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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Changing the Face of Missions around the World
Changing the Face of Missions around the World

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

HOUSTON, TX (ANS) -- While working with an international literature ministry in the 1980s, I was not thinking much about the people of the world who can't, don't or won't read, or those who learn and communicate best by means other than print-based media or written instruction. In those days, it was a common assumption that the majority of the people in the world were literate. However, as it turns out, that was based on some flawed research.

Herbert V. Klem

In the early 1980s, while spending some time in Southern California in preparation for an outreach in connection with the 1984 Summer Olympic Games, I was on the campus of the US Center for World Mission for some strategy meetings with ministry and church leaders working with an Olympic Outreach Coalition. It was during one of those visits that I came across a book titled, “Oral Communication of the Scriptures: Insights from African Oral Art” by Herbert V. Klem. While some estimates at that time claimed that 70% of the world's population was literate, Klem believed that it was just the reverse--that 70% of the people of the world were non-literate, or oral learners. Better and more recent research shows that Klem was right. Now we know that more than 4.35 billion people today are considered oral learners, by necessity or by preference.

Klem’s book caused me to start thinking more deeply about how effective the use of literature and literate means of communication could be in reaching and making disciples among the masses of the world who are oral learners. After doing some additional research and brainstorming with friends in the mission world, I wrote a concept paper titled “Oral Discipleship: A strategy to evangelize and disciple the non-reading people of the world using oral (verbal) methods.” The terms Orality and Storying were not commonly being used in the 1980s.

I recruited a few friends to be part of a task force to field test these ideas, and a number of people came to Christ using the methods described in the concept paper. The idea was to think through and develop methods of taking the gospel to all the really hard places--often referred to as closed countries. We wanted to equip followers of Jesus with biblical truths and skills so they would be able to go anyplace and to every people group with just what was in their heads and hearts, that could be reproduced in other people’s heads and hearts.

Jerry Wiles doing Orality Training in the USA

A few people became interested in the concept of sharing our faith and making disciples using only orality-based communication and training methods. I was invited to speak and led workshops at a number of mission conferences in those days on the subject of Oral Disciple Making. Interestingly, many people were resistant to the use of orality methods. The idea that a person could have a relationship with the Lord and be a reproducing follower of Jesus without knowing how to read or write was a little strange to some. Many of the Western, highly literate methods of discipleship were based on doing spiritual disciplines, like a quiet time, Scripture memory, daily Bible reading, etc. As valuable as those are, they are only effective for about 20% to 30% of the people of the world.

Ladies retelling stories at a orality training

The more we think through the timeless principles and methods that we learn from Jesus and the early Church, the more we recognize the important place that oral traditions and oral communication methods have had throughout the history of the church. Orality is the primary way that the Good News of Jesus has spread throughout the world, especially in the early Church, and in most places in the world today.

Recent studies show that even in the United States, a large percentage of people are oral preference learners. They can often read well enough to get along in society, but when it comes to reading a written document like the Bible with comprehension and reproducing its message, they can't do it. So, we are now seeing a greater interest among Church leaders in the US and the West in using Bible storytelling and other oral methods. Pastors and church leaders initially become interested in Orality and Storying for short-term mission trips abroad, then they recognize the universal application and its effectiveness here in the States as well.

In a recent LWI Orality Training Workshop conducted in the United States, a man in his 80s who has been teaching Sunday School for 60 years said, “I wish someone had taught me this 70 years ago.” From another workshop, a participant later wrote, “We couldn’t thank you enough for coming down to teach us about the method of Orality! We enjoyed the weekend so much and learned more than we ever thought! I was so excited about how engaged and interactive the group was and how you challenge folks. You were quite effective and very intentional in your training.”

Gathering for Water and the Word

It is amazing to experience the power of stories. Even in the business world, the use of stories is being used for team building and organizational development. Stories and oral methods are more relational, engaging and effective in producing behavior change. Actually, it is the more natural way that people everywhere communicate and learn. We all start out as oral learners before we learn to read.

A church in the United States that started using storying and orality methods in a Sunday night series reported that over just a few months, the number of those attending the weekly sessions had tripled. People became more engaged and began to see results as they shared their faith using the stories. One important aspect we are continuing to observe in our orality training is that when people experience relational oral methods of learning and communications--rather than just hearing about it--they are energized and excited to use it. They gain a passion for sharing their faith and being involved in disciple making efforts.

Several years ago a friend told me about interviewing a man in an Asian country who had been in prison for 15 years because of his Christian faith. The man was asked, “What sustained you during those years in prison?” His answer was, “We had no Bibles or literature, we had no pastors, we had no opportunity for corporate worship or fellowship with other believers. We were sustained by the indwelling, resurrected life of the living Christ and the presense of the Holy Spirit.”

As I have reflected on that man's answer to that question, it has caused me to realize more fully that the key, or heart, of our Christian faith is Christ Himself. Because of our spiritual union with Christ, we are made righteous and complete in Him and able ministers of the New Covenant. Methods, techniques and strategies of communication, teaching and training are secondary to the divine activity of God working in and through each of us who belongs to Christ.

West Africa, baptism service in a region where LWI has conducted Orality training, well rehabs and drilled a new well. 2,000 gathered to witness 878 new believers being baptized

It is exciting and liberating to realize that God will use any and all of us who make ourselves available to Him and simply share with others what He has so graciously shared with us. Simply sharing our faith and telling the stories of Jesus is transformational. In our LWI Orality Training, we emphasize that you don't have to be a great story teller, because we have great stories. It is the Holy Spirit that touches hearts and changes lives as we share the Good Story of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In 2009 Living Water International created and began conducting what we call an “Orality Training Workshop: An Introduction to Contextual Bible Storying.” After having trained more than 9,000 people in 19 countries over the past three years with this model, we are continuing to gain new insights and learn from the people we are training. One of the most amazing things we observe is that common people everywhere can learn, reflect on, discuss and share stories. People see and understand deep spiritual truths from Scripture, even though they have never had the opportunity to get a formal academic education. There are amazingly bright people living in Oral Cultures, whom we in the Western world can learn from.

As we continue to identify the commonalities and principles that are acceptable and appropriate everywhere, we see the wisdom of God and the power of the Holy Spirit bring enlightenment and understanding to people’s hearts and lives. Whether it is among a rapidly reproducing church-planting movement in West Africa, or in a village in South Asia, a slum area in a Central American city, a refugee camp in Africa, or on a university campus in the USA, there are certain biblical truths and methods that can be shared, understood, responded to and reproduced anywhere on earth. Truly, we recognize the simplicity and reproducibility of the life and teachings of Jesus. Why have so many in the Western World made the Great Commission so complicated? Why have some come to think they need a Bible college education or seminary degree to be an evangelist, a disciple maker or a pastor? Really, disciple making is for all of God’s people, everywhere, and at every socio-economic and educational level.

Samuel E. Chiang, executive director of the International Orality Network, recently wrote in the inaugural issue of the Orality Journal, “During the recent International Orality Network mini-global consultation, “Beyond Western Literate Models: Contextualizing Theological Education in Oral Contexts” (hosted at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College), forty-two academicians and practitioners from eighteen institutions and fourteen organizations indicated (1) an abundance of oral preference learners in the classrooms, (2) the need to embrace orality as a part of the curriculum, and (3) that what is working on the field is now beginning to speak into formal education, offering rippling implications for accreditation. This is a defining moment for us to explore and learn together!”

It really is a new day for advancing the Kingdom of God. Seminaries are now creating Orality Departments; and an amazing amount of research, case studies and other resources are becoming available to anyone wanting to begin the journey. Increasing numbers of groups are now giving attention to Orality, the Mission America Coalition, in collaboration with the International Orality Network, will be including an Orality Affinity Consultation at its Annual Conference in Denver, CO, October 29-31, 2012. See details at

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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