Oral Disciple Making: Changing the Face of Missions

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By Jerry Wiles
president emeritus, Living Water International

When considering what we call our Lord’s Great Commission, to communicate the Good News to the ends of the earth and make disciples of all people groups, it would be important to determine what message and methods are totally reproducible and transferable to the various regions and people groups.

a gift of clean drinking water

After having trained more than 3,000 people in 16 countries over the past 20 months, Living Water International continues to receive very encouraging feedback. LWI’s basic Orality Training Workshop: An Introduction to Contextual Bible Storying consists of a two-day, bilingual, five-story training. The emphasis is on teaching a little, that people practice a lot, and use immediately.

This approach is not intended to be comprehensive in any way, but to give a sample, a taste of what oral disciple making methods can look like. It is what you might call an easy-on ramp to the orality super highway. It’s a simple jump-start to get people on the journey of following Jesus’ example of sharing the Gospel and making disciples. An important aspect is to making sure that the stories and questions are biblical, understandable and reproducible.

The majority of the unreached and unengaged people groups of the world are oral learners, either by necessity or by preference. In fact, according to the International Orality Network, 70% of the world’s population (4.35 billion people) are considered oral learners. That is, those who can’t, don’t or won’t read, or prefer to learn and communicate by means other than print-based or written instruction. Also, 2700 languages still have no written script and 2252 languages still have no Scripture translated into their heart language.

We are now doing orality training for the second and third time in some countries and discovering their ongoing use and impact. The testimonies and feedback are amazingly positive, and we are finding how this simple and reproducible method is resulting in people coming to Christ and retelling the stories. One mission leader in Africa said, “This training is changing our lives and our ministries.”

In a country where 85% of the population is non-literate, several hundred evangelists, pastors and church planters have made the transition from a more western, literate style of communication to oral disciple making methods and are seeing dramatic results. One elderly evangelist said, “This is how our forefathers started out; this is more effective than what we have been doing.”

Living Water International is networking and collaborating through the International Orality Network and the Lausanne Movement in order to effectively follow-up and continue equipping and training. Our new five-year strategic plan, which began earlier this year, calls for taking orality to every component of our organization and training all our staff, volunteers, and partners our basic oral disciple making strategies.

LWI has completed more than 10,000 water projects since its founding in 1990 and partners with numerous orphanages, schools, churches and hospitals, as well as other mission organizations. Partnership and collaboration are important for both our integrated water solutions and our disciple making strategies.

A concern we often face is the possibility of people getting into error and distorting the stories and the message. Gaining a better understanding of oral cultures, oral traditions and learning styles helps us to see how the stories can maintain accuracy over a long period of time of being retold and reproduced. Because oral cultures live and learn in community, review, repetition and retelling the stories, as well as the collective memory of the group, helps to safeguard their accuracy, keeping them true to the Scriptures. In many cases where LWI works, they do have the Bible in their heart language, and there are those who are able to read it and help keep the community on track.

We are often asked how we measure or evaluate our effectiveness. Matrix in missions is an important topic being discussed these days. How we quantify the work of God is an issue we are seeking to better understand. Inputs, outputs and outcomes are all important. There are certainly data points that we want to be diligent in reporting. However, it has been said that, “Not everything that counts can be counted; and not everything that can be counted really counts.” The late Dr. Avery Willis, founder and executive director of the International Orality Network, often reminded us that, “You can count the seeds in an apple, but you can’t count the apples in a seed.”

Following a recent orality workshop in Ethiopia, an elderly man who has been an evangelist for more than 50 years said, “This is a better way of presenting the gospel, and is more appropriate for our people.” Another evangelist who had received the training six months earlier said, “My previous way of outreach was to distribute literature and give my testimony, and people would want to argue. Now I tell stories and ask questions and people want to receive Jesus.”

Yet another evangelist after the first day of the orality training said, “I told a story on the way to the workshop.” He was so excited how receptive people were.

After learning the story of the demon-possessed Garazene, a man told the story to a group of people where someone in that community later said that he had been planning to commit suicide. However, after hearing how the demon-possessed man was set free from the evil spirits, he decided the Lord could help him, too. He decided not to take his own life, but to give his life to the Lord.

On a recent trip to Ethiopia, one of the locations where we conducted our orality training workshops was Jimma, where three weeks earlier, more than 50 church buildings and more than a dozen homes of believers were burned by Muslim extremists. Many of the 150 evangelists, pastors and church planters attending the workshop had lost their homes and all their possessions.

At the end of one of our training sessions, one of the church leaders called a lady to the front to pray. Her prayer was lengthy and filled much passion. I couldn’t understand a word of her prayer in Amharic, but I wept through her prayer without knowing why. We later learned that her evangelist husband had been targeted to be killed and that she and her infant son were put in jail by the local authorities and they lost everything they had. National authorities in Addis Abba intervened and replaced the local authorities that allowed the burnings of the churches and the homes.

On the Sunday following the orality workshops in Jimma, the government authorities organized a meeting of representatives from the Orthodox, Protestant and Muslim communities. There was an outpouring of compassion and reconciliation. They recognized that the problems came from outsiders. They reminded each other that their forefathers got along and respected on another’s beliefs and that they needed to do likewise.

The local leaders agreed to stand together against wrongdoing and outside negative influences. It was an amazing answer to prayer. There was a demonstration of forgiveness and reconciliation. People came to the lady who had been jailed, hugged her and told her they were sorry for the way she had been treated.

While there are many similarities from country to country, there are also many differences. The orality training in the Central African Republic for example was a very different kind of experience than most of the other countries. The people responded well, but there seemed to be some additional confusion and misunderstanding. Some of the stories and questions generated some unusual interpretations. For example, one man said that Jesus permitting the spirits to come out of the demon possessed Garazene tells us that Jesus didn’t really have authority over evil spirits. Another man said the blind beggar, Bartemaus, committed sin because he did not go his own way but followed Jesus after receiving his own sight. The local leaders were able to bring clarification and correction.

The confusion and misunderstanding that comes makes us aware of spiritual warfare and the great need to pray, intercede and trust the Holy Spirit to work in people’s hearts as we tell the stories and ask the questions.

We are continually reminded of how dependent we are upon the Lord of the harvest – the work of the Holy Spirit, to bring forth fruit that remains.