How We Began

Throughout biblical history oral communication styles have served people, starting with the early Biblical accounts through the life of Jesus, the early church, and, even today among many peoples, including the literate world where oral communication is used anecdotally.

Scientific study of oral tradition can be traced back at least to Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic (1787-1864). But a more direct influence on Christian communication were the works of media theorist Marshall McLuhan who studied the influence of communication media independent of their content, of Viggo Sogaard, who helped people understand the importance of knowing and understanding the audience one is serving, and of Walter Ong, especially through his book The Technologizing of the Word, a distinctive work, published in twelve languages, where he attempted to identify the distinguishing characteristics of orality from a literate perspective.

One step toward serving oral communicators happened by the incorporation of various media beyond print, which has been the foundation of many organizations like HCJB, a mission who started radio broadcasting in 1931, with other audio focussed ministries like Gospel Recordings Network, Trans World Radio (TWR), the Far East Broadcasting Company following within the next two decades. While ministries also have used visuals for a long time, film and later video became a part of the picture in the 1970s with the Jesus Film being a significant tool, having been translated in more than one thousand languages.

In a practical sense, the modern orality movement began with missionaries Mark and Gloria Zook of the New Tribes Mission (NTM) who pioneered work with the Mouk of Papua New Guinea in the 1970s. Mark taught them to tell the stories from Creation to Christ and they took the gospel to twelve other villages, many of whom spoke different languages. Trevor McIlwain shared this chronological Bible teaching method with other NTM missionaries in the Philippines in the 1980s, who used it with tribal people there with similar results. Later some NTM missionaries modified the highly expositional style with literate processes to be more oral.

By the late 1980s Jim Slack, serving with the Foreign Mission Board (now the International Mission Board - IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention in the Philippines, concluded that existing approaches to chronological Bible presentation were still too literate. He began developing chronological Bible storying that utilized storytelling followed by dialogue. In the 1990s Jim Slack and with his colleague J. O. Terry continued to revise the approach while introducing it to Southern Baptist missionaries and national partners in numerous workshops around the world.

In the early 1990s, teams began developing oral strategies to reach oral preferenced communicators. The early development of strategy and application of relevant communication art forms, including storying, drama, song, and other media came through the early training efforts of organizations like Vernacular Media Services (VMS), a ministry of SIL, and Scriptures In Use (SIU). These early oral initiatives were implemented by teams from evangelical ministries including Pioneer Bible Translators, the Translators Association of the Philippines (TAP), Lutheran Bible Translators (LBT), the Reformed Church in America (RCA), IMB, TWR, and the Campus Crusade for Christ International’s (CCCI) Jesus Film Project (JFP).

In the late 1990s several consultations were conducted with CCCI, IMB, SIL, and the United Bible Society (UBS) in Kenya, Cyprus, and England that brought a growing awareness of many unreached peoples being primarily oral preferenced communicators. Ron Green of JFP, Steve Evans of IMB, and Marilyn Malmstrom of VMS were instrumental in calling for these meetings.

The Amsterdam 2000 Conference, organized by the Billy Graham Association, was a gathering of some 10,000 evangelists with the purpose to unite, train and equip evangelists for the 21st century. During one of the working group sessions, a table of leaders representing a combined ministry to millions wrestled with the question of how to finish the task of reaching all of the unreached people groups. An outcome was the formation of “Table 71,” a loose association of Christian organizations committed to working together in partnership among the remaining unreached people groups in the world in order to help evangelize, make disciples, and to begin and nurture indigenous church planting movements. It was also at Amsterdam 2000 that Marcus Vegh of Progressive Vision asked Avery Willis, who was Senior VP of Overseas Operations for the IMB, “How do you make disciples of oral learners?” The question hit home because it had just been pointed out that about 70% of the unreached peoples of the world being oral preferenced communicators. Consequently plans were made to further explore using oral forms of discipleship.

In 2001 Avery Willis and Paul Eshleman of JFP convened representatives from 15 mission organizations for an orality consultation in San Clemente, California, USA that resulted in the formation of the Oral Bible Network (OBN). It was established to address the issue of effectively serving oral preferenced communicators in the context of who they were. The initial partners that started OBN were CCCI, IMB, SIU, and Wycliffe International.

In 2002 and 2004 OBN held two Consultations attended by more than 50 different organizations, which resulted in a growing awareness among ministries of the reality of the need to change to purposely serve oral preferenced communicators. The broadening circle of partners grew to include Bihar Out Reach Network (BORN), Faith Comes By Hearing (FCBH), NTM, EPIC Partners - which became the OneStory partnership in 2006, The God’s Story Project, The Seed Company, TWR, VMS, VisionSynergy, and Youth With a Mission (YWAM).

In 2004 the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization organized a Forum in Pattaya, Thailand, which was organized around 31 issue groups including the Orality Issue Group co-led by Avery Willis and Steve Evans. Each issue group was challenged to come up with a position paper to give an overview of the issue, to state the needs and offer solutions. The thoughts from the on-site meetings were edited and compiled into the book Making Disciples of Oral Learners and it includes a focus on the unique needs of the deaf. It was also at this forum that the topic of Secondary Orality began to surface as a needed focus.

2005 International Orality Network

The Making Disciples of Oral Learners Working Group of the 2004 Lausanne Forum on World Evangelization merged together with OBN becoming International Orality Network (ION) with the mission to radically influence the way oral preferenced communicators are evangelized and discipled in every people group. It serves to bring awareness and understanding of orality and oral preferenced communicators and connects mission organizations, churches, people who are reaching oral communicators, especially unreached people groups, to training resources as well as strategies that incorporate oral communication art forms, including various ways to implement storying programs.

Most of ION’s work is the outflow its task forces because they form the heart of the ION movement. Over the first five years they have grown to include:

Prayer (serving as an undergirding foundation)

Music and the Arts (focusing on incorporating creative communication art forms in culturally appropriate ways)

Secondary Orality (serving literate people who prefer and extensively use oral communication forms)

Communications (facilitating the publishing of ION publications and managing the ION web site)

USA Consultations (organizing annual USA consultations)

World Consultations (coordinating ION’s representation in world wide consultations, conferences, forums)

Research (researching and tracking relevant issues relating to orality and oral communicators)

Discovering Best Practices (discovering and promoting best practices of serving oral preferenced communicators around the globe)

Field Training (develop solid models of lay leader training and multiplying grassroots leaders)

Theological Education (incorporating principles of orality into theological education and preparing academically sound materials about orality)

Women and Orality (serving the unique needs of women)

Children and Orality (serving the unique needs of children)

Funding (managing the budget and assisting in finding financial resources)

In 2005 ION and the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (LCWE) jointly published Making Disciples of Oral Learners, a book written by the working group at the 2004 LCWE consultation in Thailand. In 2007 an updated second printing of 10.000 copies was published. In the mean time the book has been translated in Korean (2007), and in Traditional and Simplified Chinese (4000 copies each, 2009) with French, Russian, Spanish and Arabic being readied for distribution in 2010.

Starting 2005, annual consultations were held consecutively in Anaheim, CA; Colorado Springs, CO; Orlando, FL; Dallas/Fort Worth, TX; and Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN, with the next one planned to be held in Rome, GA.

The network started to broaden by seeing global initiatives started in India (2006) and in cooperation with MANI (Movement of African National Initiatives) in Africa (2008), as well as by starting to network and serve through Ethnê to Ethnê (2006), Finishing the Task (2006), Transform World (2006), Impact Indonesia (2008), and Call2All (2008).

Over the years, thousands of people, representing well over 400 ministries, churches, colleges, universities, seminaries, and other organizations have participated in the consultations and partner events. Through these venues many had their first real exposure to what an oral preferenced communicator is and how to serve oral preferenced communicators in the context of who they are. Many organizations and denominations are starting to make adjustments and have used orality as a practice to reach unreached and unengaged people groups.

The circle of partners has also grown to include Audio Scripture Ministries, Bible Storytelling Project, E3 Partners, Global Recordings Network (GRN), Heart Sounds International - a division of Operation Mobilization, International Council of Ethnodoxologists (ICE), Joni and Friends, King’s Commission Ministries, MegaVoice International, NG2 International, New Directions International, SIL, story4all, T4Global, The Navigators, and many other organizations. In recognition of the importance of visual media as a means of reaching oral learners, the Visual Story Network (VSN) was formed in 2008 to focus on the strategic use of films in ministry and works with ION.

In 2009 the Innovation in Missions Award of The Missions Exchange was given to The International Orality Network in context of four specific values The Missions Exchange want to champion and celebrate as an association: excellence, innovation, partnership, and finishing well.

A follow up book on Making Disciples of Oral Learners is planned for publication in 2010 called Breakthrough Innovations: Practices for the 21st Century. The purpose of this book is to explore the practice of oral strategies in a broad spectrum of Christian ministry to challenge the readers to recognize the uniqueness of oral learners and respond appropriately. The book also will link readers to further resources in strategy development

The orality movement will also be a strategic priority component of the third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in October 2010 in Capetown, South Africa.

The history and development of ION comes as a result of the visionary leadership and valuable contribution of many individuals and organizations who serve Christ. God has used the unselfish labours of many stewards to build a network that seeks to influence Christians to make disciples of oral learners.