Imagine not having access to a Bible. Imagine being unable to read it in your own language. Unfortunately these are realities for many Christians around the world. Tony Payne speaks to Robert W Cole, President of Bible League, about the extent of the need and what we can do about it.
Tony Payne: Can you give us some idea of how many Christians around the world don’t have access to their own copy of the Scriptures in their own language? Is that number growing or declining?
Robert Cole: Bible League estimates that at least half a billion Christians worldwide are waiting for God’s word, and that does not include the growing number of new Christians annually. It’s exciting to witness the expansion of Christianity because of the Bible. However, as evangelistic and discipleship efforts grow the family of believers, it actually creates a spiralling need for even more Bibles.
In Africa, more than 200 million literate African Christians are without Bibles. In many areas of rural China, there is a ratio of one Bible for every 100 Christians.
Throughout the developing world, many Christians are unable to afford a Bible, unable to gain access to one, or unable to have one due to restrictions or persecution. Hundreds of thousands of people don’t have even one verse of Scripture in their own language. Bible League’s partnerships with Bible translation agencies help to meet that need.
TP: In the West, we are not used to having non-Christians asking us for Bibles, but I understand that this is not the case elsewhere. What’s the level of demand? And can we meet it?
RC: The Bible’s appeal among non-Christians is amazing to many people. Even followers of other major religions are aware of the Bible’s power. When Christians share the truth of the gospel in a non-confrontational but relational manner, those truth-seekers want to explore the Christ of the Bible.
Bible League has testimonies of Muslim clerics who are drawn to examining the Bible because of dreams. Witchdoctors are shown to be helpless in meeting real need, but they observe the power of God’s word, and want to know the source. Buddhists hear of a God of hope, and discover in the Bible that Christ’s atoning work makes their futile works unnecessary. Hindus experience relief from constant fear as they learn that the Christian God loves them and desires a relationship with them.
Millions more spiritual wanderers have never seen a Bible or heard Jesus’ name, but we estimate that at least two billion people would eagerly receive and read the Scriptures if presented with the opportunity.
The global shortage of God’s word and training is a tragic obstacle to the conversion and discipleship of people everywhere. By God’s grace, we must keep working to meet the demand for his word until Christ comes again.
TP: What can we do about this? Is it just a matter of raising more money and printing more Bibles?
RC: First and foremost, we can pray. God’s people must not underestimate the impact of our petitions to heaven. And then we can rely upon scriptural promises, encouragement, and direction. I love the challenge of John 4:35b: “Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest”. Scripture’s direction is not muddy; it’s very clear. Bible League is uniquely positioned to help reap the harvest.
We empower tens of thousands of national workers in a unified mission to share the Bible around the world. We don’t need to do the work of the Great Commission for them. They already have cultural sensitivity, language and evangelistic passion on their side. They need Bibles and training to fulfil that calling.
To accelerate the impact, Bible League staff members worldwide have embraced VISION 2020:
In our role of helping people come into a relationship with Christ and His Church, Bible League will endeavour to train 10 million nationals to engage 100 million people in the study of God’s Word through the placement of Bibles and New Testaments by the year 2020.
VISION 2020 can only be achieved through committed partners who are willing to stand with us to meet the growing global Bible demand. So, yes, at its basic level, the need can be addressed when we have the resources to provide more Bibles.
TP: How does Bible League go about Bible distribution? Tell us a little of your history and how you operate.
RC: In 1936, William Chapman, a Chicago area businessman, lay seriously ill in a small hospital room. An elder from his church asked God to not only spare Chapman, but also to give him a life dedicated to powerful service for the Lord.
Although a believer, Chapman had never thought of himself as a valuable member of God’s kingdom. But while recovering, he gradually made that prayer his own. When Chapman had fully recovered, he and his wife purchased 1,000 Bibles and went door-to-door in Walkerton, Indiana, giving a Bible to anyone in need in exchange for a promise to read it.
From the very beginning, Bible League has been intentional in placing God’s word, not distributing it indiscriminately. Bible League ministry partners worldwide use the example we find in Acts 8:
“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.
“How can I,” he [the Ethiopian] said, “unless someone explains it to me?” (Acts 8:30-31 NIV)
Philip sat with the man, travelled with him and even baptized him after they studied the Scriptures together. This New Testament model (known as ‘Project Philip’ on many Bible League mission fields) is still effective today, and it encompasses evangelism, discipleship, and church membership or baptism. Bible study participants ‘earn’ their own Bible by completing a study. Commitments to study and live by the Bible lead to deeper levels of faith, and eventually, the opportunity to replicate the process with new seekers.
Churches unanimously report that Project Philip is easy to use, and it allows for effective access to the Bible. Plus, Bible League’s church planter training programme helps national Christians learn Project Philip skills to establish new churches where there are none.
TP: What’s the situation like in countries where Christians are persecuted? Does owning a Bible make you a target? What does Bible League do in these countries?
RC: Persecution of Christians is real. Acts of violence, abuse, imprisonment, torture and even homicide happen every day. Those who have the courage to stand up and step out for their faith often make themselves targets for persecution. Their Bibles may be defaced, stolen, burned or taken from them. How can they grow in their faith and bring others to Christ without the “sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6:17)?
Bible League intentionally places Scriptures in the context of Bible study where Christians are experiencing persecution. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the church continues to grow in restrictive countries. As the church grows, persecution often increases. But, as a ministry partner in south-east Asia once exclaimed, “The more we encounter hardships, the more zealous we become for hearts and souls!”
In China, restrictive policies dictate that our ministry is done through low-key local networks. Even some Scripture products must reflect a need for secrecy, which is why there is always a demand for pocket-sized versions of the Bible.
Persecuted Christians need God’s word more than anything. God’s word is the light in their darkness. Together we affirm their courage by helping to provide Bibles for them. When their spirits wane, they remember that they are not alone: Christians around the world are supporting them with gifts and prayers.
TP: How did a bloke from Sydney end up in Illinois, leading such a major international ministry? And what is it about the work that has kept you there for the last five years or so?
RC: Following a Bible delivery trip to China in October 1980, I resigned from my position as a health and building surveyor in local government, and joined the ministry of Open Doors with Brother Andrew in Sydney, Australia. Over the next six years, I continued to work as a Field Director to promote the ministry of Open Doors throughout Australia. I also participated in a number of Bible delivery trips to China, Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma).
During this time, I felt God’s call to prepare for ministry overseas. In October 1988, my family and I moved to Thailand. Apart from assisting two successful church plants, I worked to develop a variety of evangelistic and Bible study resources. I also assisted Bible League’s project of editing and typesetting a Burmese Bible dictionary, as well as coordinating the development of the first Burmese study Bible.
In October 1994, we left Thailand so I could accept a full-time position with Bible League in Australia. In November 1997, I was appointed National Director. I was appointed as Bible League’s fourth president by the United States Board of Directors in July 2003.
Today, as much as ever, a hurting world is crying for answers they haven’t found anywhere. I’m excited that Bible League is positioned to provide the answer: God’s word. That’s why I’m here! I believe that Bible League’s ministry—with the right leadership and the right direction from God—has the potential to make an enormous impact for the gospel.