The Spoken Word: God, Scripture, and Orality in Missions

The Spoken Word: God, Scripture, and Orality in Missions

Dissertation by Stuart Trevor Yoakum


As a freshly minted seminary graduate and recently ordained minister, I arrived at my first place of ministry teaching at the Kaduna Baptist Theological Seminary in Kaduna, Nigeria. As a lecturer in systematic theology, I dutifully prepared my lecture notes, taught my lessons, and preached throughout the country. The manner in which I taught and preached was little different from the way that I did in the United States.

Years later, I returned to West Africa to begin teaching at the Ecole Supérieure Baptiste de Théologie de l’Afrique de l’Ouest in Lomé, Togo. The lesson materials that I prepared, the sermons that I preached, and the manner of my evangelism revealed a sharp contrast to the way in which I performed those same ministry tasks in Nigeria. The difference between the two came from the lessons that I had learned from orality.

The transmission model of communication theory informs us that the effective exchange of information has three essential elements: the sender, the medium by which the message is communicated, and the receiver. As is now well known, the medium of the message (whether oral, written, or electronic) can be a difficult path on the route to the receiver. Consequently, communicating the gospel, whether in one’s own country or abroad requires overcoming certain barriers within the receptor culture. Cultural, socio-economic, political, and racial differences may erect hurdles to a meaningful fusion of horizons involved with the proclamation of the gospel. As formidable as these obstacles to understanding are, an even greater difficulty exists. The medium of language itself may arguably present the most treacherous path to follow in successfully communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ as testified in Scripture.

By focusing on language, I will be steering clear of the well-trod territories of epistemological and hermeneutical concerns, important as they are. Alvin Plantinga has well demonstrated how Christian faith can be a rational exercise of one’s mental faculties. Using speech-act theory and double agency discourse, scholars such Nicholas Wolterstorff (with the help of J. L. Austin) have argued convincingly that the reader of biblical texts is not trapped in a solipsistic quagmire of subjectivity but can grasp the illocutions of God himself. Nonetheless, the medium of language remains more problematic than that of Lessing’s ugly ditch.

With respect to the effective communication of the gospel, a consideration of the medium of language involves more than focus on Bible translation, as noble as that enterprise is. While most languages in the world still do not have any portion of Scripture (as of September 30, 2004, 4,558 languages out of the 6,913 currently spoken are without any portion of the Bible), simply translating the Bible is not enough. Most peoples of the world are still non-literate with as much as seventy percent of the world’s population having minimal to no literacy. Moreover, most cultures are oral in nature despite a large segment of the population that is literate, meaning that language is received primarily via the medium of sound rather than sight (as with dominantly literate cultures) within their socio-cultural milieu.

This difference in the dominant sense by which language is used (sight vs. sound)—what Walter Ong called the sensorium —creates differences in understanding between literate and oral societies. Moreover, the dominant sense used in language by a culture significantly influences how its people perceive reality, organize information, and remember—even speech itself is affected. As a result, while visitors from a dominantly literary culture (like missionaries) should always adapt their methods of communication to those of their hearers, this is especially necessary if the information receivers are members of a dominantly oral culture. This puts a different light on Marshall McLuhan’s quip that the medium is the message. If applied linguistics is the passport to communicating successfully within a receptor culture, orality studies that engage the medium of language itself represent the visa gaining entry past some of cross-cultural communication’s most obstinate anthropological, sociological, and cognitive roadblocks.

Orality is the study of how spoken and written language impacts societies throughout human history to the present day. 10 From its beginnings, scholars such as Milman Parry, Albert Lord, and Eric Havelock have maintained that the advent of writing fundamentally shifts an individual’s and a society’s senses: “Writing transposes language to a spatial medium, but the language so transposed has come into existence in the world of sound and remains permanently a part of this world—to a certain degree the oral-aural world.” The shift in senses affects how individuals and civilizations perceive and engage reality, even one’s consciousness, literally rewiring the manner in which the brain works and changing how one thinks: “Writing, and most particularly the alphabet, shifts the balance of the senses away from the aural to the visual, favoring a new kind of personality structure.” Writing, therefore, has cognitive and social implications that one should not ignore in the process of communication. This maxim applies to Christian ministry as well.

Good practical theology must not only engage what oral peoples think but also how they think. Oral cultures perceive their environment in ways that may be foreign to those ministering among them. Ministry practitioners operating from a typographic culture—a culture in which sight is more dominant because of the reliance on the printed press—may find difficulties communicating to an oral culture that operates primarily in a world of sound. The thought processes of oral cultures, not just their perceptions, are fundamentally different. The continuum between oral and literate societies presents yet another obstacle to overcome along the journey of communicating the gospel message.

Those travelling the tortuous path in communicating the gospel via orality have no shortage of travel guides in the way of books on oral strategies and introductory material. Lamentably, few undertake the journey on their own because of no guiding star, no theoretical explanation for how to interface orality studies into ministry practice. The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and the International Orality Network (ION) have published a good introduction to the subject that explains why we should use orality in our ministry strategies. ION has also developed a web site to promote orality for the average layperson or individual with no background on the subject. Multiple theological schools offer courses that introduce orality and teach oral strategies in ministry. The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention publishes training manuals teaching how to present the gospel using the Chronological Bible Storying, an oral strategy for evangelism. These courses, books, and web site have an obvious pragmatic emphasis and are dedicated primarily to praxis, even the technē of doing orality. Despite this abundance of practical guides, however, orality studies have no fixed theological maps by which to chart the journey to proclaim the biblical message.

The lack of a theological framework for oral evangelism and discipleship strategies means that their practice could easily go astray from biblical orthodoxy. The performance of orality in specific ministry contexts may be ill-informed and poorly executed without informed direction. Moreover, operating from purely pragmatic concerns (technē) without practical wisdom (phronēsis) about ministerial engagement could prove fatal to the integrity of the gospel. Developing sound theological direction from which one performs orality in ministry is therefore crucial to the soundness of the proclamation.

It would be erroneous to say that no biblical or theological basis exists regarding the use of orality in missionary activities. To be sure, developers of oral strategies reference Scripture to substantiate their proposal. What little biblical warrant that is provided, however, demonstrates rather weak exegesis. To date, neither specialists nor practitioners have designed a definitive architectonic framework of orality in ministry. The orality movement is in need of an articulated theological model from which we may create sound strategies. One place in which a theological justification for orality in ministry might begin is with the identification of a paradigm or so-called “central organizing principle” for practical theology and missions. This paradigm would organize as well as evaluate all other theological statements concerning the use of orality in ministry. Building off of the paradigm, we may also develop a more doctrinally informed practical theology for orality that could serve as the theological guide that practitioners need in order to use orality in a manner that is more biblical. Currently, such a model or paradigm does not exist among missiologists and practical theologians, let alone ministry practitioners and missions agencies.


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