How ought we evangelise illiterate nations?

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Redneck_still_Reforming

Puritan Board Freshman
Hello,

I have a question about how we approach non-literate oral cultures in evangelism. I have found a resource called Scriptures in Use which teaches oral storytelling as a means to spread the Gospel. This is from the homepage:

Jesus told stories and parables. He pulled spiritual truth from everyday life. A verbally communicated story is more effective and has a way to connect with oral learners in profound ways. Jesus’ stories were commonly memorized and retold by the people who heard them. The stories were object lessons from everyday life. Jesus asked questions about the stories that helped the oral learner discover the truth. Jesus often repeated important themes; frequent repetitions are needed for oral learners to remember the story.

Is this a proper view of the parables? Why would people repeat stories they dont understand (Isa. 6:9-10, Matt. 13)? It was not until Christ explained it to His apostles and they wrote it down that we can truly understand the parables. And even then, unless we use the exact parable, down to the letter, we aren't teaching what Christ said as we are paraphrasing and uninspired.

Another question I have is, is storytelling a proper means of evangelism? I believe, as the Word and Confession teach, that it is the Scriptures alone (empowered by the Spirit) that teach the means of salvation. That is limited to the actual Words of Scripture, not well-put paraphrases or mostly accurate telling. Unless we memorize the exact words, I am of the opinion that whatever is being said, while it may be correct and useful, is uninspired and subject to fault. Sure, we can be edified and challeneged by preaching and exposition, but we can't be convicted by human words alone. If it is not THE Word we are teaching, are we doing evangelism in a way the Bible ordains? Is storytelling therefore oustide the ordinary means of grace?

I understand that non-literate cultures must be approached differently then a culture with a written langauge. But shouldnt we then find a way to help them codify langauge so they can posses the written Word? Or at least have them memorize an exact translation in their oral langauge?

I would appreciate any wisdom someone might have. I do not want to discount any method of evangelism without a firm scriptural reason.
 

Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
This is a huge issue for tribal people. My tribe was 99% illiterate when I entered. I had tribal evangelists we trained to tell the stories of the Bible and trek to each village. They'd repeat and repeat the bible stories by memory and sometimes used picture books, and they acted as evangelists who could not read or write, which might be scandalous for some here on the Puritanboard. But the gospel was spread and now at this later time - once the school has been established - these young evangelists can all read and write. We have hundreds of baptized believers. But what to do in those beginning stages? You set stories and teachings and parables to memory and send them out. Catechism Q and A questions also work well and can be asked for hours on the canoe or walking the trail. You use whatever lawful means you can to spread the gospel.
 

yeutter

Puritan Board Senior
Catechism Q and A questions also work well and can be asked for hours on the canoe or walking the trail. You use whatever lawful means you can to spread the gospel.
That approach makes sense, because then when the catechumen later hears or reads the Bible, he has a mental framework on which to hang the Scripture that he learns.
 

Redneck_still_Reforming

Puritan Board Freshman
This is a huge issue for tribal people. My tribe was 99% illiterate when I entered. I had tribal evangelists we trained to tell the stories of the Bible and trek to each village. They'd repeat and repeat the bible stories by memory and sometimes used picture books, and they acted as evangelists who could not read or write, which might be scandalous for some here on the Puritanboard. But the gospel was spread and now at this later time - once the school has been established - these young evangelists can all read and write. We have hundreds of baptized believers. But what to do in those beginning stages? You set stories and teachings and parables to memory and send them out. Catechism Q and A questions also work well and can be asked for hours on the canoe or walking the trail. You use whatever lawful means you can to spread the gospel.
Good to know. Did the missionaries memorize exact scripture for when they went in to tell the tribes about the Word?

Should a goal be to eventually make the tribal people literate in some form so they can then hold the exact Word in their hands?
 

ZackF

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
In most of church history, people were illiterate even where there was a written form of their own language.
 

Jack K

Puritan Board Doctor
I believe, as the Word and Confession teach, that it is the Scriptures alone (empowered by the Spirit) that teach the means of salvation. That is limited to the actual Words of Scripture, not well-put paraphrases or mostly accurate telling. Unless we memorize the exact words, I am of the opinion that whatever is being said, while it may be correct and useful, is uninspired and subject to fault. Sure, we can be edified and challeneged by preaching and exposition, but we can't be convicted by human words alone. If it is not THE Word we are teaching, are we doing evangelism in a way the Bible ordains?
This is where you get stuck. The gospel message is the word of God, and it can be used by God to bring conviction of sin and repentance and saving faith—even if the words of Scripture are not quoted verbatim. Scripture is not like a magician's incantation, needing to be recited precisely for the spell to work. If that were the case, we would have huge quandaries over which translations are precise enough to let the Holy Spirit loose. But the Spirit is not a spell to be loosed, but rather a person who works wherever he wills. The evangelist should prayerfully preach as truthfully as he can and trust the Spirit, who is not limited by whether or not the evangelist uses certain words verbatim.

Of course, it's good to be scriptural when we preach, and to quote the Bible, and to be accurate about it. It's also good to translate Scripture into local languages. And it's important to make Scripture rather than human tradition our authority. But Sola Scriptura does not mean we should think of the Bible the way a magician would his book of spells, worried that a misstep in reciting it could render our preaching ineffective.
 

Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
Good to know. Did the missionaries memorize exact scripture for when they went in to tell the tribes about the Word?

Should a goal be to eventually make the tribal people literate in some form so they can then hold the exact Word in their hands?
In our case there was the National Language of the country and then the Tribal Language. Many of the tribals spoke none of the National Language at first. So even simple communication was difficult, let alone Ephesians chapter 1 literally quoted just as Paul wrote it. So there is a need to break down everything. What if your tribe has no word for grace? Never seen a lamb? Has no idea what circumcision is. We faced all of these troubles. A guy was shot with arrows and my old tribal pastor friend took him in to nurse him and taught him the National Language and that guy was the first to translate words of Scripture (verbally since none could write) into the local dialect in our area. And I assure you it was not a literal word-for-word translation of Scripture, but a rough paraphrase at best...and it was this way for many years.

To simply say "The Word preached has power" as some may do is overly simplistic. The Word must be understandable, and we must make it so. Either we bring the word down to a kid's level or we bring the kid up to adult level; and missionaries have often done both. You who are parents do it with your own children, why would we expect any different in remote tribal areas.

In recent years there has been a move away from supporting missionaries who work at Christian schools. "Missions is Church planting" has been the battle cry of many Reformed Baptists who, frankly, are very stupid about how missions works. But so many missionaries of the past formed schools. People must learn to read the Bible. We formed a school and then turned it over to a good national Christian and Reformed foundation that continues to run it today....spurred on by the tribal believers themselves coming to me and saying, "Bapa, every week we walk village to village and tell the stories from the Bible....But we cannot read the Bible. You must teach us how to read the Bible!"
 
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