The FISHERS 50th Anniversary

A Layman Looks at Literature Ministry throughout the Church Age

As I reflect on God’s sustaining grace over the last 50 years of the ministry of Fishers magazine, I am amazed at what God has done through the meagre efforts of redeemed sinners at The ‘Fisherman of Christ’ Fellowship, who strive to “proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called (us) out of darkness into His marvellous light” (1 Pt 2:9). Literature ministry in the universal Church is a vast enterprise, and we have been allowed a tiny part in it.

I pen my thoughts in this article not as a professional publisher, but as a minister of the Word and a shepherd of Christ’s flock, looking at Christian publishing from my little corner of the world, and marvelling at what I see of the providential hand of God throughout Church history. Allow me to share my perspective of what God has done through the published word.

The Process of Literature Ministry in the Early Church

The first necessary step is writing, where pen is put to paper to produce a written document. At the infancy of Church history, the most critical need is the composition of Scripture itself – the inspired, inerrant, infallible, authoritative, sufficient Word of God – the New Testament.

The New Testament is a unique book because it is not merely the product of human creative intelligence, but is God-breathed; so that every word is precisely as God would have it.  The Lord Jesus guaranteed this when He said to His disciples, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (Jn 14:26). This ensured the accuracy of the contents of the four Gospels, as the disciples were inspired by the Spirit to remember accurately all that Jesus did and said.

But what about the rest of the New Testament – Acts and the epistles? Their inerrancy is also guaranteed by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Our Lord again promised this in Jn 16:12-13, “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth”.

After writing comes publication – which in the early Church period means safeguarding the original manuscript of the inspired New Testament and making copies by hand.  An indication of this can be found in the introduction to Luke’s Gospel (Lk 1:1-4), where the book (along with Acts later on) was dedicated to Theophilus, a high-ranking official in the Roman bureaucracy. From our understanding of how documents in the Roman Empire were published, Theophilus functioned as Luke’s literary patron, keeping the original document dedicated to him, commissioning the copying of further copies, and distributing those to designated recipients.

Later in Church history, the process of publication came to include translating the original New Testament texts into other common languages of that day. By any measure, the publication of Scripture was a task vigorously pursued – for apart from the 5,800 Greek copies of Scripture, we have 10,000 Latin and 9,800 Syriac Coptic translations as well (just to name a few).  By way of comparison, the next most widely published work was Homer’s Iliad, which had fewer than 100 copies in total.

This brings us to the third component – distribution. After the New Testament documents were written, they had to be carried to the intended audience. The epistle to the Colossians furnishes an interesting example of this. Tychicus was the designated carrier to bring the letter to Colossae (Col 4:7), along with the letters to Ephesus (Eph 6:21-22), Philippi and Philemon (Paul’s prison epistles composed at that same time).

We seldom think about this, but there was a time in Church history where the literature ministry consisted of much copying and carrying – work that today is often done commercially by non-believing persons.

After the New Testament document is written, published and distributed, the final step is the public reading of that document in the local church worship service on the Lord’s Day. We must remember that for most of human history, those who had faith in God heard the Word of God read to them, rather than read it for themselves. Not every believer could read, and very few of them had their own copy of Scripture anyway. And so, their primary means of the intake of God’s Word was through careful and attentive listening to the reading of Scripture.

This was an important part of the assembly of Christians for worship, which is why Paul exhorted Timothy, “Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tm 4:13). Regarding the letter to the Colossians, Paul directed, “When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans” (Col 4:16). Without this final step of reading, Christian ministry through literature would be utterly useless.

Major Disruptors to the Literature Ministry through the Church Age
A disruptor is something that drastically changes the way things are traditionally done. It can come as a threat to an enterprise or offer tremendous opportunities. Let us consider three major disruptors to the Church’s literature ministry.

The Printing Press
Johannes Gutenberg is widely credited with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, although there is evidence of more rudimentary printing processes in China and Korea before Gutenberg. His printing press resulted in the first print run of the Gutenberg Bible, which took three years to produce two hundred copies. This might seem slow by modern standards, but it was a quantum leap in speed and accuracy when compared with hand-copied manuscripts. This was a major disruptor in the publication process of Christian literature.

Johannes Gutenberg's printing press

Later, with advancements in printing technologies, more and more Christian literature were produced and widely circulated. Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door on 31 October 1517. By 17 November of that same year, copies of that protest document were printed and distributed in London. Thanks to the printing press, Luther became the world’s first “best-selling author” with a third of all books sold in Germany originating from him. This had a huge impact on the Protestant movement of his day.

A Resurgence of Translation
It was also the Reformers who insisted on the exposition of Scripture in the vernacular of the common folk. They understood Scripture to be vitally important to salvation and spiritual maturity, and strove to make clear God’s Word to God’s people. And the only effective way to do this was to speak in the heart language of their hearers – the language best suited for deep communication and learning, the language one is most comfortable in when in private prayer to God.

Electronic Mass Media
Closer to the modern day, Christian literature ministry experienced yet another quantum leap with developments in Internet technology. The most obvious difference is that it has reduced the cost of publication and distribution down to almost nothing; the printing, packaging and posting costs of delivering Christian literature used to be rather restrictive. Now, almost anyone with a smartphone can receive Christian literature almost anywhere, at a negligible cost.

But this disruptor is not necessarily advantageous to the universal Church. The fact that almost anyone can write something, claim it to be “Christian” and publish it on the Internet means that there is a voluminous amount of written material on the World Wide Web, and not all of it is good nor sound, and a lot of it is downright heretical. This requires the modern day Christian to be able to discern not just between right and wrong, but also between right and nearly-right.

Some Future Challenges for the Church’s Literature Ministry
Thankfully, amid the tumultuous change in the landscape of Christian publishing, some things remain the same. Still, it is true that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). Sound Bible exposition in the form of good Christian literature is still useful for the advancement of the Gospel ministry.

This present author is neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet (Am 7:14), but would like to share what he considers are some significant challenges for the Church in the near future, especially concerning her ministry through literature.

Lack of Translations
During the Reformation period, the Church sought to bring God’s Word to the masses in their own language. In our day, the challenge is to bring the Word of God to unreached people groups in their own heart language. By some recent estimates, there are still some 5,000 people groups (comprising about 13% of the world’s population) that still have no active church planting efforts amongst those groups. Out of these, 370 people groups (totalling some 10.1 million souls) have absolutely no access to the Gospel.

Reaching these peoples will entail a believer learning a language he does not know, in order to preach Christ and Him crucified in the language of that unreached ethnic group. But once some people come to Christ and a church is established, the very next step is to give them God’s Word in their own language.

The difficulties are formidable – the language must be learnt to a high level of fluency by the missionary, he must codify the language of that people group (for often, theirs is only a spoken language, not a written language), then he must teach those people their own language in written form, translate the Bible, have it checked and refined, then give the local ethnic church a copy of the Bible in their heart language. 

This is the work of a team, not an individual; this is the work of a lifetime, not a few short years. But this is also work that is necessary if the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is to be obedient to Christ’s Great Commission.

Dearth of Reading
The godless French philosopher Voltaire once asserted, “A hundred years from my death the Bible will be a museum piece.” However, a hundred years after his death, Voltaire’s Parisian home became the office of the French Bible Society, where printed copies of the Bible were stored and distributed. The Holy Bible has been the best-selling book worldwide for many decades already, but it is also the most unread book in the homes of many Christians and non-Christians alike.

Many people have stopped reading the Bible altogether, they only read Bible verses, and take them right out of context, misunderstand them, then misapply them to their lives. The Bible is a collector’s item at home, it is a decorative piece on the bookshelf, many pride themselves with having different versions, different editions. They may refer to it once in a while when they are in a crisis, or when they are looking for an appropriate verse to quote on a greeting card. A very small proportion of believers read the Bible to know God, to know God’s heart, to know God’s ways to know God’s will, so that they may do God’s will.

Make no mistake, if after all the hard work has gone into writing, publication and distribution, if in the hands of the book-owner at the end of this entire process, the Christian literature is not read, the entire effort is an utter failure.

Being Mindful of Your Readership
If you are already involved in some literature ministry, you already have an audience who trusts you and the material you are producing. Take care to keep this audience, take care of your readership. Many old folks feel dislocated from the modern world flooded with information they have no access to but hear snippets of here and there. This should not happen to the elderly within the community of faith. We should not stop catering to them just because their numbers are small – just like we should not cut off elderly grandparents from the family for any reason.

On the other hand, any Christian publication ministry must be strategic in deciding who they want to reach – the material you produce cannot reach everyone everywhere, so you must be selective. Be watchful for where God has opened – or is opening – doors of opportunity for you, and do your best to serve the readers God has given to you.

Christian Literature Cannot Replace Shepherding
Finally, for readers of Fishers magazine, we have to remember that no literature ministry can replace being shepherded by godly elders in a local church. Never be tempted to think that any mass media ministry can do for you what God meant for your pastor and your congregation to do. Sermons on the Internet and Christian social media groups can easily foster a false sense of church “membership”. But online, people do not know you, they do to confront you of your sins, they do not hold you accountable, they do not pray for you. This is not true Christian fellowship.

The writer of Hebrews admonishes, “let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Heb 10:24-25). This cannot be done apart from genuine, active membership of a local church. Any Christian literature ministry can only support the local church, it cannot be a local church.

A Plea for Prayer
As the Fishers magazine embarks on its 51st year of ministry, do pray that we will be faithful and fruitful for the kingdom of God.

We, the production team, look forward to meeting with each and every one of you in the New Jerusalem.

Tan Soon Yong

- Soon Yong is a pastor of The ‘Fisherman of Christ’ Fellowship and an editor of Fishers.

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