Question & answer column

Reaching Out With God's Word

Eugene Habecker

     Dr. Eugene Habecker is President of the American Bible Society. Since its founding in 1816, the ABS has distributed well over five billion Bibles, New Testaments, and Scripture portions and selections. Internationally it works through membership in the United Bible Societies (UBS), a global fellowship of 135 national Bible Societies.

     Dr. Habecker holds degrees from Taylor and Ball State Universities, with a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and a law degree from Temple University. He is the author of dozens of articles and four books, including Rediscovering the Soul of Leadership and Leading With a Follower's Heart.

     A popular speaker, he has served on the boards of several organizations, including the National Association of Evangelicals. He is the recipient of many honors, including election to more than twenty "Who's Who" lists. In the following interview he talks about the globalization of the American Bible Society and its current efforts to reach the world with God's Word.

Q.    What do you mean by the globalization of the American Bible Society?

A.    Too often when we think about missions, we tend to think about people from the U.S. going to other parts of the world. In reality, the world has come to us. ABS works in 200 countries, but here in the U.S. we have nearly as many language and ethnic groups as we work with worldwide. My son is studying Russian, and he can hop on a train and in no time be at Brighton Beach, a New York City suburb that publishes six newspapers in Russian every day of the week. You can do that with dozens and dozens of language groups and barely leave the contiguous forty-eight states.

     In fact, the most rapid growth of the church in our country is within these ethnic communities. Yet, we're still training pastors and youth workers in English. The first step we are taking to address this is opening an ABS division in Florida dedicated to ministering to the U.S. Latino population. There are about thirty-five million Spanish speakers in the U.S. That makes this country between the third and fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. Our next office will be Los Angeles, where we'll focus on the Asian languages.

     We don't so much go into other parts of the world as establish partnerships with our Bible Societies in other lands. One of our priorities is to put the Word of God into languages and formats that people can understand. The whole purpose of the distribution, of course, is to see people come to know Christ personally. We will either translate Scripture ourselves into a certain language, or we'll work with translators in other parts of the world who have more speakers of that language, then bring the finished product to the United States. I don't need to worry about putting together a Russian Bible when I can call the office in Moscow and say, "Anatoly, I need 5,000 Russian Bibles for Brighton Beach in New York City."

     The people and programs of the American Bible Society are centered on the Bible and its life-giving message of hope, justice, and reconciling love. We believe the Scriptures speak for themselves; we don't add doctrinal notes or comments. By honoring this historic focus on the Scriptures, the Bible Society is able to unite Christians from all traditions and strengthen the impact of the Bible's transforming power.

     We set about our task in confidence that God's Word speaks most powerfully when its message and meaning are clear in common everyday language. In the present time of the Internet and information technology, ABS is uniquely positioned to serve as a global channel for God's Word to anyone who wants it.

Q.    How do you work with other agencies such as Wycliffe and the Gideons?

A.    We are the second largest Bible translation agency in the world; Wycliffe is the largest. We work very closely with them, each year coming together to discuss Bible translation issues. Regrettably, two-thirds of the world's language groups are still without any part of God's Word; we must decide how to use our resources wisely to address this need.

     We also partner closely with the Gideons, who work a little differently. They use many of our translations in other parts of the world. They distribute their Bibles for free, where we ask people to pay if they can. We feel it is not the best stewardship to give someone a Bible if they can afford to pay.

Q.    What difference do you think the American Bible Society has made to the world?

A.    We have distributed over five billion Scriptures, and if you believe that the sower

We set about our task in confidence that God's Word speaks most powerfully when its message and meaning are clear in common everyday language.

does not sow in vain and that some fruit will take root in fertile soil, then hopefully we have helped some people come to the Lord. The prophet Isaiah said in Isaiah 55 that "the Word of God will not return void." God's Word will not return to Him until it has done everything He sent it to do.

     Evangelists are discovering an important fact: no matter how many evangelistic crusades they have or how many times they show the Jesus film, if they don't have a plan to get people into the Scriptures, the newly evangelized flounder shortly after conversion. Sometimes the church feels it can be a church without the Word! This can't be, so I am always arguing for churches to be more Word-centered. It is critical to the work and the life of a growing church.

Q.        If you could choose one thing that would make disseminating God's Word easier, what would that be?

A.     It would be to challenge the local church to become more Word-centered. So often we are careful to be Word-centered in our curriculum and sermons, but beyond that the church does not do much. I would love to see the church become a major center of Scripture distribution in the community. The ABS makes available full Bibles for under five dollars and a 500-page New Testament for less than the cost of a greeting card. Why aren't churches willing and eager to make available these low-cost Scriptures for members to distribute to neighbors and friends?

     We also have what we call "Scripture portions" which are free twenty to thirty page collections of Scriptures on relevant topics organized around key questions and comments, such as Stress in the Family or Peer Pressure. They are wonderful evangelism tools; if someone to whom you are sharing your faith has a specific problem, you can say, "Let me give you a Scripture portion." Most unchurched people have no idea where to start reading a Bible; this gets them into the Word at just the spot they need for their particular problem.

     Ways abound for churches to be Word-centered. Why not be a focus for literacy in the community? At ABS we have a purely scriptural curriculum that teaches people how to read. Why not help the blind? We are also one of the largest providers of Braille Scriptures. What about the deaf in your midst? Would they not enjoy Scripture that is signed?

Q.    What changes have occurred in the way the American Bible Society responds to the world's need for Scripture?

A.     Two primary changes come to mind. Over the years we have become sensitive to producing Scripture material that reflects the culture and ethnicity of multiple audiences in the U.S. One of our most recent efforts is the Jubilee Bible, released last year. It is a regular Bible, but it also has three hundred pages of material giving the history of African-Americans in the Christian church. We also have an African-American audio New Testament. We are trying to be a lot more audience-specific and extend our ministry to all languages and races.

     Another change I feel is very exciting is our experimentation with putting Scripture into formats other than print. Our research tells us that a typical eighteen-year-old, given the choice, would rather watch a video than read a book. If we insist on making the only access to God's Word through the printed Word, we're going to lose generation after generation in the new millennium. One of our latest projects is the Kingsley Meadow Series, a series of thirteen Bible videos for younger children. Often we present the Gospel to older people and ignore some of the most neglected age groups in the world. Some people talk about the seven to fourteen-year-old window like others talk about the ten-forty window. With this new series, even children who can't read can learn basic Bible stories.

     Finally, we have just released what we call a Learning Bible, as opposed to a study Bible. Usually translations are targeted for certain age levels, from the New American Standard, to the New International Version, to our Contemporary English Version. But regardless of the translation, the notes produced in study Bibles are often at the level of the scholar who wrote them, not at the level of the translation. The Learning Bible keeps the study notes at the same level as the translation, allowing greater understanding by the reader of the deeper issues of Scripture.

     One of the obstacles we face in trying these new innovations is the public's resistance to change. They say, "What do you mean, you're doing a translation other than the King James? We don't need it!" People become accustomed to a preferred translation and then accuse us of changing the meaning when we do another translation. But this is really nothing new; we need to remember that Tyndale was burned at the stake because he translated the Bible from Latin into the common language of English - a language that all of his nation could understand. Some things don't change!

     There is much work yet to be done. A rapidly growing church worldwide has dramatically increased the need for Scriptures. To keep the dream alive - a dream to provide God's Word to every man, woman, and child - we depend on the prayers and the shared commitment of believers everywhere."

Want to be More Word-Centered?

For more information, contact the American Bible Society at 1865 Broadway, New York, NY 10023 or call 1-800-32-BIBLE (322-4253) Their website is rq.americanbible.org.




Reformed Quarterly, Volume 19, Number 3, Fall 2000
© 2000 Reformed Theological Seminary
Articles may not be reprinted without permission.

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Last updated 11-8-2000.