Rick Sessoms

With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand.  (Mark 4:33).

Jesus knew the power of parables.  He used parables deliberately in communication to his listeners.  He also used other kinds of stories and object lessons.  In this way He showed what it is to be sensitive to his audience.  According to John 1:14, Jesus became human to demonstrate God’s willingness to meet humanity on our level.  He spoke the language of the people so that they could understand and be changed.

Who are Oral Learners?

Statistics conservatively suggest that more than 70% of all people in the world today – more than 2 of every 3 – are “oral learners.”  “Oral learners” is not a familiar term.  When I use it, some people look at me and say, “Do you mean ‘moral learners?”

No, “oral learners.” A simple dictionary definition of an oral learner is one that relies upon spoken rather than written communication.  Before writing was invented, everyone lived by spoken communication. They read nothing, took no notes, never looked anything up.  For those with papers due this week, that sounds like a pretty sweet deal.

According to UNESCO, 902 million people worldwide – about one in six men, women and school-aged young people – are illiterate.  They cannot read and write at all.  Walter Ong calls these groups “primary oral learners.”  They have to rely on the spoken word because they cannot use print. They are oral communicators by necessity.  They get their information from talking with friends and family, not from reading magazines or newspapers.  They may listen to the radio or watch television. They are going to need God’s truth to be communicated in oral form if they are to understand it.

Residual Oral Learners

And then there are people referred to as “residual oral learners.”  Grant Lovejoy, a researcher with the Southern Baptist’s International Mission Board, reports the number of these residual oral learners worldwide is more than triple the number of primary oral learners.  These people may have learned to read and write, but they don’t use their reading skills regularly after leaving school.  They gravitate toward oral communication as much as possible. They prefer swapping stories, singing with friends, reciting poetry, and talking about their experiences. These people are oral communicators because of their cultural tradition or personal preference even though they have learned to read.  This is a common phenomenon, even here in the U.S.  For example, Twitter limits text messages to 140 characters while at the same time the average length of Hollywood feature films has increased in recent years from 75 minutes to 120 minutes.  These trends reflect our decreasing tolerance for text and our increasing capacity for story, the characteristics of an oral culture.

So combining the number of residual oral learners to the number of primary oral learners means that the majority of the world’s population today – about 4 billion – fit this category. Oral learners are people who learn best through stories, images, and music rather than by text and abstract concepts.  And the vast majority of those who have not yet been reached with the Gospel are oral learners.

In 1984, my family and I went as missionaries to Indonesia. Our assignment was to teach in The Jaffray School of Theology. Since we were the “new kids in town”, we were assigned to teach the courses no one else wanted to teach – one of which was preaching. At least it was a course I thought I knew something about.

I taught preaching in the school while listening to Indonesians preaching in the local church. The church we attended was filled mostly with professional, educated Indonesians.  This was a formal church, not much for outward expression. Most of the students from the seminary went to this church. The pastor’s sermons week to week were a lot like ones I’d heard and given here in the States. Important truth. Truth intended to change how people think, their decisions. Solid biblical precepts presented with several points. Maybe a couple of quotes or illustrations sprinkled in for good measure.

Trouble was, the sermons in the church didn’t seem to be doing much for the people.

But I noticed a different style of communication whenever I attended Indonesian social events. When community leaders or even the government wanted to relay important information to their people, they often used drama. They used songs. They used stories. For example, as the sun was going down, they would often bring out an old bed-sheet and hang it between two poles. Then they would use a light behind the sheet and little leather puppets (called wayangs). As the sun would go down, the stories would come to life. The people – children and adults – would sit and watch and laugh and listen – and learn for hours.  Puppets and songs and stories impacted people in a way that the three-point sermons I heard in church and taught in the seminary did not.  They reached hearts. They were personal and immediate and memorable.

Preaching as Storytelling

During that same time, I listened to a recorded lecture series by Dr. Fred Craddock given at Princeton University on the topic “Preaching as Storytelling.” Newsweek has called Craddock one of America’s best preachers – partly because he is a master storyteller. In his Princeton lectures, Craddock posed a question I’ve never forgotten when he asked, “Is there room for the story to serve as the major vehicle for communicating [God’s] truth?”

Well, soon after, I was asked to preach in our local Indonesian church. Taking a cue from the culture and from Craddock, I decided to experiment.  I related biblical truth through a story about a man that died and entered the afterlife. The reaction of the congregation at the end of that story was unexpected – dozens responded to Christ!

But the Indonesian church leaders’ reaction was also unexpected. They said my presentation wasn’t preaching. They said it wasn’t “how we do things here.”  I suppose they had learned well from the missionaries before me.

But eventually  – about a year later – they did me ask me to preach again. And again I told a story – this time about Caleb from the Old Testament book of Joshua who made good choices as a young man that prepared him for great things in his later years.  Just told the story – and not even very well.  And again the people responded in extraordinary ways. As I closed the service in prayer, one man stood, raised both hands, and ran to the altar. Many others followed – all responding to God’s grace served up in a simple story.

That was my first awareness of oral learners – although the term wasn’t used back then.  And it was my first taste of the power of a story – as an adult. As a child, I grew up in a culture of storytellers.  My father used to tell me stories – many of the same ones his father told him. Preachers of my childhood were storytellers. They would preach to the poor, sitting on folding chairs, under tents and floors of sawdust in wheat fields, and by the power of their stories, the whole scene was changed. The streets were paved with gold.  There was pearl all around.  The chandeliers were all the way from heaven.  And these poor people were having a great time.

So is there room for the story to serve as a major vehicle for communicating the gospel?

Some doubt it very much.  After all, to my grandmother, the word “story” was not just a light word; it was a negative word.  It meant “untrue.”  In my grandmother’s mouth, it had a verb form: to story.  I would say to her, “Grandma, I must have lost the change out of my pocket.”  She would say, “Son, don’t you story.  Are you telling me a story?”

And with that idea echoing in the mind, it’s difficult for some to use “story” as a vehicle for communicating the truth of the Gospel. For others, it’s not negative. “Story” is just a non-serious word.  “Well, that was a good story.  He told some nice stories.”  As a way of saying, “There was no substance to it. “ He hitched his Clydesdales to a little red wagon. Our institutions of higher education have created in us a prejudice against stories.  In college we’re preparing those papers. Script-oriented.  Because of orientation, story is considered fringe, embroidery, decorative edge.

But in oral cultures , stories are not just decorative embroidery.  The gospel itself is a story. The story doesn’t just illustrate the gospel.  The story carries the gospel.  That’s a high view of story.

But some are convinced the story doesn’t quite do it.  In a conversation with one pastor about the use of story, he said to me, “The truth is too important. I have to underline this.  I have to make it clear so that everybody understands it.”  And how does he do that?  Almost 99% of the time to show it’s really important, he dismisses the story –after all, that’s interesting, but it doesn’t really carry the freight –  and replaces it with exhortation. Fills the air with “ought” and “must” and “should.”

Three weeks ago, Tina and I were in New York for a few days.  While there, we saw the Broadway musical Wicked.  The show is a prequel to the Wizard of Oz about the Wicked Witch of the West before she became the Wicked Witch.  It has been seen live by more than 5 million people. The matinee show we attended was packed, and the story and the music were superb.  The message was riveting, filled with life lessons.  After the show, we went to a Starbucks, stared into our coffee cups, and discussed the story.  Now no one stood up at the end of the show and said, “There are four points you ought to learn and apply from this story.”  Some preachers never quite get the point when somebody says, “You know, I remember that story you told in that sermon when you were here ten years ago.”  Stories move us.  They connect us.  They change us.

And Hollywood today is controlling the culture of America and much of the world by telling better stories. So this idea of reaching oral learners through stories and music and dance is currently one of the break-through priorities in mission strategy.  And it’s gaining momentum. An orality network has been formed; some in the network are focused on evangelism such as Campus Crusade’s The Jesus Film, Luke’s version of the Gospel story, now the most successful evangelism tool in church history.   Others are doing discipleship and providing audio Bibles for oral learners.  Still others are training church planters through a storying approach.  The initiative that I’m part of – Freedom to Lead International – is committed to developing Christ-centered leaders in oral cultures through story and symbol and song.

Orality is not a new idea.

Actually, the Bible arose in an oral environment.  The Old and New Testaments were written during times when the vast majority of people learned by the word spoken.  Scripture itself shows clear evidence of this.  For instance, narratives make up almost half of the Bible.  Poetry makes up another third.

The stories of Jesus’ life and teachings circulated in oral form for years before the Gospels were written.  During that time eyewitnesses told what they had seen and heard. And Christianity grew dramatically during that period, spreading from Judea and Galilee around the Mediterranean Sea and into the interiors of Asia, Africa, and Europe. And the gospel spread rapidly during a period when the primary means was oral transmission. Ordinary people that had been changed by grace were able to tell the stories they knew. Although the Jewish leaders viewed Jesus’ followers as “uneducated and untrained,” the followers of the Way were incredibly effective witnesses. They were transformed by God’s Spirit, and they went everywhere telling the stories they had heard and the experiences they had had with God.  And they changed the world.

And it’s much the same today. Much of Christianity’s growth in the last several decades has been among oral cultures – South America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia.  These Christians are familiar with oral traditions and take advantage of making Christ known through oral means to those who have yet to hear the gospel.  They understand and communicate naturally with stories and songs and proverbs.

Christians from print-oriented cultures – like you and me – can develop a greater appreciation and skill in the use of various oral communication approaches.  Part of this shift will be attitudinal: it involves valuing oral and visual arts.  It will often mean that we learn from those who are already skilled in their culture’s traditional oral arts.