Discipleship at Arm’s Length? Not Possible

How can we be good disciples if we cannot read?” Hawa asked. I looked from one woman to the other as we sat beneath the mango tree. I thought I had done well with my carefully-prepared study until Hawa announced that the women had decided to come an hour earlier to our meeting if I would teach them to read.

Literacy had not been on my agenda, but I could not refuse their request because at that time, twenty-four years ago, I agreed with her assumption. Literacy gives access not only to the written word, but also to myriad discipleship resources. If they wanted to be good disciples, they needed access to biblical knowledge when I was not present. The obvious conclusion was that they needed to read the Bible for themselves.

When it comes to knowledge transfer today, however, the oral learner is no longer shut out. Strategies abound for reaching oral learners with the gospel. Organizations such as the International Orality Network and resources like Making Disciples of Oral Learners and the website offer training and practical advice to those who minister to oral learners.

Holding on to a Literate Mindset
Many of us who are adept at using oral strategies in cross-cultural evangelism still struggle when it comes to making disciples, however. We may use oral methodologies such as Chronological Bible Storying, but we use them with a literate mindset. In literate cultures, where independence and physical privacy are valued, discipleship often takes the form of buying the new believer a workbook at the Christian bookstore and meeting once a week (usually at a neutral place like a coffee shop) to go over their answers and discuss issues.


Rare is the person in an individualistic culture who is comfortable telling a new believer to “imitate me” as Paul did. We want our privacy and we respect the privacy of the new believer, often to the point of hesitating to ask personal questions or being reluctant to hold the new believer accountable for lifestyle change.

As literates, we often approach discipleship with oral learners in the same way, keeping the process but substituting stories for the workbook, giving them story sets on cassette to listen to when we are not there. In so doing, we retain our independence and privacy, avoiding the “messiness” of a relationship with the result that we know little about what is actually happening in their daily lives.

Using oral methods, we simply replace a printed Bible with an oral one, encouraging them to consult it when questions arise. Perhaps we prefer knowledge transfer in cross-cultural ministry because our differing lifestyles and cultural values make imitation difficult, if not impossible. Discipleship at arm’s length becomes the standard.

The Need to Be Present
When I first became involved in Chronological Bible Storying over fifteen years ago, I wondered if it were actually the story that made the difference, or if it were the fact that the process forced me to be relational in my behavior and excellent in the local language.

I would sit on a small stool to tell the story, the women pressing against me. One lady liked to sit with her elbows in my lap, her chin on her hands as she gazed up at me while I told the story, hanging on my every word. I sat for hours in courtyards, visiting, “being.”

I was willing to do that, to stretch myself to see that they understood the gospel. I was ecstatic when a group of oral learners from my village accepted the gospel. For months, I had been going almost every morning to their courtyard to share stories. Once they accepted the gospel, however, I immediately retreated into my literate discipleship mindset. Through the evangelism story track, I had given them an “oral Bible,” a series of chronological stories. I wanted the Holy Spirit to instruct them.

I told them I would now come just once a week for a discipleship lesson. Their faces mirrored their disappointment, but I was resolute. In our discipleship times I shared more stories, talking about what Jesus wanted his disciples to know and do. I shared knowledge, but I was reluctant to ask personal questions, hold them accountable for the truths we discussed.

I respected their privacy, happy to have more of my own, happy not to have to pour myself into them as I had been willing to do to get them “saved.” I was wrong.

Discipleship with oral learners must include more than a transfer of stories. It includes the process of “imitating me” not necessarily in how I live, but in how I go about living in the kingdom.

One day while teaching a group of villagers, I talked about prayerwalking and sharing our testimony with those we encounter. As I explained the process, one older man, an oral learner, said in frustration, “Show me!”

I stopped lecturing and began walking around the church, praying aloud for the people as I passed them, stopping before one woman to engage her in conversation and share my testimony. His frustration turned to joy. “I understand!” he exclaimed. He became an avid prayerwalker in the village, leading others to Christ.

The Right Hand of Mentorship
Cross-cultural discipleship should include mentoring in four areas and can be demonstrated by using our right hand.

  1. Purpose. We must move from a “me-centered” to a “God-centered” worldview. It is not “my plans,” but “the plans he has for me.” This is a difficult concept for all of us. I often say that I would prefer to live in my own culture with my family, but God had other plans for me and I must follow his plan. Each time we talk about our purpose being to glorify God, we can hold up our right hand, palm up, demonstrating that we are now in God’s hand.
  2. Relationship. We must examine and adjust our relationship with God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, other believers, and unbelievers. Each finger on our hand represents a different relationship. As we mentor, we model appropriate relationships in these five areas, including prayer to God, through Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, interceding for other believers, and praying for the salvation of unbelievers. Within these relationships, we stress fellowship, unity, charity, and outreach.
  3. Knowledge. We must know God’s word, illustrated by the palm of our hand, turning to God’s word for guidance. For the oral learner, that means knowing Bible stories and having access to storying or Bible cassettes.
  4. Rituals and power. We must acknowledge God as the source of all power, deny Satan’s influence, and examine cultural practices to determine which ones glorify him. We help new believers answer the questions of daily life from a God-centered viewpoint. The closed fist represents our power over Satan and power for living when all of the other parts are working properly.

While oral methodologies such as Chronological Bible Storying are a giant step in the right direction, we must be careful to not “literacize” them, streamlining them and sucking the relationship out of the process because that is more comfortable for us. Jesus not only told us to make disciples, he modeled how to do it. May we be found faithful.

LaNette Thompson and her husband served in Africa with the International Mission Board Connecting from 1985 to 2011. Her writings include her master’s thesis, "The Nonliterate & the Transfer of Knowledge in West Africa." She begins doctoral studies at Baylor University this fall.