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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Transforming Power of Water and the Word
Toward Orality-Based Disciple Making

By Jerry Wiles, President Emeritus, Living Water International
Special to ASSIST News Service

HOUSTON, TX (ANS) -- What is a disciple? How does a person become a disciple? What do disciples do? How did Jesus make disciples? Can we make disciples today the way Jesus made disciples 2,000 years ago? These are all important questions that we often discuss in our Orality Training Workshops and Orality Training for Trainers (OT4T). We recognize that training is part of disciple making, which is the heart and core of our Lord’s Great Commission.

Orality Training/Disciple Making under a tree in Africa

It is a real eye opener and often a transformational experience for many who engage in these kinds of conversations. To get to the heart of the matter, we have to think outside of our literate Western cultural mind-set. We need to think about what we can learn from Jesus and the Early Church and what we learn from the rapidly reproducing disciple-making movements, and the more communal, relational and oral cultures of the world. These conversations often help us rethink, sometimes unlearn and relearn some important biblical concepts.

I have been blessed to spend many years in the academic world and to get to know people who know a lost more about a lot of things than I do. I have had the opportunity to ask scholars, historians and experts questions and learn from some of the most knowledgeable people in their various disciplines. It is interesting to know people in ministry with different emphases, including those focused on evangelism, relief and development, church growth, church planting, discipleship and other special interests.

Disciple making methods are growing among US-based churches and ministries

Having had a special interest for many years in communicating the gospel and making disciples, I have tried to understand the origin and history of certain aspects of the Great Commission. A term that has been around for many years in the Western World and North American Church culture is “discipleship.” I asked a friend, who is a scholar and knowledgeable of Church history, about the origin of the term. I wondered where the “ship” came from, since Jesus didn't say to go and make discipleships, but to make disciples. After hearing my friend’s explanation and doing some research, I discovered that the term “discipleship” is a relatively modern American idea that is only a little more than 160 years old.

Several years ago, another friend who was working with an organization that specializes in discipleship, made the statement that they had come to the conclusion that it takes approximately seven (7) years to make a disciple. As I have thought about and reflected on that idea in light of Scripture, I see how much culture and traditions have influenced the thinking in so many ministry and church leaders. However, when we consider what we can learn from Jesus and the Early Church, we can gain a whole new perspective on so many important ministry concepts. Many of the traditions that we have in the Church today have developed over the past few hundred years. These traditions may be good in certain contexts, but are often limited and not easily reproducible to the ends of the earth and to every people group.

In our Living Water International experience and journey with the Orality Movement, it is exciting to see people light up with new passion and enthusiasm about sharing their faith and making disciples. Also, the realization that following Jesus and being a reproducing disciple maker is something we all can experience. It's not just for pastors, seminary trained missionaries and paid professionals. We don't have to be Bible scholars, seminary trained or seasoned believers to share our faith and introduce others to Jesus and experience His reproducing life. Ordinary people can do that.

Orality Training in the bush of West Africa

However, we should always recognize that it is the work of the Holy Spirit of God that produces lasting fruit. All of our methods, techniques, programs and strategies will be of no value, unless the Spirit of God touches hearts and changes lives. A central part of LWI's Orality Training Workshops and Training of Trainers is focused on this foundational truth. It is not what we can do for God, but what He can, and desires to do, through us, that will produce eternal results. As pastors, church leaders and ordinary followers of Jesus observe the power and impact of orality (which is really the work of the Spirit), they often have a transformational moment, and gain new insights and understanding about our life in union with Christ and sharing with others in ways that are biblical, understandable and reproducible.

Obviously, not everyone embraces orality in the same way or at the same pace. The parable of the sower, the seed and the different kinds of soil helps us understand why. Those who don't take the time to participate and engage in the training are often those who know a little about it, but don't care to learn more. Like many new or different things, some people do not have the curiosity to find out what they don't know. Change seldom comes easily. A friend of mine says we should focus on the few, rather than trying to get everyone to come along at the same speed.

One of the key ingredients that makes orality training so powerful, is the demonstration, participation and explanation of how it works. When people experience the transforming power of relational, narrative communication, the interaction, the power of the Story and the impact of asking the right questions, many come alive with new insight, passion and excitement. Most of all, it is experiencing the moving of the Holy Spirit that brings genuine heart change.

Sharing Life and Sharing Water in Community in Central America

Some Living Water workers are telling us that they are now sharing the story of the “Samaritan Woman at the Well” at every water project and training event with great response. Our goal and prayer is that this will be the case at every project, event and opportunity where people are present.

So when we think about orality-based disciple making, consider all the different ways God has equipped and prepared people for His Kingdom work. Several years ago, I was part of a meeting with about a dozen prominent pastors and church leaders with the late Dr. Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ (now known as Cru). Dr. Bright asked each one in the group a simple question, “Who discipled you?” It was interesting to hear the responses as each one told of their spiritual journey.

A common theme among these leaders was that there was no structured plan or program, no discipleship class, no one person who took them under their wing to disciple them. It was amazing to hear their stories. It was a number of different people and influences that God used in each of their lives. It is a testimony of the faithfulness of the Holy Spirit and the indwelling life of Jesus that makes real disciples. All of us, as followers of Jesus, can participate in making disciples, but ultimately it is Jesus working through us, as we obey Him that makes it all work. It's all about context, without context there is no meaning. And, without the Holy Spirit, there is no fruit.

I came away from that meeting with the understanding that the Holy Spirit uses a combination of people, experiences, events, relationships and learning in community to grow us in our journey with Him. He is the creative communicator, trainer and disciple maker, and He is prepared to work through each and every one of us as we make ourselves available to Him.

A breakdown on the side of the road can provide an opportunity for Story-telling
and Orality Training

A lady who recently attended one of LWI’s Orality Training Workshops in an African country, shared in a community setting, the story of “Jesus Calming the Storm” from Mark chapter 4. A lady who heard her tell the story was gripped with the idea that the disciples went to Jesus first and asked, “Master don’t you care that we’re about to die? The insight and application she received from the story was that when she faced storms (problems, difficulties or crisis situations) she should go to Jesus first, instead of going to the witchdoctor. She said, “From now on, I will go to Jesus with my problems, not the witchdoctor.”

It’s always encouraging to hear the variety of ways the Holy Spirit touches hearts and transforms lives just by telling stories and asking questions. What we learn from the more communal, relational and oral cultures, as well as the teachings of Jesus and the Early Church, is very different from much of our highly literate Western Cultures.

It is amazingly impactful with pastors and church leaders when they observe and experience the power of simplicity and reproducibility in telling “True stories from the Word of God.” One pastor who participated in an Orality Training Workshop said, “Now I see how I can train, equip and mobilize story-telling evangelists at every educational level.”

Actually, orality methods were the ways in which the Gospel spread, by ordinary people, throughout the populated world in the first century. It hasn’t happened since then, but the Orality Movement is growing around the world as followers of Jesus are rediscovering the most ancient and time-tested ways that people have learned and communicated for thousands of years. And, we now know that more than 70% of the world’s population today would be considered oral learners, by necessity or by preference. These are the people who can’t, don’t or won’t read, or prefer to learn by means other than written instruction.

For more information about the Orality Movement, Orality Training opportunities and resources, visit: or

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This story is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of the ASSIST News Service or ASSIST Ministries.
Jerry Wiles serves as president emeritus of Living Water International ( Living Water is one of the world’s leading faith-based water solutions organizations with operations in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America. Having gotten involved in orality-based evangelism and disciple making strategies in the 1980s, he has been a paradigm pioneer in the orality movement and presently serves on the advisory council of the International Orality Network. Wiles has more than 35 years experience in ministry and international mission work. He can be contacted at

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