I Like to Learn, But Not to Read: Orality and Missions

I met Watt* at a pastoral training event in his home country in East Africa. His lean face looked weather-beaten. I guessed he was in his forties. A colleague Doug* and I were there to kick off a new approach to pastoral training. Doug told several stories from the book of Acts, then asked the group, “Have any of you ever been persecuted for your faith in Christ?”

Watt said that he had. One day a soldier from one of the militia groups found him preaching the gospel and told him to stop. Watt refused, but the soldier insisted. The soldier chambered a round and rested the barrel of his rifle atop Watt’s head. He squeezed off the round.

Boom! Then another. Boom! And a third round—boom! With smoke wafting around Watt’s head, the soldier growled, “I’m telling you for the last time, stop your preaching.” Yet again, Watt boldly refused. “I won’t stop preaching. As a matter of fact, I’ll be preaching this coming Sunday” and he named the village where he would be.

Amazed, Doug and I asked Watt if this was common. He showed us a three-inch scar on his slim, brown calf explaining that a man once speared him for preaching the gospel. “But I led him to faith in Christ before the year was out!”

I’d come to teach him but thought he ought to be teaching me! Watt was a living example of Paul’s command to Timothy: “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5 ESV).

Not Illiteracy, Orality

During the training, we realized that although Watt carried a Bible, he was unable to read. He had learned Scripture in other ways. Several of the others in the pastoral training session also could not read, or they understood only a little of what they read. They relied on spoken, not written, forms of communication. That lifestyle of dependence on non-print forms of communication is called orality.

Researchers have increasingly adopted orality as a term of respect to describe a way of living. People like Watt learn by what they see and experience, through oral (spoken) and aural (heard) art forms, and through conversations. They may learn through television, film, radio, and audio recordings. Labels like “illiterate” just don’t do justice in describing Watt. That label focuses on the one thing that he cannot do, whereas the term orality focuses on the many things Watt and other oral people can do.

They rely on oral communication to earn a living, raise a family, pass along stories, sing and play music, comment on life with witty proverbs—and, in Watt’s case, preach the gospel courageously. Oral people are as intelligent, resourceful, and resilient as people in other cultures—maybe even more resilient. They live in deserts, jungles, and tough urban settings. They learn and solve problems in order to survive.

Oral Learners by Necessity and by Preference

Cultures in which orality predominates, like Watt’s ethnic group, are called oral cultures. Traditional oral cultures transmit their identity, beliefs, and values primarily through spoken and sung means. They teach via modeling and apprenticeships, and they learn primarily by doing, not by sitting quietly and taking notes.

In Watt’s area, many people were oral learners by necessity. Civil war disrupted education for decades, and poverty prevented them from having much to read. Many of the others in the pastoral training, however, were oral learners by virtue of tradition, even though they had learned to read with understanding.

They value traditional sources of wisdom and information. They like the relational aspect of traditional forms of teaching and learning. They had managed to succeed in school, but the traditional way was more familiar. It’s how they connected with their grandparents and parents, their extended family, and their culture.

People can be highly educated and still prefer oral forms of communication and learning. Charity,* a Zimbabwean PhD student, told a group of theological educators,

“Literacy is like a shawl that we Africans wrap around us, but orality is who we are.”

She later added, “You Americans talk about literacy as a method of communication, and that is true. But don’t ever think of orality as merely a method; it is our identity.”

If we hope to shape oral cultures’ identity, we need to allow this reality to inform the way we go about it.

TV, Film, Music, YouTube, and Social Media—Modern Tools of Orality

Young adults and students in industrialized countries increasingly draw their identity and information through non-print sources like television, film, YouTube videos, social media, and music. They even text using language in ways that are more like a conversation than an essay. They are oral learners by preference. This group of oral learners may not read for pleasure. Their identity and values are most likely shaped by electronic, non-print sources.

The Basics for Training Oral Learners

Faithful, courageous leaders like Watt exist in oral cultures all over the world. They may learn in ways that differ from Christians who live in text-based cultures, but they know the truth of Scripture and walk with the same God. Church planters in oral cultures use stories, songs, proverbs, extended discussion, group activities, skits, and apprenticeship to relate biblical truths. Experienced missionaries among oral learners keep their subject matter tied to the concrete realities of life rather than teaching with abstract or highly conceptual ideas. Oral learners typically enjoy acting out the biblical story while someone narrates it. Eventually, they may learn to tell Bible stories as a coach, which can further help them be faithful to Scripture and natural in storytelling style.

Best Practices

Experienced missionaries among oral learners have found it important to teach a small quantity of information at a time and repeat the information. Specifically, I have found that the practice of giving at least six exposures to new information in varying formats in a single session has yielded better retention among students.

Additionally, oral learners need to be given plenty of time to process a story. Primarily, oral learners basically know only what they can remember. They can remember what they are taught if relevant content is delivered in memorable forms and then reinforced by extensive repetition and practice. Recordings can also help reinforce the teaching.

Cross-cultural missionaries who teach orally have the same privilege of teaching courageous, faithful Christians who are hungry to know the Bible. The context is simply different from what we are accustomed to in text-based cultures. As one oral learner once said to his teacher, “I don’t like to read, but I love to learn!”

*Names changed


Grant Lovejoy is director of orality strategies for the International Mission Board. He has taught preaching, biblical interpretation, and Bible storytelling, and he has co-edited five books on those and related subjects. He and his wife, Donna, and their daughters have served in Africa and Asia.


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