Tools for Reaching Oral Learners

Attila's Story: Sharing the Gospel with the Deaf Community in Hungary

Attila first began to seek the Lord in 2004 when a number of the Deaf Hungarians in Budapest began to talk about the people who were followers of Christ. These individuals were not doing the traditional church routine; instead, they were experiencing changed lives. Attila, a self-declared atheist, was curious.

On New Year’s Eve there was a large celebration among the Deaf Hungarian Christians who were participating with a group of international students at a Deaf Christian training center in . It was here that the seeds of the gospel first began to settle in Attila’s heart. One of the Deaf Christians, Zoltan, was a longtime friend of Attila’s and began sharing Bible stories with him. When Attila heard them his heart was pierced; they made him hungry to know more.

It is important to know that Zoltan is not considered by the other Deaf in the community as very bright. He did not do well in school and some of the Deaf believers have been surprised when he has come up with insightful comments from the Bible stories. He did not have a lot of self-confidence to begin with; however, the issue was never about him, but about who lived in him.

After about of year of discipleship Attila became overwhelmed with a sense of his sin and guilt. It was clear that he needed Jesus. In February 2006 Attila fell to his knees and signed to heaven, “Forgive me! I choose to follow you all the way! Give me new life! I believe in you!” Attila was baptized and has demonstrated a humble, teachable attitude. Another Deaf believer, Szabi, has begun training and discipling Attila.

God uses young men and women like Zoltan who can use scripture to convey the truths of God and who watch as the Spirit of God pierces the dark hearts of lost friends. He uses atheistic, skeptical young men like Attila who, once they come to embrace God’s life-changing power, will be transformed into vessels God will use to shake the darkness away in Deaf Hungary. He uses leaders like Szabi who, after understanding the liberty and empowerment of the Spirit of God, cast off the shackles of a legalistic, structured church organization in order to lead others. He uses Deaf believers in Budapest who may not fit the mold for what a church is supposed to look like, but who are impacting their Deaf communities. God uses people who are willing to be light in the darkness every day of the week.

The small aircraft comes to a complete stop on the Papua highland landing strip and the propeller takes its last turn, ending the loud rumble of the engine. Before the door is open several Papua students surround the plane to welcome us. Even before our luggage is unloaded, I start hearing some guitars and a ukulele accompanying a song in a style that reminds me of the Melanesian cultures. A small group of students huddles just outside the old hangar singing stories about God and expressing their deep love and faith in him. Our time at the Papua leadership training school is filled by the sound of students singing songs, from the time they begin watching the vegetables cook at lunch until the electricity is turned off late in the evening. At first I think that all the singing is due to a music workshop that they are attending where they compose, record and dramatize their own songs. Later I realize that many of the songs I hear are not even recorded; I begin to realize that communicating stories in song is an integral part of relating to God and each other. The workshop songs are actually only a small part of their repertoire. Songs, music, chanting and drama are all key parts of how they normally communicate; the Papuans are traditional oral learners.

The Right Kind of Tools?
We on the other hand, as literate learners, tend to look for tools such as instructional videos, tracts, printed curricula and books—something physical to help us communicate. Normally we use these communication tools in church-related activities and consequently also in church planting ministry. We have learned to depend on these kinds of tools to communicate. Although they may be good tools in general, that doesn’t make them right for every situation. In other cultures and to oral learners our communication tools may communicate a different message than we intend or they may not even communicate at all. Oral learners do not depend on the same kind of tools as literate learners. Oral learners, like the Papuans, communicate truth in different ways and they naturally know how to communicate within their own culture. What they often don’t know is the potential of their own communication art forms, because we often come in and tell them that we have the right kind of “tools,” and teach them to use our literate ways. If all this is true, then what are the right kinds of tools to use?

When we choose tools for oral learners, or for any audience, we need to consider the following things:

  • the content of the story to be told
  • the appropriate communication art form for that story
  • the appropriate time and place to share it
  • the appropriate language

If we take all this into consideration, then we find that most tools serve best as flexible frameworks—tools that can be adapted for use by the people we are serving. Some tools are more adaptable than others. If visuals are part of the tool, they are often copyrighted and cannot be culturally adapted. Accompanying music and sound effects may or may not communicate the same thing to our audience as it does to us. If these things cannot be changed it can reduce the effectiveness of the tool or even negatively impact our audience. This happens easily if we are focused on urgency from our perspective and just pick a convenient tool, rather than looking from God’s perspective as a wise steward willing to consider the worldview of our audience. The more freedom a tool gives us, the more likely it is to help us communicate effectively with our audience. Sometimes tools should only serve as a guide or idea for making products locally by or with the people we are serving. This encourages local ownership of the products, as well as sustainability of ministry because the people realize they can make their own tools.

Principles to Consider in Choosing Tools for Oral Learners
Four principles can help guide us as we seek to reach those in oral learning cultures.

  1. Consider the content. When we look for tools off the shelf, it is easy to overlook content. With one small Brazilian people group, the missionaries had established a weekly movie night. They shopped for movies of biblical value and the book of Esther was chosen. It was shown in a second language without any introductions or consideration of the cultural habits of the people group. The movie portrays the king discarding his wife because of disobedience and he then samples from all single girls who his next wife should be. This situation is similar to an existing problem of divorce and promiscuity in the culture of the viewers and easily confirms their values. The real biblical message of the book of Esther is lost and their sinful behavior confirmed. The thought process of oral learners is different from literate thinkers; they think relationally. In other words, things they learn are validated by something they already know or by others they respect. We need to select content that will have the added value of bringing the people closer to God.

  2. Consider the art form. Besides considering content, we need to look at how truth is normally communicated. In most cultures it is through stories which can be sung, chanted, recited (like in poetry), acted out, danced or told. They also may use riddles, parables, thematic questions, proverbs, rituals, art or a combination of these. In some cultures for a story to be accepted as true, there has to be a set order to a story, like starting with a greeting or the introduction of the key characters. If this is not done, we may have never asked the audience to listen or have never validated the characters as real. In some cases only certain people can share spiritual truth or serve as the designated storytellers.
  3. Consider the time and place. The appropriate place and time is another consideration that should be taken into account. For the Saramacan of Suriname the wake of a funeral is a time for song, dance and watching movies. Stories that talk about hope after death can be very appropriate. In other cultures there may be opportunities at weddings, seasonal feasts, etc. Yet for the Kadiweu of Brazil there is not much room for biblical exposure at their annual cultural feast and selling Bible materials is seen as inappropriate to the cultural setting.
  4. Consider the language. Last but not least we must consider what language should be used to address spiritual matters. This may be different for use in church versus in outreach. In some cases it may be a mixture of two or even three languages. The language should be used in an appropriate oral fashion when using oral tools. Some tools just use written materials in audio format, but that doesn’t make it automatically a tool for oral learners. Spoken language is quite different from written language.

The right kind of tools for reaching oral learners are therefore mostly foundational tools, like story sets that may guide one through a process of evangelizing or discipling. Sometimes people primarily need ideas to help them communicate biblical truths using their communication art forms, so they can make their own tools. This doesn’t mean that the market-ready tools cannot be used, but they should be used wisely in the context of tools that can be made locally on an ongoing level, while continuing to consider the same four principles mentioned above. Such a mix of media can become a key component of a healthy local church that won’t be easily riddled by problems of spiritual shallowness and syncretism. Still, tools can serve primarily as aids to a healthy witness of God’s Spirit through his children. We need to leave the relational aspect in our witness—since what God offers to us is a relationship—with him. For specific ideas about potential tools, training resources and training opportunities, please visit or

Durk Meijer is associate director for operations for the International Orality Network. He is also vernacular media services advisor for Wycliffe International.