…. they were unschooled, ordinary men …. they had been with Jesus …. the crippled man healed standing with them – Acts 4:13,14

India – Orality: Storytelling the gospel to oral learners & cultures

Just came across a new word this week – Orality
— communicating the gospel to non-western, non-literate communities through Bible stories and narratives.

Even today, a significant portion of the non-western world is non-literate, without an opportunity of receiving an education;
most are oral learners — intelligent, resourceful, resilient people who work hard, educated in the school of life, marketplace and experience, … creative at harnessing whatever is available.

One of the techniques to memorise a list of items or facts, … is to spin a story with them.
A large portion of the Bible is narratives/stories.
All children love stores, and storytelling the gospel is also effective in reaching out to children. Children unconsciously, spontaneously share the stories they have heard with their parents, other adults and children.
Also, some of the stories/parables in the Gospel are framed within fishing, farming communities and experiences, … sharing meals together in homes, … similar to where most people still live today.

The books of the New & Old Testament were birthed in a much non-literate world.
Most people heard the Word of God.

Jesus did not write a book.
Jesus’ words and sermons were first heard before it was written out by the Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke John).
The Gospels were expressed in ways that’s memorable for oral cultures — parables, narratives/stories, Hebrew poetry symmetry/parallelism forms, play of words, smilie, metaphor, hyperbole, repetition, humor, etc,
… Jesus shared memorable unexpected story twists in parables, .. and His unforgettable one-liners,
eg. Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,
and unto God the things that are God’s

The literary style of the Bible and choice of words in the original languages also helped memory and retention.

Here’s Mark’s Gospel – oral storyteller version,
… dramatically read out by a good storyteller,
capturing the humor, sadness, joy, tenderness, etc in the stories in Mark’s gospel.
click hereMarks gospel 2

The oral Bible has been around for a long time,

Deuteronomy 6:4-7 (HCSB)
Listen, Israel:

The Lord our God, the Lord is One.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.
These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart.

Repeat them to your children.
Talk about them when you sit in your house
and when you walk along the road,
when you lie down and when you get up.
(i.e. during the course of a day, in daily life)

Nehemiah 8:2,3 (HCSB)
On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women,
and all who could listen with understanding.
While he was facing the square in front of the Water Gate,
he read out of it from daybreak until noon before the men, the women, and those who could understand.

All the people listened attentively to the book of the law.

The European movable type printing press was invented around 1439.
The first high quality, low cost Bible was printed in 1455 by Gutenberg.  (Source:  Wikipedia).

Imagine a world with extremely few who owned books, … only the very rich,
before this invention.

The first printed German New Testament (1522) translated by Martin Luther cost the price of half a fattened ox, (Source:
… and the price has fallen since.

Thus, for the first 15 plus centuries, personal Bibles were very rare,
but,  .. that did not hinder the Word of God from spreading thru the Eastern and Western world by the Holy Spirit, … starting with events recorded in the book of Acts.

You are our epistle written in our hearts,
known and read by all men;
2 Corinthians 3:2 (NKJV)

“Out of 100 men,
one will read the Bible,
the other 99 will read the Christian”
 D. L Moody

Paul wrote, So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast
to the teachings we passed on to you, 
whether by   word of mouth   or   by letter.
2 Thessalonians 2:15 (NIV)

In Acts, before printing, … with limited copies of the scriptures (before the canon of the Bible),

The word of God kept on spreading; …

But the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied

And the word of the Lord was being spread through the whole region.

This took place for two years, so that all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.

So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing.
Acts 6:9, 12:24, 13:49, 19:10, 19:20(NASB)

Interesting orality work in India:

Here’s thoughts & actions on orality from Campus Crusade, Navigators and World Vision

Here’s a testimony of a non-literate man who came to the Lord simply by hearing God’s Word.  Click here.

In centuries past, … the West had a sizeable population of non-literate people, and a large portion of the population did not have a personal Bible.

The truths of the Gospel was shared orally through hymns that people heard and sung.
Similarly, … in the Bible, … there are many Messianic prophecies and teachings embedded in the Psalms that the people sang.

Music was also used in the early church for teaching, as Paul wrote:
Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you,
with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another
with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Colossians 3:16 (NASB)

Also there was the Poor Man’s Bible — predecessor to Powerpoint slides, … and much like today’s multimedia tools like the Jesus movie, audio Bible, gospel radio, etc.

The term Poor Man’s Bible has come into use in modern times to describe works of art within churches and cathedrals which either individually or collectively have been created to illustrate the teachings of the Bible for a largely illiterate population.  …

The most common theme for the Poor Man’s Bible is the Life of Christ, the story of the Birth, Life, Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. This may be related in a continuous sequence of pictures, either in paint, mosaic, wood sculpture or stained glass, and located either around the walls of a church or, particularly in French Cathedrals, in niches in a screen that surrounds the Sanctuary, so that they might be seen by people walking around the ambulatory.
(Source:  Wikipedia)

In the New Testament, probably the most quoted Old Testament book is Psalms — the songs, praise, prayers and worship used in the temple/synagogue.  Through the Psalms the people sang God’s Truth, God’s character, the history of God’s amazing works, …  and most importantly, the Psalms were prophetic, foretelling the Messiah; … thus, memorably helping people to remember the Word of God.  Portions of psalms were spontaneously quoted (or sang out) in the New Testament.
This would definitely have struck a chord in the Jews who heard, ..  hearing these familiar lyrics and melodies they’ve heard and sung since they were a child.

Moving to more recent times,

Let us have a real tune, that is, a melody with some distinct air in it, that one can take hold of, 
which people can learn it,
which takes hold of them
and goes on humming in the mind …

That is the sort of tune to help you,
it will preach to you,
and bring you believers and converts.”

— William Booth (1829 -1912) , founder Salvation Army

Besides William Booth, … John & Charles Wesley, and Martin Luther used music and song to teach God’s word.  D L Moody collaborated with Ira Sankey who wrote and sang gospel songs in their meetings.  African American gospel spirituals are another example.

Thus, its not coincidental, that the arts (eg. art, music, drama, etc) are often used in children ministry.
Art, music, etc … are a language of the heart.

Here’s some excerpts from an article on how Martin Luther spread the ideas of the Reformation through music …

Martin Luther not only reformed the Church 500 years ago, but also discovered the power of music as a songwriter and composer. His chorales gave churchgoers a voice and helped spread the ideas of the Reformation. …

Catchy melodies and verses that were easy to memorize were an ideal combination in a time when most people were able to read neither texts nor music. “The big advantage of these songs was that they provided two different ways of memorizing them — by the rhythm and rhyme of the verses, or by the melody,” ..

The church congregation suddenly took on a whole new role. Instead of sitting quietly and listening, they were now playing an active role in the mass.  

‘What I learned from Martin Luther is that a movement can only succeed when it sings.’
— Martin Luther King

Source:  How Martin Luther became the first Christian pop star, Deutsche Welle (Germany’s public international broadcaster)

Nick Ripken:

More than 80 percent of the unreached people in the world are oral communicators. By definition, that means they cannot read or write at a functional level.  These people live in oral cultures. …

While believers around the world long for the written Word of God, in a church planting movement, there is little time for literacy training or translation of Scripture.  The written Word and the ability to read it are of absolute importance, but while these goals are being sought (through Bible translation and literacy training), the stories of the Bible are communicated orally.  Taking the time to translate Scripture or taking the time to provide literacy training is a luxury that these rapidly growing movements cannot afford.  Those without Jesus should not be forced to become literate in order to be welcomed into God’s kingdom.  The need to share the gospel is immediate, so it is shared in the only way that it can be shared:  orally.  The point must be repeated; a literate Bible is indispensible.  Yet those carrying the gospel to the nations must not wait ten to twenty years for the first printed Bible in an unengaged and unreached environment before broadly sowing the Good News …

We found the church in China, in particular, hungry for the written Word of God;   at the same time, the church in China was not paralyzed by the absence of the written Word of God.  Earlier in their movements, copies of the Bible are extremely rare, but Bible stories were known and repeated and memorized.
…  Waiting for ten years (or more) for an initial Bible translation is simply not an option.  By its nature and by necessity, the incipient movement is oral.

In many of the people groups that are without Jesus, illiteracy can be as high as 45 percent for the men and 90 percent for the women!

Source:  Nik Ripken, The Insanity of Obedience, Walking with Jesus in Tough Places, B&H Publishing Group, 2014, pg 50,124, 125. 163
(Note:  This book is on missions, not on orality)

Further Reading:

Harry Box, Don’t Throw the Book at Them: Communicating the Christian Message to People Who Don’t Read, William Carey, 2014

Missions | Sharing Jesus | India

by 林弟兄, bro Lim
June 9, 2014

Copyright © 林弟兄 bro Lim, Laymanointing, 2014-2016 – All Rights Reserved
Creative Commons License



This entry was posted on June 9, 2014 by in Asia, Children, cross-culture, Ministry, Missions, Sharing Jesus and tagged .

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