Six Lessons from Creating the Africa Study Bible
Insights from Dr. Matthew Elliott, President of Oasis International
As we get into a new year at Oasis International, there are so many things to be grateful for— we have seen God walk with us as we equip thousands of people in Africa for effective discipleship.
When I reflect on this monumental work, I am particularly reminded of the Lord’s favor in developing the Africa Study Bible. From conception to completion, there are many lessons that I learnt and continue to apply in my work and relationships.
Although I visit often, I have never lived in Africa. I am an outsider. So maybe that gives a different perspective in thinking about what made the project a cross-cultural success. Today, in our global village, all of us interact with people from different backgrounds and often build multi-cultural projects— even within different cultures in the same nation. Here are my six top lessons. I am trusting that these will be useful in your own writing, teaching, and ministry.
1. Listen a lot before you even start the Journey
My main job as Project Director for the development of the Africa Study Bible, from 2011 to 2017, was to listen, think, and listen some more. I spent hundreds of hours listening to study Bible experts, African leaders and scholars, publishers, and those selling books in Africa. It was only in review, listening, and asking questions that the plan was perfected and the potential was reached. The project was so different, so much more powerful by the end from where we started!
2. Expect that many of your pre-conceived ideas will be wrong
I was always ready and willing to be proved wrong. Although I can come off as strong with a lot of opinions, only my opinions on the authority of God’s Word and the opinion that God wanted this done was what I choose to hold close. The rest had to be held loosely, held with open hands ready for change and input. For example, we faced the question, “Who is an African author?” I thought I knew— someone born and raised in Africa. But the African answer was quite different, “Someone with an African heart.” In this we had to sometimes stand against the criticism of “how could someone be an African author who was not born in Africa?” This ended up being maybe 5 of 300 authors but we had our answer at the ready. “The African leaders defined for us who an African author is.”
3. Make course corrections constantly
We had about five years of weekly or bi-weekly meetings of the editorial team. Some of us attended most every meeting, and many came in and out according to the specific needs of that week. We would invite whoever had the most insight into the room. Hundreds of little decisions were made in those meetings. For example, what if one author translates a Swahili proverb in one way and their editor in another? (This happened more often than you might think!) We had to develop standards for this and a 100 other questions.
4. Stick with the plan
With a seven year project, 16 reviewers, and hundreds of authors it would have been impossible to respond to every request for a “needed change or course correction.” There was plenty of distracting input over the years and we had to learn how to sort the various feedback from the valid criticism. The specific and wise committee decisions from 2011 were our bedrock and a great grace. With this standard and mandate as our absolute, sorting the wheat from the chaff became intuitive and easy— most of the time.
5. Have the right people doing the right things
Our goal was achieving excellence. We had to find the people with their 10,000 hours (Malcolm Gladwell), who had achieved excellence in their craft. If ethnicity or having an African perspective was important, we always made that a prime criterion. However, we found the right person for the job regardless of where they lived or where they were born. Our pursuit of quality drove the process. For early church history, for example, the Center for Early African Christianity (Thomas Oden), was a central participant as they are experts in Ancient African Christianity— even though they are based in Princeton, USA. In this we were neither “paternalistic” or “indigenous,” but driven by the goal of creating the best product possible for the global church. This, in my opinion, is a true manifestation of the body of Christ.
6. Know when to sprint
The last two years we basically put down everything else we were working on and focused on completing the Africa Study Bible. At the height, we had about 80 editors, reviewers, artists, translators, proofreaders, project managers, and typesetters working and it was all we could do to keep going full speed ahead. There came a point when we knew the project was so big and complex that it would take all of us working all the time to complete it by the final deadline, so that is what we did. A special thanks to our partners and Tyndale Foundation who stuck by us when that is all we were working on. Without their belief in our team and the project, the two-year-final-sprint would have been impossible!
I hope this wisdom is helpful to you in your cross-cultural project. The wise are humble learners. When we keep the Bible and our shared faith at the center and we listen and are willing to make adjustments and corrections on the non-essentials, our discipleship becomes more powerful!
Click here to learn more about Dr. Elliott, Oasis International’s President
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