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Friday, January 10, 2014

The Transforming Power of Water and the Word
Why Orality is so important for completing the Great Commission

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

HOUSTON, TX (ANS) -- With better research and understanding about the way the majority of the people of the world learn and communicate, churches, ministries and mission organizations can better develop strategies to complete the Great Commission.

Orality Training can take place almost anywhere, even on a boat on the Amazon River

A good place to start is by asking some important questions about what Jesus meant when He said, “Go into all the world and communicate the Good News to everyone.” Jesus said to make disciples of “all” people groups, not just “literate” people groups.

There are still 2,700 language groups which have no written script, and more than 2,200 language groups with no Scripture translated into their heart language or mother tongue. These are oral cultures--primary Oral learners. We can’t wait until every language group has a written script, has the Bible in their language and learns to read, in order to introduce them to Jesus. Now we know that people can become followers of Jesus whether or not they have a written script, a Bible in their language or know how to read.

While the vast majority of the unreached people groups of the world are oral learners by necessity, there are many who are oral preference learners. These are people who can read, and often are highly educated, but still have an oral learning preference. We now understand that behavior change happens more effectively with the more relational, communal, oral methods, than with highly literate, Western methods. What we learn from Jesus about how He communicated, trained and made disciples is more reproducible and transferable than modern, literate Western approaches. He is our best model.

Some groups, over the years, have estimated that 70 to 80% of the people of the world are literate. We now know that this research and the statistics were flawed. In fact, veteran missionary, Herbert Klem, in his book “Oral Communication of the Scriptures: Insights into African Oral Art” said back in the 1980’s that it was probably just the reverse--that 70% would be oral learners. Dr. Grant Lovejoy, in his article “The Extent of Orality: 2012 Update” (Orality Journal) points out that “5.7 billion people in the world are oral communicators (because either they are illiterate or their reading comprehension is inadequate). In other words, they are oral learners, by necessity or by preference.

Lunch break at an Orality Training
in the bush in Africa

In our experience with Living Water International, we estimate that in the regions of the world where we work, it is likely that 80 to 90%, or more, are oral learners. When LWI helps communities gain access to clean, safe water, and train people to appropriately share the Good News of Jesus, it truly is transformational. Our partnerships and collaboration with local churches and other organizations increase impact as we see the power of strategic resource leveraging.

As the Orality Movement has increasingly gained acceptance as a significant breakthrough in the global mission world over the past 30 years, in more recent years, there has been a growing interest and recognition of the power and impact of orality strategies in churches and ministries in the Western World and North America. Over the past seven years, Living Water International has become involved and experienced very encouraging results.

Since launching LWI’s basic “Orality Training Workshop: An Introduction to Contextual Bible Storying” in 2009, more than 27,000 people in over 20 countries have attended. Many of these are reproducing the training, and tell us that it has become their most effective means of evangelism, disciple making and church planting. (It is estimated that an additional 100,000, perhaps as many as 200,000 people have received some kind of orality training from those who have been trained because of the multiplying impact).

In 2012 we began focusing more time and attention on Orality Training for Trainers (OT4T), in addition to the basic workshop. This approach also includes more consultation, personal mentoring and coaching of trainers. The transition has been well received and is much more fruitful in terms of reproducibility and its multiplying impact. LWI has collaborated with the training task force and the leadership of the International Orality Network and gleaned from some of the leading orality missiologists, practitioners, researchers and scholars in the mission world.


Since “Cape Town 2010”, the Lausanne Movement Congress on World Evangelization in South Africa, the Orality Movement has gained increasing visibility and credibility. LWI’s orality training program was featured at that congress. The document which was produced from the congress addresses Oral Cultures and issues relating to the Oral Learners and Unreached and Unengaged People Groups.

In addition to what we have experienced in our global field operations training, we have seen increasing interest among US-based churches that have expressed interest in participating in our Orality Training Workshops. We are also implementing an Orality Training Certification Program, and to date we have certified more than 160 level-one trainers.

LWI’s unique “Orality Training Workshop: An Introduction to Contextual Bible Storying” has gained the attention of many who are discovering the effectiveness of Orality methods and strategies, and a number of churches and ministry and mission groups are sending people to the workshops. It is being acclaimed by a broad spectrum of mission/church leaders.

The joy of learning in an Orality
Training Workshop

ASSIST News Service,, as a result of their heart for missions and interest in raising the level of awareness of the Orality Movement among the church and mission world, has released more than two dozen articles that have been distributed to their 2,600 media contacts world-wide. Many of the articles are reproduced by other media outlets. Our orality program will continue to go deeper and wider in terms of more in-depth and advanced training strategies.

The following are some of the unique features of LWI’s Orality Training Program:

* The effective use of repetition
* Maximum engagement
* Focus on demonstration, participation and explanation
* Principles of action learning
* Learning a little, practicing a lot and implementing immediately
* Emphasis on keeping the message and methods biblical, understandable and reproducible
* Examining the life, teachings and Spirit of Jesus
* Recognition of the power of simplicity
* Emphasis on reproducibility

US-based churches are realizing the value of orality training for global
and local impact

We promote the importance of asking the right questions, as a means of helping the trainees understand the power of the stories (the Word of God). We emphasize that one does not have to be a great storyteller, because we have great stories to tell, and that the Holy Spirit touches hearts and changes lives as people hear, understand and respond to the stories. We recognize the creativity of the Holy Spirit and His unlimited ways of communicating the love and truth of God. It is foundational for trainers, trainees and practitioners to understand the power of prayer and the need to trust God for the results. It’s not just about methods and techniques, but the supernatural work of God the Holy Spirit who produces fruit that remains and abides forever.

Orality trainers are encouraged not to lecture or talk too much. Introductions and background explanations to the stories should be kept to a minimum. Trainers should also avoid performance storytelling; conversational storytelling is much more reproducible. Our aim is not for people to be impressed with the ability of the trainer/storyteller, but to emphasize the power of the story.

In order to maximize participation, we have found that an important aspect of our training is to arrange the group in a semi-circle (horseshoe shaped) seating arrangement. (However, in some places participants sit on the floor or ground.) Another factor is asking participants to put away their notes, Bibles, cell phones, laptops, etc. We want them to learn as oral learners—to experience the world of Oral Cultures. One of the big challenges is to equip literate learners to become effective oral communicators and connect with oral cultures or oral preference learners.

The small-group experience is vital to the learning experience. After hearing a story 3 to 5 times, with some introductory information, with background and context, small groups of 5 are formed for retelling and discussion. Each person tells as much as they can remember of the story, with the help of the group. Then the groups discuss the main message, the important lessons and how they apply to their lives.

One of the valuable lessons we learn from the more communal, relational, oral cultures, is that they have shared knowledge and benefit from the collective memory of the group. Trainers and trainees should be aware that orality doesn’t just apply to people who can’t, don’t or won’t read, nor does it pertain to one’s level of education; it is really more about learning preference. Many well-educated, college-trained people are still oral preference learners. This is also one of the reasons that orality is gaining momentum in the United States and the Western World.

Orality Training for short-term mission teams, and many are discovering its applications at home as well

The use of what we call “oral bookends”--the opening and closing of the stories--is another important feature. This method helps to distinguish, in our own minds and the minds of the hearers, the difference in the story from the Word of God and our comments and discussions about the story. Before telling a story, we usually say “This is a true story from the Word of God.” Then we close the story by saying, “That’s a true story from the Word of God.” In between those statements we don’t explain, elaborate or embellish the story. In some parts of the world, story means a fable or something that is made up. So, we emphasize that all the stories in the Word of God (the Bible) are true, and that is where these stories come from.

While we recognize the importance of appropriate methods and techniques, it is the impartation of life in Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit that ultimately makes Orality strategies fruitful and productive for the spreading of the gospel, disciple-making and advancing the kingdom.

For more information on the Orality Movement, resources and training opportunities, 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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