“Tell Me a Story”

Oral Communications

When Jesus preached to crowds, he often did it in story (parable) form. For instance, to illustrate the love of God, He told a colourful, dramatic, and moving story about the “man who had two sons” (Matthew 21:28).

Jesus could read and write, yet He lived in a largely oral society. Apparently, only about five percent of His hearers would have been literate.

As in the days of Christ, the oral communicator of today does not think as the literate communicator does — he responds best to stories, drama, poetry, dance, and song. He cannot understand the concepts, principles, or “steps” which are often used in modern evangelism.

A United Nations group woke up to this difference in thinking patterns in the 1950’s, when it tried to teach people in developing countries how to avoid tuberculosis and polio.

The “ten step” approach, which workers first tried, baffled the people they were trying to help … but when they presented the information in the form of stories, learning soared and disease levels dropped.

Storytelling has been deep-rooted in the culture of most oral communities, not only for entertainment, but also as a means of teaching social and moral values.

Foreign missions have taken a little longer to recognize how non-literate people like to receive information. The problem is that many missionaries are highly literate, so they tend to plant churches among the population with whom they can easily communicate. In so doing, the 80 percent who are oral communications have essentially been neglected.

Recognizing this disparity, FEBC International has been taking steps in recent years to reach this hitherto disregarded majority — using a teaching method known as Chronological Bible Storying (CBS).

Pioneered in the 1970’s by New Tribes missionaries in the Philippines, CBS uses carefully selected Bible stories — crafted in a style that hearers are used to hearing, to present spiritual truth.

A key principle of CBS is to let the story do the teaching, without the teller trying to explain the meaning. To check that the hearer has understood the principle the story is meant to convey, questions are asked once the story is finished. For example, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell among thieves?” (Luke 10:36).

Hearing the story is only the beginning. The oral communicator will want to learn it, and pass it on! One would think this may lead to distortion of the story, but experts say that is rare.

Oral communicators have phenomenal memories — for example, many illiterate Muslims memorize the entire Koran.

Oral societies jealously guard the details of their stories — quickly correcting a storyteller, if he or she gets it wrong. In oral cultures, accuracy is the responsibility of a collective memory — everybody keeps everybody in check!

“You tell us the stories, and then we can tell other people the stories,” enthused a West African villager to Western missionaries using CBS to present the Gospel — in an area where a different religion dominates. Many hearers of the stories are turning to Christ.

One woman urged the missionaries to make the stories known more widely in the area. “You don’t understand the importance of this,” she pleaded. “My heart is broken, and these stories are repairing it.

“I want to leave everything I’ve thought in the past, and just follow God’s path. This is truth, and people need to know about this.”

A local chief in the village commented, “You have entered our village, and shared God’s Word in a way the people can understand.”

Taking God’s Word into remote areas is, of course, what Christian radio is good at! According to research statistics, a majority of the ministry’s radio listeners are either illiterate, or “functionally” so — meaning that while they can read and write, they still think as oral communicators.

For a number of years, the missionary radio network has been working with other missions to put Chronological Bible Storying on the air — however, there are some hurdles to overcome.

Christian radio producers come from the educated elite of their countries. Some are reluctant to put aside their literate skills in favour of storytelling, because they consider it childish or beneath them.

Even if a producer is willing to learn storying, not everyone can learn the art of telling a story effectively. Program suppliers also wrestle with age-old questions like: “How are we going to find the time to start something new?” and, “Who is going to pay?”

This is an ongoing challenge for FEBC International — to introduce programming that will connect more deeply with the hearts of the non-literate majority.

Clearly, Bible storying meets a deep spiritual hunger among people with an oral tradition — but those engaged in it are few, and the need is great.

One missionary working in West Africa describes what happened when she told a villager that she had to go away for six weeks: “He looked at me in shock, and said ‘but who will tell us the stories’?”

“I just shook my head,” relates the missionary, “because there was no one to take my place.”

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