A non-literate pattern of disciple-making

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.

Bible storying

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.



20 thoughts on “A non-literate pattern of disciple-making

  1. Again, really thought-provoking stuff. But it seems that by choosing only China and the early church you stack the deck a bit in your favor. By almost any account, the Reformation (and perhaps even the Puritan movement) are movements of the Spirit, bringing many to Christ. The true gospel spread throughout Europe in remarkable ways. Yet literacy, and a return to the study of Scriptures, were at the center of these movements (seeking to correct the deep ignorance that preceded it). How does this fit into your account?

  2. I certainly agree the Reformation and the Puritan were movements of the Spirit. A few random thoughts. I’m not against literacy. (I write books!) Nor am I saying that the Spirit does not use literate means. But among non-literate people we need non-literate means (rather than expecting them to become literate before they can encounter the truth). So my argument does not require to show God never uses literate means (clearly he does), but simply to show that he also uses non-literate means (as he did in the early church, Chinese church, Great Awakening in the UK which was a largely non-literate movement and so on). It would be interesting to know how intensive the Reformation and Puritan movements were. There were extensive in their geographic spread, but I have often found myself asking how much they impacted the hearts and minds of ordinary people. I don’t know. I remember thinking the figures for the revivals associated with Jonathan Edwards were large in terms of one church growing, but not large in terms of impacting a culture.

  3. Pingback: Theologising « Tim Chester: A non-literate pattern of disciple-making

  4. I think Tim makes a hugely important point here which shouldn’t be lost in discussion. Obviously the Bible needs to be taught to all sorts of people in the ways most appropriate to them. If Tim’s analysis is correct (and I think it is!) then we effectively disenfrancised a large proportion of the population from hearing the good news of Jesus simply because of the methodology we have chosen to communicate in. This may help to explain why there are huge swathes of working class Britain with no gospel centred church. it may explain why a significant number of evengelical churches are found in the wealthier suburbs of cities rather than the council estates. That’s true even with us in Sheffield, where I am sure most believers will be found in the wealthier south west of the city. Our focus on the highly literate, text centred approach is also reflected in the fact that most evangelical churches feel they have to be led by a professional, salaried, seminary trained expert rather than just training up the local guys from within their number.
    It is no coincidenece that large numbers of people are fascinated with ‘soaps’ like Eastenders or Coronation Street, which are just basically ongoing stories about characters they can at least partially identify with. I’m not arguing for ‘dumbing down’ the gospel or making it on a par with the triviality of Eastenders, but it does suggest the choice of ‘medium’ with which many people are familiar. It also echoes why Jesus taught his disciples in everyday terms with which they were familiar – farming, fishing, parables. The need is surely to present the unchanging truths of the gospel but in the context of the culture one is trying to reach.

  5. Tim,
    I’ve looked at your blog for a while, and while I have not read every post, I have read enough to come away wondering what place is there for Christ’s gift to the church, namely pastors and teachers? I’ve seen you emphasize the “anyone can do it” line when it comes to teaching and organizing, but is that really the biblical model? Why did Paul spend so much time in his letters and in Acts worrying about establishing elders in every city? What role do they play in your understanding of church planting/growing?

    In regards to the literacy issues of this post, I would be hesitant to say because this is what we see, this is what works best or what should be. Many parts of the world have seen the church weak and feable because they do not have access to the Scriptures in their own language, or because no one can read. By virtue of the fact that God inspired a book and not just stories, leads me to believe there is something essential to the written word. I don’t think that every believer MUST be literate, but certainly the main pastor/teacher should be.

    I think is part of the reason why so many of the early (modern) missionaries made literacy a keystone of their work. They wanted to provide the Scriptures in the language of the people, and teach time to read them.

    Any thoughts?

    Even though, at first glance I am bristling a little at what I see you saying, I am thankful for your ministry, you blog, and your books! So, blessing be upon you!


  6. Hi Tim

    Interesting post – and having been involved with your community and spending time with people from it I see where you are coming from, which is perhaps where John (previous comment) is at a disadvantage.

    John I think that the literacy issue can become a blind alley. Are you saying that there is a DIRECT correlation between the church being weak and feeble and its lack of literacy?

    What about the weakness/feebleness of churches from highly literate backgrounds? Literacy itself doesn’t seem to be the issue, even literacy in the Biblical text. Some of the most well-educated churches have proven to be weak and feeble in both their understanding of and teaching of the Bible.
    And good teaching does not necessarily equate to church strength – the teaching may fall on stony ground.

    The danger among much evangelicalism is this: We think we have good teaching hence we assume that we are in no danger of being weak and feeble because of it, when in fact the opposite may be proven to be the case when the life of the congregation is put under the microscope.

    Just my two cents worth!

  7. I would not say that there is really a necessity to ban highly literate discipleship. But I would say that it is necessary to see where we are first by asking the questions: Who are our target people group? What kind of people are they? Do they read? Do they write?

    Different areas in the world has different languages, cultures, and traditions (the more it differs if we will include time periods).

    In my opinion, it is not really a problem of highly literate ways.

    This is a discpler’s problem of his failure to see and adopt to his context as a discipler.

    This is a crucial area where every discipler must see what must be adopted. We cannot just simply bring what we have learned in theology and teach it to No read No write people. We have to find ways on how are we going to teach it.

    On the other hand, if your ministry is in Urban areas, it is still better to use some “literate” form of teachings since most of your target groups are highly literates.

    My point??? Adopt to your context.

    For more tips on discipleship, visit: http://www.thedisciplers.com

  8. Steve Mac,
    A valuable two-cents, friend! First, you are absolutely correct that literate teaching does not always mean good teaching! In fact, quite the opposite, we can take for granted that we have the Scriptures and only give them surface attention, instead of really grappling with the text and seeking to be transformed by it, transforming others by it.

    No, I am not saying that there is a necessary correlation between literacy and accurate/good teaching. However, I am saying that there is a greater danger for it. One example is the story from Whitney’s book on Spiritual Disciplines. He went to a tribe that had no Scripture, only 5 sermons from a previous missionary. With only 5 passages being taught over and over again, a consistent worldview of the Christian life could not be built up and so there was rampant sin throughout this tribe of professing Christians.

    This was pressed home to me as I worked with a largely illiterate group in West Africa. I did not simply tell the stories of the Abraham’s life. We read them verbatim from the Scripture, then I went back through and explained the story we had just heard, re-quoted specific parts for emphasis. Part of the reason I did that was to make sure the details were right! Non-literate cultures tend to have better recall of detail. But if each generation gets a few things wrong, it will be no time before key elements can be obscured.

    So, I go back to the fact the God froze his word in space and time with written words. When Paul wanted to encourage the Ephesians, he didn’t send a man or woman with a verbal message. He wrote a letter. That to me says, there is something about the written word that is important to God and so should be important to us. Whether it’s in highly literate societies or highly illiterate societies, I think the only long-term hope we can have for strongly-rooted believers is a Word-centered church community.

    I’m not anti-Chester! :-) I just want to be cautious in pushing what APPEARS to be an appeal to pragmatic methods based on scant information about first century Christianity and the existing state of current cultures. Instead, I would want to follow the example Paul displays as well as the direct instructions he gives – raise up elders who preach the word (Acts 20, 2 Timothy).

  9. A few comments. All the literature on chronological Bible storying emphasises the need for stories to be close to the original text because you are given people an oral Bible. Please don’t mistake storytelling for a creative retelling with little relation to the original.

    Paul did write letters. Hurrah for literacy. I’m a fan of it! I write books and plan to continue doing so. But he also sent people with a verbal message.

    Yes, Paul raises up elders to preach the word. Again, I believe in the gift of teaching and the gift of teachers. (Why do people assume that if question the sermon you don’t believe in teachers!?) But I fear you are reading in all sorts of anachronistic assumptions about what preaching the word involved. It certainly didn’t involve sermons as we understand them today.

  10. I believe in the gift of teaching and the gift of teachers. (Why do people assume that if question the sermon you don’t believe in teachers!?)

    Sorry for the confusion. I didn’t mean to suggest that you didn’t believe in teachers. Actually, I was just wondering how elders/teachers fit into the “everyone in the meeting should feel like they can do this” statements you were making about local church gatherings.

    But I fear you are reading in all sorts of anachronistic assumptions about what preaching the word involved. It certainly didn’t involve sermons as we understand them today.

    actually, i didn’t think i said anything about what the sermons were like. but i agree with you, they were likely nothing like we have today – full of interesting, but non-biblical stories that have to keep peoples attention and far too short to actually develop a serious biblical theme and apply to our hearers’ lives with specificity and power.

    Based on what I’ve heard others say (e.g. Stott, Piper, Lawson, etc), Paul employs different words for different kinds of teaching. These different kinds of teaching are evidenced in Acts – group teaching with interaction and discussion, as well as lengthy monologue “preaching.” Of course, not having done the lexical research myself, I’m open to be convinced they’re wrong . . . .

    I’m not trying to be antagonistic – I’m actually intrigued by your posts and simply want to know more. Being a pastor now and having a strong urge to do missions work in training local pastors in third-world situations, I’m wanting to see how this does or does not fit with the Biblical data. That being said, I am a little skeptical because the de-emphasis on anything traditional seems to be the fashionable things these days. I hate fads and want to be sure I’m not just jumping on the bandwagon, but am truly having my perspective changed according to the Scriptures.

    So, keep up the challenging posting and please don’t take offense at my questions :-)

    By the way, do you address these kinds of things in your new book from Crossway (I think it’s called Total Church)?

  11. Sorry, my attempt at some basic html formatting failed! Hopefully, you can tell where I’m quoting Tim and responding in my own words.

  12. No offense taken. Let me ask one question. Where in the NT is there any evidence that when a church gathered they listened to a monologue (someone speaking uninterrupted)?

    Let me head of a few answers to help you on your way. ‘Preaching’ in the NT means to herald the gospel. It does not indicate a mode of delivery. When the mode is described it is as often as not diagloue. So the word is akin to the way we use evangelism. It is not used to describe what happens when the church gathers.

    None of the so-called sermons in Acts are a prepared monologue delivered in the context of a gathered church. They are all ad hoc defence speeches before a court or a mob.

    In some translations Acts 20 is described as a sermon, preaching etc. But the word is dialogue. This is a best clue as to how teaching was delivered in the NT church.

    The word ‘sermon’ itself is actually the Latin word for ‘dialogue’ and sermons invovled dialogue for well into the fourth century. St Augustine’s sermons, for example, were in the form of dialogue. The transcripts are full of interruptions and questions.

    I’m not against sermons, by the way. I actually think we should celebrate a variety of teaching modes. But I do question their privileged status.

    What intrigues is the way this issue more than any other gets people agitated. I’ve come to the conclusion it is because their identity is at stake. So the real issue is not whether we should use monologues, but that so many church leaders build their identity, sense of worth and so on around their ability to preach rather than in their new identity in Christ.

  13. Tim makes a very valid point here. In my debates with various people about NT ecclesiology and how we do church today, nothing raises the hackles more than questioning issues like whether we should have a single minister/pastor, how pastors/elders are recognised/chosen/appointed, whether the role of elder should be a salaried professional job, whether elders should make decisions in isolation on behalf of their church, etc. Unsurprisingly the amount of ‘hackles raised’ is usually proportional to the persons personal involvement in being a pastor / elder / leader and I fear that many peoples reaction is, as Tim rightly suggests, based on their perception of their identity being at stake. Issues of ‘identity’ and ‘being in control’ seem to be hugely influential in how leaders decide to interpret the NT examples of how church was done. It is all too easy to reject clear NT narrative examples and to opt for a ‘we do what seems to work best’ approach to mask what is actually choosing what we really want, what gives us identity and the degree of control we want to justify.

  14. Tim,

    Many thanks for all your blog posts and books which God blesses us with… barely a day goes by at the moment without a chance to apply something I learned in You Can Change.

    I wondered if you could expand on what you mean by non-literate styles of Bible-teaching? I help pastor youth groups and home groups and give sermons and stuff in a mixed SE London suburb, but I’m from a university-educated background and have been trained in Cornhill-style communities.

    So I’ve got a bit of experience of adapting my way of thinking (I devour books) to my new neighbours and fellow-Christians – telling stories to kids who can’t read, chatting with people whose English is patchy, using oral and kinetic styles of teaching with youth groups etc – but also lead hour long inductive Bible studies and stand up and talk at people lots (the same mix I’ve observed in all the other Proc Trust-type people’s ministries too, to be honest).

    So when you talk about non-literate teaching styles, is this what you mean or is there more that I just don’t get yet? It’s just one minute you seem to be plugging non-literate church, and then you mention setting up evangelistic Bible studies as a way of doing this, and I’m struggling to work out exactly what your suggestion looks like!

    Love and prayers,


  15. Yes, I mean all of those things and more (.e.g chronological Bible storying). I guess my definition would anything that does presuppose people learn by reading or can engage with a text and anything that does use heavily literate ways of thinking (identifying a list of principles, or addressing abstract or metaphysical questions). Some discussional Bible studies are very text focused (so that they feel to non-literate like an English comprehension test), but other are not. Some ‘sermons’ are principle-led (the famous three points), but others are more exhortational.

    It’s important for me to add that I’m not saying we should only use non-literate styles. I think we should have a mix. I still believe in literate learning. I write books. I should be writing one now!

    I used the term ‘evangelistic Bible studies’ in the most generic sense possible. I deliberately didn’t specific what form that might take because I think that’s context specific.

  16. This is just a quick note from someone who belongs to an organization here in Asia that is helping promote the use of oral materials for preliterates. My understanding is that the orality approach actually encourages interest in literacy, and does not replace it. And as Tim mentioned, the stories are checked for accuracy. Think of it as similar to watching the Jesus movie as means of evangelism, followed up with a God-inspired desire to hear his exact words in the Scriptures.

  17. Thanks Mike for that comment.

    Here’s my bigger question. I’m guessing here, but I suspect that Mike’s use of oral materials in the context of mission in Asia would be considered acceptable and indeed exciting and innovative by most evangelicals. So why are question marks raised when people suggest using oral materials in a UK or US context among non-literate learners? Why the disconnect between ‘the mission field’ and ‘sending churches’? Why do different rules apply? At the very least, it suggests to me we still have woken up to the fact that the West is a mission field.

  18. This post makes me really excited to get people thinking. YES! The problem is not the bible (agree.. a silly thing that that even needs to be said) but I have often wondered if we could use and should try and use storying methods over here in the UK. I would LOVE to see our churches be very close fisted with the Bible.. we are not going to compromise on it’s truth.. but be over open fisted for the method on delivering truth. And since literacy is a relatively new and rare phenomena.. it seems like an obvious method we never seem to try is what cultures have done for thousands of years.. storying. With what I have seen working (and not working) in student ministries in the last few years.. it would be silly not to try.

  19. Surely, the crux of the issue is not in the mode of what we teach… (ie. the monolgue of the sermon) but in what we teach (ie. the truth of the gospel as revealed to us in the powerful perfect law of God).

    However, for me (and I would hope for all of you as well) this is where it gets interesting because it is in the Bible where the mode of teaching and the content of our teaching intersect. The emphasis on literacy is understandable and important because it builds on the thrust of those Protestant reformers who believed fervently that the individual believer should be able to discover for themselves the truth of God’s word by reading it for themselves. Whilst agreeing with this sentiment, I believe the emphasis in Scripture is on nonbelievers and believers being challenged, convicted and changed by the HEARING of the word of God.

    It might appear to be a semantic difference but I think it is an important one because for the following reasons. First, it changes the focus from literacy to communication. It opens the message of the Bible to those who are yet unable to read, but understand the message (like young children or tribal people whose stories are transmitted orally, or perhaps to the sick). Second, it changes the uncovering of God’s word from an individualistic personal activity to a joint community one. When I read the word of God, I’m in my own private thoughts, but when I share the word of God even to one other person I am bringing them in with me. Obviously, this has its own particular joys and dangers and privileges. When I share God’s word I have to be mindful to make sure what I’m teaching is correct and at the time humble enough to accept challenge and correction from others.

    I’ve become a young father for the first time recently and every night, I read the Bible and pray with my son. I do this, not because I know he can understand what I’m saying to him (not yet at five moths) now. It is an act of faith and obedience for me now. However, it won’t be long until he will be able to understand what I’m saying to him and I want our boy not only know the stories of God but I would like him to discuss the stories of God with me so that the Bible does not become a manual in our lives but it rather becomes a never-ending conversation which runs through our family.

    As always, thanks Tim for your godly insights.. oh how I miss your lectures! (and no they were not monologues but interactivel)

  20. interesting idea. i will certainly have to give this some more thought. but i appreciate the cultural sensitivity. perhaps it can be extended to the pictures used in the bible storytelling. it is a bit ironic that black African children are being shown caucasian-looking bible characters.

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