The landscape of learning, understanding and beliefs is changing in North America at a surprising rate. The Church is struggling to find ways to better communicate the Gospel in meaningful and life-changing ways. Many of the problems can be corrected by a better understanding of the literacy issues facing us coupled with increased skills in effective oral communication. If the church needs an example, she needs only to turn to Jesus who lived in a 95% illiterate, or functionally illiterate society. Jesus was the master oral communicator!
Orality refers to the style of communication between individuals and generations that functions without the use of a writing system. However, it is a deeper concept than the mere absence of writing. It produces its own thought forms and processes that constitute ways of learning, conceptualizing, and communicating that are quite distinct from those of literate thinkers and communicators. Oral thought processes are less linear, and logic is associative rather than deductive and sequential. Orality also affects worldview, particularly in the area of truth perception. For literates “truth is seen as consisting in facts – specific descriptive statements about an objective, perceivable reality. Knowledge is the accumulation of facts. The oral culture, on the other hand, places priority on relationships, which produces a concept of dynamic truth. This focuses on relational skills, and truth is seen in terms of personal integrity and fulfilment of relational and family obligations” (Orville Boyd Jenkins,“Orality and the Post-literate West”). An oral culture is characterized by relational, face-to-face communication using stories, proverbs, drama, songs, chants, poetry and others forms of participative, communal and interactive events.
One has only to have a cursory understanding of post-modernity to see the parallel implications of orality in contemporary North American culture. Let he who has ears to hear….
Around two-thirds of the world’s population, either by necessity or choice, are oral communicators, and they are found in every cultural group in the world. Among unreached people groups – those not highly penetrated by the gospel – or language groups without the Scriptures, the figure is significantly higher. One people group that interestingly and perhaps unexpectedly often displays many of the traits that scholars associate with the term orality (although it cannot properly be called “oral”) is deaf people.
Apart from those who have known only oral communication all their lives (“primary orality”), an increasing number of previously literate communicators, influenced by the audio-visual impact of mass media (TV, radio, telephones, interactive computer software, movies, music, etc), are adopting orality as their preferred communication style (“secondary orality”). This is often referred to as “post-literacy”. It should also be noted that many members of so-called literate societies are in fact only semi-literate at best, and are more comfortable with oral communication (in the USA for example up to 50% of the population have poor literacy skills).
On the spectrum of learning styles from primary oral learners to highly literate learners, there are generally recognized to be five broad categories: 1) primary illiterates; 2) functional illiterates; 3) semi-literates; 4) functional literates; 5) highly literate. (The categorization is that of James B Slack, reproduced in “Making Disciples of Oral Learners, Lausanne Committee for World Evangelisation and International Orality Network”). Only the “highly literate” primarily use a literate communication style, while even “functional literates” learn and communicate a significant amount in oral ways. While there are many people who use only oral communication styles, there is not really anyone who exclusively uses literate means of learning and communicating. This does not diminish the value of literate learning, but rather brings the value of oral learning into perspective. Needless to say, these categories bear no necessary relation to intelligence. Many primary illiterates, for example, have memorization skills that are superior to many highly literate learners.
The Church must learn better oral communication skills if she is to continue to effectively communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ to an increasingly oral learning society.