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Message from Bangkok–4 Billion “Oral Learners”

Oct 7, 2004

In an earlier entry (October 3) we told you about some of the Grace Brethren leaders who were attending the Lausanne Evangelism conference in Thailand. This release from Baptist Press on that meeting should stimulate some thinking about the four billion oral learners who will likely not hear of Christ by the traditional means.

Reaching the ‘oral majority’

By Erich Bridges

PATTAYA, Thailand (BP)–Christian leaders from nearly 130 countries recently gathered in Pattaya, Thailand, to consider 31 key issues confronting world evangelization — and learned of one huge challenge that might trump all the others.

Is it terrorism? Persecution? Opposition from hostile governments or religions?

No. It is this simple fact: Four billion people — about two-thirds of the world’s population — are oral learners. They communicate, learn, perceive reality and embrace core beliefs through orally expressed stories, narratives, songs and proverbs — not through the books, periodicals, outlines and other forms of linear thinking preferred by literate cultures (and churches).

Some oral learners are illiterate because of lack of education. Many others, however, belong to the thousands of oral cultures of the globe. Some may even read a written language, but it isn’t the way they prefer to interact with the world — and with the Word of God. The latter group, by the way, includes millions of postmoderns in “literate” societies.

Even if all the other higher-profile roadblocks suddenly fall away, this one will continue to stymie the Gospel’s progress in much of the world — unless we cast the unchanging Good News in forms in which the “oral majority” will receive it.

That comes as news to many of us — as it did to many of the 1,600 leaders attending the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization’s 2004 Forum in Thailand Sept. 29-Oct. 5. They met 30 years after the historic 1974 International Congress in Lausanne, Switzerland, which challenged the “whole church to take the whole Gospel to the whole world.” That watershed event, organized by a committee led by Billy Graham, helped spur the modern missionary movement to evangelize the world’s thousands of unreached people groups.

“But in the 30 years since then, we have hit a glass ceiling when we try to communicate the Gospel to the unreached peoples of the world,” reported Avery Willis in a plenary session at the Lausanne Forum in Thailand. “Seventy percent of them are oral learners who have never heard or understood the greatest story ever told.”

This affects more than the 1.5 billion least-reached people, because 4 billion people in our world can’t, don’t or won’t learn through literate means. These 4 billion people are headed to a Christ-less eternity unless we use culturally appropriate means to evangelize them, disciple them, train leaders and plant reproducing churches.”

Willis recently retired as overseas chief for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. He continues to work with the entity in mobilizing Christians to focus on oral cultures. IMB strategists and missionaries have helped pioneer some of the methods — including chronological Bible “storying” and the development of “oral Bibles” — now used by many Christian workers to reach oral cultures. Willis and eight other IMB workers participated in a working group of 30 missions leaders at the forum called “Making Disciples of Oral Learners.”

“God has opened the eyes of many of us in the past 15 years to see that the primary way to the hearts of the lost is through oral communication strategies,” Willis said.

Like many “new” mission strategies, oral approaches are really rediscoveries of old methods. Jesus, the Living Word, never wrote a book. He told stories within an oral culture that bears surprising similarities to hundreds of cultures today throughout Asia, Africa, the Arab world and the Americas. Words alone — particularly written words, the currency of the literate world — won’t get the Living Word to many of the world’s lost peoples.


— At least 1.5 billion people have never been introduced to reading and writing in any form.

— Up to 85 percent of Muslim women — and 65 percent of Muslim men — are oral learners, ranging from completely non-literate to functionally illiterate. Many Islamic worship leaders in the Middle East and Africa also are exclusively oral communicators, operating by means of a memorized Quran.

— Illiteracy predominates among animistic peoples.

— A high percentage of the thousands of ethnic/linguistic people groups identified by the International Mission Board as largely or completely unreached are oral communicators.

— Of the 6,809 languages spoken in the world, only 414 had whole-Bible translations available by early 2004, according to Wycliffe Bible Translators. Only 928 had a complete New Testament. About 1,700 more translation projects are under way, but more than 4,000 languages have no translated Scripture at all — not even a portion or fragment. Are the speakers of these languages to go without the Gospel until we get around to them?

— Even in supposedly literate societies, millions are non-literate or functionally illiterate (including up to half the population of the United States). Among young people, the percentage rises even higher. Further, as visually oriented electronic technologies spread globally, many non-literate peoples are moving straight from ancient to modern means of visual/oral communication — without ever learning to read and write their own heart language.

From the time of the Gutenberg Bible, Christianity has “walked on literate feet” — directly or indirectly requiring literacy of those seeking the Gospel. That requirement has provided innumerable spiritual and social benefits to societies that embrace literacy. But it continues to fence out other Gospel-hungry cultures and peoples.

“Buta huruf,” the Indonesian term for illiteracy, means “blind to letter.” Primary oral learners cannot “see” written words — and literate missionary methods shut them out. Some 90 percent of the world’s Christian workers still use literate communication styles among oral peoples.

The barrier is not in them, but in us. Our challenge is to adapt our methods to effectively reach the lost, not force billions of oral learners to become literate before they can understand the Gospel. That’s an unnecessary stumbling block.

Let’s partner with the many oral learners who already have become followers of Christ — and help them multiply their witness to billions of others.


Erich Bridges is a senior writer at the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice each month in Baptist Press.Web sites for orality training and resources: