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Reaching the Unreached with Stories

Photo of James BardJames Bard | Bio

James Bard

Bard grew up on the mission field in SE Asia and returned to SE Asia after college to work with a large, tribal unreached people group. It was there that Bard and his team ran up against non-literacy & oral culture. This was the beginning of his journey to understand, celebrate, and make the Gospel come alive to Oral Cultures. Bard currently travels internationally with Scriptures in Use, an organization which trains ministry leaders to use the oral arts--storytelling, poetry, song, dance, and drama--to evangelize, disciple, plant churches, and train leaders. This is all for the purpose of starting disciple-making movements among the least reached people of the world.

During my journey to understand “oral cultures,” I’ve had the privilege of studying under the most amazing Middle Eastern man I’ve ever met. I’ve never met anyone that knows the Word of God more than He does. There’s something about this man that people are just drawn to, and that I’m drawn to.

For one thing, it is clear that he is full of the Holy Spirit. For another, it doesn’t matter what question we ask him, he always answers with a story or a brilliant illustration. It’s actually sometimes frustrating how indirect he can be in his answers! I’ve sat there and wanted him to just come out and say it! But when he gets going telling stories, people can’t resist! I’ve seen rooms packed out to hear his stories.

Whenever we’d enter a community or sit down to eat at someone’s home, it wouldn’t be long before the crowds would gather. It’s fascinating to see how he leads people through the stories from the Word. The questions he asks are so simple, and yet so powerful.

Sometimes after sharing a story, the only thing he’d ask would be, “Do you understand?” And the people listening would say, “Yeah, we got it,” and he’d walk away! (Leaving me there feeling the need to explain what he actually meant.) He always leaves us wanting more. He makes us work to understand and actually doesn’t mind if we don’t get it right away. And he doesn’t insult us by explaining everything for us.

Sound familiar?

Yes, it does! Jesus was and still is the greatest storyteller the world has ever seen.

Mark tells us that “With many stories like these, he presented his message to them, fitting the stories to their experience and maturity. He was never without a story when he spoke” (Mark 4:33-34, MSG).

Jesus is our master, our teacher, and our example. He shows us how to engage people’s hearts with the language of stories. His way is our hope for these dear people in oral cultures whom we are giving our lives for. He calls us to follow Him in His footsteps. He calls us to be His apprentices. He calls us to engage their hearts just as He did.

Paul was the first missionary to the ends of the earth, and he was willing to do whatever it took:

“I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews, I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law. . . . To those not having the law I became like one not having the law. . . . To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:19-22 NIV).

In the same way, we might add:

To the literate learners, I became a literate communicator. To the oral learners, I became an oral communicator.

Why did Paul do this? Why do we do this?

“I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

I grew up on the missionary field and I watched my parents give everything for the Taiwanese people. They were willing to do whatever it took to bring them into the Kingdom because they loved them. We loved the Black Tai people and we labored and struggled to find ways to help them deeply understand the Good News.

With this same love and desire, I labor with the same willingness to do whatever it takes for unreached people to be at that final banquet table worshiping Jesus in their heart language.

This is why I wish someone had helped me understand oral culture. To help me honor it, to hold space for it, to protect it, to tap into its power! When we brought that precious Black Tai Bible to them, I felt like we had installed electricity in their homes. A power that would revolutionize their lives. A power that would change them forever.

But we had installed the wrong sockets!

They couldn’t plug in to access that power! We were so close and yet still so far and we didn’t understand what was happening.

Here’s my invitation: Let’s switch the sockets and see what the unhindered electricity of the Holy Spirit will do.

We have the potential to inspire, challenge, and train the believing storytellers and poets, the performers of the spoken word from deep within the cultures we are working among. The current will travel through them, bringing light in the darkness to oral learners.

  • What methods are we holding onto whose usefulness has already come and gone?
  • What traditions are we holding onto simply because that’s the way we’ve always done it?
  • What values are we functioning by that are building a barrier between these oral learners and deep transformative encounters with Jesus?
Let’s follow the Master Storyteller’s example and align ourselves with these precious values and watch the Holy Spirit use them to catalyze the advancement of the Kingdom of God.