Evangelism for Computer Nerds

Evangelism for Computer Nerds

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So you're more comfortable spending a quiet evening with a computer than going to a party, and the idea of knocking on a stranger's door and trying to witness makes your hair stand on end, and no one ever seems to get converted when you do try to witness. You couldn't possibly be a missionary, right? Wrong! God is interested in availability more than in ability, and there are many, many jobs just waiting for people like you! Just in Wycliffe Bible Translators (where I work) a recent check showed 247 urgent needs for people with various computer skills.

HTML, XML, SQL, C++, C#, TCP/IP, DotNet, Agile Development, Extreme Programming, Zachman Framework - if you work with these forms of computer programming, there is a job a lot like yours that is a direct part of the church's great task of making disciples of every people. We need you!

Mission organisations are in some ways a lot like other organisations. There's a lot of information to store and manage. Money and people have to be tracked (all over the world). Missionaries have to communicate, again, all over the world, and since some missionaries work in sensitive countries it has to be secure. There are things to publish, both on paper and electronically, for the people we're trying to reach, for the people who give and pray, and to connect with the next generation of missionaries. In Bible translation it is estimated that 250,000 distinct items of information need to be gathered, remembered, and organized in order to do a single good translation. Like other organisations confronted with problems of dealing with massive amounts of information, mission agencies use computers.

And computers have to be maintained. And networked. And configured. And kept secure. Data has to be backed up and archived. The results of ten or twenty years' work must not be lost. Things we take for granted (like reliable power and Internet connections) are not always available. It is not possible to just go and buy an accounting system that will handle a hundred thousand donations a month in forty currencies and distribute them to 12,000 missionaries from 110 organizations working in 90 countries (and currencies) while complying with all the relevant tax laws. Some things require expert configuration; others must be written from scratch. Wycliffe is trying to build an "enterprise architecture system" that combines personnel processing, member and employee payroll, donor fund processing, health insurance, project funding, language group tracking, and a multitude of other systems.

Then there are the really specialised tasks. The program I am working on at present is designed to help a missionary analyse an unwritten language (while learning it without the help of any textbooks or other written materials). It helps build a bilingual dictionary that documents the language. It implements a methodology that allows a translator to accumulate a thesaurus of over 12,000 words and idioms (short phrases) in a couple of weeks' study. This is crucial to good Bible translation. Perhaps 100,000 times in the course of translating the New Testament one must stop and decide on the best word to use to convey a particular idea. Even with native speakers involved in the project this can be difficult. A fairly comprehensive list of possibilities, organised so that relevant ones can be found, is a big help.

Once the words are collected, they must be carefully analysed to work out just how they differ in meaning, and the program helps with this, too. These are not simple tasks - our data model of a bilingual dictionary and related materials runs to 87 classes and 325 fields (that's a lot). And we have to try to make the user interface simple; some users may be mother-tongue translators with limited education, limited English, and limited computer skills (any experts on internationalisation and localisation and user interaction design out there?). The suite of programs of which this is a part is over half a million lines of code. It has roughly 17 programmers developing it; and some of those can't work full time because of the need to seek more support. And of course, half a million lines is half a million possible places to make a mistake. We have just four people to work on testing all this.

Imagine you are a translator in the middle of a desert in Africa, and your email program stops working - right while you are trying to finalise the publication of Genesis. Is it a software problem? Hardware? Cables? Configuration? User error? You have no idea. Where do you turn? There isn't a computer shop on the next corner and, if there were, the staff probably could not handle your English software. You have no access to the Internet, so you can't consult user groups or the software producer. But communications keep improving. The translator who had this experience was able to make a satellite phone call to JAARS (a technical support organization for Wycliffe). A team of experts on all the possible types of problems was gathered, and in a few minutes a hardware problem in the laptop was pinpointed. This prevented a significant delay in getting God's word to a people group.

Satellite phone calls are expensive, though. And some problems require an expert on the spot. So there is great need for people with technical skills in all the places where missionaries work. Generally it isn't glamorous work, and certainly not highly paid. Surprisingly, you may work mainly in an office in a Christian enclave, with less opportunity for personal witness and evangelism than in an ordinary job in your home country. (The most contact I have with a non-Christian in a typical week is probably at the supermarket check-out.) But what I do, sitting at a computer screen tearing my hair out as I try to solve the seventh bug today, is helping to get the message to many of the least-reached people in the world: the 380 million for whom no Scripture has yet been published in a language they can understand. That is deeply satisfying. You could be part of this too!

And, of course, it's not just computers. Missions use aviation, radios, and broadcasting. Buildings need to be constructed, and power and plumbing provided in places where regular utilities aren't available. Medical services and education are needed. If you have a technical skill, the chances are very good that it is needed somewhere in the mission field.

So, what's stopping you? Are you available to God? Are you sure he has called you to stay where you are?

John Thomson works in the Language Software Development department at Wycliffe's international headquarters in Dallas, Texas (USA). He has been serving there for nearly twenty years.

Republished from "Serving Together", Australian Missionary Tidings. Used by permission.