Oral Communication and the Global Recordings Network

Oral communicators (OCs) represent as much as two-thirds of the world’s population, perhaps four billion people. Primary oral communicators do not read or write. They are the prime ministry focus of Global Recordings Network (GRN) and of this article. How do we communicate to both the speaking and thinking of OCs?

Avery Willis of the International Orality Network (ION) has said, “Global Recordings Network is a pioneer in the worldwide effort to promote orality.” The founder of GRN, Joy Ridderhof once wrote about the early days, “It was a pioneer work—searching out languages of illiterate people and finding a way to translate and record the gospel message into those languages…”

Different Communication Styles
OCs learn in different ways, and thus we need to adapt our communication styles. Most sermons in the churches of our literate society present concepts. When Jesus preached to OCs, he told them stories about people with whom they could relate (e.g., shepherds, farmers, and fishermen).

Following Jesus, some have gone as far as to suggest that we should just tell Bible stories. Jesus certainly told stories, but not exclusively. In his Sermon on the Mount he taught about very practical things (e.g., making peace with an enemy; the blessings of humility, prayer, and giving; the futility of worry).

The Apostle Paul used graphic word pictures (e.g., the armor of God). The sacrifices, feasts, fasts, and celebrations in the Old Testament, as well as the Lord’s Supper and baptism in the New Testament, help us to picture important spiritual concepts. The Psalms give us examples of how to praise. Stories and teaching go together.

Oral and Audio Communication
Someone described “audio” as simply “recording written words onto a recording device.” This is in contrast to “orality,” which involves “presenting the message in a comprehensive manner using indigenous input.” GRN has always chosen the latter. To prepare, the recordist asks questions about the people and culture to help determine what messages to record. These messages are adapted to local mores, and he or she gets permission and assistance from local leaders. He or she selects mother tongue language helpers to speak. During recording, each sentence and phrase is discussed and/or modified before a final translation. The script is a basis for translation, but never rendered literally. Rather, the messages are largely dictated by natural linguistic forms and local cultural dynamics.

GRN has never embraced a “one-size-fits-all” model. Each recorded message must not only be in the heart language of the hearers, but as far as possible it must also be culturally relevant without compromising scriptural integrity. This means:

  • Overcoming language barriers. Some seven thousand languages in the world are subdivided into thousands of dialects. Heart communication requires the message to be in the heart language of the hearer. At a Navajo information center I asked if everyone spoke English on the reservation. “Yes,” the man replied. “But we think in Navajo.”
  • Overcoming religious and social barriers. To be both understood and accepted, we want to make sure that prejudices don’t prevent people from really listening. Although people in one village may understand every word of a recording made in another, if they dislike each other, they will not listen to it. The message may be linguistically acceptable, but socially rejected.
  • Making culturally relevant messages. The message must also be culturally relevant. Over the years GRN has developed over five hundred core stories and messages. Different scripts have been written for everyone from animists to those who are orthodox. Depending upon the aim, the final selection may include several messages combined into a custom-made program and modifiable at any point. Recently, a computer program has been designed to help field workers manage their lists of messages.
  • Evaluating the recordings. Joy Ridderhof once wrote, “As I look back now, I marvel that God could take us—inexperienced, untrained, unskilled—and lead us into experiences which gave us the training and the insight needed.” Even after sixty years, sometimes messages don’t communicate well. Cultural change often dictates program changes, especially concerning music. GRN constantly evaluates recorded programs and encourages users to report needed changes.
  • Misinterpreting stories. Culture affects interpretation! Because their culture was steeped in deception, the Sawi tribe thought Judas was the hero in the gospel story. They only understood and accepted the gospel message when Don Richardson appropriated the redemptive analogy of the peace child, which converted their faulty understanding.
  • Using redemptive analogies. “Are you afraid?” is the title of a much-used message, particularly among animistic peoples. It starts out: “Are you afraid? Are you afraid of the darkness? Are you afraid to die? … Do you want fear to leave you forever? Then listen. I have wonderful news for you…” The recordist will also specify certain fears associated with the local culture, thereby guaranteeing a rapt audience.
  • Adapting to the culture. We need to stay culturally alert. One GRN message, the story of Noah, includes many sound effects, and in one place the people laugh at Noah. The recordist inserted the sound of laughing from another track, only to discover that this was a different kind of laughter and sent a wrong signal!

The Power of Repetition
GRN's collections of short stories and presentations are extremely reproducible. Years ago, a converted OC took a phonograph and a set of recordings, which he played everywhere. The records wore out, but he would still play the records, repeating accurately what they used to say. Another OC took recordings and a hand-wind player to his village. A month later a missionary found many OCs eager to accept Christ. Each one could repeat the messages by heart!

Continually Improving Technology
GRN's “Good News,” “Look, Listen and Live,” and “The Living Christ” are evangelistic Bible teaching series of attractive, brightly-colored pictures. OCs quickly learn to show the pictures while accurately repeating the message they heard on the recording.

Over the years, GRN technology has changed from phonograph records to audio cassettes to CDs, DVDs, VCDs, MP3s, etc. GRN has freely downloadable recordings on their website in over four thousand speech varieties.

The majority of OCs are still among the least-reached and inaccessible peoples. Accordingly, GRN has designed the new “Saber” hand-wind MP3 player with excellent volume and sound quality—a high-tech machine designed for low-tech people.

Speaking of the Spirit…
Spiritual barriers must always be overcome in the Spirit. One early recordist said, “We always spent time discussing the culture of the people for each language we recorded… We chose the scripts very carefully after much prayer and investigation of the relevant messages. And of course, we bathed every part of the work in prayer, just as the home staff did.”

And so with a melding of strategy, technology, partnership, and prayer we reach out to the oral communicators of this world with the promise of scripture ringing in our ears: “Faith [still] comes by hearing. And hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).

Allan Starling can be reached at [email protected].  

Allan Starling was born in South Africa. He has served Global Recordings Network for forty-seven years and was part of the Lausanne committee that designed the definitions of Unreached Peoples. Starling has authored several books and articles on missions.