by David Swarr
A STORYTELLING EVENT IS HAPPENING. The news of it has been shared from person to person and interest has multiplied. Now a crowd has gathered outside the shelter where the stories will be told.
A STORYTELLING EVENT IS HAPPENING. The news of it has been shared from person to person and interest has multiplied. Now a crowd has gathered outside the shelter where the stories will be told. So great is the interest that after waiting in the cold, many are turned away, going back to their homes to seek conversation or entertainment in another way. Is this a village in remote Africa or Southeast Asia? No! It is in Richmond, Virginia, where new interest in live storytelling is igniting a movement.
For years, storytelling and other forms of oral communication have been the predominant forms of information sharing and learning among the vast majority of our world. These were the primary means of communicating biblical content until the printing press revolution.
So what if you were part of the ‘oral majority’ of the world—the eighty percent who do not read or prefer to learn by oral means? Or, what if there was no print in your language?
Awareness of the need for orality-based methods of discipleship has increased in the Church. It has moved to the forefront of mission discussion and practice, and has begun to influence thought leaders and institutions. Since its inception in 2005, the International Orality Network (ION) has served as a catalyst and facilitator in the growth of the orality movement. God’s faithfulness has been abundantly evident as ION has grown and flourished under the excellent leadership first of Avery Willis and then Samuel Chiang.
Now the question is: What is the Lord’s vision for the orality movement in the next ten years? And how do we best position ourselves as individuals, churches, organizations, and the ION network, for maximum effectiveness and fruitfulness in making disciples of oral learners?
There are tremendous demographic shifts taking place in the Church globally. At current growth rates it will not be long before there will be more Chinese Christians than North American. By 2050, one in three Christians will be African. The fastest-growing mission-sending nations are in Asia and Latin America. There is a massive, and as yet untapped, missionary workforce in the Global Southeast to be mobilized and equipped to reach oral learners.
Within the orality movement, and ION specifically, a broader international base should be built with much greater participation and influence from the Church in the Majority World. Making disciples of all oral learners will require a synergy between the West and the Global Southeast that maximizes the strengths of each. Three examples of how this vision is catching on in different parts of the world stand out:
• Dr. Romerlito Macalinao, executive director of Wycliffe Philippines, speaking at the November 2015 launch of ION Philippines, articulated an exciting concept. He shared that since Filipinos are essentially an oral-preference people and that Filipino communities are present in 212 nations of the world, they are one of the most strategically placed potential mission forces for orality globally.
• At a pan-African ION consultation on theological education for oral learners held in Nairobi (October 2015), leaders from the educational, church, and non-profit sectors were challenged to take their rightful place in leadership within the global orality movement. The mobile phone industry has set an example of what could happen in the field of orality.
In only six years the use of cell phones in Kenya has gone from one percent of the population to thirty percent. This is almost unprecedented. It certainly outstrips the West, which in some cases is so reliant upon old technological infrastructures that it does not adapt as quickly. Kenya is leapfrogging over these old infrastructures and moving rapidly ahead. The same can be true in the field of orality. Africans can help lead the way.
• The Church in India has long been employing orality practices dating back to the days of William Carey. Today, innovative indigenous leaders and agencies are using orality techniques across the nation. Exemplifying this early adopter mentality is Serampore College (founded in 1818 by William Carey and two associates), which is launching a two-year program to train both undergraduate and graduate students in orality and scripture translation.
Building a Younger Demographic
As we look to the future, the potential of the orality movement lies within the next generation. Today’s young people contain a plethora of creativity which can be channeled into great effectiveness in all the disciplines of orality, thereby strengthening our collective influence and impact in every sphere of society.
By focusing on enabling engagement from a younger demographic, the orality workforce of the future will be fueled anew by those between 20 to 40 years old, supplemented by the contributions of those both older and younger. This is nowhere better modeled than in Kenya and India, where young leaders such as Bramuel Musya and Daniel Ponraj head up very significant orality initiatives. These younger leaders recognize the value of networking with both younger and older generations, as well as of employing technological tools to reach oral learners.
Bramuel Musya, ION East Africa regional director, has been involved with a program that is training community leaders who are oral-preference learners to know the word of God, establish life patterns accordingly, and teach others to do likewise. Two classes have now graduated from this unique two-year program in which the participants learn, memorize, and can accurately share 296 Bible stories. This amounts to nearly fifteen percent of the entire Bible.
As recounted by Mr. Musya, these stories have challenged long-standing values and traditional cultural practices of these leaders and their families. After learning one particular story set, the all-male class felt convicted that they were not properly treating their wives, who were not able to participate in the learning due to their role in preparing food for the class. The men decided that they should take turns in food preparation so that the women could learn the Bible stories as full participants.
Building Media Connections
Kingdom movements are fostered by prayer and the flow of information. Those involved in the orality movement need to actively cultivate improved connection with all forms of media outlets so that the stories from around the world and wealth of knowledge bubbling up globally can be more rapidly and broadly disseminated. If given room and encouragement, the younger generation will be instrumental in bringing this about. The recent relaunch of the ION website and social media is a case in point. Technologically-savvy young adults spearheaded the development of an international culturally-sensitive, multi-linguistic website with full audio capacity, which is one of the first of its kind. Using the rollover function, the written text can be heard, making it possible for oral-preference learners to listen to the content of the website.
Building Up Others in the Word of God
Evangelicals agree that obedience to the word of God is the essence of discipleship and the key to life transformation. As followers of Christ and as stewards, we are entrusted with a responsibility to maintain the centrality of the word of God in all we do as we focus on making disciples of oral learners. Whether in our discipleship training, theological education, leadership development, social action, business, or any of the other domains of life in which the disciplines of orality are exercised, the word of God is to be the foundation and core of our orality practices.
For the word of God to take root and bring transformation to a community or culture, it is necessary to have more than a few story sets, although that is a wonderful place to begin. Accuracy in transmission, replication, scalability, and sustainability require more than just storytelling. For oral learners, this ultimately necessitates audio scripture engagement.
One ministry has come up with a unique scripture engagement method that intentionally integrates storytelling with audio scripture engagement. It is called Interactive Bible Discovery (www.davarpartners.com). The approach begins with storytelling but uses audio scripture recordings as the authoritative point of reference and plumb line. The training and practice is now being used in dozens of nations on several continents.
Building on Bible Translation
But what about communities that do not have the whole Bible in their own language? How does the local Body of Christ disciple its children without the Old Testament stories of Joseph, David, Esther, and Daniel? How does the community learn God’s standards of righteousness, justice, or governance without the OT? Knowledge of the OT is essential for understanding the message of the gospel. As one Philippine leader has said, “The New Testament without the Old Testament is like a machete without a handle.” Furthermore, many oral communities identify closely with the OT and the culture and practices of the historic children of Israel.
The future of the orality movement rests to a great extent upon the translation of the full Bible into the languages of these people groups. Of the approximately 7,000 languages of the world, the Old Testament has been translated into only 552. Efforts are being made by translation agencies to accelerate this process, but there are a number of bottlenecks which impede the progress, particularly in translation of the Old Testament. One of these is the relatively few translators skilled in biblical Hebrew.
At the very time when translation agencies globally are making a concerted push to begin translation in all languages of the world, many Western theological institutions are moving away from requiring biblical Hebrew in their degree programs. This trend has grave implications not only to the Church in the West, but more particularly to the emerging Church within newly-reached people groups consisting of oral majorities.
To mitigate the dearth of biblical Hebrew translators, for the past twenty years the Home for Bible Translators (HBT) has been training mother tongue translators and others in biblical Hebrew. With an average participation of eight persons per year, the HBT has trained translators from over seventy
nations who have been involved in hundreds of Old Testament translations in past and ongoing projects. A more recent development is being directed by Dr. Randall Buth, a seasoned translator and biblical languages expert. This initiative, under the auspices of the 4.2.20 Foundation (www.4220foundation.com), works in conjunction with translation agencies, Bible societies, and educational institutions to catalyze as many streams of biblical Hebrew training as possible, with the end goal of training sufficient biblical Hebrew translators to have begun Old Testament translation in all languages by 2033.
Their three-fold strategy involves providing (1) biblical Hebrew fluency and pedagogy training in theological institutions around the world, (2) training native Hebrew speakers to become translation consultants and checkers, and (3) an eight-month intensive biblical Hebrew translation immersive program in Israel.
Building upon the foundations laid in past decades, the orality movement continues to grow and multiply globally. In order to further catalyze and facilitate that growth, ION has made some intentional changes. Recently, its advisory board has grown to include African, East Asian, and Indian leaders in its membership. Similarly, a global executive team and international council have been formed with leaders representing six regions of the world. ION is evolving into a matrix structure with geographic regions as well as focus areas. This is in order to create as many ways for individuals to be involved regardless of location, age, or language.
We have heard how the Holy Spirit fell upon an international crowd gathered in Jerusalem and everyone heard the word of God proclaimed in their own language and thus the gospel was spread beyond Jerusalem. As we enter the season leading up to Pentecost and commemorate the time when God’s word was first proclaimed in the heart language of all who heard, pray for the orality movement and that ION and all its members may serve the Global Church with increasing effectiveness, so that together we may disciple all oral learners.
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Dr. David Swarr serves as executive director of the International Orality Network and is president/CEO of 4.2.20 Foundation. David grew up in the Middle East and has lived and worked on five continents. He has a rich background in cross-cultural leadership, including senior positions in multinational companies, NGOs, and a university, and holds a PhD in intercultural organizational leadership. David and his wife, Sharon, split their time between Israel and the USA. They have two daughters.
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EMQ, Vol. 52, No. 2 pp. 208-212. Copyright © 2016 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.