The theme of The National Congress on Evangelism 2012 (NACOE 2012) was “The whole Gospel to the whole nation by the whole church”. At first glance, “the whole nation seems a simple concept”, but the history of evangelism shows that it is not.
Most of us give the phrase “the whole nation” a geographic meaning. In this sense, it refers to the entire national territory. For many years, evangelism and missions understood it the same way. Jesus’ command in Acts 1:8, for example, was understood in purely geographic terms.
But the Holy Spirit will come upon you and give you power. Then you will tell everyone about me in Jerusalem, in all Judea, in Samaria, and everywhere in the world. (emphasis mine, CEV)
No one denies the geographic meaning of this verse, nor the geographic meaning of the phrase “the whole nation” in the NACOE theme. But a nation is more than a geographic space. It also has citizens. In most nations, those citizens belong to a variety of ethnic, linguistic and/or cultural groups. The Ethnologue lists 79 languages for Ghana, all but a few of which are indigenous to Ghana.
Christians and missionaries noticed that a purely geographic meaning of “everywhere in the world” was not leading to the desired results. At NACOE, I was told that William Ofori Atta once had the occasion to travel to Tamale. There, he was surprised to find that the church he attended was composed mostly of people from other parts of Ghana who were living in Tamale, and that the church service was conducted only in languages from other parts of Ghana. He went out to invite others to church, but they responded, “As for us, we are [of a different ethnic group]“, meaning that they did not believe that church was for them. Similar things happened in many countries. So it was that those who wanted to be intentional about announcing the Good News, noticed that just having a church in a locality did not mean that the people of that locality were hearing the Gospel in a way that they could understand.
Out of this was born the focus on “people groups”. Dr. Ralph D. Winter was one of the leading proponents of the people group approach. That approach focuses on people, specifically on their ethnic, linguistic and cultural identities, rather than on geography. The objective was to have the Good News presented in the language and cultural forms of each people group. It has since become widely, not to say universally, recognized that phrases like “everywhere in the world” and “the whole nation” must be understood in terms of “all people groups”. It is important to note that many of the first missionaries to Ghana used a people group approach, including translating the Bible, hymns, catechisms and other documents into the more prominent Ghanaian languages.
The focus on people groups is more than a pragmatic approach to evangelism and missions. The Bible speaks clearly to this approach. Space permits me only a passing treatment of this topic. Of note, are the events at the birth of the church reported in Acts chapter 2 where we read
Many religious Jews from every country in the world were living in Jerusalem. And when they heard this noise, a crowd gathered. But they were surprised, because they were hearing everything in their own languages. They were excited and amazed …
(emphasis mine, Act 2:5-7a CEV)
It is not of small significance that the very first major evangelism event was one where people heard in their own languages. We can also note the hundreds of references to the peoples of the world in the Old Testament, and the prominent place that the ethnic groups and languages of the world play at the end of time as reported in the book of revelation, as illustrated by this verse from Revelation chapter 7.
After this, I saw a large crowd with more people than could be counted. They were from every race, tribe, nation, and language, and they stood before the throne and before the Lamb.
(Rev. 7:9 CEV)
The theme of NACOE 2012 urges taking the whole Gospel to the whole nation by the whole church. It was clear from the presentations at NACOE that to finish the task of taking the Gospel “to the whole nation”, Ghanaians need to become more aware of and more conversant with approaches to evangelism which have a “people group” rather than a geographic focus. That means intentionally taking culture and language into consideration in evangelism. The research, Bible translations and documents produced by GILLBT are excellent tools in support of evangelism that takes language and culture seriously.