The Role of Orality for Disciple Making

By Jerry Wiles

A Rural Church in the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas

It would be a valuable exercise to consider what is meant by Disciple Making and Church. There is a growing awareness with many now for the need to focus more on disciple making, rather than church planting and church growth, although in many cases we’re talking about the same thing. However, in the biblical context and understanding, we have various expressions of church.  Biblically there is the universal church, the regional (or city church) and the local congregations, or communities of followers of Jesus.

The Power of Small, Simple, and Reproducible

When we recognize that a true church can be a small, simple cell group or assembly of believers, it opens up many new possibilities for church growth and multiplication. Furthermore, when addressing the idea of establishing congregations or communities of followers of Jesus everywhere and among all people groups, the methods and strategies of orality become vital. We know that the majority of the unreached people groups around the world are bible-less, in oral cultures, or in many cases oral preference learners and communicators.

A Church in the Bush of West Africa, Where many Lessons can be learned that apply in North America

While Bible translation and literacy programs are important, in reality people can enter a relationship with the Lord and become reproducing followers of Jesus, even before they have the printed text of Scripture or learn to read. That may seem radical to some in our post-reformation, modern Western culture. However, we have many examples today, as well as throughout history and in the Early Church. Our experience has also shown us that Orality Training can enhance and accelerate Bible translation and literacy programs.

The Importance of Understanding the Receptor Culture

Orality-based methods and strategies open up all kinds of possibilities for Great Commission efforts, communicating the gospel and making disciples, and doing so according to the preferred methods of the receptor culture. In our Orality Training programs with Living Water International we emphasize that it’s not enough to proclaim the gospel, people need to hear it, understand it, be able to respond to it, remember it and pass it on. We want to make sure it’s biblical, cross-cultural, reproducible and transferable to the ends of the earth.

Small, Simple, Reproducible and Economical Congregations are where the greatest growth of the Kingdom is taking place, much like the Early Church

With appropriate training in orality methods, followers of Jesus are able to go to any place or people group and communicate the gospel, make disciples and plant churches, requiring no written material or technology. Our best models, of course, are Jesus, His first apostles and the Early Church. As important as the written text has been throughout history, most people have come to faith in Christ by some kind of spoken or oral method. Based on our collective experience over the past 40 years, some of us would advocate that orality-based methods of communication and training can greatly accelerate the church planting and disciple making movements. In fact, we have several thousand years of history with the orality understanding. It’s the most effective ways and means that people have learned, communicated and processed information from the beginning of time.

The Power of Stories and Questions

Asking questions, sharing stories and building relationships may seem like simple steps, but they can have powerful impact. We’ve heard many testimonies of how Orality Training experiences have created opportunities for removing barriers and building relationships and community across ethnic, tribal, denominational and racial differences.

God is using Mega-Churches, Small Churches, and all kinds and sizes to advance His Kingdom

In relation to planting new churches, and even launching movements of networks of churches and faith communities, orality can play a vital role. For example, prayer walking (which is more than prayer, and more than walking) can be a catalyst for church planting movements. It can be as simple as connecting with people, sharing the gospel, and seeing people come to Christ, then gathering them for group discussions. Then with appropriate follow up, reproducing disciple making cell groups can develop, all with Oral methods, requiring no literature or technology.

While the Orality Movement is perceived by some as just story telling or communication methods for non-readers, it is much more. Worldview, cultural value systems, sociology, psychology, theology, anthropology, and oral traditions are just a few of the many disciplines and facets to the overall orality domain.

In many cases it goes without saying, but needs to be continually emphasized, that the work of the Holy Spirit is foundational to all effective and sustained mission advancement. The tools, techniques, methods and strategies, apart from the work of the Spirit, will not produce lasting fruit.

Rethinking Church and Disciple Making

The Benefits of Relational, Communal, Participatory Worship and Learning

Perhaps it seems too simplistic, but there are some key factors where we need some rethinking, and often unlearning and relearning in order to be more effective and fruitful. Following are a few important and basic questions:

* Is there a difference in the modern term “discipleship” and what Jesus meant by “make disciples”?

* What does a biblically-based, culturally-relevant church look like in your community?

* What does the Church exist for?

* How much and what do people need to know in order to enter a relationship with the living God?

* How much and what do they need to know in order to become reproducing disciple makers?

* How much and what do they need to know to become church planters, pastors or missionaries?

All of these questions are important. The answers should not be based on modern Western, post-reformation or contemporary thinking, but rather on the essence of what we learn from Scripture and the Early Church.

Another way of thinking about the role of orality in disciple making and church multiplication would be to consider sowing the seed of the Word of God in people’s hearts. Telling stories and asking questions is something everyone can do, and when we tell the true stories from the Word of God, the Holy Spirit can touch hearts and change lives. It’s the Good News of Jesus, the Word of God, that has power to transform lives and communities. In our Orality Training, we emphasize that you don’t have to be a great storyteller, because we have great stories to tell.

The Power of Groups and Communities

A Transformed Community can look like this — It’s the People’s Lives that Matter Most

Once we begin to think outside of our modern Western (Post-Reformation) models and traditions, it opens up increasing numbers of possibilities. It’s not about buildings, programs and institutions, but groups and communities of followers of Jesus that reproduce and spread more rapidly. Orality methods and strategies, of course, make that possible, even necessary in some cases. There are some denominations that only recognize a real church when they own property and have a building, which can greatly restrict the possibilities of reproducing disciple making and church planting movements.

Another important topic in relation to reproducing church planting movements is the area of discipleship vs. disciple making. It’s not within the scope of this article, but there is a distinction between the modern American concept of discipleship, and a biblical understanding of disciple making. I recently read an article by a prominent church leader who was making the case that daily Bible reading and verse by verse expository preaching are necessary for what he referred to as discipleship. As valuable as they (Bible reading and expository preaching) are in their appropriate contexts and for certain segments of the population of the world, they are certainly limited in terms of global mission strategies of reproducing disciple making and church planting efforts.


Jerry Wiles is President Emeritus of Living Water International and serves on the advisory council and leadership team of the International Orality Network. He can be reached at: [email protected].


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