I have just finished four orality (Simply the Story) workshops in the Thai language in Khon Kaen, Bangkok, and with Thai/tribals in the Chiang Mai area. This is the fourth year that we have done such training with the Thai and these patterns continue to emerge:
Orality and the Need for Bible Storytelling in Thailand
1. Thai at their core are oral learners and although education is widespread, the majority after school do not use what they have learned and often end up semi-literate or even functionally non-literate. It may be true that most all who come to Christ have been influenced at some point by printed material or tracts, but it is the relational dimension of hearing personal testimonies/witnessing that influences them the most.
2. Proposition/Abstract based communication of the Bible is not easily understood nor retained by the Thai.
3. Many church members are stifled in discipleship with the idea that only experts (enlightened ones) who have special knowledge can hold the keys of Bible knowledge. Lecturing by these gatekeepers of knowledge is often the sole method of communication. The prevailing approach is pedagogy (literally "teaching children") which means that communicators often wield 100% control of teaching sessions with the Thai simply passively listening. Andragogy, which honors the experience and contribution of the adult learner is rarely employed. As a result, the Thai are not used to interacting over the text, answering questions, or discovering truth first hand.
4. Thai resonate with story presentations of the gospel and are able to understand both the meaning of biblical narratives and can repeat these stories to others. Most importantly, as Thai absorb stories and deeply identify with the characters they experience personal transformation and a desire to share those stories with others.
5. I have presented stories in highly urban centers like Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and in three Bible schools. Even these more literate and educated Thai enjoy and process narrative presentations of the Word well. Jesus did not use story forms with just the uneducated but employed a narrative approach with highly educated scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the law.
How Thai People Are Responding to the Stories
Many more such lessons concerning orality in Thailand could be highlighted, but the anecdotal stories is where the power of story is most clearly seen. Before using an oral approach, I taught in a highly propositional fashion in churches, TEE programs, and in four seminaries. In all of those 20 years I did not see reactions such as those described below:
- After finishing a training in Bangkok, a college engineering student asked me, "Larry, where will you go next for these trainings?" I had to tell him, "Jiwy, I'm sorry to say that I'll be leaving for Phayao Bible College tomorrow." Jiwy replied, "I don't care where you are going, I want more of this training." I said, "But I can't guarantee where you'll stay if you come." Jiwy said, "That's OK, I'm happy to sleep on the floor." Jiwy ended up taking an all-night bus to Phayao and then for five days slept on a pallet next to my bed as we used him to help teach 50 Phayao students for 5 days. I was more impressed with Jiwy than with any of the Bible college students. What is more important is that four years later, Jiwy is using story as a main communication technique in his church and in witnessing.
- An English missionary was discipling six young men, newly out of a jail for delinquents. He took them back into the jail every week to minister. However, they were too embarrassed to share in the jail and would only play instruments in the band. After one week of training in Simply the Story, they stood up and told a Bible story to the whole group. The group repeated the story and they unpacked it. I recorded the testimony of a Thai leader who knew the six young men well before and after the STS training. He was dumbfounded with the seemingly overnight change in their willingness to share in the jail and the resulting impact of their witness through narrative.
A 17 year old had been put into a delinquent jail for three months in Bangkok for doing drugs and other crimes. He told me, "Each week a preacher would come to our jail and give a message, but it was hard to understand and I got bored." But a woman who had been trained in STS did the story of the lost sheep and it resonated with him. Now 19 years old, this young man has become so adept at story telling that we allowed him to be a leader of older adults in our recent training in Bangkok.
- In all my 20+ years in Thailand I did not see people show emotional reactions to my messages, primarily because I was using lecture and seeking a cognitive impact. Now I am seeing a consistent impact on head, heart and "gut" (center of our being, which in a Hebraic sense moves one to action). In Mukdahan province we trained 83 Isaan/tribals. We presented the bent-over woman story (Luke 13:10-17) and did a drama on it. A young man suddenly began to loudly groan and moan in the middle of the congregation. It was awkward to say the least, as no one was able to console him. Later I interviewed "Chaen" and he gave me this explanation: "For many years I was a male prostitute in the sex industry of Thailand, and even in New Zealand. A few years ago, Jesus changed my life. As I listened to how Jesus straightened out the crooked back and demonic influence on this woman, I thought of how crooked my life had been. Jesus delivered me from that lifestyle and the demonic, and I just couldn't hold it in any longer. I was not crying out in pain, but was overcome by all that God had done for me.
- At the same training, a construction foreman immediately got on his cell phone after listening to the Ananias and Saphira story from Acts 5:1-11. Previously, he had lied to his boss about a construction job and wanted to confess to him immediately - so impactive was that story on his life (such a willing loss of face in Thailand is a rarity).
I am sharing stories with many Thai in natural divine appointments, such as with taxi drivers, sitting on a bus/plane and as opportunities arise. Before STS I usually resorted to apologetics, aiming at some weakness in Buddhist philosophy. However, I observed that an immediate wall went up and the conversation often degenerated to "Yes, all religions are the same, they teach you to be a good person." Now I am more content to ask if I can tell them a story and start right in with a biblical narrative, seeking to engage them in the story and end by asking a couple of questions. I was using this approach with a taxi driver on a winding mountain road and when I finished the story, the driver was so struck by the story that he took his hands off the steering wheel and did a slow formal "wai" (it made me want to grab the steering wheel). The driver recognized that this was not a fairy tale but a sacred story about a great teacher (Jesus) and he wanted to acknowledge that fact.
- A highly educated trilingual pastor's wife in Chiang Mai took the STS course in English, but immediately started to use it in her Thai church as well as with some Laotians in a mission outreach. She was so impressed that she recently hosted STS in Thai at her church - over 50 attended. She then asked if I would do a long-term training over many weeks. I have taught many different workshops on various topics in Thailand, yet I've never had such an immediate "buy in" to any other teaching material.
Finally, our STS team-taught 30 highly educated Chinese in Penang, Malaysia a few weeks ago. We already have received an invitation to return to put on an identical workshop in the next month or so as well as plans for an outreach to East Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur. The Baptist Seminary in Penang is asking for a two week intensive on orality. So whether it be non-literate tribals at Mukdahan or educated Chinese in Penang, we see a common interest in Bible narratives given in a powerful and cultural fashion.
To Learn More About Bible Storytelling...
Simply the Story Training: for workshops being taught around the world go to www.simplythestory.org.