Orality Breakouts – Chapter 2 – Three CEOs Leading Change

The following is a chapter from the book ‘Orality Breakouts – Using Heart Language to Transform Hearts‘.  A chapter will be posted here each week.

Chapter 2 – Three CEOs Leading Change

by Samuel E. Chiang and Steve Evans

One of the biggest challenges for the leader of any organization is to face problems head on and deal with them. One of those problems is demanding increasing attention: the majority of the world’s unreached peoples are oral learners. And our conventional literate approach is simply not going to be successful in making them disciples. What will be our response?

This book is no more than an introduction to the oral approach to mission evangelism, but it does show clearly the power of God’s story among those oral communities of the world for whom storytelling is not just entertainment, but a way of life. Believers, previously excluded from the church and church leadership because of their illiteracy, have now become more than just believers—they have become church planters. Anyone who is serious about world missions cannot ignore this significant breakthrough.

The process of personal and organizational change from “This is what we’ve always done,” to “What must we do differently?” is never easy. But it is vital if we are to thrive. This is no less true — perhaps even more true—in our mission endeavors. If you have a role in leadership in your organization, you cannot afford to ignore what is happening in missions through the rediscovery of oral communication. Orality-Breakouts-2010-ch2This raises challenging questions: Should my organization change? If so, how? What are the pitfalls? and Is anyone taking the lead in this? 
The rediscovery of oral communication and its importance for millions of people worldwide (including those in the West) is one of God’s great gifts to us today. We encourage you to share in this rediscovery and consider what it can do for you and your organization to help you play your part in making disciples of every people group— including oral communicators!

Below three respected mission leaders share their impressions of the oral approach to missions. They are leading whole-hearted change in situations where orality is not just an add-on, or mere accommodation, but an innovation embraced across their organizations. The three leaders are Bob Creson (CEO of Wycliffe USA), Jerry Wiles (President Emeritus of Living Water International), and Steve Douglass (President of Campus Crusade for Christ International). Each has had a personal and positive experience with using oral communication, is encouraging its use in their organization, and is making the necessary organizational changes to accomplish it.

Bob Creson on piloting experiments

Wycliffe Bible Translators and its partners have an audacious goal of having the very last language translation started by 2025. Bob Creson, CEO of Wycliffe USA, knows the power of real-life stories to inspire organizational change and has aligned Wycliffe’s goal with this vision, including the use of oral strategies. Creson recently shared the following internal memo with his staff:

Dear Colleagues,

Vijay speaks a language used in Northern India. He recently graduated from a training workshop for storytellers, along with twenty-two others from eight different language communities. The workshop was sponsored by the New India Evangelistic Association and facilitated by The Seed Company, an organization affiliated with Wycliffe Bible Translators. With guidance from a OneStory consultant and supported by SIL consultants, just ten months after the workshop started, mother tongue Scriptures were available to sixty-five million people in the form of biblically accurate, culturally relevant, oral stories. In three languages, these stories represented access to Scripture for some for the very first time!

One of the consultants involved in the storytellers’ workshop recently received a note in which Vijay told him that those hearing the stories in villages are very enthusiastic. He added that storytellers are pleased because their nonChristian neighbors are beginning to show great interest in the Bible stories. In this part of India, only 0.3% of the population profess to be Christian, and two-thirds don’t know how to read or write.

You probably know how this oral strategy works, but let me say a few words about it. In this case in India, carefully selected mother tongue believers, who have a goal of reaching their own people groups with God’s Word, began to minister through the means of Chronological Bible Storytelling. But their vision does not end there. They hope to continue to reach their own people by eventually completing the translation of the New Testament. One of the storytellers, Rev. Benny Das, who used to shun speaking in his mother tongue at public functions for fear of reproach, says, “I see the importance of providing people with Scriptures in their mother tongue—it appears as if God were speaking to His people in their own mother tongue.”

During the workshop, stories were chosen that best communicated the truths of the Gospel to the target community. Mother tongue believers then crafted the stories with the help of skilled consultants. These teams were trained in story crafting, testing the stories for correct understanding by the target audience and checking for biblical accuracy.
Some of these storytellers trained other storytellers. “Story fellowship groups” met to test the stories. In the one I observed, the storyteller/leader encouraged discussion: “What can we learn about God from this story? How are the people in this story like people today? What can we do differently in our lives after hearing this story?” Orality-Breakouts-2010-ch3As participants hear the stories, they are encouraged to repeat and discuss them. And so they explore new truths from God’s Word using time-tested oral methods that oral learners have always used to learn new things. And since the stories are crafted in such a way that they are easily remembered, the stories can spread quickly from one group to another!

The results in India have been amazing. Rev. Samuel Hembrom, Secretary of the Brethren in Christ Church, whose denomination has been working in this region of India for about seventy-five years, says, “This is a strategic time to use the mother tongue, and we are convinced that the Lord will bring in a great harvest.” Effectively, according to our partners in India, this work of translation into stories becomes a churchplanting effort in oral cultures. The New India Evangelistic Association is focused on holistic ministry with a view toward planting churches that have all that is necessary to reproduce themselves.

If you, like Creson, are a leader driving change, you have an arsenal of appropriate tools at your disposal, one of which is the use of real-life stories to challenge and inspire. Get to know some of the great stories of what God is doing through oral mission and make them known in your organization or sphere of influence. They have the power to transform—and in God’s good time, change will come.

Jerry Wiles on learning

Jerry Wiles, President Emeritus of Living Water International (LWI), led the effort to make orality that organization’s primary strategy for outreach, evangelism, and discipling. To bridge the gap between strategic decision-making and organizational change, Wiles and his leadership team decided to provide organization-wide training and awareness opportunities for the staff. They learned how orality works and how it can be applied in the projects they manage. He wrote in a communication:

Phase I of our launch effort is conducting what we call “Orality Training Workshops: An Introduction to Contextual Bible Storying.” These two-day workshops consist of teaching five stories: the woman at the well, Jesus calming the storm, the demon-possessed Gerasene, the story of Nicodemus, and the blind beggar Bartimaeus. These stories illustrate God’s power over nature and the spirit world, and His power to heal, forgive sin, restore sight, transform lives, and much more.

Orality-Breakouts-2010-31Amazing feedback has come from our initial efforts in West and East Africa, Central America, and also our Orality Training Workshops in the United States. Participants tell the stories to others, and often lead them to Christ on the very day they learn them. One pastor of over thirty-three years said, “I have read, studied, and preached on these passages for years, but I have gained new insights that I had never seen before.” A well-educated engineer stated, “I thought I understood orality until I experienced the training workshop. Now I see the amazing potential and how it can spread exponentially.”

We intend to make every effort to see that everyone receiving clean water from our projects also receives a biblically-based, culturally-relevant witness of the gospel. Among the communities that are served by Living Water’s work, it is estimated that 80-90% are oral learners. Our partnerships include orphanages, hospitals, schools, churches, and other mission organizations. All of Living Water International’s Orality Training Workshops include our staff and volunteers, as well as pastors, community leaders, other mission agencies and missionaries, and any others who wish to attend. 

To make orality a primary strategy for LWI required the constant availability of opportunities for learning and also demanded a cycle of feedback, stories, and testimonies so that Wiles’ colleagues were willing to try it. Which tools of cooperation are available to you? Are you using them to engage in change in your organization?

Steve Douglass on “visioneering”

Steve Douglass, President of Campus Crusade for Christ International (CCCI) and alumnus of both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, is a master of communications. He often says that when he “got it” on the importance of four billion oral learners, he busily involved himself in the orality movement. He repeatedly “visioneers” and communicates internally and externally about why orality is important and why CCCI should be involved with it. He recalls speaking to his staff a few years ago about “cracking the code” to reach oral communicators and then disciple them as followers of Christ.

. . . In that context, God led us to the breakthrough of “orality.” Up to 70% of unreached people prefer to learn by oral means. It was a prerequisite to have cracked this “code” before we launched. It must be possible to follow up with people, disciple them, train them, and commission them as pastors, evangelists, etc., without assuming that they can read. Of course we now know how to do that. It is a breakthrough! This is very exciting news! Whenever I share it, people are stunned. Instead of assuming that local church pastors must go to seminary or Bible school, we are showing how that mold can be broken. The real issues center on a personal walk with God and an ability to communicate God’s truths in ways that penetrate into the lives of listeners. And that is actually better done orally for most of the population of the world. 

Today, CCCI’s oral strategies are up and running through http://www.storyrunners.com. This ministry of Campus Crusade, along with its partners, is providing biblically accurate, culturally relevant, oral stories from the Bible for unreached people groups. And Douglass and his leadership team did not stop with primary oral learners. They went on to develop http://essentials.ccci.org for secondary oral learners and are helping small group disciple-makers to be effective oral communicators for the twenty-first century through the process of CHAT (Connect, Hear, Apply, and Tell).

Bob Creson, Jerry Wiles, and Steve Douglass are just three mission leaders who have seen the potential of the oral approach to mission and are working tirelessly to see that potential realized. In the next chapter you will read about Douglass’ “aha” moment. You will also read of hearts previously unmoved by conventional gospel presentations, being melted by the storytelling, song, and drama of oral communication and miraculously transformed by Christ.


Rev. Samuel Chiang has written extensively on China, Asia, and orality; additionally, he has authored a book chapter “Innovations in Missions” (Authentic, 2007). He was formerly Chief Operating Officer for TWR, an international Christian media organization. Currently, Samuel serves as the Global Coordinator of the International Orality Network, which involves over two hundred participating organizations globally and aims to make the Word of God available to unreached people groups using appropriate oral strategies.

A. Steven Evans is a Senior Research Fellow and Communications Specialist affiliated with the International Center for Ethnographic Studies in Atlanta-USA, specializing in both cross-cultural communication and oral cultures. He is widely published on the topic of orality and biblical storytelling. He has most recently authored a book chapter: “Using the Bible in Oral Cultures” in Understanding and Using the Bible (SPCK Publishing, 2009). He serves as the co-chair of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization’s Orality Special Interest Group. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, with his wife.


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