Recording the Gospel

Recording the Gospel

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From the "Power for Living" paper, distributed June 27 and July 4, 1999

By Ben Taylor

Gospel Recordings shares Christ with speakers of isolated languages.

This is a story about faith

-- faith that God can birth a global outreach from a sick woman's bed. That when that woman is concentrating on Honduras, God has His eye on the world. That God can transform a technology used mainly for popular music into a communicator of the Words of Life in thousands of languages. That He wants even the handful of Wakindiga people tucked away in the Yaida swamps of Africa to know Him.

Faith that God is as big as He says He is....

As of this writing, Gospel Recordings (GR) and its affiliated Global Recordings Network (GRN) have recorded Jesus' message of salvation in more than 5000 languages and dialects. Considering that current estimates place the total number of the world's languages and dialects in the neighborhood of 8000, GR has a long way to go before finishing the task. But when put in terms of being almost halfway to giving every person on earth the opportunity to hear and respond to the Gospel in their own language, the enormity and importance of this ministry's work comes into clearer view.

GRN has offices in about 30 countries, where nationals are responsible for identifying and making recordings for the people groups in their country who haven't yet heard the Gospel Between 30 and 40 associates trek across the globe each year to visit communities in such places as India, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia to find someone willing to translate the Christian message for groups like the Shom Peng (est. 100 total members), Makolkol (7) and Usku (20). 133 languages were recorded for the first time in 1999.

The GR USA office alone, since its inception in 1939, has sent out more than 11.5 million records and cassettes containing the Gospel message. It has a faith funded annual budget of under $1 million (1999) -- much of which is sent to help poorer offices around the world and has roughly 40 people on staff, plus several volunteers.

Removing the Veil

All this is quite an accomplishment, considering that Joy Ridderhof in 1932 was really only thinking about the people she left behind in Central America. Dysentery and malaria had forced Ridderhof to leave the mission field in Honduras after six years to recover at home in Los Angeles. She spent many days lying in her attic bedroom, longing to still be discipling new Christians and sharing the words of Jesus with the unsaved people in that small country. Memories of people Ridderhof had ministered to echoed in her mind, such as the poor widow who couldn't memorize even one verse of Scripture. The missionary just couldn't figure out why God would pull her out of such vital work.

Many times in Honduras she had clung to the apostle Paul's encouragement that God works all things for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8.28).

Well, this was another one of those times.

So Ridderhof decided to rejoice in God and wait for Him to do something truly "good."

She remembered the scratchy, poppy sound of gramophone records playing in the saloons and shops of the Honduran villages. A friend had once mentioned to her how helpful it would have been to have the Gospel message recorded in Spanish....

The one-time passing notion suddenly took root in Ridderhof's mind: Recording the Gospel in Spanish would allow her to minister to the Honduran people without actually being among them. God's purpose was coming into focus.

Fifteen dollars and a few divine appointments later, Ridderhof was cutting her first record of hymns and Scripture for her Honduran friends on New Year's Eve, the last day of 1938. Spanish Gospel Recordings was born.

Faith in Action

Ridderhof probably would have been happy just making recordings for Honduras-but then, this story really isn't about her.

It didn't take a huge logical leap for her to realize that the recordings could be used in other Spanish-speaking countries. So when requests for records started pouring in from Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Puerto Rico, Ridderhof was happy to oblige.

Yet when a missionary to the Navajo Indians approached her about helping capture the Gospel in their language, she hesitated.

Making a recording in the Navajo language would be great, but where will it end? she thought. If she departed from her vision of making recordings in Spanish there would be no logical stopping point...

Sheep. The Lord was reminding her what He said about sheep. I Have other sheep that are nor of this fold.

It didn't take Ridderhof long to realize that God's plan for gramophone records was much bigger than hers. Once she accepted that, the Spanish Gospel Recordings name soon lost a word.

Ridderhof knew that a recording would have more impact if she could get a native of that language to speak into the microphone instead of herself, especially now that she was branching out into a multitude of unknown tongues. She also had to be willing to go where the people lived-a task that her fully recovered body could handle once again by 1944.

Her first stop was Mexico where, over the next 10 months, she and a dose friend managed to capture 33 languages. Next came stints in Alaska, the Philippines, Australia, Thailand, India, Pakistan, New Guinea... well, you get the idea. Barely more than a decade later the small band of "gramophone evangelists" had more than 1400 languages and dialects in recorded form, and had sent out 1 million records to more than 140 countries.

That number included the Wakindiga, a small tribe living in the remote Yaida swamps that the group almost overlooked while recording other peoples in the East African country of Tanganyika (no" part of Tanzania). Almost bypassed, save for Ridderhof and her companions thinking about sheep again- something about leaving the entire flock to look for the one that wandered off.

The Wakindiga were that one lost sheep.

Every Tribe

Taking Jesus' words literally about the lone sheep has become part of the core philosophy at Gospel Recordings.

"We have found that there are lots of small groups that aren't being reached by others," says Allan Starling, GR's assistant director. Many missions organizations target the larger unreached people groups. As for radio, Starling noted that a group generally must number at least a million before a broadcast in a particular language becomes feasible.

GR and GRN decided a few years back to build on their well-established work with majority people groups by focusing a significant portion of their energies on groups numbering fewer than 10,000.

"We call them the Tailenders, because they are always at the tail end of the line waiting for resources," Starling told Power for Living. Sometimes there are no missions or groups working among these people, 50 we are doing it."

That's not to say that Starling's group is a lone ranger. Far from it. GR often partners with workers from other mission organizations and area churches to pinpoint language groups and map out a strategy of how to reach them.

GR functions as more of a media ministry, making the recordings that others will then distribute as a way to reach the difficult-to-reach. They don't have any missionaries in the traditional sense of the word, who go and live among a tribe to minister on a long-term basis. Instead, following Ridderhof 's tried-and-true pattern, GR recordists travel to an area and try to locate a willing candidate to be the voice on a recording.

Securing the vocal talent's services may take some convincing, but the recordists generally can find at least one willing person.

"In just about every group, there are one or two people that are bilingual," Starling says. "They have to know the trade language of the country 50 that they can communicate with other groups.

Once that is done the recording team sets up a makeshift studio with whatever they can find-mattresses, pillows-anything to absorb sound. Then out comes the portable tape recorder (GR made the transition from records to cassettes in the 70s), and within a short time they have captured a new language on tape. Well, not quite that easily.

"Sometimes you have to get [the speaker] used to the whole idea of a tape recorder and this voice coming out of it," Starling says.

(Many people groups don't have ready access to electronics. Some may have never even seen a tape player. GR provides the really primitive tribes with a specially developed player powered by a built-in generator that the listener cranks by hand.)

Recordists select a pre-written script for the speaker based on circumstances surrounding the group (literacy, general education, predominant religion familiarity with Christianity, etc.). Scripts can address fear, tell the story of creation, relate a biblical parable or flat-out share the Gospel message. The goal obviously is to clearly show the people how to know Jesus, but cultural norms vary widely and so must the approach.

GR tries to locate churches or missionaries in the vicinity that can then distribute the tapes and follow up with the people after they have had a chance to hear them.

Resources are limited, and not everyone can always have a copy of the recording. Thus, GR workers try to get copies of the cassette to influences within each tribe-such as a village chief or even the witch doctor-to give the greatest chance of everyone hearing it. But in some cultures that isn't a problem.

"In our culture we would turn it down and not bother the neighbors," Starling says. "In other cultures they turn the thing up as loud as they can.... So, one tape could be heard by many people in a village."

Bearing Fruit

If you think about it, taking the Gospel to "every tribe and tongue" can be a pretty daunting task.

"We always say that when God confused the languages at Babel, He really did a good job," Starling says.

But he and the others working with GR and GRN keep plowing the trail that Ridderhof blazed. Like her, the ministry still doesn't solicit funds for its work, but trusts the Lord to bring along people who want to help. GR gives away most of its cassettes, resolved not to keep anyone from hearing the Message.

And the testimonies continue to roll in. A missionary to the Ewe people in Benin, West Africa, wrote to the GR USA offices:

"The Ewe recording we received [had a wonderful effect] in various departments in Benin, and every day more people left their old ways and found peace and happiness in Jesus Christ."

And to think it all started with a sick missionary lying in her Los Angeles attic bedroom. Seems God really does work all things together for good.

Historical portions of this story were based on Faith by Hearing, by Phyllis Thompson. Some numbers were updated.

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