The book of Acts details the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to the world during the lifetimes of the apostles. Today, the church carries the gospel to unreached people and places as a part of that same mission. While some methods have changed, like the use of technology and travel, the message has not changed, and one of the most effective methods has continued to reach people: Orality and the stories of Jesus.
History of Orality at Our Church
In 2011, three outreach leaders at our church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, were exploring new ways to reach more people with the gospel. After attending a seminar, “When Helping Hurts,” in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the team began researching well-drilling ministries in developing countries as a means of sharing the gospel. Through their research, they discovered the work of Living Water International, an organization committed to both “helping communities acquire desperately needed clean water” and communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ – living water.
Wanting to learn more about Living Water International (LWI), in 2012 church leaders visited the Houston-based organization. While in Houston at LWI, they attended an orality training workshop led by Jerry Wiles, President Emeritus of LWI and author of No Greater Joy: Power of Sharing Your Faith through Stories and Questions. The men were impressed by the simplicity of storytelling.
Short Term Teams Begin Using Orality
Upon returning home from Houston, the leaders planned their first trip with LWI and took a team to Michigan, in 2013 for orality training. Keith, our Director of Facilities, attended that training and joined the Nicaragua team on that first well-drilling trip.
While drilling for water in Nicaragua, Keith prayed for an opportunity to tell a story that he had learned at the orality workshop. By Thursday, an opportunity still hadn’t materialized. Finally, on Thursday morning, he told the Lord about his hopes. “Lord, I asked you for a successfully drilled well and for the opportunity to tell a story about You, the living Christ. You will have to do something to make this happen.”
At the well dedication ceremony later that morning, the Living Water leader asked the group, “Would anyone like to tell a story?”
The team responded in unison, “Keith would!” So, through a translator, Keith told that Nicaraguan community about “The Woman at the Well” and the living water that Jesus offers.
Keith has told that story more than once. He demonstrated the simplicity and reproducibility of orality when he told it to our weekend services, about 2500 people. Then, in South Asia, he told the story to 26 native field workers and their families as part of a training workshop. Keith reflects on his experiences with orality, “It’s good because it’s scriptural, and it’s a story. It’s the way that Jesus taught. He told stories and asked questions.”
That first orality training in Michigan that inspired Keith also inspired Joy, the director of A Hope Center crisis pregnancy center. On a short term trip to Project Mercy in Ethiopia, she trained school children in orality. Project Mercy cares for orphans and educates children in its Muslim community. Traditionally, visiting church groups provide Bible classes and read Bible stories to the students. When Joy’s team arrived, the students asked her, “Are you going to read Bible stories to us, too?” Joy surprised them with a firm, “No.”
For the next five days, Joy and her team conducted an orality workshop for the 11-18 year old students, teaching them to share the five stories. At the end of the week, the enthusiastic teens told Joy that they felt empowered by learning the stories. Empowering others to tell the stories is an integral part of orality training and an idea that Joy agrees with. “It’s a tool that empowers us. When you share the story, you can share it as a formal presentation or break it down into a talking point. It’s harder to memorize scriptures and references, but I can remember the stories.”
Joy’s favorite Bible story is “The Woman at the Well” from John 4. “It’s my story,” she says matter-of-factly. On a 2014 trip to South Asia, with her church, Joy and a teammate, Allison, told that story to a gathering of sex workers in a large red-light district. The twelve women were attending a Bible study offered by a local church in a crowded loft while their children were learning English downstairs.
While Joy told the story, one of the women sat facing away from them, her legs and arms crossed. During the story, the woman slowly turned to face her. Then, when Joy shared her own story, the resistant woman revealed that she had recently given up her children. She hugged Joy and Allison and bestowed a special blessing on them. Although she has been on 9 cross cultural short term trips and 12 stateside mission trips, she says, “That was one of my favorite mission trip moments.”
Hosting and Training for Orality
Since 2013, our church has hosted 6 orality training workshops where participants learn the five stories highlighted in Jerry Wile’s book No Greater Joy. The church unofficially requires everyone who goes on an international short term trip to attend an orality training. Teams working in the U.S. are also encouraged to attend a training workshop. In addition to orality workshops, they have hosted 2 training workshops for trainers. Equipping trainers to teach orality has resulted in training beyond the walls of the church. For example, Joy has trained volunteers and employees at A Hope Center where she works. Several trainers have traveled to other churches to teach orality.
However, teaching orality methods and stories to Christian workers in other countries has opened exciting, new doors. In East Asia, a church team was invited to train a group of pastors in an underground Bible school. In South Asia, 26 native field workers sent out from an indigenous church gathered for orality training. At another small gathering of believers in a remote village, a team told two stories. After telling the story “The Blind Beggar,” the team asked if anyone would stand and retell it. A nine-year-old girl raised her hand and stood on that crowded porch to retell the story. Her boldness inspired and challenged the adults. Who knows how the stories of Jesus will grow among that small group of committed believers and change their corner of the world.
Orality Equips and Empowers Christians
The stories empower team members to tell the people that they meet about Jesus. Todd, a nuclear pharmacist and lay leader at our church, has watched the orality movement grow and knows how God can use storytelling to spark faith. He loves telling the story of Nicodemus from John 3 because it is an easy transition for telling his own story.
One opportunity came for Todd while he was conducting a business seminar in East Asia. During the seminar, he met a restaurant owner. Afterward, the two men went to lunch. Todd had shared that he is a Christian, and the restaurant owner wanted to know why Todd believed in Jesus. He told the man about Nicodemus saying, “If you want to be born again, people you have met today can help you.” Immediately, the man replied, “I want to be a Christian.” Right there, in the food court of a large mall, Todd prayed with the man as he put his faith in Jesus.
Excited about his new faith in Jesus, the restaurant owner invited Todd and his friends to be the guest of honor that evening at his restaurant. The owner had also invited some of his friends to meet Todd. One of the owner’s friends sat next to Paul, a member of the team. Paul shared his story of faith with the woman, and she wanted to become a Christian, too.
When Todd is asked why he likes orality and promotes it so enthusiastically, he says, “As believers, anything that we can do to enhance the communication of God’s story is good. We tell teams that we send out that there are multiple ways to share God’s word. One of the most effective ways is to learn a few stories, ask a few questions, and engage in a conversation.”
Reaching the world with the gospel is a God-sized task, but as more organizations and churches embrace orality methods, the stories equip and empower anyone to become a part of that mission.
Jayne Walters speaks and writes from Fort Wayne, Indiana. She encourages women to live a rooted life in Jesus through her blog and website at www.JayneWalters.org and her book Led: Learning to Listen and Follow. She and her husband, Dave, serve at The Chapel with an amazing and committed staff of volunteers.