Making Disciples of Oral Learners

Executive Summary
From the time of the Gutenberg Bible, Christianity Ì¢‰âÒhas walked on literate feetÌ¢‰âÂå and has directly or indirectly required literacy of others. But, seventy percent of all people in the world are oral communicators; these are people who can’t, don’t or won’t learn through literate means. Four billion in our world are at risk of a Christless eternity unless literate Christians make significant changes in evangelism, discipleship, leader training and church planting.

Making disciples of oral learners means using communication forms that are familiar within the culture: stories, proverbs, drama, songs, chants and poetry. Literate approaches rely on lists, outlines, word studies, apologetics and theological jargon. These literate methods are largely ineffective among two-thirds of the world’s peoples. Of necessity, making disciples of oral learners depends on communicating God’s word with varied cultures in relevant ways. Only then will the gospel be able to reach to Ì¢‰âÒthe uttermost parts of the earth.Ì¢‰âÂå

Key Issues for the Church to Address
Five aspects of making disciples of oral learners in the context of the Great Commission must be considered vital to Ì¢‰âÒfinishing the taskÌ¢‰âÂå:

  1. Make the word of God available to unreached peoples using appropriate oral strategies. The Church is commanded by Christ to Ì¢‰âÒmake disciples of all peoplesÌ¢‰âÂå which certainly includes the vast majority of the yet unreached oral learners. Providing an Ì¢‰âÒoral BibleÌ¢‰âÂå allows God’s word to be produced accurately from memory for the purpose of re-telling. The Ì¢‰âÒoral BibleÌ¢‰âÂå is the singular key to unlocking church planting movements among unreached people groups. However, that Ì¢‰âÒoral BibleÌ¢‰âÂå must penetrate the people group to its worldview level belief system. Only then will a Bible become meaningful and useful. The only Bible that will be effective during the lifetime of the vast majority of unreached people is an Ì¢‰âÒoral Bible,Ì¢‰âÂå probably best presented in narrative form. It is important for the Church to understand that a written version of scripture does not even exist for the majority of languages. Even if literacy were achieved, the Bible would still not exist in most languages.

  2. Use oral communication patterns which allow the whole community to: hear clearly in their mother tongue, understand, respond and reproduce the message of the gospel. Literate church leaders and their missionaries should master new ways of preaching and teaching. Effective ministries among those with an oral learning preference will use communication forms already in place within their own culture. If the gospel is to spread freely and rapidly within an unreached people group, strategists working in that group must do their best to avoid methodology that hinders oral peoples from winning and discipling their families, friends and others. Training models will be most effective when they take orality into consideration. Churches will then begin to see training and new leaders emerge from within the oral peoples. These leaders will facilitate church-planting movements to rapidly disciple and equip leaders for the new churches as leaders are raised up by the Holy Spirit.

  3. Avoid syncretism by making disciples of oral learners using oral means. If the Church is going to avoid syncretism, then the gospel needs to be communicated in the mother tongue of the people we are trying to reach. Both evangelistic as well as discipleship materials cannot be generic but will need to be developed with the worldview of the target people. The stories chosen and the manner in which they are communicated will have to transform the worldview of those who are seeing or hearing the stories. A recorded oral Bible will help serve as a standard to ensure the transmission of the stories remains accurate. These methods will help ensure the Church remains true to the historic beliefs of Christianity and does not mix traditional beliefs in their doctrines or practices.

  4. Equip relational-narrative communicators to make disciples. Oral strategies provide multiple ways for effectively engaging a people group to readily involve oral communicators in efforts to reach their own people group and others with the gospel. Storying is one reproducible evangelistic and church-planting approach; new believers can readily share the gospel, plant new churches and disciple new believers in the same way that they themselves were reached and discipled.

  5. Increase effectiveness among secondary oral learners. Oral strategies are also necessary in reaching people whose orality is tied to electronic media. They may be able to read well, but they get most of the important information in their lives through stories and music coming through radio, television, film, Internet and other electronic means. We need oral strategies focused on this segment of the world population, too.

How Orality Works on the Local Level
While a storying strategy seems to be one that is particularly appropriate with unreached people groups, many established churches, especially in relational cultures, have found significant benefits to the chronological storying approach.

1. In evangelism. One missionary couple cautiously entered a West Africa Muslim village. Ì¢‰âÒMy husband and I asked permission of the village chief to live among the people in order to learn more about them,Ì¢‰âÂå the woman said. Ì¢‰âÒAfter living among the people, we asked the chief for permission to share God’s word in the village. He gave us permission to do whatever we wanted. We did not discuss the religion of Christianity or talk about Ì¢‰âÂèÏthe Christian way.’ We never discussed Islam, Muhammad, the Quran or the differences between Christianity and Islam. We were there to teach God’s word under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. We chose to use only the storying method, to teach the stories of the Bible chronologically and to bring out the truths the people needed to know in order to understand the gospel.Ì¢‰âÂå They began storying in small groups throughout the village and distributed storying cassettes to those who asked. The imam used some of the stories in his sermons and gave his people permission to listen to the stories. The following year twenty individuals became followers of Jesus.

2. In discipleship. The Puinave people were re-discipled when missionaries discovered syncretism. Although the Puinave had become culturally Ì¢‰âÒChristianÌ¢‰âÂå in the 1950s, they mixed magic with Christian do’s and don’ts. Many misunderstandings resulted from using the trade language, Spanish. When New Tribes Mission missionaries spent seven years learning the difficult Puinave language in the 1970s, they were surprised at the actual beliefs held among the people. At first, the missionaries tried teaching the Bible using traditional teaching methods. The Puinave nodded their agreement, but obviously missed many of the key points. It was only through a chronological presentation of God’s word, beginning with the Old Testament and moving to the Gospels, that they were able to vividly portray the holy nature and character of God, the sinful condition of humans, the grip Satan has on this world and the redeeming solution to man and woman’s predicament found in Jesus Christ. Later, the village elder observed, Ì¢‰âÒI came just this close from going to hell,Ì¢‰âÂå holding up his thumb and forefinger. In 1998 New Tribes Mission made this story into a movie titled Now We See Clearly.

3. In church leader training. In a Northern Africa Muslim-dominated country seventeen young men (many of whom could barely read and write and some not at all) underwent a two-year leader training program using chronological Bible storying. At the end of two years, students mastered approximately 135 biblical stories in their correct chronological order, spanning from Genesis to Revelation. They were able to tell the stories, compose from one to five songs for each story and enact dramas about each of the stories. A seminary professor gave them a six-hour oral exam. They demonstrated the ability to answer questions about both the facts and theology of the stories and showed an excellent grasp of the gospel message, the nature of God and their new life in Christ. The students quickly and skillfully referred to the stories to answer a variety of theological questions.

4. In church planting. In South America Jeremy, an International Mission Board worker, joined a larger team that included Wycliffe translation workers. Working with stories adapted from a neighboring language, Jeremy instilled vision for the storying process in two mother tongue storyers and coached them through learning the stories and telling them to others. Jeremy’s two-year involvement has been a significant contributing factor toward a church-planting movement that now has resulted in as many as twenty percent of the people group becoming believers. In the two years since Jeremy’s departure, storyers continue to go to new, unreached villages up and down the river, telling the stories and evangelizing.

These are but a few ways that oral strategies are facilitating God’s redemptive work among oral peoples on many continents.

Conclusions, Challenges and Recommendations
The Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization (LCWE) included Ì¢‰âÒMaking Disciples of Oral LearnersÌ¢‰âÂå as an issue group for the first time in 2004. An estimated ninety percent of the world’s Christian workers work among oral peoples using literate communication styles. Orality issues raise an urgent cry for effectiveness. What a challenge! Yet, more than four billion people in our world need a customized strategy delivered in a culturally appropriate manner in order for them to hear, understand, respond to and reproduce. The Church today must embrace oral communicators as partnersÌ¢‰â‰۝together making disciples of all peoples to the glory of God!

Lausanne’s orality issue group challenges churches and other Christian organizations to ride the next wave of kingdom advancement by developing and implementing methods for effective oral strategies. Partners, networks, seminaries, mission agencies, conference and workshop leaders and other Christian influencers are called upon to recognize the issues of orality in the world around them, become intentional about making disciples of oral learners, raise awareness, initiate oral communication projects and train missionaries and local leaders in chronological Bible storying as an effective church-planting strategy. We recommend that:

  1. The LCWE highlight this issue as essential for the evangelization of the world, especially the unreached people groups.

  2. The LCWE endorse a Ì¢‰âÒLausanne Task Force on Making Disciples of Oral LearnersÌ¢‰âÂå to explore and implement all practical means to advance the cause of making disciples of oral learners worldwide.

  3. The LCWE and others publish material to permeate the missions world with information about oral strategies.

  4. Churches and other Christian organizations develop and implement methods, communications and strategies such as: (a) local churches becoming advocates for specific unreached people groups and promoting an engagement with those people groups by using worldview-specific oral methodologies, (b) seminaries providing curricula to train pastors and missionaries in oral methodologies, (c) local churches around the world utilizing oral methodologies to disciple their own members as a way of avoiding syncretism, (d) mission agencies developing strategies for their missionaries and partners to use among oral learners and (e) regional networks hosting conferences in strategic locations around the world for awareness building about oral methodologies.

  5. Regional partnerships and agencies provide training in strategic locations to train local leaders and missionaries in implementing oral strategies among the unreached.

  6. Regional partnerships and agencies develop a network of trainers to train other trainers in oral methodologies.

  7. Churches and agencies record and distribute Bible stories for evangelization, discipling and leader training.

  8. Broadcast networks and agencies broadcast chronological Bible stories and recordings of a discipleship group in a house church setting, including dialogue reflecting culturally appropriate ways of processing the story and interacting with it.

  9. Funding organizations make resources available for oral methodologies to be implemented with the thousands of language groups, people groups and segments of societies that are still unreached.

With the insights gleaned from research and collaboration, Christians have the opportunity to keep 1.5 billion unreached peoples of the world from a Christless eternity in our generation. Following the examples of Jesus’ teaching through parables, primary oral learners who comprise two-thirds of the world can comprehend God’s word. The thorough method that oral strategies provide better prevents syncretism. Oral learners can understand on their heart level within their culture what it means to follow Jesus, be discipled, become leaders and plant churches. Let us therefore go forth embracing oral communicators as partnersÌ¢‰â‰۝together making disciples of all peoples to the glory of God!

(This executive summary was taken from the Making Disciples of Oral Learners Lausanne Occasional Paper 54. The complete paper may be downloaded at: