Faith at Work: An Interview with Matthew Elliot

This is part one of a two-part interview in which Barnabas Chicago Managing Partner, Tommy Lee had an opportunity to speak with Matthew Elliot, President of Oasis International. Matthew helped develop the Africa Study Bible and is involved in key ministry throughout the globe. 

Tommy: Matthew, can you share a little bit with the audience about what you do at Oasis International and also the vision and mission of Oasis International?

Matthew: We work in book and bible distribution in English-speaking Africa. What a lot of people don’t understand about Africa is in a vast majority of the continent, European languages are the language of education. So there is probably over 200 to 250 million readers of English in Africa and they actually went to school speaking and learning English. The same is true for French, about half of that maybe 125 million French readers. Our goal is to work with that educational group and to bring discipleship materials (books, bibles, Christian books) to churches in Africa that are both affordable and relevant. And so if you are a pastor that makes fifty dollars a month, a fifteen-dollar book is pretty difficult for you to afford. So, we’re trying to bring prices down on Christian books to help pastors and Christians and also content that is relevant to their faith.

Tommy: One of the biggest projects that you have recently been a part of is the Africa Study Bible. How long did it take you to develop this Bible?

Matthew: Well, we’ve been working actively on the Africa Study Bible for seven years now. It started in 2010 and it was finished in early 2017. We believe it is the most ethnically diverse single volume biblical resource ever developed which is pretty cool.

Tommy: Matthew, for those who are not familiar with the cross-cultural mission, why did you have to create an Africa Study Bible. Why couldn’t you just take something like the ESV study bible or Life Application Bible and translate it?

Matthew: Well, we met in 2011 with leaders from all over the African continent: east, west, north, and south Africa and basically asked them those questions. What is an Africa Study Bible? What should it be? What is the significance? Those leaders we met with helped us name the project and came up with the vision statement.

Now obviously, if there is a Greek and Hebrew syntax to your question, the word meaning, it’s obviously much the same thing around the world. But the question we are asking is “how do you apply the Scriptures to life in the African context?” It is about living your life out as a Christian in Africa and how the Scriptures apply to life in that country.

Tommy: What were some of the life lesson you learned that you did not know prior to your journey of working on the study Bible?

Matthew: Well, we knew in the beginning, and our African leaders were very aware of this, that they not only wanted this to be a gift to Africa, their own people, but also to the world. And it really turned out that way in the sense that there is so many things in the Scriptures that are much more similar to the African culture than they are to ours.  I am a New Testament theologian,I have a Ph.D. in New Testament, and there are things in the text of the Scriptures even after years of studies that I don’t intrinsically understand like the African readers do. Some of those things really came out in the project and we're getting testimonies to this effect already, just in the first couple months since its release. But westerners reading the Bible say, "Man, this is fresh! This is great! I'm learning about my faith from Africa."

Tommy: Now, and this is just me asking because I am not familiar, would you say that the Africa Study Bible is as applicable in Nairobi as it is in Nigeria as it is in South Africa? Is the culture so similar that it can be used in all those regions?

Matthew: I'll answer this in two ways. We as an editorial team were very aware of making it cross cultural. Every time we mention "culture" in the Africa Study Bible we never said "African culture," rather, it is always with an s "African cultures." So the editors were very aware of the diversity within Africa. With that said, we all know, living in this country, that there is a very different culture in the southern United States as there is being in the northern region. Likewise, being from California brings yet another cultural experience. And so there is this holistic idea what it is to be an American. We all also understand that there are a lot of cultures within a country that is thousands of miles long. So, it's truly the same in Africa but even more so. There is a certain cultural dynamic that there is a lot of similarities, there is the shared love for story -- they share proverbs and stories. There is a sense of shared culture that is in a big, general, overarching broad stroke way different than American culture, different than European culture, and yet they share some common understanding and heritage.

Tommy: Now, Matt, I knew you've done a lot of traveling in Africa recently. Has the Africa Study Bible been easily accepted or has it taken time to help these leaders accept what you guys have created?

Matthew: The seven years to develop the Africa Study Bible has been a God-thing because of the amount of acceptance we have received. It just allowed the word to get out and it allowed us to meet with more leaders. I spent a lot of the last three years in my travels meeting with African heads of denominations, and various leaders, talking about the project and explaining it. I have spent time talking to people who are the head of two or three big seminaries in their country or the head of the denomination or just spreading the word. So the length of the project allowed us to talk about it with a lot of people. The most exciting thing is just to have Africa have a real sense of ownership. It's their Bible, they know it's their Bible, and they have accepted it as their Bible. That is something that has been very, very cool.

Tommy: Matthew, you said something very key. You spent a lot of time listening and developing relationships. We don't always understand it in the US where everything is very transactional. Relationship is actually very important especially when you go to Asia and Africa, right?

Matthew: Relationship is very prominent in that part of the world. You’re right. In the US, we operate through transactional relationships but it’s important to listen and build those relationships. You get a lot more things done that way versus just pushing an agenda or a to do list.

Stay tuned for part tw0, next week...


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