Tell Me a Story

Two thirds of us are oral learners

By Anonymous

Tell me another story, Myriam whispered as she knelt at my feet, tattooing my toes and ankles with a thick, dark paste of henna plant and cold tea.

Her eyes looked up at me, filled with longing, yet fear, knowing the potential consequence of hearing another story about Jesus. Myriam was thirsty to hear truth, and her open and curious heart had been moved with the power of God’s story, which had been feeding her soul while creating a hunger for more.

Week after week, I would visit Myriam, one of the first women I had met during our years in North Africa. She had become more than a dear friend; Myriam was my sister, rooti in Arabic. Our visits were spent sitting on traditional North African farache couches, sipping hot mint tea, eating msimmons (thick crepes coated in melted butter and honey) and sharing our lives, discussing marriage, children, cooking and other topics.

However, our times together would not end until I had shared a Bible story. To better engage her, I used a chronological set of stories crafted specifically for Myriam’s North African people group on the theme of honor and shame. It was essential that she hear the full account of redemption, revealed in the beautiful panorama of God’s story told from Creation to the beginning of the Church.

Myriam loved hearing stories of God and His love, and I loved telling them, watching her eyes light up with joy, surprise or sadness as these carefully crafted words painted vivid pictures in her mind.

Myriam is one of four billion oral learners—more than two-thirds of the world’s population—who receive and pass on information primarily through stories, poems, music and other cultural art forms. Although proud that she can read and write, Myriam prefers to learn orally. You won’t find a shelf stacked with books, magazines or other printed material anywhere in her home. You will, however, find a radio, a television and a telephone. In fact, Myriam learned to master her traditional henna art design skills through a television program.

What makes oral learners different from literate learners? Oral learners typically value tradition and acquire knowledge in community—with family, friends and neighbors. Literate, or print learners, value novelty and tend to communicate one-on-one, learning mainly when alone. They learn best through hearing, repetition, observation, modeling and hands-on experience. Oral learners, writes Walter J. Ong, professor emeritus of English and Humanities in Psychiatry at Saint Louis University, “learn a great deal and possess and practice great wisdom, but they do not “study.” They learn by apprenticeship—hunting with experienced hunters, for example—by discipleship, which is a kind of apprenticeship, by listening, by repeating what they hear . . .”* They don’t need to be told to pass along what they hear; they do it naturally. Stories become engrained in their souls and central to their day-to-day interactions.

Jesus was the most engaging storyteller of all time. When He told stories and parables to the crowds that gathered to hear Him preach, He used language they understood and imagery that was relevant to their cultural context. We must do the same.

Oral learners are everywhere, lounging under the mango trees in the bushes of Africa and sitting in the pews of North American churches. Are we ready and willing to speak to them in their heart language, the language of story? Are we equipped to make disciples of the oral learners around us everywhere?

More and more, The Alliance is promoting the careful and strategic use of story-centric models and approaches to the communication of God’s Word, offering training to our global staff and, more importantly, to our national church leaders in other countries. “Since most unreached people today live in primary oral cultures, we simply must learn how to package the gospel for oral audiences and embrace alternative ways of making disciples and training leaders that do not depend upon Western literary biases,” says Dr. Tim Crouch, vice president for International Ministries for the U.S. Alliance.

One way The Alliance is spreading “the orality fever” is by joining hands with other missions organizations that have been walking the road of orality for many years. In 2011, The Alliance became a part of OneStory, a joint partnership with Wycliffe, Campus Crusade for Christ, Trans World Radio, Pioneers, Youth With a Mission and the Seed Company.

We have a lot to learn from these organizations, and The Alliance also has much to contribute to the partnership through its considerable force of bicultural international workers and international family of churches. Because of our commitment to language learning, cultural integration and long-term vision, we have the experience and the on-the-ground manpower to take these orality tools and run with them.

Using orality and storytelling is a new approach to missions, especially as we minister among unreached people groups that may not have a written language. The OneStory Partnership developed and recorded the chronological Bible “story set” I told Myriam, designed to present the gospel through 24 stories over the course of several months. Culturally sensitive to specific people groups, these stories are the seeds of an “oral Bible” that can be told from generation to generation.

We are not saying that the more literate ways of communicating are not useful and that the many years spent on written Bible translation are wasted. Both oral and written communications have a time and place in the journey of making disciples of oral learners. We must, however, be mindful of where oral learners are on the path of coming to know Jesus, the Messiah, and meet them there—and what better way than by telling them a story? Stories transcend age, gender, ethnicity, political affiliation—even religion. They enable us to look past our differences and celebrate what unites us—opening doors of dialogue that other forms of communication often close.

Even though you are reading this article and are probably highly literate, could it be that you, too, have a preference for oral learning? Are you having trouble connecting with that other-cultured coworker, that unengageable church lady or the iPhone-obsessed teenager sitting on your couch? Maybe it’s time for a fresh approach: tell them a story.

One day, I went to Myriam’s house for a glass of mint tea and a chat. “Hassan doesn’t want you to tell me any more stories about Jesus,” she said quietly, even though we were the only ones in the house.

“OK,” I answered, “I understand.”

Myriam was in an abusive marriage—her husband beat her regularly—but even so, as an oral learner, she couldn’t help but share with him the stories I had been telling her.

When I heard Myriam’s words, fearful questions flooded my mind. Would Hassan hurt Myriam? Would I have to stop visiting? As a strict Muslim, would he turn our family over to the police? Sadness overwhelmed my heart. Myriam might never be able to hear the rest of the stories, see the full picture of God’s redemptive plan for her or experience the joy and hope of eternal life in Jesus.

I asked people to pray that Myriam would hear God’s truth in another way, perhaps through a dream or a vision.

Several weeks later, Myriam was painting my toes with henna. “Tell me another story,” she whispered.

Anxiety struck me. Please God, what should I do? I cried out in my heart. The answer was evident. How could I keep silent? The love of God compelled me to obey and to tell this woman another story about His love. That is why He had sent me here.

“OK,” I said quietly, “but you can’t tell Hassan the stories.”

Myriam nodded, smiling with anticipation, and I opened my mouth to tell another story.

—by Renée

*Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, 2nd ed. (London, New York: Routledge, 2002), 8.

Author’s Note

Several years later, Myriam came to faith in Jesus after having several dreams about Him. These dreams confirmed what she had been hearing in the Bible stories. Myriam’s mother has also become a follower of Jesus.

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