FOCUS ON: LANGUAGE SURVEY
Language survey is crucial to gathering information about languages and the Bibleless people who speak them. Survey specialists travel to some of the most remote places on earth to collect data that will enable us to prayerfully assess needs and formulate strategies for meeting them.
The sun is only just starting to rise, but the sweat is already dripping down my back. I’m sitting with an elderly man on the porch of his house. We gaze at the river that rolls through his small village deep in the jungle of Papua New Guinea. I’m trying desperately to make small talk. I’m not sure what we are waiting for. He is not talking, just staring ahead, not even hearing me. His silence feels thicker than the jungle’s hot, humid air. I know there is something on his mind, something he wants to ask, but I am totally unprepared for what comes next.
Catching me in mid-sentence, he leans in close, puts his hand on my thigh—a gesture of friendship—and asks in a throaty whisper, “Are you Simon?”
“No, my name is Brian.”
The silence intensifies, and I can see that my answer does not satisfy him.
I could just forget about his question, wish him well and walk off this porch. I’ll be leaving shortly, and I’ll never see this man again. But that’s the easy thing to do—avoiding a conversation that I know could take me to some very weird places. I don’t think God has brought me all the way here—all the way to this deep jungle village, to this riverbank, to this man’s porch—just to avoid an uncomfortable conversation. So in that moment I pray, not even sure what to ask God for other than direction.
I push on. “Who is Simon?”
“He is the son of a man in the village.”
Though already certain how he will respond, I gently ask, “Is Simon dead?”
What am I doing sweating in the sun in a place where people ask questions like this? My visit to this man’s village is part of a survey of his entire language group. Colleagues are considering partnering with these nearly forgotten people to translate God’s Word. I am here to gather information that will help them decide. My task is to answer their questions about the people, their language and culture, and what impact, if any, the Gospel has already had. That is my job: answering other people’s questions. This job takes me to some of the most remote places on earth, places where it is usually hot and I am occasionally mistaken for a dead person. It’s the best job on the planet.
This job takes me to some of the most remote places on earth, places where I am occasionally mistaken for a dead person.
Just like every other job, there are downsides. One is that we can only spend a short time in each place—sometimes no more than 24 hours. That means that I only have a limited impact on the lives of those I meet. When I get asked tough questions, I can share the truth. But outside the context of a deep and loving relationship it is unlikely that my words will really sink in and lead to lasting change. In the end, I can only try to sprinkle a little water on seeds already planted, or maybe plant a few new ones.
In Pioneer Bible Translators we are motivated by seeing transformation in people’s lives. Survey comes early in our contact with new people groups, so I typically don’t get to see much transformation myself. I can only catalog the needs and present them to others. Although the Holy Spirit can bring about worldview-altering changes in the blink of an eye, typically transformation is a long process.
However, as a surveyor I am sometimes the only one who gets to see the entire course. I am there at the beginning. I follow up on what is happening in the program. Sometimes I am asked to go back out to check on something. But I always follow at a distance, seeking answers to other people’s questions: What is happening with this project? How is the translation going? Are the churches growing?
I haven’t been doing survey long enough yet to see a completed program in a language I surveyed, but I can’t wait for that day. To see lives being transformed and churches growing using God’s Word in their language in an area that I once walked through as a member of a language survey team …that is why I do this.
And that is why I do not walk away from this man. I know that spiritual beliefs with deep, dark roots pervade this place. They give rise to the belief that people with white skin are ghosts of dead relatives and that these ghosts return to do evil or to deliver the keys to material prosperity. I see an opportunity to sow seeds, to be a part of a transformative process.
So I begin explaining that I am not a ghost. And finally, in this moment, his true concern surfaces. It has nothing to do with fear or a desire for material gain. It doesn’t even have to do with me. He doesn’t care whether I am Simon’s ghost. He has another question. He wants to know if one of the women on our survey team is the ghost of his daughter who died in childbirth three years ago. He is desperately grasping at any hope of seeing her again.
This is another hard part of my job. Sometimes conversations can be heartbreaking. He tells me that his daughter was a Christian and that he himself is a leader in his village church. Yet without access to Scripture in a language he understands well, he does not yet have this foundational hope that every Christian should have.
So I pour some water on the seeds of his faith. I talk to him about the hope of heaven and the joy that his daughter is currently experiencing in a place so much better than this life. I encourage him to put his faith in Christ rather than in the false hopes offered by a world devoid of trust in Christ.
Thankfully God is not finished with this man. I pray that members of his language group will soon begin the long process of writing God’s Word in his language. I also pray that these translated Scriptures will reach him and help him understand that this world is not all there is and that something better awaits him.
It’s nearly time to leave, so I must bring our conversation to a close. I pray aloud for him, asking God to give him strength to deal with his grief and faith to believe that God is looking after his daughter and that He will one day reunite them. When I finish he surprises me by praying for me, thanking God that the survey team came and for the truth God brought to him through our presence. He closes by asking God to look out for his daughter and to help him let her go.
As I walk away, I thank God for allowing me to be in this place at this moment to accomplish some of His purposes here. I came to answer questions for my colleagues. I ended up also answering a question I never expected to be asked. As far as I can see, no epic, earth-shattering transformation occurred today. Yet God can use even short interactions with a “ghost” on a survey in ways that have lasting impact.
You Can Pray:
- for accuracy in gathering data about people and their languages
- for interactions that plant seeds
- for open doors to serve new language groups