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4 Billion People in 'Oral Majority'
4 billion people in 'oral majority,'
Lausanne Forum participants told
By Erich Bridges
PATTAYA, Thailand (BP) -- Christian leaders from nearly 130 countries
gathered in Pattaya, Thailand, Sept. 29 - Oct. 5 to consider 31 key
issues confronting world evangelization -- and learned of one huge
challenge that might trump all the others.
Is it terrorism? Persecution? Opposition from hostile governments or
religions? No. It is this simple fact:
Four billion people -- about two-thirds of the world's population --
are oral learners.
They communicate, learn, perceive reality and embrace core beliefs
through orally expressed stories, narratives, songs and proverbs -- not
through the books, periodicals, outlines and other forms of linear
thinking preferred by literate cultures (and churches).
Some oral learners are illiterate because of lack of education. Many
others, however, belong to the thousands of oral cultures of the globe.
Some may even read a written language, but it isn't the way they prefer
to interact with the world -- and with the Word of God. The latter
group, by the way, includes millions of postmoderns in "literate"
Even if all the other higher-profile roadblocks suddenly fall away,
this one will continue to stymie the gospel's progress in much of the
world -- unless we cast the unchanging good news in forms in which the
"oral majority" will receive it.
That comes as news to many of us -- as it did to many of the 1,600
leaders attending the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization's
2004 Forum in Thailand. They met 30 years after the historic 1974
International Congress in Lausanne, Switzerland, which challenged the
"whole church to take the whole gospel to the whole world." That
watershed event, organized by a committee led by Billy Graham, helped
spur the modern missionary movement to evangelize the world's thousands
of unreached people groups.
"But in the 30 years since then, we have hit a glass ceiling when we
try to communicate the gospel to the unreached peoples of the world,"
reported Avery Willis in a plenary session at the Lausanne Forum in
Thailand. "Seventy percent of them are oral learners who have never
heard or understood the greatest story ever told.
"This affects more than the 1.5 billion least-reached people, because 4
billion people in our world can't, don't or won't learn through
literate means. These 4 billion people are headed to a Christless
eternity unless we use culturally appropriate means to evangelize them,
disciple them, train leaders and plant reproducing churches."
Willis recently retired as overseas chief for the Southern Baptist
International Mission Board. He continues to work with the agency in
mobilizing Christians to focus on oral cultures. IMB strategists and
missionaries have helped pioneer some of the methods -- including
chronological Bible "storying" and the development of "oral Bibles" --
now used by many Christian workers to reach oral cultures. Willis and
eight other IMB workers participated in a working group of 30 missions
leaders at the forum called "Making disciples of Oral Learners."
"God has opened the eyes of many of us in the past 15 years to see that
the primary way to the hearts of the lost is through oral communication
strategies," Willis said.
Like many "new" mission strategies, oral approaches are really
rediscoveries of old methods. Jesus, the Living Word, never wrote a
book. He told stories within an oral culture that bears surprising
similarities to hundreds of cultures today throughout Asia, Africa, the
Arab world and the Americas. Words alone -- particularly written words,
the currency of the literate world -- won't get the Living Word to many
of the world's lost peoples.
-- At least 1.5 billion people have never been introduced to reading
and writing in any form.
-- Up to 85 percent of Muslim women -- and 65 percent of Muslim men â?"
are oral learners, ranging from completely non-literate to functionally
illiterate. Many Islamic worship leaders in the Middle East and Africa
also are exclusively oral communicators, operating by means of a
-- Illiteracy predominates among animistic peoples.
-- A high percentage of the thousands of ethnic/linguistic people
groups identified by the International Mission Board as largely or
completely unreached are oral communicators.
-- Of the 6,809 languages spoken in the world, only 414 had whole-Bible
translations available by early 2004, according to Wycliffe Bible
Translators. Only 928 had a complete New Testament. About 1,700 more
translation projects are under way, but more than 4,000 languages have
no translated Scripture at all -- not even a portion or fragment. Are
the speakers of these languages to go without the gospel until we get
around to them?
-- Even in supposedly literate societies, millions are non-literate or
functionally illiterate (including up to half the population of the
United States). Among young people, the percentage rises even higher.
Further, as visually oriented electronic technologies spread globally,
many non-literate peoples are moving straight from ancient to modern
means of visual/oral communication -- without ever learning to read and
write their own heart language.
From the time of the Gutenberg Bible, Christianity has "walked on
literate feet" -- directly or indirectly requiring literacy of those
seeking the gospel. That requirement has provided innumerable spiritual
and social benefits to societies that embrace literacy. But it
continues to fence out other gospel-hungry cultures and peoples.
"Buta huruf," the Indonesian term for illiteracy, means "blind to
letter." Primary oral learners cannot "see" written words -- and
literate missionary methods shut them out. Some 90 percent of the
world's Christian workers still use literate communication styles among
The barrier is not in them, but in us. Our challenge is to adapt our
methods to effectively reach the lost, not force billions of oral
learners to become literate before they can understand the gospel.
That's an unnecessary stumbling block.
Let's partner with the many oral learners who already have become
followers of Christ -- and help them multiply their witness to billions
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