Audio Transcript:

Welcome to Missions on Point, the Propempo perspective on church and missions. Hi, this is episode 105 of Missions on Point. We're in number four of 14 in contemporary issues in missions, and today's topic is orality. That is, oral learners. There are many reasons why a target population of recipients for the gospel might be strictly oral learners. The first and most profound is that their language has never been written down. They've never had any writing in their own language.

Sometimes some of their people may have had training in a trade language or the national language of their country, but they've never seen their own language in writing. Another major reason is that they're just not literate. They've never learned to read. The culture and tradition of their people has always been passing down information, stories in oral form and not in writing. So it's not just that they're illiterate, not being able to read or write in their language. They've never perhaps come in contact with writing in their language because their tradition simply passes down stories, legends, myths, teaching, correction, wisdom, culture, through oral means.

Another major reason is simply preference. That is, the individual thinks that it's too challenging or too difficult to learn how to read or even to read if they've been taught to read in the past, and it's easier just to conduct their life orally. They may have a negative perception of reading because it's just not common in their language group, so they don't want to stick out by being a reader, so to speak, and so they just continue to maintain the culture and tradition of orality.

There are other smaller groups, people that have been long-term refugees or having little or no access to education. We are aware of some strict Muslim groups that prevent girls from being educated, and there are some subgroups that are physically incapacitated. Those that are blind or deaf may have significant problems using standard means. The International Orality Network at says that there are 5.7 billion oral learners. There are as many as three billion who are strictly oral communicators.

And the big overarching question for us is, how do these people learn and understand the gospel? So much of our Western ministry mentality is geared around book learning of some type. So for oral learners, we have to be a little bit more creative and focused on how they learn, so using media of various types. There's been developed a whole system called Chronological Bible Storytelling, which starts with Genesis 1 and explains God and eventually the sacrificial system for sin and the perfect sacrifice of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, who is the son of God for our sins on the cross in the resurrection, and then begin to unfold the story of the Book of Acts all the way through to Revelation and the culmination of God's purposes for mankind.

There have been many devices over the years, that is, handheld electronic devices with either a hand-cranked generator or solar-powered, that have the audio scriptures available for these oral language groups. So missionary workers can distribute these relatively inexpensive handheld devices to people who can then carry them lots of places, and there is a memory chip in there that has the scripture in their language so that they can hear it.

There have been lots of stories of the Jesus film being taken to all sorts of remote villages in rural situations to show the Jesus film, and in many cases, these people have never seen a movie before. It's projected on the wall or a sheet or a screen, and they get to see reenacted, as it were, the whole book of Luke, and understand from the scriptures what Luke says about the Lord Jesus Christ. We are so thankful that in recent years, in the last decade or so, there has been a lot of attention on orality as a means of evangelism, and even toward church planting.

Translation groups and church planting groups and pioneering missionaries have begun to train and learn how to accurately convey the scriptures in oral form so that the hearers can reproduce what they're learning and share it with others. If you think about it, until Moses came and wrote down and codified the first five books of the Bible, much of the information that we had about God was transmitted from generation to generation through oral means, as best we can tell.

Similarly, even in the Western world where there's lots of education and opportunities for reading and books and learning through reading, most of the information that our children learn from us is oral learning until the point in time where they're able to read for themselves. And even when they are able to read, it's pretty simple, rudimentary kinds of things that they can read as first time readers, and it's not going to be very complex or have to do with a lot of intangible spiritual truths. Naturally, the higher you go in a taxonomy of learning, you have to be able to read and process the material that you're reading at a certain level of mental and academic aptitude.

Even in a highly literate society, people often don't prefer to read, partly today because they're so highly oriented toward media and not actually reading as the main way that they learn. And so there are smaller movements even within Western society for communicating biblical truths through orality. I often listen to audio scriptures on my phone as sort of a shortcut of covering more ground in taking in more scriptures through audio version. I listen to audiobooks, and you're listening to an audio podcast.

There is a discipline to ministry through oral means. It has to do with accuracy and reproducibility. It takes practice and preparation for the presenter of a Bible story to learn the story well and accurately so that they can say it in front of a small group of people who are listening to this Bible story perhaps for the first time. Often in the process, it means that they're going to say it more than one time and ask their listeners to double check them for accuracy, then get a volunteer or someone appointed from the group to reproduce that same story, and others to correct them to make sure that it's accurate.

After several iterations of that, pretty much everybody in the group understands with high level of accuracy the oral story that they may be able to pass on to their families and friends. Ultimately, the goal of an oral series about the Bible and God and Christ is to help people understand who God is and the problem of sin and God's solution to the problem of sin in the person of Jesus Christ, so that the offer of salvation can be clearly made that as people repent of their sin and come to faith in Christ alone, they can be saved.

Now, we're going to talk about some of the dynamic of what happens after that in some further episodes of this series on contemporary issues in missions. However, it should be noted here that orality is not an end all. Even though someone can hear the gospel, even if they're not a reader, if they're strictly an oral learner, then they need to be able to grow in their faith. They need to be able to understand the scriptures, and in God's providence, to be able to hold it in their hand and read it for themselves.

It's no accident that in God's providence, he has given us an objective revelation in the Bible, and that as it's translated and understood in the various languages of the recipients, they can read it for themselves and understand and grow spiritually because of that. Certainly, someone that is a native teacher or pastor needs to be able to read and study the scriptures on their own so that they can present, explain it, and apply it to their people week by week.

Although some manmade systems and methodologies might argue that you could have a totally oral church, I maintain that the only way to have a church that is continuing to grow in depth and understand the whole council of God, you have to have someone who is a reader of the language of the scriptures they're using in church. There has always been some small focus on orality over the years in missions because we've always taught young children. We've always had people who listened, and whether they were recognized as oral learners or oral-only communicators, we still ministered the word of God, and they learned and heard the gospel, and many of those became Christians.

However, this recent emphasis on discovering oral learners and ministering in an oral manner for their sake has been a tremendous help and encouragement in missions. Literature and media is a tremendous means that God has used for getting the gospel into the hands of people. It's long been said that a track or a booklet is a missionary all by itself. However, for the many, many people around the world who don't have reading and writing as a normal part of their culture, orality is a fantastic door that opens the word of God and Christ to them in ways that cannot be done through literature.

Just like in our own experience in the tribe, we needed to teach people how to read their own language. Even if they had been trained as young children to read the national language, they may never have seen their own language in writing until they had the New Testament in front of them. And then they have to be taught how to make the sounds represented by the symbols on the page. It's like they have to learn how to read all over again. And it is amazing to see the delight of people who realize, here is God's word in their own language. They can understand it. It is speaking to their heart.

There are so many stories, great stories, of missionaries taking the word of God to oral people, teaching them the gospel, and then showing them the gospel in writing, teaching them how to read the Bible for themselves, and understanding what a significant and important book it is for their life and for their eternal life. It's embarrassing and sometimes even condemning for the tribal learners to hear the gospel, respond to the call of salvation, and then turn to the missionary and say, "Why did it take so long for you to bring it?"

In our own tribal group, when they had the New Testament, they thought that was great, but they also wanted the Old Testament. And they were so committed to having the Old Testament in their own language, which was very unusual for a small tribal group, but they formed a translation committee. They trained themselves. They got an outside consultant to help them, and they translated the entire Old Testament in their language as well.

As part of that process, they refined and improved the translation of the New Testament. What a glorious day when, as primarily oral learners, they were able to dedicate the entire Bible in their language. May God use every means for his glory to all nations through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thanks for joining us today on Missions on Point, the Propempo perspective on church and missions. I trust that you'll find more help and resources on the website, Please prayerfully consider supporting this ministry. Now to God, be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus forever and ever. Amen.

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