Michael Perreau, director general of United Bible Societieswas in Sydney last week along with more than 200 delegates from some 110 different Bible societies to mark the 200th anniversary of Bible Society Australia. Usually based in London, the 62-year-old spoke about the mission of the United Bible Societies as well as the individual stories that have inspired him in his role…

What’s been the purpose of the gathering in Sydney this week?
“There are two purposes – the first is to come and celebrate as a scattered community that spreads around the world in some 244 countries [and territories]. We wanted to come and provide support for Bible Society Australia as it celebrates 200 years…
     “The other purpose is that, from time to time, we gather in order to have a sense of what’s taking place around the globe. So at the moment, there are around 110 Bible societies [here] carrying something of the storyline…of what’s happening with the Bible in each of those countries, learning from each other, sharing good practice, and, to some extent, also joining hands and hearts in order to put some priorities into [place]. Such as, for instance, yesterday we were talking about the suffering church and how might we support one another in places where the church is under real difficulties.”

Mike Perreau

MAN WITH A MISSION: Michael Perreau, director general of United Bible Societies. 

 

“[W]e have a simple mission: the Bible for everyone….Our vision is for people to have the Bible in their chosen language and in their chosen medium and their chosen time. Digital plays a part of that. That’s kind of the simple, common mandate that binds us together."

You mentioned that this year is Bible Society Australia’s 200th birthday…how significant is the milestone?
“The oldest Bible society is the British and Foreign Bible Society – that’s about 240 years – but there are many Bible societies, perhaps 25 per cent, which are in the 200 realm. So last year, for instance, we celebrated 200 years of the American Bible Society and the Bible Society of Norway and this year we’re celebrating with Australia and next year we were celebrating with a couple of others. Two hundred years is very pivotal but more than that, [it's pivotal] in terms of just gathering in a place – when you think of the wide range of nations we have, it’s very unusual for us to gather in one nation that frequently. So the next time we have a gathering [in Australia], I suspect, could be beyond our lifetime."

What’s the purpose of the United Bible Societies?
“The best way I can try and summarise it is that we have a simple mission: the Bible for everyone….Our vision is for people to have the Bible in their chosen language and in their chosen medium and their chosen time. Digital plays a part of that. That’s kind of the simple, common mandate that binds us together.
     “But we [are also] an integrated agency – we translate, we publish, we advocate and we work in Bible-[related] ministries, for instance with refugees, HIV, in trauma healing, literacy. These are areas where we root ourselves to the Bible to provide hope for individuals in those circumstances around the globe…”

How close are we to having Bibles available in every language around the world?
“There’s good news and bad news. The bad news situation that we’ve only got translations in 2,000 of the 7,000 languages. This is often a surprise to people – that there are more than 4,000 languages which still do not have the Bible. But the good news is people have acquired different languages. So, while there are many languages without the Bible because people are able to read in different languages we have now access to two-thirds of the world’s population ([even though] it’s very different being able to read the Bible in another language than your own heart language with the intonations and the culture that you’ve been brought up with)...
      “We talk in terms of 2033. Because there’s greater co-operation, greater tools, [and] we have more skilled people, the church is really mobilising…to accelerate Bible translation so this is something that is now much more possible by 2033.”

As you mentioned before, I gather digital technology is playing an increasing role?
“Absolutely...It allows us to accelerate [translation work]. But that doesn’t stop us from revisiting it and [doing] due diligence. All of our Bible translations are taken from Greek and Hebrew original texts – we don’t translate from another translation. And we shouldn’t under-estimate [what that means]…”

“If we take just some factual evidence, then what we are seeing…is that we are now distributing more Bibles than at any time in our history…[There is] evidence of a hungry spirituality. The question is how do we make the Bible accessible to a hungry spiritual nation or individual.”

There are some inhibitors to the Bible spreading around the world. Is resistance to the Bible growing or decreasing – what’s the trend?
“I describe the Bible landscape in four dynamics. There are parts of the world where the credibility of the Bible is a challenge – like in Australia, for instance – and in those parts of the world…we need to have confidence and competence in the public space. That’s the strategy.
     “There are parts of the world where accessibility of the Bible is a challenge and, in those parts of the world, we need to have something of a creative response – digital is part of that creative response.
     “And there are parts of the world, of course, [where] affordability and just simply availability of the Bible [are key factors] and there acceleration in translation makes a very important part of the strategy.”

I gather, too, that you would say that the Bible is just as relevant today as the day it was written?
“If we take just some factual evidence, then what we are seeing…is that we are now distributing more Bibles than at any time in our history...[There is] evidence of a hungry spirituality. The question is how do we make the Bible accessible to a hungry spiritual nation or individual.”

What about your own story? I understand you were born in Malaysia, educated in the UK, and have founded a global business which you ended up stepping away from?
“Yes, we sold the [mergers and acquisitions] business just under 10 years ago and the consequence of that has been that we released 90 per cent of the sale equity for the purpose of the church creating jobs for the poor. And that’s been one of the passions for my wife [Deborah] and I in our hearts. It’s been a rewarding journey and I guess that best way I can describe it to you is that God raises our standard of living to raise our standard of giving…Our success is one thing but moving from a place of success to significance about who we become rather than what we do is really quite important. I think that’s the God I know and the God I relate to – that’s He’s a God of compassion and He’s blessed me significantly and part of that blessing is how do I make a difference to those who…might be in poverty and all they want is an opportunity and dignity.”

How did you come to be involved with UBS?
“Over the years as we started to develop the business, we had the notion – my board and I – that if we were to be real difference-makers, we needed to create jobs for the poor by bringing personal, social and community transformation. But as we got closer to that mandate, we found that while we were in a position to create significant jobs – we created about 60,000 jobs in 10 years, there was often a missing component and, as people who are committed to the Bible, we found that the fullness of transformation can best be ascribed to rooting in some of the values that the Bible had to offer. So, hence, we became initially donors and then partners in that cause.”

"[The Bible is] my due north, it’s my daily encounter with the God of grace, it’s the blessing I receive, it’s sustenance when I go through [hard] times, it’s my operations manual. The Bible is my companion in life..."

In the six years you’ve been director general of UBS, what’s been the highlight?
“Seeing, I think, the Bible ‘heroes’ and the Bible ‘beneficiaries’…Only a few months ago I met an 82-year-old grandmother who was receiving her Bible for the first time. When she heard that the Bible was being made available for the first time in her language, she walked through the bush for six hours just to receive her Bible. [Then], I met in the mountains….a 95-year-old woman who shows me her Bible and that same Bible is the cause of her husband being in prison for several years. These are the beneficiaries that I encounter every day…
     “And I also [admire] the Bible heroes. I have a Bible hero…whose whole family was poisoned for just reading the Bible [after becoming Christians] and he managed to survive and committed his life...to make the Bible available to others. I have a Bible hero whose father was executed…and as a consequence he fled his country on that same day, not know whether the rest of his family was alive, only to find when he ended up as a refugee in France that [some members of his family had made it to Canada]. So the Bible heroes and the Bible beneficiaries are very real people – we speak in big numbers – 34 million distributions or 250 million downloads – but behind each one of those is the story of God’s grace…That is my joy – to see individuals…I never lose sight that it’s individuals' lives that are being touched and God is narrating His story into their life.”

What about for you personally – what does does the Bible mean to you?
“Many things…it’s my due north, it’s my daily encounter with the God of grace, it’s the blessing I receive, it’s sustenance when I go through [hard] times, it’s my operations manual. The Bible is my companion in life – it would be my wife on one side and my Bible on the other side…”

Lastly, do you have a favourite verse?
“It depends on which season I am in…I was reminded this week...of Matthew 24 – 'Heaven and Earth will come to pass but God’s word will endure for ever'. And, because we’ve been speaking about the suffering church, that same passage speaks about Jesus reminding His apostles that they themselves…[would pay] a cost for following Christ...So that’s sort of where I’m at. Ask me next week and I’ll probably find God places on my heart another favourite verse.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.