Are orality methods useful in literate contexts?

By Jerry Wiles

In a Western society, literacy is often assumed and even taken for granted. But the beauty of orality methods for communication can tend to be lost in Western contexts — including with how we present the Gospel.

Orality is essentially the reliance on non-written communication. This can involve visual arts, performing arts, and various forms of storytelling.

Jerry Wiles, the North America Regional Director with International Orality Network and a consultant for Living Water International, explains, “When we’re dealing with leaders, pastors, and mission people in the North American context or the Western world, we’ve been trained in our seminaries with a certain model and it’s more of a text-based or literacy-based training and instruction model.”

This reliance on text or literacy-based biblical communication affected how missions were even carried out. Wiles says, in the past, “If you go to an unreached people group or a language group that has no written script, you would reduce the language to writing, translate the Bible into their language or portions of it, teach them to read, and then introduce them to Jesus. Well, we know now you can introduce them to Jesus whether they ever learn to read or if they ever have a Scripture in their language.”

(Photo courtesy of Living Waters International)

But even today, orality is still not commonly used in Western churches. Wiles suggests there is an undervaluing oforality in the West because there is a misunderstanding oforality.

For one, there are concerns that orality methods are not as accurate and that there is too much room for error to slip in with storytelling.

However, Wiles shares, “It’s because we’ve not been trained in the Western world and in American academic training to understand oral traditions and oral cultures. For example, we think about the telephone game; so one person tells one person who tells another person and it loses the accuracy of the story.

“But oral cultures don’t learn that way. They learn in community so you have the collective memory of the group. In many oral cultures, they have their stories that have been passed on from generation to generation. But it’s not just in one person’s mind. It is in a community or a tribal group. It might be 50 or 100 people or might be a few thousand people.”

There is also a misunderstanding about how and when orality is useful.

“People who have a little bit of understanding about orality, they might say, ‘Well, that’s good for illiterate people. That’s good for foreign missions. But my people in my church are readers; they’re literate.’ So pastors have been trained with verse-by-verse expository preaching and they feel like that is the most effective way to communicate biblical truth — and it is for about 20 percent of the population in the world. But most people don’t learn that way. Even in our culture, most people learn better by participatory, communal experiences.”

Even if you are a reader and love engaging with the written Word, God has given his people multiple, creative modes of communication — drama, parables, art, poetry, storying, dance, and more.

“If people understand the power of the Word of God in stories and in oral form, they will be more highly motivated to read it in their own language,” Wiles says.

For many Christian leaders, orality is better experienced than explained. Ministries like ION and Living Waters invite pastors and teachers to see what orality method training is about. The training is based on demonstration, participation, and explanation to engage people with the stories.

“Once people see that and they see how people respond to it, it changes everything,” says Wiles.

“With Living Water International, we have trained several thousand people all over the world. The people we have trained have reproduced that training. So now we have more churches and ministries in the United States that are getting interested initially because they are sending people on short-term missions trips. But once they go through the training, they see how it will work here.”

Churches have started orality-based Sunday school programs and orality Vacation Bible Schools using storytelling, dance, and drama to communicate biblical truths.

“They see how it works better than a text-based, fill-in-the-blank reading assignment — as good as those are. We say orality is not to take the place of anything else you are doing that is working. It is just another tool for your ministry and mission toolbox. But once people go through the training, they will say something like, ‘This is better than what we’ve been doing.’”


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