In recent years, the concept of orality has gotten a lot of attention in mission circles… and not all of it has been good. Proponents of orality hail it as a key insight into the way in which some people learn orally, and not by the written word. Thus, we should focus our evangelism and discipleship around the oral communication of Bible stories when working with people who can’t (or won’t) read. Critics view orality as a dumbing down of biblical teaching, which underestimates people’s ability to understand doctrinal truth, and thus substitutes stories for meaty teaching from the Word of God. So who is right? Is orality a friend or foe in the battle against biblical illiteracy? Can this practice further the cause of discipling the nations?
As with many things, the answers are somewhere in-between. Those who praise orality and fly under its banner are not a monolithic group any more than traditional expositional preachers are. While there are some people who turn expositional preaching into little more than academic lectures, there are also some people who (in the name of orality) allow Bible story-telling to degenerate into irresponsible eisegesis. For this reason, those who have a high regard for the Word of God and value the importance of expositional preaching sometimes brush aside orality as irrelevant at best, and heretical at worst. But for those who find themselves among the skeptics, there are two important points to understand about orality:
1) Orality is a Concept, not a Method
Orality is sometimes equated with Bible story-telling (or storying), but they are actually different. Orality is the descriptive observation that some people (due to illiteracy, low literacy, and/or a lack of training in critical/analytical thinking skills) have trouble following a complex sermon outline (think 3 points & multiple sub points) or conceptual explanations of doctrine. They are not used to classifying and dissecting things into categories. For that reason, they have trouble tracking with traditional expositional presentations of doctrine that are taught by literate people for literate listeners. These folks are “oral learners”who learn better through stories and concrete examples. So based on the fact that some people learn better through orally based stories and examples, various groups have come up with methods for evangelism and discipleship based around telling and discussing Bible stories.
While we may debate the validity of certain methods of Bible story telling and teaching, it should not be too shocking that there are many people in the world have trouble processing methods of instruction that depend upon pre-requisite skills in literacy and critical thinking. With that in mind, we need to ask: "Whom am I trying to teach?" and "Do they have adequate reading and thinking skills to understand what I am presenting in the way I am presenting it?"
2) Orality is Not One Size Fits All
In some of the literature on orality, preaching and Bible story-telling are pitted against each other. Preaching is belittled as boring and ineffective, while storying is exalted as engaging and exciting. Most certainly, in some places in the world today, the preaching that is happening is boring and ineffective. I’ve heard lots of bad, ineffective sermons, both in the U.S. and overseas. But I have also heard many encouraging, biblical, life-giving, God-exalting, breathtaking, passionate, challenging, and edifying sermons that have instructed and grown my faith in Jesus Christ. Yet I have to admit that my cultural and educational background has prepared me to understand and appreciate those great sermons. Not everyone has this same background.
The question that we should ask ourselves is not “orality”vs. “literacy”, nor is it “stories” vs. “preaching.” Rather, we should ask ourselves, “Are the people that I want to reach oriented and equipped to think concretely or conceptually?" "Are they used to digesting new information orally or through the written word?” There are some people on far end of the spectrum who require only oral teaching (right now) because they cannot (yet) process anything more. And then there are some people on the other end of the spectrum who can eat difficult theoretical books for breakfast. But the majority of people probably fall somewhere in the middle. The following diagram illustrates the amount of exposition vs. story that is necessary/helpful in bringing the Scriptures to different types of people.
In the world today, there are some fantastic expositors of Scripture who are a great blessing to the church. However, not everyone learns in the way that they teach. So how do we help those folks learn the Scripture and encounter the Christ of the Bible? Orality brings insights to the table about why some people are not “getting it.” It can also be a help to all of us who love the Scriptures and want to help people “get it.”
Orality and expositional preaching don’t need to be enemies. Those who would dismiss all preaching as ineffective need to step off their soap box and acknowledge the great blessing that preaching has been to the church through the centuries. And those who scoff at orality as pragmatic "kids’ stuff" need to come to grips with the inability of some people to understand doctrine and preaching as traditionally presented. Insights from orality have a valuable contribution to make to the task of evangelism and discipleship in the world today.