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.”