Evangelism and discipleship in oral cultures

John Piper wonders about the implications of his contention that Christians are “weakened” by preaching that “leav[es] the people unable to see for themselves how these points are the meaning of God in the texts.”

Does this inference (this huge therefore) imply that preliterate people, who hear biblical preaching, but cannot read, are thereby weakened?

Not necessarily. One of the strategies that missionaries are using today is teaching evangelists and pastors in preliterate cultures to memorize hundreds of Bible stories verbatim (which they can do much better than we can). When this kind of “text” becomes the basis of an exposition, we have in principle the same situation as when I preach, while sharing a written text with my people.

Whether the preliterate people will be weakened will depend, as in literate cultures, on whether the expositors show the hearers where their points come from. Do they come from the recitings of the Holy Book (the “text”), or from the preacher’s ideas?

Oral strategies in missions today raise significant questions, and wonderful possibilities. But, while we wait for the hard-working Bible translators to do their crucial work, these strategies need not weaken the new disciples by focusing authority on the preachers. Authority is finally in God, and in his written word. Verbatim memorization and recitation of that word enable preliterate preachers to root their message in the very word of God.

The links in the last paragraph are interesting. The first is Piper’s consideration of some issues of the gospel in pre- and post-literate cultures, and the second a Lausanne document on oral learners. The Lausanne page contains a link to this 2006 Christianity Today article by Dawn Herzog Jewell discussing the same issue. Here’s a section from the article:

Reaching the oral majority for Christ requires communicating in forms familiar to oral cultures, such as stories, proverbs, drama, songs, chants, and poetry.

The Lausanne paper tells the testimony of an Indian Hindu, a pastor named Dinanath, who came to Christ in 1995 through the work of a cross-cultural missionary. When Pastor Dinanath returned to his village in 1998 following two years of Bible college, he began preaching in the way he’d been taught. But few villagers showed any interest, leaving him discouraged and confused.

The next year, Pastor Dinanath attended a seminar on storytelling methods. He realized that a lecture style and printed books couldn’t reach his people, so he changed his preaching. He began telling Bible stories and singing gospel songs put to traditional music.

By 2004, his village church had multiplied into 75 churches with 1,350 baptized members. “This is the next wave in missions,” Willis says, “like a Gutenberg II.”

A former senior vice president for the IMB, Willis saw the door for cross-agency collaboration open in 1995 at the AD2000 and Beyond Movement’s Korea gathering. It was there that he publicly repented for the Southern Baptists’ pride in believing they could reach the world by themselves. Later, at the Amsterdam 2000 conference, a group of nine mission leaders including Willis formed an informal organization, Table 71, to begin talking about ways to work together. In February 2005, ION was formed.

Willis is quick to cite the gifts of agencies involved in ION: “Wycliffe brings the integrity of Bible translation, the IMB contributes church planting and Bible storying methodology, Campus Crusade brings its global media expertise in the Jesus film and its work on college campuses, YWAM brings its training and recruiting gifts, Trans World Radio has the ability to put stories on radio, and so on.”

That’s not to say that the agencies agree on everything. Although Wycliffe actively participates in ION, it remains committed to literacy training and Scripture translation for the world’s minority language groups. Freddy Boswell, Wycliffe International’s vice president for Scripture promotion, hesitates to throw his full support behind the orality movement. “There’s an emotional rush to meet oral needs. It’s something new and exciting to say, ‘Hey, can we do something to reach 70 percent of the world’s population?’ ” he says. “But let’s not forget literacy and translation.”



  1. Widespread literacy and the lack of oral culture has been a cultural development that is relatively recent in human history. I would find it surprising that people who want to learn how to reach cultures with very strong oral traditions and a dearth of published books don’t seem to be looking at the early church, except for one thing: the early church’s use of oral tradition runs strongly counter to Protestant doctrine.

    Given that Protestant doctrine developed in the immediate aftermath of the invention of the printing press alongside the development of a culture strongly emphasizing the written word amid the widespread availability of books, the assumptions of this transformational cultural development are deeply embedded in Protestant doctrine. People like John Piper can never accept a culture in which widespread illiteracy remains among the faithful because they cannot accept that the Church, not the Bible, is the pillar and foundation of truth and that Scripture itself commands us to obey everything the apostles taught, whether oral or written. Such practices and doctrinal ideas come naturally to a pre-printing press world such as the early church, but they can seem odd to people who can’t imagine a world in which every person in a household does not have the Scriptures available for their own personal daily reading. How can oral teaching be verified as true if it is not contained in the written word? If it is contained in the written word, then isn’t trusting any oral component duplicated effort which fosters bad habits that lead to popish slavery? Thus passages in Scripture that command adherence to oral teaching are basically ignored in the Protestant world.

    I believe these factors are also largely why the regular Sunday liturgical reading of scripture (ignoring snippets contained in interpretive sermons) has mostly fallen into disuse among more recently evolved Protestant groups. Lutherans still have regular liturgical readings, but it would be downright weird to experience the regular uninterrupted public reading of Scripture every Sunday in a Vineyard or Calvary Chapel congregation. In cultures taking their worship cues from a post-Gutenberg society, such an emphasis on the public reading of Scripture seems odd and out of place. Why waste time on what people can do on their own when we can focus on what they can’t do on their own, which of course are congregational singing and listening to an inspirational teacher?

  2. Doug, I’ve wondered before about how much Protestant/Catholic differences could be explained in terms of the historical periods in which they emerged. I’ve thought before that it’s not so surprising that when the ancient church had to, by God’s Spirit, determine the New Testament, it followed that one should read the Bible through the eyes of the Church’s teaching, whereas the Protestants, having the Bible, sought to build the church in light of Biblical teaching. I hadn’t extended that to an oral/print culture divide, though. Thanks for pointing that out.

    Of course, you and I find ourselves at a paradigm impasse here between Catholic and Protestant views of authority. I will say that the Anglican tradition and liturgical Reformed churches do public Scripture readings, certainly influenced by the traditional liturgy developed by the church. I grew up in a nondenominational church that started with a lot of Dutch Reformed pastors on staff (now, there are a lot of evangelical Presbyterians) that was fairly liturgical (weird for a big, nondenominational church, huh? that’s how Kevin and I know each other). We did read the text for the sermon, but did not have the multiple readings like a more traditional liturgical service.

  3. Given that the Dutch Reformed folks have been around since the 1500’s, it’s not surprising that your church had a more liturgical flair, though it does seem a bit unusual for a non-demoninational church to have roots like that. How we as Christians conduct our communal worship services is for the most part a function of tradition and pedigree (though rarely acknowledged as such in some circles). The liturgical aspect of doctrine was taught orally and in person by the apostles and their successors for the most part (except when correcting certain abuses). Until Justin Martyr’s first apology ~150 we don’t even have a detailed written account of what a Christian worship service looked like It’s no coincidence that he was writing to Gentiles, since it was a topic rather more suited to oral teaching and example that to written teaching.

    • Great post! I’m especially blessed by it because of it being a major focus of my own, particularly in formulating a method. Thanks

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