How Do We Reach Oral Learners With the Gospel?

Post Icon

If you were to step into my office, two observations you could probably initially make about me—one, I love to travel and collect various souvenirs from various mission trips on which I’ve served. Second, I am an avid reader—as books line my shelf, and I am quickly running out of shelf space to fit them all. Among those in the West, I would venture a guess that I am in the majority when it comes to owning collections of printed material. The printed word is not hard to come by here for those living in this part of the world. And yet, how often do I go about my days, weeks, months, and even years pausing to be grateful for the gift of books, much less, the ability to have a written word, in a language I can hear, read, understand, and comprehend.

There is a sense in which God’s word and his gospel is to be received through ear.

A survey of the world’s population, though, would find me in the minority, as it’s reported that somewhere between 70–80% of people in the world are defined as oral learners. [1] The International Orality Network would define ‘oral learners’ “as those who learn best and whose lives are most likely to be transformed when instruction comes in oral forms.” [2] Consider even the context in which the Bible took place—certainly in part—an oral context, as stories of God’s faithfulness were passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. There is a sense in which God’s word and his gospel is to be received through ear. As Moses even recounts to God’s people, in Deuteronomy 5:24, “And you said, ‘Behold, the LORD our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live.” As we move into the New Testament, Paul writes in Romans 10:8–9, ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart, because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’ Paul goes onto note that belief comes through the proclamation of the gospel, and that faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ.

So, while it should be a missionary’s aim for the Word of God to be translated and printed into the languages and dialects of the peoples of the world, we know that there are thousands who do not have a printed copy of the Word in their heart language. In fact, while 70-80% of the world’s population falls into the oral end of the spectrum, 90% of the world’s materials related to evangelism, discipleship, and leadership training are developed for a literate audience. [3] We know it does not make someone automatically literate, just by reading to them. Reading to my three-year-old one day is not going to make her an avid reader the next. She must learn the concept and constructs of reading words, sentences, paragraphs and ideas. The way oral learners, be they three-year-olds or tribal members in Papua New Guinea, process information differently. Therefore, we must know how to engage them on a different plain.

Before diving into some useful tools, it could be helpful to define an oral-literate continuum:

  • Illiterates could be defined as those who cannot read or write, having never seen a letter.
  • Functional illiterates have had some schooling but do not continue to read or write once they complete their time of instruction.
  • Semi-literates are a transitional group between oral learners and literates.
  • Literates understand and handle information, concepts, etc. and use printed material to process information.
  • Highly literate are those who attend college and find themselves in the professional world using primarily print material. [4]
Believers must recall that oral learners prefer to learn and pass on information through stories, songs, and poems.

Missionaries engaging oral cultures might be inclined to default to a one-size-fits-all approach. Yet, believers must recall that oral learners prefer to learn and pass on information through stories, songs, and poems. These would be considered primary oral learners. There is however, secondary oral learners who are found ever increasingly in Western societies where there is a high literacy population and yet the value of literacy is decreasing. [5] So, therefore, a helpful missiological tactic would be to assess where the literacy level is, what is the trend of literacy even in a highly literate area, and then engage that people group in ways that will connect with them.

Three broader strategies that are being used are digital mediums, Chronological Bible Storying, and catechisms.

We must think strategically, as we send forth laborers into oral cultures and contexts, to till the soil, to tell the gospel story, to translate the Scriptures, and together make disciples of all peoples.


With the advent of the smart phone and ensuing apps, more translations of God’s Word are being passed along through audio means. Various stories from Scripture are being passed along through Bluetooth, downloadable applications, and audio versions of the Bible in varying languages.

As we consider digital avenues of the transmission of the gospel message, we must caution ourselves to recognize that digital means may work in some contexts, but not all. Also, digital means do not replace the proclamation of the Word through human agents.

Chronological Bible Storying

Defining ‘CBS,’ Zane Pratt writes, “this is the practice of crafting stories from key biblical passages from Genesis to Revelation and then telling them in sequence to impart the biblical metanarrative of God’s plan of redemption and help reshape the hearers’ worldview into a Christian one.” [6]

A plus to CBS is that there is an aspect of reproducibility. As Sills states, “We want our hearers to remember and be able to repeat the lessons they learn, only then will the biblical truth that transforms their lives continue to impact others.” [7] Missionaries must also consider choosing stories and crafting story sets specific to the bridges and barriers of the particular worldview they encounter.


This is a unique expression of question and answer, allowing individuals to respond to key doctrinal questions to help frame a biblical worldview through means of repetition.

Regardless of what method serves best, missionaries want to be faithful about not just reaching peoples with the gospel but teaching all that Christ commanded. While printed materials and copies of the Word are helpful, ultimately, obedient lives, marked by the Word (whether received orally or through printed means) is the fruit of discipleship.

I pray as you and I open our Bibles each day, that we might pause and give praise to God that we have the ability to read God’s Word, study it, memorize it, and recite it to others. May we, as Christ followers also be mindful of the millions who do not have such access or even ability, due in part to not having a written language. We must think strategically, then, as we send forth laborers into oral cultures and contexts, to till the soil, to tell the gospel story, to translate the Scriptures, and together make disciples of all peoples.

Ryan is also the author of Holding the Rope: How the Local Church Can Care for Its Sent Ones. 


[1] David Sills, Changing World, Unchanging Mission: Responding to Global Challenges (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), 87.

[2] International Orality Network, Making Disciples of Oral Learners (Bangalore, Thailand: ION, 2004), 4.

[3] Sills, 90.

[4] Ibid., 93.

[5] Zane Pratt, David Sills, and Jeff Walters, Introduction to Global Missions (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2014), 34.

[6] Ibid., 35.

[7] Sills, 104.

A version of this article was originally posted on The Upstream Collective.

  • Discipleship
  • Great Commission
Ryan Martin

Ryan serves as Director of Missions and Operations with Lightbearers Ministries. He graduated in 2022 with a Doctor of Ministry from Southeastern Baptist Theological seminary, where he also serves as a trustee. He has received a MDiv in Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (2008), and an undergraduate degree (2005) from Union University in Jackson, TN. Prior to joining Lightbearers, he served for thirteen years as a missions pastor in the local church. Ryan lives in Fayetteville with his wife, Rebekah, and three children: Hudson, Annie, and Hattie.

CGCS Newsletter Coming Soon!

Sign Up Now!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.