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A Practitioner/Trainer Perspective on Orality

by Jerry Wiles

While many, especially in the West, are just now hearing about orality, it is in fact a significant breakthrough in the global mission movement.

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While many, especially in the West, are just now hearing about orality, it is in fact a significant breakthrough in the global mission movement. Some mission leaders are acknowledging that more people are coming to faith in Christ through orality-based methods than through Western, literate methods. The case can be made that orality is changing the face of church and missions around the world. The rapidly reproducing church-planting and disciple-making movements are taking place primarily among oral cultures.  

Those of us who have been involved as practitioners and trainers for any length of time are keenly aware of what an amazing learning journey we are on. It is encouraging to see pastors, missionaries, church planters, and other leaders come alive with new passion and vision when they experience orality methods and strategies firsthand. We often say that orality is better experienced than explained. One of its most compelling features is that people can see the power of demonstration, participation, and explanation. Instead of trying to take our literate-based, modern Western models to the rest of the world, we are recognizing that there is great value in what we are learning from more relational, communal, oral cultures.

Can They Read? Do They Read?

Initially, some think of orality methods as being useful only for children’s bedtime stories or in places where people can’t read or do not have scripture in their language. However, when we take a deeper look, we recognize the universal applications. For many years, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reported that approximately eighty percent of the world’s population was literate, and some mission agencies planned their strategies in light of those statistics. 

It is true that perhaps as many as eighty percent of the world can read something. However, a large percentage are unable to read, comprehend, and reproduce the message of scripture.  

More than thirty years ago, Herbert Klem estimated that at least seventy percent of the world’s population was functionally illiterate or oral learners.  According to Grant Lovejoy, “5.7 billion people in the world are oral communicators (because they are illiterate or their reading comprehension is inadequate)” (2012). In other words, they are oral learners, by necessity or by preference.  

Rather than labeling people based on what they can’t do (e.g., illiterate, non-literate, or functionally illiterate), we should recognize them based on what they can do—they are oral learners. Many oral learners are very bright, and may speak several languages, but don’t read any of them. Just because people have not had a modern, Western, literacy-based education does not mean they are inferior or unintelligent. There is much we in the West can learn from the more relational, communal, and oral cultures. Many oral cultures have similar characteristics to those who lived during the times of Jesus and the early Church.  

The Power of “Simplicity”

When we ask the right questions of mission and church leaders who have a global and cross-cultural perspective, they usually come to the right conclusions. For example, we often ask questions like, “Who in all of world history is our best example of an effective communicator, trainer, and disciple maker?” Of course, we recognize that Jesus is our best example. We might ask, “How did Jesus communicate the good news of God? How did he train and make disciples? Can we do it the ways he did it?” Those questions lead us to consider the power of simplicity and reproducibility. Simplicity does not mean simplistic or shallow. In fact, orality methods can be used to communicate important theological themes and in-depth spiritual truths.  

An important point we make in any context is the fact that the same God who lived in Jesus Christ two thousand years ago is living in every believer who has been born of the Spirit. The same Holy Spirit is actively engaged in our lives and in the world today. That awareness gives people great confidence to know that we can enter into his redemptive activities, tell the good story (news), and expect his divine intervention. People who have a heart for God and receive and act on his word experience God’s grace, love, and power in remarkable ways.    

Why Orality Is Effective

With a growing awareness and interest in orality, more people are realizing the multi-faceted aspects of the orality movement. There are even streams inside streams. For example, in the Bible Storying stream, there is Chronological Bible Storying, Thematic, Topical, Relational, and Panoramic Bible Storying. In Living Water International’s (LWI) basic orality training, we use what we call Contextual Bible Storying. It is a blending and pollinating from several different streams within the storying domain. What makes this training effective is the focus on learning a little, practicing a lot, implementing immediately, and telling the stories often. Simplicity and reproducibility are important factors as well.  

In addition to storying, or storytelling, there are many different facets of Oral Arts. These include chants, drama, song and dance, and the use of poetry, parables, and proverbs. Throughout church history, there have been many other oral learner-friendly methods used (e.g., creeds, confessions, and catechisms). There have also been visual arts—architecture, icons, and stained glass windows in the cathedrals of the Middle Ages. These weren’t just for decoration, but also for communication and instruction. In addition to those methods, today we have radio, television, cell phones, the Internet, recording devices, and many other technological resources. 

As valuable as the technological resources are, there are some mission groups who emphasize making sure that the training methods and strategies are not dependent upon technology. LWI’s basic Orality Training Workshop: An Introduction to Contextual Bible Storying is designed to get people on the journey of following Jesus. It is sometimes referred to as a low-barrier entry, a jumpstart or an easy-on ramp to the orality movement. After people are on the journey, many other resources are introduced, primarily through the two thousand-member International Orality Network and the Global Orality Training Alliance.

Other important aspects in orality practices and training methods are the need to have an understanding of the receptor culture, worldview, and contextualization. It’s also helpful to give attention to language, learning preferences, and behavior change, as well as related disciplines such as sociology, psychology, anthropology, theology, epistemology, and other aspects of missiology.  

Shared Knowledge and Collective Memory

One of the concerns that many express is, “How can the accuracy of the message be maintained without having written forms?” That is a great question, and with a little study of oral cultures and oral traditions, we can appreciate how God not only inspired his written word, but how he has preserved and maintained its accuracy in oral form. Most scholars agree that much of the Bible was communicated orally for a period of time before it was written down.  

Thankfully, in many places where orality training and strategies are taking place today, there are some who are literate and have access to scripture. However, in primarily oral cultures where there is no scripture in their language, more repetition and a focus on learning in community can maximize maintaining the accuracy of the biblical message.  

Something we often see in our orality training programs in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and to some extent in the West, is the benefit of shared knowledge and the collective memory of the group or community. In our experience at LWI, we see how people come alive with new passion and confidence to share the good news of Jesus and make disciples when the training takes place in teams and communities.  

One of the things we’ve seen work well is training teams to train as teams. We emphasize that no one person has to remember everything, but each can tell as much as he or she can remember, with the help of the group. The participants see this demonstrated in the basic orality training, where they hear a story told several times, with some explanation of the background and context. Then, they discuss what they see as the main message, the important lessons, and how they apply to their lives.  

A Solid Set of Basics

People are often amazed and surprised to discover how much they can learn from a few short stories, with the appropriate pre and post-story discussion and dialogue. In fact, we tell people that with five stories from the Gospels we can give a community, village, or tribal group a simple, systematic narrative theology of the things they need to know to have a relationship with the living God and become reproducing followers of Jesus.  

Of course, we must determine how much and what they need to know, not from two centuries of church history, but from scripture—especially from the life, teaching, and Spirit of Jesus. In places where there are more educated and biblically knowledgeable pastors and leaders, we can go deeper with discussion around topics like: What is a disciple? When does a person become a disciple? What do disciples do? What is a church or community of faith? and What do churches exist for? 

A Global Movement

While orality methods and strategies are vital in international and cross-cultural missions, especially among unreached and unengaged people groups, we are seeing a growing interest in the West. Pastors and church leaders initially become interested in orality training and the use of storytelling for their short-term mission trips. However, once they see how it works, they recognize that it is universal in its application and that it will work right in their own churches and communities. There are many secondary (or oral preference) learners in North America and the West.   

In many parts of the world, women and children have little opportunity to participate in the life of the church. Orality training allows everyone to participate and engage. When pastors observe young children and women who have had little or no formal education learn and retell stories, they begin to catch a vision of how they can equip, train, and mobilize storytelling evangelists at every level of education and socio-economic status.  

Increasingly, as churches and ministries in North America have become aware of and interested in orality training, pastors and leaders are seeing the benefit in their own congregations and organizations. In addition to training those going on short-term mission trips, they are realizing the impact it can have with outreach, small groups, children, prison ministries, and much more. The use of story-based sermons is catching on with some pastors, and they are reporting very encouraging results.  

Someone has said that the gospel started in the early Church like a ping pong ball, and now it’s like a bowling ball. In order for it to be understandable, reproducible, and transferable to any place and all people groups, we need to peel back some of the nonessentials. It was primarily through orality-based methods that the good news of Jesus spread throughout the entire populated world, before the printing press, radio, TV, and many of the resources we enjoy today.  

In his foreword to Beyond Literate Western Models, Douglas Birdsall, honorary chairman of the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization, refers to orality as a great new vista in world missions. He wrote, “It also opens the doorway to train and deploy great numbers of people who will be able to tell the Greatest Story in fresh and creative ways to those who have never heard. This is about as exciting and compelling as it gets in the great enterprise of world missions” (2013, 15). 

References

Chiang, Samuel and Grant Lovejoy. 2013. Beyond Literate Western Models: Contextualizing Theological Education in Oral Contexts. Hong Kong: International Orality Network. 

Lovejoy, Grant. 2012. “The Extent of Orality: 2012 Update.” Orality Journal 1(1). 

. . . .

Jerry Wiles is president emeritus of Living Water International. He became involved in orality in the 1980s. Jerry has over thirty years of experience in ministry and international missions. He currently serves on the advisory council and leadership team of the International Orality Network and leads the Global Orality Training Alliance.   

EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 3 pp. 332-336. Copyright  © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

 

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