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Relearning How to Reach the Unreached

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.

My family and I had the honor of serving the Black Tai people, a mountain tribe in NW Vietnam. Brave Pioneers had already been working on the translation of the Bible in the Black Tai language for 40 years and they finished up the translation the year we went. As we spent time with the precious Black Tai people, we became a part of their lives. We presented them with the amazing gift that had just been completed. Their joy was evident at seeing the Bible in their heart language.

Yet many of them responded to the gift with the same question: “Can you read it to me?”

Our hearts broke as we began to realize the distance that remained between them and the scriptures. There still seemed to be a wall standing between the Black Tai people and the Kingdom of God.

The Gospel is being proclaimed now to more people than at any other time in history. Yet many in the audience are not actually hearing it.

The Gospel is available now to more people than at any other time in history, yet many of those people are not really understanding it.[1]

Unfortunately, most Christian leaders do not yet realize the magnitude of the problem.

Let’s look at the numbers. Around 80% of the world’s population are oral preference learners. By “oral preference learners,” we do not necessarily mean illiterate, although many are. Rather, we mean people who can’t, don’t, or won’t naturally take in new information or communicate by literate styles, such as is typically the norm in the Western world. Even more shocking is that we can find oral preference learners in every single cultural group of the world![2]

Most missionaries have not learned how to communicate the Gospel effectively to oral preference learners! It stands to reason that we will not succeed in finishing the task, reaching the majority of the world, until we adjust and make crucial changes.[3]

A full 90% of the world’s Christian workers are bringing Jesus to people and discipling them using highly literate communication styles. These include printed page, expositional, analytical, and logical presentations of the Gospel.[4]

And yet, it is estimated that 90% of the world’s remaining unreached and unengaged people groups are part of oral cultures! There’s clearly an imbalance here. We are using what works for us–what we grew up with–and are making others adjust to us, to our culture. Will we adjust–and do we even know how–to the people we are reaching in order to facilitate deep transformational encounters with Jesus?

So let us ask: What is “oral culture”? Who is an “oral preference learner”?

These are communities and people that “learn best and whose lives are most likely to be transformed when instruction comes in oral forms.” These people pass on their way of life, heritage, values, beliefs, and worldview by means of “stories, proverbs, poetry, chants, music, dances, ceremonies, and rites of passage.”[5]

The spoken, sung, and chanted word associated with their way of life is ornate. It’s elaborate. It’s potent. The people in these oral communities that specialize in this art form are highly regarded and sought after. The Bards of old, the sages, the Gurus, the Shamans, the Griots, the Poets… the Storytellers.

Therefore, to reach the unreached oral learner, we become storytellers. We learn the art of “orality.” This involves rethinking our methods as we learn the practices and values of oral cultures.

If we want to reach oral preference learners, then we must consider reshaping how we do partner with them in their journey toward Jesus. When we take this thing called “orality” seriously, our ministries will be revolutionized. As we deepen our understanding of oral culture and align with its inherent values, our humility and response have the potential to greatly increase our effectiveness.

So what is the hope of reaching the billions of souls who are oral learners around the world? What is the hope for getting God’s Word to the speakers of the thousands of languages who are still without His word?

Here is the great news: Jesus not only commissioned us to reach oral preference learners–after all, He sent us “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). But He also gave us the tools to reach them. After all, Jesus Himself was the Master Storyteller.

More on that in my next post.

[1] Making Disciples of Oral Learners (International Orality Network / Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 2004), 3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 4-5.