Over 70 percent of the world’s population consists of people who are oral learners — people who cannot or do not read. Most of the world’s unreached and unengaged people groups are preliterate. They are primarily oral learners who cannot read or write the language that they speak — often because their language has not yet been reduced to writing. Their lives are lived out in an oral fashion. They learn about events in their world, form their opinions, share knowledge, and entertain one another using only the spoken word.
The implications of this reality are obvious when one considers that Christianity has traveled on literate feet since the invention of the printing press. Over 90 percent of the resources for evangelism and discipleship were developed for highly literate people. Our discipleship methods not only use written resources, but present these written resources using Western forms of logic and teaching.
Are these strategies wrong? How should we respond to those who sit in darkness without interest in or the ability to read any written word, including the Word of God? What inextricable role, if any, does the written form of God’s Word hold in our efforts to be obedient to his call to make disciples?
These questions ring philosophical when in the form of a blog post. And yet for those serving outside the bounds of Western literacy rates and learning models, the answers to these questions are central to the missionary’s ability to faithfully proclaim the good news of Jesus. The context may differ from culture to culture, but a few key points must be kept in mind in order to process how to engage oral learners.
We Represent the Minority
First, I find it helpful to remember that we represent the minority as it pertains to methods of communication and learning. This minority is not just one of educational blessing, but one of a gift from God. He chose to give the world his Word in written form. And this has most certainly benefitted the Western power centers of Europe and the United States, in addition to other cultures in history. We are in the minority, but it is a blessed minority, and to whom much is given, much is expected.
Literacy Is Not a Requirement
Second, we must remember that the world’s oral learners are not less intelligent or capable. In fact, individuals in oral cultures are often marked by tremendous memorization abilities. Sadly, we have not understood the world’s oral majority or clearly communicated the truth to oral learners.
A few years ago I was teaching a group of churches in South America when a lady asked me whether she could go to heaven when she died since she could not read. The confusion arose from former missionaries’ stress on literacy in discipleship. They had been taught that despite repentance and faith in Christ, they could not be baptized and join the church until they learned to read. They assumed this was God’s requirement. Literacy is important and, I believe, it is an important goal for all believers — but of course it is not a factor in salvation.
Learn How to Communicate
Our faithfulness to the Great Commission calls us to learn new ways of communicating the Word that are intelligle to those who sit in darkness. We must love the world's least reached peoples enough to share the gospel with them in ways they can understand. It's then when pagans will be won, believers will be discipled, pastors will be equipped, and the church will expand for the glory of Jesus Christ.
David Sills is Associate Dean for Christian Missions and professor of Christian Missions and Cultural Anthropology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
David Sills, David Sitton and Jason Mandryk will be speaking on frontier missions at our upcoming National Conference, "Finish the Mission: For the Joy of All Peoples."