If you stepped into my office, you could make two observations about me—I love to travel, and I love to read. I have collected many souvenirs during mission trips and am quickly running out of shelf space to fit all my books. Among those in the West, I would venture a guess that the majority of the population owns collections of printed material similar to mine. The printed word is not hard to come by in this part of the world. How often, though, do I pause in gratitude for the gift of books, much less the ability to have the written word in a language I can hear, read, understand, and comprehend?
While I may be among the majority in the West, a survey of the world’s population would find me in the minority, as it’s reported that between seventy and eighty percent of people in the world are oral learners. The International Orality Network defines “oral learners” as “those who learn best and whose lives are most likely to be transformed when instruction comes in oral forms.” Consider the context in which the Bible took place, where stories of God’s faithfulness were passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. There is a sense in which God’s Word and his gospel are to be received by hearing. Moses recounts to God’s people in Deuteronomy 5:24, “And you said, ‘Behold, the LORD our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live’” (emphasis added). In the New Testament, Paul writes in Romans 10:8–9, “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart, because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Paul goes on to state that belief comes through the proclamation of the gospel, faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (10:14–17).
Consider the context in which the Bible took place, where stories of God’s faithfulness were passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. There is a sense in which God’s Word and his gospel are to be received by hearing.
Many missionaries work to see the Word of God translated into and printed in the languages and dialects of peoples who do not yet have Scripture available in their heart language. However, there also is a great need for the Word among oral cultures. In fact, even though seventy to eighty percent of the world's population falls into the oral end of the spectrum, ninety percent of materials related to evangelism, discipleship, and leadership training are intended for a literate audience. We know merely reading to someone does not make them automatically literate. Reading to my three-year-old one day is not going to make her an avid reader the next. She must learn the concept and constructs of reading words, sentences, paragraphs, and ideas. Oral learners, whether they’re three-year-old Americans or tribal leaders in Papua New Guinea, process information differently. Therefore, we must know how to engage them on a different plane.
Before exploring some useful tools, it is helpful to understand the oral-literate continuum:
Illiterates are those who cannot read or write, having never seen a letter.
Functional illiterates have had some schooling but do not continue to read or write once they complete their time of instruction.
Semi-literates are a transitional group between oral learners and literates.
Literates understand and handle information, concepts, etc., and use printed material to process information.
Highly literates are those who attend college and find themselves in the professional world using primarily printed material.
A helpful missiological tactic is to assess the literacy level and the trend of literacy in a highly literate area, and then use those findings to engage the people there in ways that will connect with them.
Missionaries engaging oral cultures might be inclined to default to a one-size-fits-all approach; however, believers must be aware that there are different types of oral learners. Some prefer to learn and pass on information through stories, songs, and poems; these would be considered primary oral learners. But there are also secondary oral learners found increasingly in Western societies where there is a high literacy population but the value of literacy is decreasing. So, a helpful missiological tactic is to assess the literacy level and the trend of literacy in a highly literate area, and then use those findings to engage the people there in ways that will connect with them.
Three broad strategies being used to reach oral learners are digital mediums, Chronological Bible Storying, and catechisms.
With the advent of the smartphone and a whole host of Bible apps, more translations of God’s Word are now being passed along through audio means. Various stories from Scripture are being transmitted through Bluetooth speakers, downloadable applications, and audio versions of the Bible in a multitude of languages.
As we consider digital avenues for the transmission of the gospel message, we must recognize that, while digital means may work in some contexts, they may not work in all contexts. We must also remember that digital means do not replace the proclamation of the Word through human agents.
Chronological Bible Storying
Zane Pratt defines CBS as “the practice of crafting stories from key biblical passages from Genesis to Revelation and then telling them in sequence to impart the biblical metanarrative of God’s plan of redemption and help reshape the hearers’ worldview into a Christian one.”
A benefit of CBS is its reproducibility. As David Sills states, “We want our hearers to remember and be able to repeat the lessons they learn. Only then will the biblical truth that transforms their lives continue to impact others.” Missionaries must also consider choosing stories and crafting story sets specific to the bridges and barriers of the worldview they encounter.
This is a unique expression of question and answer that allows individuals to respond to key doctrinal questions to help them frame a biblical worldview through means of repetition.
Regardless of the method used, missionaries must be faithful in reaching peoples with the gospel and teaching them all that Christ commanded. While printed materials and copies of the Word are valuable resources, ultimately, the mark of faithful discipleship is obedient lives shaped by the Word, whether it’s received orally or through printed means.
I pray that as you and I open our Bibles each day, we might pause and give praise to God that we can read God’s Word, study it, memorize it, and recite it to others. May we as Christ-followers be mindful of the millions who do not have such access or ability. We must think strategically as we send laborers into oral cultures and contexts, till the soil, tell the gospel story, translate the Scriptures, and together make disciples of all peoples.
 David Sills, Changing World, Unchanging Mission: Responding to Global Challenges (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), 87.
 International Orality Network, Making Disciples of Oral Learners (Bangalore, Thailand: ION, 2004), 4.
 Sills, 90.
 Ibid., 93.
 Zane Pratt, David Sills, and Jeff Walters, Introduction to Global Missions (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2014), 34.
 Ibid., 35.
 Sills, 104.
Ryan serves as Director of Missions for Lightbearers Ministries. He previously served for thirteen years as a missions pastor after earning an MDiv in Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is currently pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as a trustee. Ryan lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with his wife, Rebekah, and three children.