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Alumni, Alumni Spotlight, Leadership, Ministry & Missions

In Their Heart Language: An Interview with Steve Sheldon ‘61


Thursday, May 24, 2018

Sharing a quick overview of the wealth of Steve's life experience:

Steve Sheldon currently is an advisor to Wycliffe Bible Translators USA, is involved in Bible translation efforts in the nation of Brazil, and is a member of Northwestern’s Alumni Council. Steve and his wife, Linda ‘63, have worked with Wycliffe for over 50 years. Over the course of time, they have seen the Lord work in some amazing ways. I recently had the chance to catch up with Steve to learn more about their fascinating work.

Q: You attended Northwestern from 1957 to 1961. What was the culture of the university like at that time?

These four years were among the most impactful of my life. The culture encouraged by staff and faculty was centered on following God fully and enthusiastically pursuing whatever we might chose to do in life. Early in my years there, I was given a modern-English translation of the New Testament by J.B. Phillips. I was encouraged to become immersed in the word of God, and form a personal relationship with Him. A strong focus on academic excellence helped shape our future linguistic and translation work positively. We also formed some wonderful friendships with fellow students along the way.

Q: Are you still in touch with anyone that you went to school with?

Yes, we actually are. Fifty plus years later, my wife, Linda, and I are still in touch with many friends from our Northwestern days. They are a rich part of our heritage from that time of our lives and today as well.

Q: I know that being a missionary was not your first career intention. How did you wind up where you are now?

At Northwestern, I studied history and political science and then went on to graduate work at the University of Minnesota. My wife and I intended to work for the Foreign Service of the State Department. While attending a Northwestern mission’s conference we learned about Bible Translation. During linguistic training we began to understand even more of how much other cultures need the Word of God in their own heart languages. We felt great passion for people groups without God’s Word and this led to a career change. We decided to pursue full time mission work with Wycliffe Bible Translators.

Q: What was your first mission’s assignment?

After linguistic and field training with Wycliffe, we went to Brazil, which is where we have spent the bulk of our ministry. I have served as field director of some work in Brazil as well as the associate director of our international organization.

Q: Obviously, you have had a lengthy career on the mission field. Can you discuss some important moments?

Probably the most satisfying work we did was in language analysis and Bible translation for a special people group of Brazil. These people did not speak any other language, so we had to learn their language monolingually while figuring out the sound system and grammar. In doing so, we had the joy of seeing God’s great creativity and diversity in the incredible complexities of languages and cultures. God not only displayed His creativity in this beautiful language, but He also shared his creativity with us, His children, allowing us to discover the intricacies of the language. It has a complex tonal system, with only 3 vowels and 8 consonants. The tones fluctuate across word and syllable boundaries. These things and others brought many truly profound “aha” moments as we learned, with God’s help, how to speak the language and share Jesus with these dear friends. We learned a great deal spiritually in all of this as well, including wonderful lessons from the people themselves.

Q: Aside from language barriers, what have been some other challenges you have faced in your ministry?

The group we continue to work with is animistic, with a complex system of spirits whom they fear. We were reminded over and over again that spiritual warfare is real, and that prayer is truly essential to all efforts to share Christ no matter where we are. We also realized that God’s love is often shared via small loving encounters with individuals and the group. In miraculous ways they were able to see and feel God’s love shining through us as Jesus followers. Each one of us have had similar “good news” encounter opportunities in our lives.

Q: What has been the overarching theme of your ministry?

We want to help people know Jesus through having the Scripture in their heart languages. For us, a guiding passage has always been Romans 12:1-2 from JB Phillip’s Translation. In part, it reads, “With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice … don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold you from within so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good.” Only God can truly transform people’s lives, but we all can have the joy of being part of His mission to redeem all mankind to himself.

Q: What do you think is the most significant missional challenge faced by the modern church?

I think there are both challenges and an opportunities. The people groups who are still unreached or unengaged present huge challenges. At the same time I see Millennials and ensuing generations as uniquely equipped to be part of seeing every language and every people group be transformed by knowing God through His love and His wonderful words of life. It will undoubtedly take new strategies; we need to welcome change. The work will surely be fraught with challenges, but I am confident that Revelation 7:9 is true, and that one day we all will be part of that great gathering of people from every nation and language people and tribe standing before the throne of the Lamb. Together on that day we all will all shout with a great voice: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb!”

Q: What is one parting word or piece of advice that you would give to readers?

Let me refer again to the JB Phillips translation we were both given at Northwestern. In the instruction from Paul in 1 Timothy he says “Take time and trouble to keep yourself spiritually fit. Bodily fitness has a certain value, but spiritual fitness is essential both for this present life and for the life to come.”

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