ‘sincere faith’ in a society and culture that was not always friendly and accepting of their faith. They were being transformed as followers of Jesus Christ in a challenging context.

Reconsider the case of Peter and Angela above in light of Paul’s words to Timothy and Timothy’s experience in his family around the Scriptures. For Peter and Angela, even though they are Christians and have numerous Bibles, they are biblically impoverished, because the Scriptures are not having the transforming impact on their lives that God intends. Ironically, their situation is ultimately no different from that of Lucy and Julie, their neighbors, who know nothing of the Scriptures.

In cases where people like Mma Echu and Chief Ekone do not have any Scripture in their language, their Bible poverty is clearer. They do not have the resources that Peter and Angela have. People like Amin, who have never learned to read or are no longer able to read, will always be biblically impoverished if all they have is the written word. And Hussein is completely cut off until someone develops a way to communicate Scripture to him.

Their Bible poverty is a result of barriers that block or hinder the power of the Word of God from making a difference in their lives. The existence of these barriers should motivate us to find bridges to help people connect with the Scriptures.

So let’s return to our three questions above and ask what some of the more important barriers and bridges might be in each of these cases.

1. Why do the Scriptures not transform lives where they are available?

Why, when the Scriptures are plentiful and available, do most people not engage with them in a meaningful way?


The barriers include:

  • Ignorance, indifference, and even contempt for the Scriptures
  • Busyness of life, admiration of technology, and being flooded with entertainment
  • The strangeness of the Scriptures relative to life in the 21st century
  • Beliefs about what can be known
  • The centrality and autonomy of the individual

Ignorance, indifference, and even contempt for the Scriptures

Western adults and youth are mostly ignorant of the simplest facts found in the Scriptures. They could not answer the question, ‘Who was Adam, Abraham, David, or John the Baptist?’ The Scriptures are familiar in a vague sense, but not understood or valued. With all the other sources of information clamoring for their attention, they remain indifferent to the Scriptures. Then when they hear the claims of the Scriptures, many hold them in contempt. Among those who believe, an increasing number, especially younger adults, do not participate in a church body. The Scriptures become an individual issue rather than something shared within a community of believers.

Busyness of life, admiration of technology, and entertainment

People, including Christians, are busy with many responsibilities and activities. There is little time to spend with the Scriptures, to meditate on them and allow them to speak into their lives. Peter and Angela do not see Lucy and Julie very often. Neither Peter nor Angela feels comfortable with Lucy’s Buddhism or Julie’s vaguely defined spirituality. They do not know how to share the Word of God with them. In fact, they would not know what to share since they spend so little time in the Word themselves. No one has taught them how to feed themselves or how to enter into a time around the Scriptures together with others. Lucy and Julie are interested in alternative religious expressions, so they would never consider giving time to reading the Scriptures unless someone helped them see a reason to do so.

The various forms of media present in Western society dominate people’s lives. For Christians, the media can easily have greater impact on their lives than the Scriptures, so many of their personal and social values are molded by society’s opinion-makers rather than the Scriptures. Today’s heroes are celebrities from the movie and music industries and from sports. Some of these people are very hostile to the Christian faith and throw doubt on the trustworthiness of the Scriptures.

The strangeness of the Scriptures relative to life in the 21st century

The people, places, and customs found in the Scriptures are foreign to life in the 21st century. It is a challenge for Christians to connect with the Scriptures and find meaning and relevance in the text for their lives. It is often easier to simply ignore the Scriptures. For Lucy and Julie, the Scriptures are simply strange.

Beliefs about what can be known 

The Western culture that is home to Peter and Angela is experiencing an historic shift in what a person can claim to know. Knowledge is less and less objective and increasingly subjective. What we experience and what our reason tells us in relating to the external world are no longer assumed to be reliable. Instead these are seen as mere opinions and self-serving ideas, often handed down to us by our elders who trained us to live in their society. Truth is no longer fixed and there is no means to find it. Biblical truth, including biblical morality, is seen in this light. Many believe that biblical truths, whether about the world or morality, are just opinions from an earlier era with no universal claims on human beings.

The centrality and autonomy of the individual 

In the West, the individual is the center of his or her universe. He or she decides who is god and what is true. The individual also tends to generalize from the meaning and reality he or she has created to everyone else. There is less and less trust in an external authority such as God or the Bible. Relationships between human beings are reduced to issues about power and personal preference. The highest value is no longer love but tolerance.


The Great Bridge that surpasses all and is sovereign over all is the Spirit of God. The Spirit is the one who ultimately changes the condition of each person’s heart. He frees them from the control of sin and delivers them into the freedom of serving God (Romans 8:1-11). The Spirit is not limited or restricted by any environment but crosses all barriers. Yet the Spirit allows us also to participate in establishing bridges to help others. We are challenged to consider how these barriers might be bridged.

Ignorance, indifference, and even contempt for the Scriptures

Contempt is difficult to overcome apart from a consistent love for the person on our part and the work of the Spirit. Yet, there are some possible bridges to address ignorance and indifference. In the case of ignorance, if the person is open to learning, one possible place to start is with the larger narrative of the Scriptures, from creation all the way through to the new heaven and new earth. The focus would be on God’s love for and pursuit of humanity, inviting all people into his kingdom because of what Jesus did in his life, death, and resurrection. How could Peter and Angela come to value and then learn to share the grand overarching story of the Bible with Lucy and Julie?

In regard to indifference, a possible bridge would be to share how the Scriptures have influenced us in our lives. We can share the larger narrative or more specific passages from the Scriptures that have had a deep impact on us. Such sharing can demonstrate the personal relevance of the Scriptures.

Busyness of life, admiration of technology, and entertainment

An important bridge to address these issues would be the practice of lectio divina, either as an individual or in a group. The process requires participants to slow down their pace of life. They take time to choose a passage of Scripture and read it. They then meditate on either a word or phrase or other matters that God brings to their attention in their reading. They can then pray around this word or phrase, and close by contemplating and resolving what they might do differently in their lives.

Another bridge would involve group Bible study and reflection—studying passages once a week, for example, with a number of other people. Meeting with others holds each person accountable to the other members of the group. The regularity of the meeting allows each person to give space to the Scriptures in his or her life. And in the process, each person hears the thoughts of others about the passage.

The strangeness of the Scriptures relative to life in the 21st century

A possible bridge in this case could be to explain how a given Bible passage influenced us to an action we did not expect to take. This would particularly be the case with stories from the Bible. Peter and Angela could learn how to show Lucy and Julie the spiritual truths that are embedded in those stories that still have relevance today in our lives.

As for beliefs about what can be known and the centrality and autonomy of the individual:

What bridges can you think of that could be built to address these two barriers?

2. Why do more than one billion people not have the Scriptures in their language?

By one estimate, there are approximately 6,900 languages spoken in the world today.1 Most are spoken by smaller populations. We can call them ‘minority’ languages. In more specific terms, about 6% of the world’s population, or about 400 million people, speak about 94% of the world’s languages. Clearly these are the smaller languages of the world. They include people like Mma Echu and Chief Ekone.

Why are only the largest languages the ones with the Scriptures? Is it acceptable that over a billion people do not have a complete Bible in their language? If we in the worldwide church believed in the importance of everyone having the Scriptures in his or her own language, would we not expect church and mission leaders to come together to find ways to eradicate such Bible poverty? The human and financial resources already exist in the worldwide church. So what hinders this from happening? And how can we get past the over-reliance on the part of churches and missions on Bible agencies to address these challenges alone? It will require the global church as well.


The reality of language and the diversity of languages serve as the source for a number of barriers. Three will be highlighted here.

  • Multiplicity of languages – not just dialects
  • Minority language communities – numerous and marginalized
  • Multilingualism – misunderstood by majority cultures

Multiplicity of languages

About 450 of the 6,900 languages spoken in the world have a complete Bible.2 They represent about five billion people. These Bibles serve as a tremendous potential resource for evangelization and discipleship.

However, over a billion people do not have the whole Bible available to them in their languages. These are not mere dialects. They are distinct languages. Of these languages, more than 2,000 likely have needs for translation3 but no translation is yet underway. Nearly 2,000 languages have translation in progress. Another 1,510 languages4 have fewer than 1,000 speakers remaining; some of these languages are nearly extinct, and others are too poorly researched to know their number of speakers or what their needs are for the Scriptures.

Minority language communities – numerous and marginalized

Most of these languages are spoken by smaller populations. We can call them ‘minority’ languages. They are often marginalized in their nations. They are poor, not well-served with social services, and have little place in the political structure, so are easily overlooked. Since the number of minority languages is large but their populations are small, it is difficult for those from the majority language and culture to treat them with the respect and concern that God shows for them.

Multilingualism – misunderstood by majority cultures

People from minority languages often speak more than one language in order to survive. They often learn at least enough of the majority language to buy and sell in the market. Their ability to use more than one language, especially the majority language, can mislead those from the majority culture into believing that they understand the majority language well enough to meet their spiritual needs with the Bible in the majority language. However, this is often a mistaken conclusion. The use of other languages by minority people groups is a complicated matter that needs careful research to determine what language or languages are most suitable for them to encounter God’s Word.


Multiplicity of languages

In relation to the multiplicity of languages, one bridge is to find out who in your context does not have the Scriptures in their own language. Many of us live in locations where more than one language is spoken. As a leader in your city or region, do you know what languages are spoken in your city or region? If you are not sure how this would be done, you can ask for help. Once you and other Christian leaders identify the needs in your city or region for the Scriptures to be made available, you can develop a plan for how that need might be met. Various partners, both churches and Bible agencies, could help you with developing such a plan.

You and your friends could help organize and participate in a program to develop some oral Bible stories in a minority language in your area.

Minority language communities – numerous and marginalized

You may not be able to identify any languages spoken in your city or region. In this case you can visit the local university or institution that does research on languages and cultures. You can also ask various Bible agencies to see what information they may have on languages spoken near you. They may have suggestions on what needs to be done next and how you could help.

It is likely that the Bible agencies will be part of the solution in meeting the needs of minority languages near you. But an even more important part will be the churches around the world joining together with the Bible agencies to reach out to these minority language communities.

Multilingualism – misunderstood by majority cultures

It is common for speakers of majority languages around the world to believe that all people who speak the smaller languages also understand the majority language. So they conclude that there is no need to help the smaller language communities. This is one of the biggest challenges for churches as well; church leaders often believe that the smaller language communities can understand the majority language that is used in the church. So they are simply unaware of the spiritual needs that are going unmet because minority language speakers simply don’t understand what’s being said.

The challenge in this case is to not accept the conclusions of society around us. We need to research and learn what the real situation is for the sake of God’s kingdom.

3. Why are the Scriptures that are available so often limited only to those that can read?


When we think of the Scriptures, we usually visualize a printed book of text. Thus, one of our most common assumptions about the Bible is that it will be in written form. Such a form requires people to learn how to read in order to understand its meaning or to find someone who will read it to them. Does one have to be literate to be a Christian? Have we become satisfied with the printed word because those of us in leadership within the church are literate?

The reality is that there are billions of people around the world from oral cultures. Many have never had a need to read, and most are unable to read. In addition there are those who are deaf and blind who need special attention to the challenges they face with a written text.

When the Scriptures are only available in print form, these people are blocked from gaining access to the living Word for themselves.


To help those who are unable to use printed Scriptures, one bridge is to provide the Scriptures in the appropriate media and form for the speakers of languages in your location.

This bridge would use all the technologies available to us such as radio, audio (CDs, mp3 players), video, Internet, cell phones, as well as the methodologies used in developing oral Bible stories. This paper has provided a brief introductory overview of the challenges of Bible poverty, and some of the more important barriers and bridges related to it.

For more specific details and perspectives on barriers and bridges please refer to the three additional papers on these topics:

  1. Scripture in Mission: Eradicating Bible poverty – identifying barriers, a geographical and sociological perspective
  2. Scripture in Mission: Eradicating Bible poverty – identifying barriers, a personal and synthetic perspective
  3. Scripture in Mission: Eradicating Bible poverty by building bridges

Consider also the book Translating the Bible into Action: How the Bible Can Be Relevant in All Languages and Cultures by Harriet and Margaret Hill, Piquant Editions, 2008.

How would you answer the following questions?

1. What do you think of the three major questions:

  • Why do the Scriptures not transform lives where and when they are available?
  • Why do more than one billion people not have adequate Scriptures in their language
  • Why are the Scriptures that are available so often available only in written form?

Are these the most important questions we should be asking in light of the seriousness of Bible poverty?

2. Would you add another question, take one away, or change one? Why?

3. What examples of Bible poverty do you see in your village, city, or region?

4. What are some of the barriers that people face in gaining access to or engaging with the Scriptures where you live?

5. What is God’s attitude toward the smaller, marginalized peoples of the world and their languages?


© The Lausanne Movement 2010

Written by John Watters, PhD, Chair of the Forum of Bible Agencies International. 2003-2010.


Dr Michael G. Bassous, Lebanon, Bible Society of Lebanon

Dr John Bendor-Samuel, UK, formerly Wycliffe International and Forum of Bible Agencies International

Lucia Cheung, Hong Kong, Scripture Union

Ravi David, India, International Fellowship of Evangelical Students

Dr Rev. Lloyd Estrada, Philippines, Wycliffe Bible Translators Asia

Richard Luna, Colombia, One Hope

Dr Fergus Macdonald, UK, formerly United Bible Societies and Forum of Bible Agencies International

Dr Michel Kenmogne, Cameroon, Cameroon Bible Translation and Literacy Association

Todd Poulter, USA, Wycliffe Bible Translators International

Saju George John, India, New Life Computer Institute

Rev Sun-Chang Kwon, Korea, Wycliffe Bible Translators International

Naomi Swindon, Australia, Scripture Union

Chantal Tehe-Boa, Ivory Coast, International Fellowship of Evangelical Students

Dr Rev Erní Walter Seibert, Brazil, Brazil Bible Society Coordinator


  1. See the Ethnologue at, select ‘Browse the Web Version’ and then ‘Statistical Summaries’. See also and select ‘Translation Statistics’.
  2. See the United Bible Societies at
  3. See
  4. See the Ethnologue at