“Orality” – The Literacy Conversation – Part 1

I think I’ve been getting it wrong all these years.

Since that time two millennia ago in Antioch when followers of the Way were first called Christians, the church has carried God’s mission to the world. Evangelism and discipleship methods have varied over the centuries and the local church’s involvement in the advancement of the kingdom of God has looked different from culture to culture and has changed with the times. During the last decade, for example, there has emerged this new term in missiological communities called “orality.” Orality methods are essentially methods of evangelism and discipleship that involve oral-based communication like story, drama, music, and the arts to portray the gospel rather than linear, abstract, literate-based communication that has been done since the invention of the printing press. Missions groups have been recently saying that they would like to begin using orality methods for peoples and cultures that cannot or do not read. The tried-and-true literate-based methods would still be used for peoples and cultures that do read. At least that’s what I thought they were saying.

My Heart for the World

My heart for the world is to see good Christ-centered leaders developed in the church, particularly among those who do not have access to leadership training and resources as we so abundantly have available here in the West. And if the wave of Christendom is moving from the West to the Global South, then I want to be there to work with national leaders to raise up Christ-centered leaders. In these changing times, I figured that if “orality” is working in the evangelism and discipleship sectors of world mission, then it also could very well work in leadership development. It just hadn’t been done before. (To be clear, if orality was the method that worked, then great. But to paraphrase the words of my mentor, if the best method to grow these leaders involved standing on my head in a clown costume then I would do that, too. Whatever worked to reach these under-resourced leaders is what I was committed to). But as I began to enter that “orality” space back in 2009 – and more formally when I joined Freedom to Lead International in 2013 – I began to wonder if I was hearing it right.

For a long time I thought that “orality” is what worked in what people now call “nonliterate” societies, while abstract concepts and three-point outlines is what worked with “literate” societies. I saw people as existing in two camps.

The Nonliterate Camp

In the “nonliterate camp,” I had these images of people sitting around a campfire singing, dancing, and doing art. Traditions have been passed down from generation to generation and oral history has been transferred by word of mouth. Somehow many generations later, these traditions, stories, and art forms are still intact. When introducing orality methods as tools for Christian evangelism and discipleship we pass on the stories of the Scriptures to these people using their own art forms and oral traditions to communicate. We may dress in costume or draw pictures or present props like flannel graph characters against a backdrop of an African desert landscape, but whatever we do our method is “oral.” Theology is complicated, so we simplify it down using object lessons. We sing songs that resemble those songs of old learned in Sunday school. People respond, dozens come to Christ, and they continue on with their oral traditions with new hope and meaning in their lives.

And the nonliterate would remain nonliterate. They didn’t need to learn to read. We certainly did not have time to teach them to read and this way works the most efficiently anyway. After all, orality champions the nonliterate person to be able to continue on as they are, doesn’t it? Being able to read is a non-issue. These proponents of orality wouldn’t say all this out loud, but they may be subconsciously thinking it. At least I know that is what I was thinking.

The Literate Camp

And then, I thought, that over here there are those in the “literate camp.” Literacy statistics can be a bit tricky since different countries have different standards of how they define someone as being “literate.” That is why China claims to have a literacy rate of 95% while the United States hovers at right around 86%. However it is specifically defined, these “book cultures” place great value in formal education and this is not just a recent phenomenon. If you venture into China’s capital of Beijing, for example, you can’t go 500 feet without seeing a reminder of China’s ancient past that glorifies literature, calligraphy, and scholastic achievement. People in the literate camp are persuaded by conceptual explanations of how the world works.

And the literate would grow in literacy. They have a wide selection of degree programs to choose from. They can go online to Amazon and download books at the push of a button. Want to learn how to make a stellar spreadsheet for a presentation? Here’s a book on spreadsheets. Want to know how to start your own farm to raise alpacas? Here’s a book on alpacas. Want to know how to lead a church through a certain conflict? Well, there’s lots of books and seminars on that subject. We get our books, we learn a few things, we earn a few more degrees, and our society advances.

Literate and nonliterate. Two camps. “Orality” in Christian mission circles said that this method is for the nonliterate. There are other more refined missiological strategies for the literate populations.

Hindering More Than Helping?

But this kind of thinking made me start to feel quite a bit uncomfortable. I felt like proponents of orality were saying that it’s okay for the nonliterate to remain nonliterate, that it was okay for us to dumb down the Scriptures for these “simple” people. I felt like we were saying without actually saying it, that there’s “us” and “them.” I felt like people were ignoring the studies that show that literacy benefits people in extraordinary ways. Were we keeping these nonliterate people from advancing and being the best versions of themselves? Could it be that “orality” methods are actually hindering more than they are helping? Because if so, I can definitely see why many in the American church aren’t buying into this orality thing.

A Different Question Altogether

Over the next six years I began to examine these things more closely. I would take a lot of time interacting with these oral-based communities in Africa and Asia in tangible ways. I had to start by asking the hard questions. And slowly by slowly a question began forming in my mind, a question that looked a bit differently than the question I had started with…

Could it be that orality is not about literacy at all?

In my next post we’ll continue to discuss this question.

Leave a Reply