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Friday, May 2, 2014

The Transforming Power of Water and the Word
Orality, Creativity, and the use of Art in Communicating Biblical Truth

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

HOUSTON, TX (ANS) -- The Orality Movement is not just about telling stories and asking questions. It's not about bedtime stories for children or just for the people of the world who can't read or write. Orality is defined as “a reliance on oral, rather than written communication” or “the quality of being spoken or verbally communicated.”

A simple, reproducing, disciple-making movement in an Oral Culture

However, the multi-faceted Orality Movement is much deeper and wider than that. There are many aspects of the Orality Movement – culture, worldview and learning preferences, to name a few. The disciplines of sociology, psychology, theology, missiology, epistemology, and anthropology, are related to the Movement as well.

In our work in Living Water International (, as well as with many other mission organizations, one of the challenges is maintaining simplicity and reproducibility so that our message and methods are transferable to any place on earth and within all people groups. Another challenge is communicating the significance of orality methods and strategies to those who are hearing about it for the first time, or those who know a little, but do not have enough interest or curiosity to learn more.

That's why demonstration, participation and explanation are so important, and in that order. Over and over again when pastors, church leaders, and individuals, take the time to attend an Orality Training Workshop, they are amazed and surprised at its impact on participants. When people experience it firsthand, they come alive with new passion and excitement about sharing their faith and making disciples.

Orality is so far outside of many people’s modern literate Western models, that it takes some rethinking for them to get their minds around it. There are many different aspects to the movement that most people don't immediately see. Think of all the many different ways that people have learned and communicated throughout history. Consider, also, how much of those ancient methods are still effective today, not only among the unreached people groups in remote parts of the world, but even in the more developed modern Western Cultures.

While leading an Orality Training for Trainers (OT4T) and a workshop in the Eastern part of the United States, I stayed in a couple’s home. The husband is a professional architect and builder, and his wife is an artist. When they built their home, they designed the front of the house to communicate a biblical message. They wanted to portray the message of “Why the Cross, God's heart for the whole world.” After hearing their explanation of the design on the front of their house, people would be reminded of its message every time they saw it. That made me think about the many creative ways that God has used over the centuries to communicate the truth about Himself and the Good News of Jesus.

Stained glass windows in the cathedrals of the Middle Ages were not just for decoration: they were designed to communicate spiritual truth

The stained glass windows of the cathedrals of the Middle Ages were not just for decoration; they had a message -- from Creation to Christ. The art and media resources which we have today are wonderful tools for communicating truth. Music is another powerful tool. Think of the hymns you may have heard as a child. Consider the influence of advertising jingles. All of those things would be examples of Orality, as we understand the modern movement. Coming to recognize the depth and breadth and multi-faceted aspects of the Orality Movement, one might think there is a better term to describe this modern phenomenon. There have been many discussions among global mission leaders, but no term has arisen to improve its description.

Years ago one of my mentors, the late W. Ian Thomas, a London-born Christian evangelical writer, theological teacher, and founder of the Torchbearers Bible schools, spoke to a young boy while holding a flower, and asked the question, “Do you think you could make one of these?” Then he went on to talk about God's creative ability and used the occasion to share some biblical truth. Romans 1:20 tells us that since the creation of the world God's invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that no one is without excuse. God's creative handy work is a witness of who He is and what He has done. So nature itself is a form of communication, and I have found can be a conversation starter to share the message of the Lord Jesus.

“Why the Cross? God’s heart for the World” (Courtesy of John Flippen)

Some time ago I engaged a man in conversation about the Lord. He interrupted me in order to tell me about a dream he had the night before. He said he had a vision of a very wide road, and many people were traveling on it. Then he said he saw a much narrower road going off to the right, and only a few people were traveling on it. This man did not attend a church and was not familiar with the Bible. He asked me what that dream could mean. I was able to use his dream to share the Good News of Jesus with him. God had obviously prepared his heart.

Dreams and visions are something we have been hearing about for years, often in the more difficult and dark places of the world where the gospel has not reached and mission work has been limited. Supernatural signs and wonders are things that the prophets of the Old Testament spoke and wrote about. I suppose you could call those dreams and visions, and signs and wonders, a form of Orality, in that they are all non-written communication.

Visual arts can communicate a spiritual message
(by Sarah Beth Wiles Baca)

My daughter, who is an artist, often uses her art to communicate spiritual messages. She sometimes takes old things and makes new things from them. Now, you can take that thought and develop a message of redemption and restoration. The use of art in communicating the gospel and biblical truth goes back as far as the Early Church. The use of icons, for example, was not just for fascination or decoration, but for communication and instruction. They are helpful reminders of spiritual truth, and especially valuable to oral learners. Consider the images used in the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle in the Old Testament. These were all non-written means of communication and instruction. The use of art and media in today’s culture are expressions of these ancient methods.

Think of many of the illustrations and parables that Jesus used when He talked about vines and branches, shepherds and farmers, seeds and sowing. He used simple, but profound messages that were life changing. Those messages were simple, and easy to remember and retell.

In a recent Orality Training Workshop out in the bush in a West African country we conducted the training under a big tree with two forks. It provided a natural setting to illustrate several biblical themes. We didn't need a flip chart or power point presentation. The big tree became our “visual” as we talked about roots and fruit, and life, growth and reproduction. The people will remember, retell, and reproduce the lessons they learned. Of course, we should recognize that it is the work of the Holy Spirit that communicates spiritual truth to the human spirit.

Several years ago I came across a man who used the weather patterns as a way of sharing the gospel. Think about the references in Scripture to the sun, the moon, and the stars and references to the seasons. While there is much more that a person needs to know, there are so many things that can be communicated through nature, the created world and creativity of people, these can be starting places to engage people in conversation that can lead to transformational experiences.

Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities -- His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen
(see Rom. 1:20)
(Courtesy of Ken Needham)

We are hearing many stories of how the Lord is getting the attention of people through signs, wonders, dreams, and visions. Not only in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, but God can still use these means at any time and in any place. I’m reminded of a quote from A. W. Tozer, an American Christian pastor, preacher, author, magazine editor, and spiritual mentor, who said, “Anything that God has done at any time, He can do now, anything He has done anywhere, He can do here, and anything He has ever done through any person, He can do through you.” The more we become aware of the fact that the Creator God of the Universe, the One who knows everything, has all power, is everywhere at the same time, and is living in us, the more we will recognize the possibilities of being part of advancing His kingdom and participating in His redemptive activities.

On a fact-finding trip to an Asian country where Living Water International works, a staff member heard many stories of how water wells, along with miracles, healings and supernatural visitations had opened the hearts of people to the Word of God. In an article published in Mission Frontiers Magazine (, Paul Darilek wrote, “The Holy Spirit is bursting into the world through apparent nobodies -- an itinerant evangelist, a healed woman, a cancer-stricken man, a deaf-mute boy, everyday disciples, their courage and conviction about a man named Jesus, the God of all things who came to live among us in flesh and blood, who healed, still heals, and gives his followers power to heal too.”

Over the years in witnessing and counseling situations, people have shared about dreams they have had. In probing further and asking a few questions, it would become clear that God, perhaps was seeking to get their attention and communicate with them. After some discussion and more questions, I was able to relate some biblical principles to them that addressed their problems or concerns. Just asking the right questions can sometimes be the key to the Holy Spirit touching their hearts and changing their lives.

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

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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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