Communicate God’s Truth In Oral Cultures


Dr. Dale Walker was fixing folks’ teeth on a porch in North Congo when a man began drumming a log. Openings had been cut out of the log by machete, in the shape of an upside-down V that deepened as it ran along the log. Dr. Walker asked what it was called.

“Talking Drum.”

“Does it really talk?”

“Of course.”

Doubtful, Dr. Walker challenged, “Tell that worker, the one carrying a rock, to set it down, go to that orange tree over there and bring me an orange.”

Boom boom boom…

The worker dropped the rock, went and brought the fruit.

On another occasion nearby, a missionary came to visit a pastor that she did not know. His wife said, “He’s out working in the jungle. I’ll call him.” She beat their talking drum and in a few minutes the pastor came. He knew not only that a lady was waiting for him, but even her name! They used no code; the drum imitated the notes of their tonal dialect.

Marilyn Malmstrom of Wycliffe Bible Translators observed that  people in oral societies might read and write a bit, but prefer to learn and process information not by seeing but by hearing, observing and imitating, listening and repeating, memorizing proverbs and songs. They prefer to talk about events rather than read, examine or analyze concepts. They narrate actions to store information, aid recall and organize thought, memorizing past information, valuing tradition, and reciting genealogies rather than compiling lists.

Oral societies relate events and information in ways that integrate into one whole picture otherwise disconnected truths, rather than using abstract, linear analysis. Truth stems from real life events that are not merely examples of principles, but are related to people and events they know and discuss. Discourse reasons from experience and association, organizes content by mentioning related events, and takes place mainly in group dialogue.

In oral societies, sounds (tone, volume, etc.) deeply affects what one hears, determines clarity and style of speech, and shows respectful agreement with a speaker (like “Amens”), particularly in storytelling. If reading, people prefer to do it aloud to groups. They enjoy verbal contests and view print as a record of something spoken. They can produce beautiful verbal art forms, such as epic poems and ballads.

In oral societies, Christian workers must…

  • Recognize that most of the Bible is oriented towards oral communicators
  • Use oral discourse styles in translating and facilitating memorization
  • Rely on narrative, dialogue and drama
  • Present information in clear narrative order rather than in an analytical, abstract order
  • Value a worldview that focuses more on Bible characters, events, relationships and felt needs.
  • Use life-like settings to introduce. explain and apply Scripture.
  • Embed exposition and exhortation within narrative when possible. 
  • Do good quality recording, dramatic effects, appropriate music, songs, and sound effects.
  • Use audio and audio-visual media as a means of communicating
  • Use the mother tongue
  • Imitate Jesus’ oral methods, especially in becoming storytellers and using parables
  • Work in teams and include local people in processing plans
  • Use a locally reproducible church planting model.
  • Use god’s story in the Bible as a whole, unified collection.
  • Illustrate principles with stories.
  • Put scripture into song, poetry, dance, mime, puppets, etc., without relying on books
  • Reawaken their childhood imagination and creativity, which in the west is educated out of adults, to use their God-given artistic capability to communicate in a vivid, non-abstract way.


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