Mart Green: On a Quest to Eliminate Bible Poverty

Since a transformative experience in Guatemala in ’98, he’s been working to get a Bible in every person’s hands.

Mart Green is the oldest son of the founders of Hobby Lobby and is the founder and CEO of Mardel Christian and Educational Supply. In 1998, he took a transformational trip to Guatemala that changed the way he thought about Bible translation.

Since then, he has been involved in a myriad of Bible translation and distribution efforts from the launch of the YouVersion Bible app to the establishment of a collaborative partnership among 10 of the world’s largest Bible translation organizations, called Every Tribe Every Nation.

In the conversation below, Green talks about where his passion for Bible translation started, the encouraging steps he’s seen in the effort to eliminate Bible poverty and his vision for the future of translation and engagement.

[Conversation edited for space and clarity.]

When was a time in your life you remember the Bible truly coming alive for you?

Yeah, I had an experience of that kind when I was in Guatemala on February 7, 1998. We at Mardel found out about Wycliffe Bible Translators and said, Wow, we sell Bible translations, wouldn’t be cool to be part of getting the Bible translated into more languages?

Bible translation takes a long time. We found out that they had to raise money for the printing of Bibles, and we thought, Well that’s the fruit that’s about to fall out off the tree. The tree’s been growing for decades, and we get to come in and pick the fruit.

So we helped pay for the printing of the translations. We had been doing it about a year or so back in ’98 when they said, “Mart, you gotta come to one of these dedications. You’re paying for these Bibles, please come to the dedication.” And I was like, Yeah, I should do that, but life is busy—I had four kids.

The next thing I know, I’m on an airplane down to Guatemala. It worked out. So that was February the 5th. On the way down there they gave me a sheet of paper done by Wycliffe Bible Translators. It said that this particular translation was started in 1958, and I’m going Oh, you gotta be kidding me. I was born in 1961; that was 40 years ago! Somebody’s been down here my entire life. And then I read there’s only 30,000 of them that speak the language and I thought, Oh, man! But even worse than that, only 8,000 of them could read, only 1,000 of them were believers, and the worst number is only 400 believers could read. Being a business guy, my ROI just kind of tanked. What kind of return on investment is $20,000 for 400 people? I’m just not going to do this again. I know what I’m going to do, I’m going to go back home and sell some more Bibles.

I have no idea what I’m going to tell the translators when I get down there to meet them, because they said they went down there when they were in their 30s and now they’re 70 years old. So I get down there and, of course, the people aren’t there in Guatemala City. We’re going to get on a bus for 10 hours and we’ll go meet them. February the 5th I’m on a plane all day, February the 6th I’m on a bus all day. So my return on investment and my attitude’s not the best right now. Because I want to go home and tell the family a good story.

Fast forward to the ceremony the next day. They actually gave the Bible to the translators. There were two North American translators who went down 40 years ago, and then there were four Eastern Jakaltek (hah-ckle-teck) people. Gaspar was one of the four guys. He was a little bit younger, so I don’t think he was involved in the whole 40 years, but he did something I’ve never seen before—now keep in mind, at Mardel we have about 1,200 different Bibles—Gaspar wept over the Bible and he had to take his handkerchief out because he was crying. So I was like, Whoa, whoa.

I’ve never had God speak audibly to me, but I just felt the Holy Spirit prompting me with a question; it’s not a question I would ask myself. The question was simply, Why don’t you go tell Gaspar he’s not a good return on investment?

So, yeah, that was a very painful moment for me. For two days that was exactly what I was thinking, and now he’s weeping to get it. That was a defining moment for me, because I went from asking why—Why would you spend 40 years of your life to do this?—to how—How are we going to make sure everyone has [the Word]?

At 2 o’clock in the morning the next night, I just couldn’t sleep. At the time I was reading a Kay Arthur book, and as I started reading she said, “Being in God’s Word and knowing it for yourself is the key.” It was a simple statement. And all of a sudden another question came into my spirit, and that was, What kind of return on investment is Mart Green?

I’m a fifth generation Christian on my mom’s side, third on my dad’s side, don’t miss church when the doors are open. I had maybe 10 or 15 bookstores back in ’98. I just paid for printing that Bible the man wept over, and I, Mart Green, have 50 Bibles myself. And yet, I didn’t read God’s Word on any kind of consistent basis. I made a vow to the Lord on February 8, 1998, that I’d get up first thing and read God’s Word for the rest of my life.

So that was when the Bible really came alive.

You’ve been involved in several Bible translation and engagement efforts. What is it about these projects that drives your passion?

We sat down as a family, the Green family, about seven or eight years ago. We’re a business family, obviously. My parents started Hobby Lobby in our home with $600 when I was 9, and we’ve been working together since then. We sat down over two or three different weekends to come up with our vision and mission statements. We asked ourselves What’s that simple statement that we can be about? and it’s to “love God intimately and live with extravagant generosity.” So that’s what the Green family wants to be about.

So how do you do that? The No. 1 way for me would be through God’s Word. I actually believe that heaven and earth meet at the point of God’s Word. Jesus became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. The Word became flesh and blood—he even called himself the Word. I wasn’t here when Jesus was alive, so I didn’t get to see that. But he left us his Word, and it’s powerful. Prayer’s also important, but if I don’t read God’s Word, I pray pretty selfishly, actually. The Bible and prayer are just two wings on an airplane. So, if I want that for my family, then I have to want that for 7.6 billion people. If I want 7.6 billion people to love God intimately, and the No. 1 way to do that is through Scripture, then it drives me to make sure that everybody has it in their heart language.

The headquarters of YouVersion just so happens to be in my hometown. I think God orchestrated that. I got a phone call from Bobby one day. “I’ve got this harebrained idea to put the Bible the computer,” he said. “But you know what, God doesn’t own his Word. It’s intellectual property. I can’t get the rights to any of these, but somebody told me you might be able to help me.” So that’s how I got involved with Bobby [Gruenewald, founder of the YouVersion Bible app] from early, early on, and I was able to be part of that process.

OneHope is the first ministry we gave to as a family seven years ago. OneHope takes the Gospels, removes all the duplications and puts it in chronological order. They’ve done research in 100 different countries. They know the eight heartfelt needs of each country. So, if you’re in Columbia and drugs and gangs are a big deal, they’ll have an article about that within the Gospels. And they’ve done that for close to 1.5 to 2 billion kids now over the last 20 years.

Bible translation and Bible distribution has been big for our family.

Speaking of translation, you were involved early in the formation of the Every Tribe Every Nation (ETEN) collaboration among the 10 largest Bible translators and their illumiNations project to get a portion of the Bible translated into every language. How did the illumiNations project come about?

It actually goes back to ’98, too. I told you about my February the 7th and 8th experience in Guatemala. No sooner than I get back, OneHope—we had just started our 21 year relationship giving to OneHope—so we wanted to get to know the leadership. We run these full-page evangelistic ads (in over 100 national newspapers) on Easter and Christmas through Hobby Lobby, and Rob Hoskins of OneHope was part of an organization called the North American Forum of Bible Agencies. Anybody who does Bible translation as well as distribution, they get together once a year and just talk. They were talking about how to go from tonnage—because it used to be that they measured success based on the number of Bibles they shipped. So they said we’ve got to go from tonnage to usage. It’s not a win for me if I give someone a Bible and they don’t use it.

So they thought that maybe they could do a marketing campaign. Well, because they saw Hobby Lobby do these full-page ads, they said, “Hey, would your marketing manager come to speak with us about the power of media?” So I actually invited myself to the meeting. I said, “I’d just love to meet all these people in the same room.” I wasn’t supposed to speak—I had to get a special invitation to attend with Bill Hane, the marketing director for Hobby Lobby, but I had just had my Guatemala experience and I wanted to say, “You guys are on to something, do it. God’s word is important and everybody ought to have it.”

That night, after the meeting, I had a prompting of the Spirit again. I felt like I knew two things were going to happen in the future. One was, there would be a project so big that no ministry could do it by themselves; that they all had to come together.

Now obviously part of that came because I just saw it, and it was very impacting. I went as a Christian bookstore leader. I’m used to these people being pretty competitive. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in this room there were people from the same competing organizations talking about collaboration. I’m sure that was part of why this night I had that idea. And then I thought, Wow. The price is going to be so big that the resource partners (donors), like ourselves, are going to have to come together. Ironically, the other thing I felt would happen in the future was that there would be a world-class museum of the Bible with an IMAX theater in it. So those were the two things I journaled on June 23, 1998. It planted a seed in my mind.

Twelve years later, I got invited back to Guatemala to share my Guatemala story with the Seed Company at their board retreat. So my wife and I got to go down there on February 15, 2010, and while I was there it just hit me: Eradicate Bible poverty. That’s what it is. That’s the thing that is so big that no ministry could do it alone.

So, May 3, 2010, I sat down with about 20 leaders of the 10 largest Bible translation organizations (American Bible Society, Biblica, Deaf Bible Society, Lutheran Bible Translators, Pioneer Bible Translators, SIL International, Seed Company, The Word for the World, United Bible Societies, and Wycliffe Bible Translators USA) and strategic donors in a hotel conference room in Orlando and told them we’re getting ready to go into a digital world. Bobby [Gruenewald] as well as on-demand Bible printers were asking me to help digitize Bible translations. What if we could build a digital Bible library, centralize all these texts—by the way, there are 1,400 languages in this shared digital Bible library now. What if we could digitize them and standardize them? And of course, I knew my ultimate goal was to be finalized (have the Bible translated into every language). So that was the original tool we developed, and the genesis of Every Tribe Every Nation (ETEN).

This led to illumiNations. Todd Peterson, a good friend of mine and the one who invited me to Guatemala, invited me to a president’s council fundraising event for the Seed Company. They were getting ready to celebrate starting their 1,000th project. So Todd, who also served as the board chair, had an idea to pull out all the stops. We went to Dove Mountain (in Union County, South Carolina), Louis Giglio was there, they had a light show on the mountain. All of a sudden the world map shows up and all these dots—1,000 dots—on the mountain start filling up where all these Bibles were. And then the 200-member choir from the college, holding candles, came out of the woods an there’s all these students around you singing. It was first class. And they raised $21 million in one weekend.

But I kind of lost heart, because I had envisioned that someday we would have a donor event like that with all 10 of the ETEN CEOs together and it just seemed like it wasn’t going to happen. So I started praying, “Oh Lord, maybe I’m supposed to just build the digital Bible library, because I’m sure not going to compete with the event I just saw.” And then Todd Peterson called me one day and said, “I’ve been praying, and I think maybe this should be for the movement, not just one ministry.”

I said, “Todd, this is your last year as the board chair, there’s no way your board’s gonna approve that. I mean, what board in their right mind is going to give away their best fundraising event, ever?”

Long story short, in 2015 the Seed Company actually turned the illumiNations fundraiser over to ETEN to run, so we invited everybody to the event and told them to bring their best donors. We went from $21 million donated in 2014 to $25 million in 2015. In 2016, we had to cancel the event because of Hurricane Matthew. In 2017, we raised $35 million, and in 2018 we raised $37 million dollars in one weekend. That came from 70 groups, so that means the average gift was $500,000.

Each of the ETEN partners get one minute back-to-back to present, and when they walk off the stage there’s a standing ovation because the donors know this is a safe place to put their money. These guys are working together. They’re not perfect—matter of fact, the truth is we don’t always like each other all the time—but we are all tied to eradicating Bible poverty. That we’re passionate about. And because we share that vision, I overlook your warts and I sure hope you overlook my warts, because I have them and you have them. So illumiNations became the brand of the movement.

Then, of course, my brother Steve is working on this Museum of the Bible, and so it’s fun for me to see. I just assumed there would be a Museum of the Bible. I had no idea my brother would doing it. “Steve, I saw the early designs, and there’s going to be 240 computer screens in the museum,” I said. “Man, is there any way I could get one of those computer screens, because I can tell what’s going to happen is you’re going to get people excited about the Bible. I want them to go out a little bit depressed that somebody doesn’t have it. I want them to at least know that. I want them to say, ‘I’ve got the Bible and someone else doesn’t. Is that right?’”

So he comes back to me a couple days later and says, “No, you can’t have one.” I’m thinking, Oh man, I’m the older brother, I should have treated him better. “No, man, we’re going to give you 2,600 square feet of the museum,” he said. I had no idea what to do with 2,600 square feet, I’m just trying to figure out what to do with the one computer screen.

He says, “Well, there’s 6,000 vital languages. You keep talking about them all the time. Why don’t you go get them all.”

So when you go to the museum, there’s an illumiNations room. There’s roughly 2,000 that have met our goal; so there’s 2,000 Bibles on display, and if we don’t have it we have a box there to represent it with the language name on it. And then there’s roughly 2,000 orange ones that have the name of a language, and on it it says “In Process,” so it lets you know that that people group is represented. And then there’s roughly 2,000 yellow ones with a language name on it, and it says “Not Yet Started.” So it’s quite powerful. I mean 6,000 volumes, it’s about 11 feet tall and 2,600 square feet. So that’s also called illumiNations.

Then we have a website in beta: illumiNations.Bible. Within a year, you’ll be able to look up any language in the world, and see down to the chapter what’s done and what’s not done, and what the budget is to complete it. So basically, we have 3,800 still to be done or in process. Some of those need the last $10,000. And then we have some that aren’t started, so that’s $35 a verse, $1,000 a chapter, $420,000 for a New Testament—that’s seven years at $60,000 a year—and a full Bible is $60,000 a year, but it takes 16 years, so that’s $960,000. So I’ve got budgets from $35 all the way to $960,000. By faith, I believe we will have a very robust website by this time next year. It’s going to take some time, but we’re on the path.

What are your thoughts on the progress that is being made, and the trajectory of the efforts going forward?

I saw somebody make a display the other day and I really like it. It had three overlapping circles. The first one is shared values. In our case, we do have a shared value, and that’s to eradicate Bible poverty. that is rock solid. All 10 translation organizations and all the resource partners (donors) who give to this want to eradicate Bible poverty. That shared value is very, very strong.

The other circle they had is shared relationships. And we have that. We’ve met 82 times now, so obviously we’ve built trust. We’ve locked arms, we’re together.

The third circle that they had was shared information or shared data, and we’re on our way. When that happens, we’re going to have all three of those circles.

And in the middle of those three circles, I put miracles. Miracles are going to happen because of the power of unity. Satan always attacks the unity. Why? Because the power’s there. That’s why he attacks marriage—that’s the most unified thing we have on planet Earth.

To your question, these are some of the things I’ve seen happen that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t come together:

• We’ve had two eight-digit gifts to Bible translation—that means $10 million dollar gifts. That just never happened before, all right? That doesn’t happen in the Christian world. But this couple has done it two years in a row at the illumiNations event.

• Two pastors called me within a 40-day period and said the exact same thing: I’m going to give you $250,000 per year for the next four years, and I’d like to use my voice to get other pastors involved. I mean the second time it happened, I had to call the pastor back. I was crying so hard because I just couldn’t believe it. Then we’ve had two ministry partners committed to a million dollars for translation. They said, we want to knock out a full Bible.

• Earlier I mentioned the yellow Bibles. A guy goes to the museum (of the Bible) and his wife is getting ready to turn 60. He says, “Oh, I know what I want to get my wife for her 60th birthday!” I want to give you a million dollars for my wife’s 60th birthday. So we gave him the yellow Bible—because it was turned to orange once it got started, right? And for his wife’s birthday, she unwrapped a blank Bible with a people group’s name on it. And he says, “Perfect. I know what my wife will do. She’ll put it right by her bedside and start journaling in it and praying for that people group.

• l had a pastor of a church in Tennessee call me about a month ago, and he was weeping in the illumiNations room, and he said to himself, We gotta do something. So his church is going to knock out a New Testament.

• And then recently, I got word that the president of Kenya found out that people in his country did not have Scripture in their heart language. Here’s the first paragraph of the article:

“President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, have made a firm commitment towards engaging with churches in order to boost the moral standards among young people in Kenya, and also support projects that seek to translate the Bible into local languages.”

The president has figured out you need the church, young people’s morals and the Bible to change your country. So, he had 5,000 people at an event he spoke at, and their goal was to raise four million dollars to finish all the Bibles in their country. Who says that Uganda is not going to say, If they can do it in Kenya we can do it over here. That’s what I call one of those miracle stories.

What are some other Bible engagement projects that you hope to advance in the coming years?

We believe that by 2033, 95 percent of the world will have a full Bible and 99.9996 percent will at least have a New Testament. So out of 7.6 billion people, that’s all but three million, and we hope to have at least portions of the Bible for them—that’s people groups with 5,000 or less speakers. We’d just like to be sure that everyone gets something by 2033, so that’s kind of our call.

Through a partnership with OneHope, YouVersion created the Bible App for Kids. Now we currently have a gap. At about age 8, kids age out of the Bible App for Kids. So they’re working right now on a special app that would be for the 8–12 year olds. So it’s still in the works, and that’ll be coming out hopefully sometime next year.

Also, I didn’t realize that sign language is not universal. There are actually 300 vital sign languages on planet Earth and there’s one New Testament. Now you say, Okay they’re deaf, but they can read the Bible. Well, no, in most cases you don’t read if you’re born deaf. Most people don’t, because you learn how to read by sound, right? So some people who are deaf do read, but a lot of them don’t, so obviously they use videos. So we’ve committed through ETEN and illumiNations to add all 300 sign languages.

There’s a Deaf Bible app that’s recently come out. That’s been very helpful, because it used to be that you had to have all these CDs; now you just open it on your app and you can get the Deaf Bible app. I think there’s about 19 languages that have something. English has a New Testament. The first full Bible will be done in 2020, and that will be in English. But we’ve got a long ways to go to get the rest of those done. There’s also new technology coming out that allows you to choose different avatars based from the motion capture of a single model. We’re doing that once so that all 10 ETEN agencies can use the same tool. We don’t want them all to have to figure out how to do it on their own. That’s the power of collaborating and being in the room together every month. Because then we can say, Oh they’re working on that, OK. Oh, we’ve got a guy who knows all about sign language, have him call in. We’re starting to get more and more of that collaboration.

Anything else you’d like to touch on that we haven’t touched on yet?

The one thing that’s not out there quite yet that I envision getting out there—we’re just looking for the right person—is print-on-demand. At some point there will be a day—I don’t know how far that’ll be—that when somebody visits your church, let’s say somebody from the Eastern Jakaltek people. So, there will be a day in the not-too-distant future that somebody will come to your church and by next Sunday you’ll be able to give them a Bible and say, Hey, here’s an English-Eastern Jakaltek parallel Bible that we printed special for you.

My mom has notes in her Bible. When she dies there’s only one Bible. Since I’m the oldest son, I’ve been asking for it. We’ll see whether I get it or not. But with the YouVersion and print-on-demand, someday I could print my Bible with my notes for all four of my children. Or, I’m getting ready to have my tenth grandchild, and what if I want to leave them a Bible with my notes that I kept in YouVersion? So those are some things that aren’t happening right now, but it doesn’t take too much of your brain to figure out this is stuff that’ll be neat for the future, that we were never able to do before, that technology is going to allow us to do. Just think, YouVersion has been downloaded on 350 million devices. Who would have thought 10 years ago we could get to 350 million devices? So we live in a special time and God chose us to live today.

IllumiNations has a translation prayer. How about I end our time with it:

God, your Word is more precious than all that I possess;
Your Scripture gives light to my path and directs my steps.
Through your will alone, lives are transformed and made new;
So I now pray for all people who do not yet know you.
For you’ve promised that your voice, by every tribe and nation will be heard;
So equip us by your breath to provide every heart language with your Word. Amen.

Check out more of our coverage on the state of the Bible in the March/April issue of Outreach magazine and at OutreachMagazine.com/Bible