Over the past few years I’ve read a number of works on orality and how people working with non-literates need to take seriously the way that way of thinking impacts spiritual formation. In a book called Orality Breakouts: Using Heart Language to Transform Hearts, I came across a fascinating study done by Dudley Woodberry. His book From Seed to Fruit, tells of research conducted among cross-cultural workers. They found that in a given area, “there was an 82% probability of a church or multiple churches being planted if three fruitful practices were honored
1. at least one person on the team is highly skilled in the local language,
2. the learning preferences of the people group (i.e., oral vs. literate) are incorporated into the team’s strategy; and3. the work is done in the heart language of the people.” (Orality Breakouts, p. 5)
These three items all call for further exploration, but in this post I would like to look at one specific application of point number two. What are the implications of the second fruitful practice for preaching?
I remember one specific teacher in college who evaluated all sermons based on how well they followed the following structure: an introduction, three main points, and an invitation. His students’ sermons were judged on how closely they followed that outline.
But, in my experience of preaching to oral learners here in Mozambique, it has been easy to see the need for a different approach. Primarily illiterate audiences quickly tune out this kind of didactic preaching, whereas the use of proverbs, stories, and clever turns of phrases are particularly useful. As an aside, I have found that personification of non-animals (for example, having a tree or mountain speak as part of a story or parable) has been especially interesting to the oral learners we work with.
So, instead of structuring one’s preaching along the lines of three points and a poem, I would suggest that any preacher who wants to effectively address oral learners should have only one main point. That’s right – hone in on one key point. But, be sure to flesh out the implications of that one idea or text in three main aspects of the hearer’s lives:
Head – Transformational preaching gives oral learners a new way of understanding the world. This new way of thinking is essential as it addresses orthodoxy (correct belief).
Heart – Transformational preaching among oral learners uses stories and parables to harness emotion. Orthopathy (correct passions and desires) is the fuel that gives energy to lead a transformed life.
Hands – Transformational preaching for oral learners will address the intended impact of this teaching in practical everyday ways. How does this sermon’s one point affect the lives of the men, women and children in the audience? Transformed followers of Jesus live lives marked by orthopraxy (correct practices).
If the goal of preaching is transformation, then we must have a holistic approach and intentionally address the hearer’s head, heart and hands. In my mind, preaching in this way is like using three different levers to lift up all sides of a person’s life. In neglecting any one of these three areas, we lose power for assisting oral learners up into the transformed life.
Additionally, as we consider carefully the problem of reproducibility, I think this simple (hopefully not simplistic!) approach to preaching is one that can be passed on to our Mozambican friends as they learn good habits in their own preaching and teaching for calling one another to lives for the glory of God.
May God bless his servants working among primarily oral learners to preach in ways that are truly transformational.
Grace and Peace,