Neither the early church, nor the Chinese church had access to many Bibles. The canon of the New Testament was not fixed until into the fourth century. More significantly, all Scripture was hand-copied. It is unlikely that most churches, let alone individual Christians, had copies of the entire Bible. Many may not have had much at all. Yet here was a movement that flourished and grew. At various points it faced heresy and survived. The same is true of the Chinese church. Under Mao Bibles were destroyed. As with the early church, few churches, let alone individual believers, had a copy of the Scriptures.
This is routinely thought to be a ‘despites’. These movement flourished ‘despite’ not having Bibles. But could it be that the lack of Bibles contributed to their spread?
The problem is not the Bible (of course)
The problem, of course, is not with the Bible! I am not suggesting we burn our Bibles or let them gather dust on our shelves. Indeed I would argue that no movement will ever flourish without the Bible. These movements may not have had Bibles (plural), but they did have the Bible.
Of course we must maintain the centrality of God’s word. The Bible will be yardstick by which everything is measured. But it words must be ingested and learnt so they can be spoken in life-on-life situations. Its story and its stories must be learnt and retold by everyone.
So what is the issue?
The problem = highly literate ways of teaching
Consider what happens when you do not have Bibles. How are people taught? How are they discipled? The answer is that people will be discipled much as they were in ancient Israel (Deuteronomy 6) and much as Jesus taught his disciples. Jesus himself would not have owned a Bible. He would have heard it read in the synagogues and he seems to have memorized much of it. He taught by recalling quotes, telling stories, interacting with life events.
A lack of Bibles ensures an oral-centred model of learning rather than an text-centred model. And the great value of an oral-centred approach is that anyone can do it. A text-centred approach makes the Bible for functionally literate people. I have seen varying figures for functional illiteracy in a Western context, but they all put it over 50 percent. These are people who can read words on a page, but do not read to gain information. A good proportion of the remaining literate people are preferred oral learners. That means the majority of the population prefer learning through oral means. Yet most of church teaching is geared for highly literate minority.
In other words, the problem is not with the Bible (it seems pretty ridiculous even to write that statement). The problem is with a highly literate way of teaching it.
All over the world, missionaries are adopting chronologically Bible storying (CBS) as their core means of communicating the gospel. See, for example, www.chronologicalbiblestorying.com and www.echothestory.com.
One of my growing frustrations is the disconnect between all that is being learnt in mission and missiology with the practice of ‘sending’ churches in the West. I’m not sure if it is arrogance or laziness or a lack of imagination, but I find myself have conversations that I realise would be unthinkable anywhere in the world but the UK or the US.