Everyone has a story. It is where your people came from and why you are who you are. Mine is a story of nineteenth-century German immigrants who laid hold of the American dream to have our own land and get our children a good education so that they could live at a higher standard than generations who preceded us. It drives much of who I am and what I believe, value, and do.
God also has a story. It is about him, his kingdom, and his king. It is the story of why and how he created the world, allowed us to abdicate our position by rebelling against his authority, and how he restored the opportunity for all to choose living under that authority forever.
Every people and culture has a story that must be confronted with the story of the kingdom. Our challenge is to translate the story of the transforming power of the king. We call our story “the good news” for a reason. It can transform a person, a family, and a community.
Do we tell his story in terms and expressions that others do not relate to because of where they live? Do we put it in forms that we understand but they cannot? How can we best deliver the gospel message to those who cannot, do not, or will not read? How can oral learners come face to face with God’s kingdom and God’s king?
Russell West1 articulated well our greater need for communicating the gospel orally. He explained:
Picture this: God comes to earth, takes on human clothing—cultural clothing the way that Jesus did. And then takes the message and puts it in mathematical forms—numbers, division, algebra, trigonometry, calculus—and he says that in order to enter his kingdom you need to enter through a mathematical world, a mathematical logic. Now there are many folks who from their birth get that. But there is a whole sector of the world who would say, “I guess this is not meant for me.” They would feel marginalized. They would feel humiliated every time they heard about it. They would want the message of God, but because it was in a form that alienated them, they would conclude that “this message is not for me.”
Those who recognize there is an oral majority in the world—as much as seventy percent of the earth’s population—do not prefer to get their message through literate-based strategies. Everyone has the right and deserves to hear the gospel at least once so that they can repent. No one should be left out simply because the forms we use marginalized them, and thus marginalize the message.
Now think of the story in “their” terms. Consider those who cannot, or do not, read in order to receive, remember, and replicate important information. The majority of our mission strategies are written by literates for a literate audience. We marginalize whole people groups simply because we have not learned how to understand, process, and position the gospel within oral cultures.
We must wrestle with the following questions: “What makes the good news good news to the people of the land, and how can we deliver it? Why would they think that the good news is good news? How can we put it in forms that they will receive, remember, and replicate?” Consider the case studies below.2
- Every year, the Kulung Rai of Nepal live under the shadow of Mt. Everest and helplessly watch their mothers or sons die from ailments that would be an outrage anywhere in the “civilized” world. Diarrhea, pneumonia, and tuberculosis kill more people in Nepal than any other causes. The folk remedy for diarrhea? “Stop drinking water.” Often within forty-eight to seventy-two hours someone you love is gone. Pneumonia and tuberculosis are dealt with in equally fruitless ways (herbal potions) that cannot stop these diseases from running their course. What does the Kingdom of God have to say to their situation?
- The Kambari of West Africa are at the bottom of the food chain. This has been so for two hundred years. Since the days of the Hausa Jihad in 1803, the Kambari have been a subjugated people serving the needs of the Muslim overlords. Nothing has changed. Today, their lives consist solely for providing food to the local and district leaders. They are intentionally denied the education and training that could take away some of their daily burden. They drink water from a polluted river, work naked in the fields, cannot read, believe the measles vaccination is a Western plot to sterilize their children, and have no clue that the mosquito transmits malaria. What does the Kingdom of God have to say to their situation?
- The Bari of Southern Sudan know nothing but civil war. HIV/AIDS has been a weapon of genocide by ruthless usurpers to clear the land for others to reclaim. They face the constant threat of renewed conflict and feel the need to vindicate the loss of their loved ones by retaliation. They know little or nothing of reconciliation and the need for extending forgiveness. There are no paved roads. More than five thousand people share only one bore-hole. Southern Sudan offers little by way of gainful employment, but much when it comes to cholera, typhoid, malaria, and dysentery. A woman in southern Sudan is four times more likely to die in childbirth than to learn to read. What does the Kingdom of God have to say to their situation?
- The Samburu of Northern Kenya are semi-nomadic herdspeople. Goats, cattle, and camels represent currency and define their culture. Generations of poor breeding practices yield little meat, milk, or income. Drought overtakes the land and the cattle die without being taken to market. Unscrupulous middlemen who buy these gaunt animals at a fraction of their value, thus promoting a cycle of poverty, handle the livestock that are sold. What does the Kingdom of God have to say to their situation?
Designing Strategies that Connect at the Most Foundational Levels
Communicating the message of good news must first account for the worldview of a culture. Without this navigational guide, even the best content will steer past the heart of transformation. Most Western mission strategies reflect our guilt/innocence worldview. We focus on making things “right” or being “righteous” before God. The people we attempt to reach often see the world through a shame/honor perspective. Honor is everything. Shame is to be avoided at all costs.
Take the Kambari people again. They practice a form of honor unthinkable in the West: wife-snatching. If you see a woman who is married to someone else, you can steal her and keep her as your own. You simply go to the Hausa chief and pay him the wife price. The wife snatcher is greatly honored in their culture because he has the means to do this. The woman is highly esteemed because someone else wanted her. The offended husband is shamed if he cannot buy her back by paying a greater amount than did the wife snatcher. If a woman is never snatched, she may feel shame because no one else esteemed her worthy of stealing. Telling a Kambari man that it is not “righteous” makes no sense. Showing him real honor does.
Delivering the Message that Will Be Heard, Understood, and Applied
Our message is best delivered through known and trusted leaders. Oral cultures receive and process new information by relational means. To these people who has the information is as much or more important than the information itself.
A respected leader in southern Sudan worked with T4Global (an organization which facilitates transformational training for oral culture people) to determine how to reach the masses with messages of hope and transformation. His choice was a series of three outreach programs consisting of civics, health, and discipleship.
The content design utilized interviews, testimonies, drama, and music—oral communication forms. But most importantly, he asked nationally recognized people to take part. He himself endorsed the program and asked village chiefs and other leaders to join in the program. They did, and the results he described claimed one of the most successful communication programs in the history of southern Sudan, reaching over one million villagers in less than six months.
The message may be delivered best through small media technologies that can be listened to repeatedly anywhere and promote discussion and action on any given message. The Samburu of Kenya began reaching out with a mobile school network (they call it the “redio”) two months ago and now reach nearly four thousand people per week. Listen to what a local pastor has to say:
The redio has no gender and therefore ministers to both men and women. In normal cases, it’s hard for a man to witness to a female and vice versa. The redio can travel with the Samburus as they graze their animals. They have a lot of time to listen to it as they graze….A pastor’s wife carries the device to the market and people surround the device to be taught. There is such a great thirst for the teachings.
The message is delivered best when the message is discussed and shared with peers. Then people decide for themselves what to do about the truth that has been communicated. It is a bottom-up rather than top-down strategy.
In Nepal, Professor Bipin Acharya, with the department of sociology/anthropology at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, conducted an independent evaluation on the mobile school program and oral strategy. Below are some of his observations after a series of health messages were delivered:
They called relatives to treat worms…cared about TB, AIDS, took their children for check ups in time, cleaned toilets, controlled diarrhea, cured common colds, cut nails, took regular baths….cared about nutritious food to pregnant women, etc. Respondents said that they started cleaning toilets, keeping school-going children clean, sharing information about AIDS, and caring for diarrhea. Similarly, they became sensitive about the common cold, sanitation, and nutrition.
The stories mentioned here reshaped families and communities. Transformation began as they heard a new story and it changed their old story. This is not just the transfer of information, for information does not change people. Oral learners hear God’s story in their own language. The needs of whole people are addressed. People are changed with truth that confronts the kingdoms of this world with the Kingdom of God.
1. A T4Global interview with Dr. Russell West, professor of leadership education at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.
2. The case descriptions are taken from programs aided by T4Global. The implementing partners learn to design oral sensitive training, record it, and deliver it through a mobile school. The mobile school placed in the hands of a facilitator consists of low-cost, easy-to-use, solar-powered technology components for group listening and discussion.