Contextual Teaching: Changes in Content and Culture

by Phil Thornton

Being effective in fulfilling the call to cross-cultural church leadership training will require that we package and deliver the message in what for us is the uncharted waters of oral learning.

IT SEEMS THAT THE MACEDONEAN CALL to “come over and help us” is rising up from all corners of the Majority World today. In no area of the Church’s life is this truer than in the equipping of pastors and church leaders. As the Church grows in numbers, so does its need for trained leadership. Pastors, Bible teachers, seminary professors, and other educational specialists from the West have not been slow to respond. While these church leaders and educators are well qualified in their fields of study and/or successful in their pastorates in the West, the question remains as to just how effective their training has been and continues to be in the Majority World, especially among oral learners. 

By oral learners, I mean the over four billion people who either cannot read, do not understand what they read, or simply prefer to transfer information orally rather than in writing. While the challenge of communicating with oral learners has for some time been addressed by the orality movement and other special interest groups, sometimes even these assemblages may succumb to the temptation of reducing the communication process among oral learners to the telling of stories.  

No doubt, telling Bible stories is critical to communication with oral learners; however, there is much more to the process. Effective communication with oral learners requires westerners to think differently than we have been taught, teach differently from the way we have been taught, and learn differently than the way we have learned. Oral learners require that we not only deliver the message in new ways (e.g., through drama, song, proverbs, telling stories, etc.), but that we package (i.e., structure) that message differently. When both the packaging and delivery are done in a culturally appropriate way, “contextual teaching” takes place. 

Jesus, Our Example

Jesus’ teachings were in fact contextual—they arose from the context of real-life circumstances. 

  • He goes to a wedding, performs a miracle, and teaches his disciples about the glory of God (John 2:11). 
  • He meets with a religious leader, answers a question, and teaches that one must be “born of the Spirit” to enter the Kingdom of God (John 3:5). 
  • He asks a Samaritan woman for a drink of water and uses that occasion to teach about “living water” (John 4:14), true worship (4:24), and a basic lesson in non-discrimination (4:27). 
  • In the midst of a storm he teaches about fear (John 6:20). When the crowd which followed him into the desert became hungry, he taught them about the limitless supply in God’s kingdom (6:12-13). 

The list is endless, but the lesson is clear. Jesus’ teaching arose from daily encounters with people, real-life problems, and everyday circumstances. He never started out the day with his disciples by saying, “Today, I want to teach you about_____.”  He did not have a curriculum or lesson plan (at least not in the way you and I know them), yet he knew what he wanted the disciples to know…about himself, life, and the Kingdom of God. But the principles of his teaching were contextualized into daily life and attached to existing knowledge, problems, or circumstances.

Mapping Out a Different Process

This is where the basic difference comes with the Western teaching/learning process. In the classroom or in the pulpit, we start with the principles, then elaborate on or illustrate those principles by using real-life examples. With oral learners, the process is reversed. They start with the known (the experiences and challenges of life as they know it) and move to the unknown (the principles). This is contextual learning. Done this way, teaching is always relevant!

Does contextual teaching negate all “teaching from the outside” (i.e., westerners teaching in the Majority World)? My answer is “no”, but it does make it more difficult. Because westerners do not live in these settings, contextual teaching is more challenging. But as teachers from the West, we can do two things: (1) prepare rightly before we go and (2) approach the teaching/learning process in a more flexible manner than is normally characteristic of Western teaching. 

Contextual teaching also does not mean that the Holy Spirit cannot lead us in our preparation on a particular topic before arriving on the scene. For example, as I planned for a conference among tribal pastors in Asia, the Lord laid on my heart the unlikely topic of persecution. My response was, How in the world could I (not having experienced persecution) talk with pastors, many of whom minister under threat of life and limb? Only at the end of our time together did God’s initial directive become clear. The leader of that group of pastors thanked me for my teaching and noted, “Now my pastors know that the Bible says that on some occasions it is okay to [run] escape” (Acts 7:13-15). Avoiding persecution had been seen as unspiritual and something a truly dedicated pastor would never take.  

The more likely scenario for contextual teaching occurs when an issue or concern arises from within the framework of the teaching event. For example, during a pastors’ conference in Kenya I was asked if it was okay for a Christian to drink blood. The question arose from a very practical situation: the group was comprised of pastoralists and the young boys and warriors of the tribe spent days if not weeks following their livestock with little to eat but milk often mixed with a little blood drawn from the vein of the cow. Needless to say, nothing in my theological education had addressed this issue!

Increased Diligence on Content, Audience, and Flexibility

I am certainly not arguing for going unprepared or employing the old adage, “I’ll just wait and let the Lord lead.” To the contrary, I am contending for a broad-level preparation which focuses on both content and target audience culture, and for flexibility in both the packaging and the delivery of our message. While we as guest teachers may be asked to teach on a particular theme, or perhaps select the theme for the teaching event (e.g., a pastors’ conference),  consider that theme to be the topical “umbrella” under which many specific issues will be discussed. But realize that many, if not most, of those “specific” issues will be contextual, and as such, will likely be different from the questions and concerns we normally address when teaching on that topic.

For example, in talking about discipleship we might stress the need for having a quiet time alone with the Lord, but how does one meet this discipleship requirement when he or she is poor and lives in a small, crowded home in an urban slum where family members eat, sleep, and work in shifts? In this context, individual privacy is practically nonexistent and an individual quiet time as we know it is almost impossible.

As noted earlier, this call for flexibility in our teaching extends not only to the selection of the material to be treated, but also to the way it is packaged and delivered. For example, Western thought tends to be very linear: A leads to B leads to C, etc. This logical progression normally leads to what we consider to be a logical conclusion or decision (consider the Four Spiritual Laws). As Jonathan Merritt says, “The (Western) evangelical world has seen God’s Word as a set of propositional truth statements, logically laid out and easy to interpret if you know what you were doing” (2012, 14).

However, among oral learners the logic does not necessarily follow our linear methodology. A often leads to C, which jumps to F. This is not to say that oral communicators are not logical; rather, their logic is different. Breaking the logical sequencing so familiar to the Western mind can be very disconcerting to most Western teachers. We will see why later. For now, suffice it to say that contextual teaching implies starting where they want to start (with real-life issues) and progressing among topics as they see the need. In other words, it is necessary to structure the message in ways that are natural to your audience. In the end, the important topics under the selected theme (umbrella) will have been covered, but in a way which makes sense to the oral mind.

The same flexibility will be required when delivering that message. In the West, we are accustomed to a lecture method (both in preaching and in the classroom), where the teacher/pastor does the talking and we do the listening. The focus is on the material presented.  Real-life circumstances are used to illustrate the principles.

With oral learners, however, delivering the message will most likely be done in a variety of ways, including drama, song, or tying the message to an existing proverb or folk tale. Real-life issues take center stage and the teaching itself will be highly interactive. The focus is on the hearer and his or her context, rather than the messenger, the messenger’s context, or even the message itself. This is not to say that the message is unimportant; rather, it emphasizes that contextual teaching with oral learners must be “hearer oriented” (cf. Kraft 1999). Whatever method we use to communicate, our success will be measured in how well the message is received rather than delivered.

Challenges for Those in the West

Why is this kind of teaching/learning so hard for westerners? There are a number of reasons.

First, we don’t live in these cultures, so it is difficult to see the world through their eyes. However, we can move in the right direction by taking advantage of the anthropological and missiological studies which have been done with our target audience. This will take time, but the research will bear significant dividends.

Second, we are not “in control.” As a university professor for twenty-seven years, I am well aware of the pressure to be in control ofyour classroom and to cover a designated amount of material in a certain length of time. We are guided by syllabi which are legal documents, “series” preaching designed to cover specific theological or practical topics in a certain number of Sundays, and outlines projected on church screens for the entire world to see. One pastor I knew planned his preaching for the whole year during his week-long summer vacation on the beach. An outline of those topics appeared as a cover on the hymnals in the pews at the beginning of the year.

Third, we are uncomfortable with “fuzzy sets” (cf. Hiebert 1983, 421-427). We prefer one thing to be clearly delineated or set apart from another. This is the why we can take the Bible and divide it up topically (eschatology, Christology, ecclesiology, etc.). When a question or topic doesn’t “fit” our predetermined content, we become uncomfortable. How often have you heard a teacher say, “It’s time to get back on topic” or a preacher say, “I’ll cover that point later.”

Fourth, our focus tends to be on “covering the material.” In fact, we often measure how well we have taught by how much material we have covered. We are impatient with the process involved in learning. Becoming a learner and trader before being a storyteller (Larson 1981) is not natural in our Western DNA. Contextual teaching requires patience.

During a conference for tribal pastors in Asia, I asked several participants to share the major problems they were facing in ministry. As each stood, he began to unravel a lengthy story. When my translator pushed each pastor to move on and “get to the point,” they simply smiled, acknowledged his instructions, and returned to their story. In oral societies, the “point” cannot be extracted from the story and telling the story takes time.

Fifth, pride may enter the picture. Many in the West have had educational opportunities seldom available to church leaders in the Majority World. This can lead to an attitude of “I know what you need to know, so listen to me.” Thinking which may be different from ours can easily be labeled heretical. In such cases, our job becomes correcting the heresy. 

Finally, as I have alluded to previously, contextual teaching is seldom the way we have learned anything. The idea behind most of our classroom teaching/learning is this: you can learn principles which can be later applied to real-life circumstances. Among oral learners, this kind of teaching/learning is artificial and will likely have low impact.

Power, prestige, pride, patience, productivity, past…these are only some of dangers lurking in the shadows of effective cross-cultural teaching for the Western pastor/educator who would heed the call to “come over and help us.” I do believe that we in the West have something to offer the Church in the Majority World. This includes church leadership training. However, being effective in fulfilling that call will require that we package and deliver the message in what for us is the uncharted waters of oral learning.

Hiebert, Paul. 1983. “The Category ‘Christian’ in the Mission Task.” International Review of Mission 287:421-427.

Kraft, Charles. 1999. Communicating Jesus’ Way. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.                                                           

Larson, Donald. 1981. “The Viable Missionary.” Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 3rd ed. Eds. Ralph Winter and Steve Hawthorne, 428-443. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Merritt, Jonathan. 2012. A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus beyond the Culture Wars. New York: Faith Words.


Helpful Websites, Resources, and Actions

So how do we learn how to do contextual teaching? The temptation is to revert to the Western style I have warned against (i.e., “Let me give you a formula”). I do believe that there are “principles” which can be learned before one tries to communicate with oral learners. 

There are numerous resources which will help you with that understanding. One excellent resource is the International Orality Network ( Another step in the right direction is to invite those who have experience in this area to share with you and your organization or church. Such an interactive setting will enhance your understanding of the oral process significantly. Global

Impact Missions has a number of good training resources.

In the final analysis, however, the most impactful way to learn how to communicate with oral learners is to “come and see” (John 1:39). Some things are better caught than taught, and effective contextual teaching with oral learners may just be one of those things! Seek out those who are doing it well and travel with them. Learn from them and from the people whom they are teaching. This apprentice model will certainly cost you in terms of time and resources, but the end product with be well worth it.


Phil Thornton
serves as a consultant with Global Impact Missions. His work focuses on helping those who work with the world’s oral majority to understand, package, and deliver important messages using oral methods. Phil holds an MDiv from Asbury Theological Seminary and the PhD in cultural anthropology from Southern Methodist University.

EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 342-348. Copyright  © 2013 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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