How We Began

How We Began

Throughout biblical history oral communication styles have served people, starting with the early Biblical accounts through the life of Jesus, the early church, and, even today among many peoples, including the literate world where oral communication is used anecdotally.

Scientific study of oral tradition can be traced back at least to Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic (1787-1864). But a more direct influence on Christian communication were the works of media theorist Marshall McLuhan who studied the influence of communication media independent of their content, of Viggo Sogaard, who helped people understand the importance of knowing and understanding the audience one is serving, and of Walter Ong, especially through his book The Technologizing of the Word, a distinctive work, published in twelve languages, where he attempted to identify the distinguishing characteristics of orality from a literate perspective.

One step toward serving oral communicators happened by the incorporation of various media beyond print, which has been the foundation of many organizations like HCJB, a mission who started radio broadcasting in 1931, with other audio focussed ministries like Gospel Recordings Network, Trans World Radio (TWR), the Far East Broadcasting Company following within the next two decades. While ministries also have used visuals for a long time, film and later video became a part of the picture in the 1970s with the Jesus Film being a significant tool, having been translated in more than 1,400 languages.

In a practical sense, the modern orality movement began with missionaries Mark and Gloria Zook of the New Tribes Mission (NTM) who pioneered work with the Mouk of Papua New Guinea in the 1970s. Mark taught them to tell the stories from Creation to Christ and they took the gospel to twelve other villages, many of whom spoke different languages. Trevor McIlwain shared this chronological Bible teaching method with other NTM missionaries in the Philippines in the 1980s, who used it with tribal people there with similar results. Later some NTM missionaries modified the highly expositional style with literate processes to be more oral.

By the late 1980s Jim Slack, with the Foreign Mission Board (now the International Mission Board – IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention serving in the Philippines, concluded that existing approaches to chronological Bible presentation were still too literate. He began developing chronological Bible storying that utilized storytelling followed by dialogue. In the 1990s Jim Slack and with his colleague J. O. Terry continued to revise the approach while introducing it to Southern Baptist missionaries and national partners in numerous workshops around the world.

In the early 1990s, teams began developing oral strategies to reach oral preferenced communicators. The early development of strategy and application of relevant communication art forms, including storying, drama, song, and other media came through the early training efforts of organizations like Vernacular Media Services (VMS), a ministry of SIL (originally known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc.), and Scriptures In Use (SIU). These early oral initiatives were implemented by teams from evangelical ministries including Pioneer Bible Translators (Pioneers), the Translators Association of the Philippines (TAP), Lutheran Bible Translators (LBT), the Reformed Church in America (RCA), IMB, TWR, and the Campus Crusade for Christ International (CRU) and the Jesus Film Project (JFP).

In the late 1990s several consultations were conducted with CRU, IMB, SIL, and the United Bible Society (UBS) in Kenya, Cyprus, and England that brought a growing awareness of many unreached peoples being primarily oral preferenced communicators. Ron Green of JFP, Steve Evans of IMB, and Marilyn Malmstrom of VMS were instrumental in calling for these meetings.

The Amsterdam 2000 Conference, organized by the Billy Graham Association, was a gathering of some 10,000 evangelists with the purpose to unite, train and equip evangelists for the 21st century. During one of the working group sessions, a table of leaders representing a combined ministry to millions wrestled with the question of how to finish the task of reaching all of the unreached people groups. One outcome was the formation of “Table 71,” a loose association of Christian organizations committed to working together in partnership among the remaining unreached people groups in the world in order to help evangelize, make disciples, and to begin and nurture indigenous church planting movements. It was also at Amsterdam 2000 that Marcus Vegh of Progressive Vision asked Avery Willis, who was Senior VP of Overseas Operations for the IMB, “How do you make disciples of oral learners?” The question hit home because it had just been pointed out that about 70% of the unreached peoples of the world being oral preferenced communicators. Consequently plans were made to further explore using oral forms of discipleship.

In 2001 Avery Willis of the IMB and Paul Eshleman of JFP convened representatives from 15 mission organizations for an orality consultation in San Clemente, California, USA that resulted in the formation of the Oral Bible Network (OBN). It was established to address the issue of effectively serving oral preferenced communicators in the context of who they were. The initial partners that started OBN were CRU, IMB, SIU, and Wycliffe International.

In 2002 and 2004 OBN held two Consultations attended by more than 50 different organizations, which resulted in a growing awareness among ministries of the reality of the need to change to purposely serve oral preferenced communicators. The broadening circle of partners grew to include Bihar OutReach Network (BORN), Faith Comes By Hearing (FCBH), NTM, EPIC Partners (which became the OneStory partnership in 2006), The God’s Story Project, The Seed Company, TWR, VMS, VisionSynergy, and Youth With a Mission (YWAM).

In 2004 the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization organized a Forum in Pattaya, Thailand, which was organized around 31 issue groups including the Orality Issue Group co-led by Avery Willis and Steve Evans. Each issue group was challenged to come up with a position paper to give an overview of the issue, to state the needs and offer solutions. The thoughts from the on-site meetings were edited and compiled into the book Making Disciples of Oral Learners (published 2007) it included as well a focus on the unique needs of the deaf. It was also at this forum that the topic of Secondary Orality began to surface as a needed focus.

2005 International Orality Network

The Making Disciples of Oral Learners Working Group of the 2004 Lausanne Forum on World Evangelization merged together with OBN becoming International Orality Network (ION) with the mission to radically influence the way oral preferenced communicators are evangelized and discipled in every people group. It serves to bring awareness and understanding of orality and oral preferenced communicators and connects mission organizations, churches, people who are reaching oral communicators, especially unreached people groups, to training resources as well as strategies that incorporate oral communication art forms, including various ways to implement storying programs.

Most of the original ION work was an outflow from its task forces because they formed the heart of the ION movement. Over the first five years they included:

  • Prayer (serving as an undergirding foundation)
  • Music and the Arts (focusing on incorporating creative communication art forms in culturally appropriate ways)
  • Secondary Orality (serving literate people who prefer and extensively use oral communication forms)
  • Communications (facilitating the publishing of ION publications and managing the ION web site)
  • USA Consultations (organizing annual USA consultations)
  • World Consultations (coordinating ION’s representation in world wide consultations, conferences, forums)
  • Research (researching and tracking relevant issues relating to orality and oral communicators)
  • Discovering Best Practices (discovering and promoting best practices of serving oral preferenced communicators around the globe)
  • Field Training (develop solid models of lay leader training and multiplying grassroots leaders)
  • Theological Education (incorporating principles of orality into theological education and preparing academically sound materials about orality)
  • Women and Orality (serving the unique needs of women)
  • Children and Orality (serving the unique needs of children)
  • Funding (managing the budget and assisting in finding financial resources)

In 2005 ION and the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (LCWE) jointly published Making Disciples of Oral Learners, a book written by the working group at the 2004 LCWE consultation in Thailand. In 2007 an updated second printing of 10,000 copies was published. In the meantime the book has been translated in Korean (2007), and in Traditional and Simplified Chinese (4000 copies each, 2009) with French, Russian, Spanish and Arabic (added in 2010).

ION Consultations and Conferences have been held:

  1. Anaheim, CA (2005)
  2. Colorado Springs, CO (2006)
  3. Orlando, FL (2007)
  4. Dallas/Fort Worth, TX (2008)
  5. Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN (2009)
  6. Rome, GA (WinShape) (2010)
  7. Ridgecrest, NC (2011)
  8. Denver, CO (YMCA of the Rockies in Granby) (2012)
  9. St. Louis, MO (2013)


In 2016 ION moved from the previous model to allow for Global Regions to begin to come forth as a natural outgrowth of globalization. In 2016 two regions launched formally:  ION Philippines and ION North America (NA). ION Philippines held their first gathering in Manila (2016), with the next gathering set for Chiang Mai, Thailand 18-20 October 2017, ION North America held in Houston, TX. (Sept. 2016), with the next gathering will be held at Focus on the Family facilities in Colorado Springs, CO 11-13 Sept. 2017.

Back as far as 2006 we could see the network beginning to see a broadening of what was to come. Global initiatives started in India (2006) and in cooperation with MANI (Movement of African National Initiatives) in Africa (2008). There was a move to begin to see the network serve the Body of Christ to leave a footprint of orality in many different larger global gatherings such as through Ethnê to Ethnê (2006, 2010), Finishing the Task (2006- 2016), Transform World (2006), Impact Indonesia (2008), and Call2All (2008-2016) and Issachar Initiative (2008-2016).

Over the years, thousands of people, representing well over 2,000 ministries, churches, colleges, universities, seminaries, and other organizations have participated in the ION Conferences, ION Consultations and ION Partner events. Through these venues many had their first real exposure to what an oral preferenced communicator is and how to serve oral preferenced communicators in the context of who they are. Many organizations and denominations are starting to make adjustments and have used orality as a practice to reach unreached and unengaged people groups.

The circle of partners continues to grow. Among those included are Audio Scripture Ministries, Bible Storytelling Project, E3 Partners, Global Recordings Network (GRN), God’s Story Project and Simply the Story, Heart Sounds International – a division of Operation Mobilization, International Council of Ethnodoxologists (ICE), Joni and Friends, King’s Commission Ministries, MegaVoice International, StoryRunners, – a division of CRU, Story4All, NG2 International, New Directions International, SIL, T4Global, The Navigators, Renew World Outreach and many other organizations. In recognition of the importance of visual media as a means of reaching oral learners.

The Visual Story Network (VSN) was formed in 2008 to focus on the strategic use of films and media used in ministry and works with ION. That network has expanded and includes two major media conference gatherings held each Spring, EMDC (originally Vernacular ) and Mobile Media.  EMDC 2017 was held in Holland, 03-06 April 2017.  Pre-EMDC Training will be 29 March – 01 April 2017.  Post-EMDC event, 7-8 April 2017:  The Mobile Ministry Forum Consultation. Their partners include Faith Comes By Hearing, MegaVoice, Renew Mobile Ministry, Good News Productions International, among others.

In 2009 the Innovation in Missions Award of The Missions Exchange was given to The International Orality Network in context of four specific values as an association: excellence, innovation, partnership, and finishing well.

A follow up book on Making Disciples of Oral Learners was published called Orality Breakouts: Using Heart Language to Transform Hearts (2010) The purpose of this book was to explore the practice of oral strategies in a broad spectrum of Christian ministry to challenge the readers to recognize the uniqueness of oral learners and respond appropriately. The book links readers to further resources in strategy development

The orality movement was a strategic priority component of Lausanne Three – Cape Town 2010 Congress held October 2010 in Capetown, South Africa. The Congress, which brought together around four thousand leaders from across the world, Dr. Grant Lovejoy, Professor of Preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Samuel Chiang shared the need to develop new appropriate methods of communication, such as storytelling, drama, songs, visual arts, poetry, chants and music, for they are the most effective methods for reaching oral learners of this world with the gospel of Christ. The Cape Town Congress ended by expressing its total commitment to the orality agenda. The following programme of action has been agreed by the Lausanne Commitment 2011. “Let us: 1. Make greater use of oral methodologies in discipling programmes, even among literate believers. 2. Make available an oral format Story Bible in the heart languages of unreached people groups as a matter of priority. 3. Encourage mission agencies to develop oral strategies, including: the recording and distribution of oral Bible stories for evangelism … 4. Encourage local churches in the Global South to engage with unreached people groups in their area through oral methods that are specific to their worldview. 5. Encourage seminaries to provide curricula that will train pastors and missionaries in oral methodologies.” (See

The history and development of ION comes as a result of the visionary leadership and valuable contribution of many individuals and organizations who serve Christ. God has used the unselfish labours of many stewards to build a network that seeks to influence Christians to make disciples of oral learners.

Beginning in 2012 ION began addressing the role of orality in Theological Education in consultations:

Wheaton (2012) Beyond Literate Western Models: Contextualizing Theological Education in Oral Contexts

Hong Kong (2013) Beyond Literate Western Practices: Continuing Conversations in Orality and Theological Education

Houston & Asbury Seminary (2014) Beyond Literate Western Contexts: Honor & Shame and Assessment of Orality Preference

Two additional Theological Consultations have occurred by with no published papers or books to date: Oklahoma (2015) and Daystar University (2016).

The movement to see the needs of oral students in education and in theological education is being brought to the forefront and is actively being addressed. Orality Assessments projects are underway to help educators understand the level of orality their students operate in. Teachers have begun to take note there are oral-preference students, or “digitorals” in their classrooms. These students prefer watching to reading, screens to paper, interacting to writing, dialoguing to listening to lectures, and group activities to individual activities. The Theological Education Consultations began to identify vocabulary and categories of oral preference learners. A continued effort is needed to address required changes that must be made. Educational institutions that have led the way in helping others to begin to respond to the need for orality based strategies are the Cook School of Intercultural Studies, at Biola with Tom Steffen who launched the courses beginning with “Narrative in Scripture and Ministry” as far back as 1995 because of his work with NTM. This work led the launch in 2011 for a graduate concentration in orality that addresses primary and secondary orality. Roberta King also began putting orality based coursed in place in 2004 with “Communicating Christ through Oral Performance: Storytelling & Song” at the School of Intercultural Studies, at Fuller Theological Seminary. Others have followed such as Oklahoma Baptist with an orality minor in 2007.

– See more at:

Related Content

Upcoming Events

[ecs-list-events limit="4" excerpt="300" venue="true" viewall="true" contentorder="title, date, venue, excerpt"]
[s2If is_user_logged_in()] [/s2If] [s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

Join the ION Community!

Find out more