Let’s take a much closer look at Communication filters, specifically this filter of

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Let’s take a much closer look at Communication filters, specifically this filter of

Communication Style It’s about learning preferences, not about reading

Print Communicators

Get anxious when asked to put their notebooks away and just listen

Depend on reading and writing

Oral Communicators

Feel relieved when they aren’t expected to take notes

Depend mostly on listening and speaking
Primary -- Do Not read or write to any useful extent
Traditional -- Can read and write but do not depend on it
Secondary – Depend on electronic audio-visual, multi-media

This isn’t an “all or nothing” kind of thing. Learning preferences fall on a continuum from a strong preference for oral communication to a strong preference for print communication.
Obviously, if you can’t read at all, the only way to get information is through your ears and your observations. But just because a person can read, it doesn’t mean he learns best that way or that he likes doing it.
Discussing this issue, one team leader laughed and said, “Well, I have to admit. I would never read a book on a subject if I could watch the video instead.”
We’re fortunate to have some people here today who illustrate different points on this continuum of learning preferences.

Learning Styles

As you listen to our conversations with them, think about the unreached people group you are attempting to share the gospel with. Which of these people are most like the ones you know?

t one end of the communication style continuum are the people we call ILLITERATE. Even the term itself conveys deficiency, the lack of literacy.


My name is Nah-sir and I live here in Cairo with my wife Faht-ma and our three boys. I’m a garbage collector so every day I am going door to door with my wheelbarrow. It’s a steady job and whenever I find something useful that people threw away, I resell it in the market for extra money to help with school fees. Last week a professor from the university came to our neighborhood with some very strange questions but she was polite so we helped her out. Here’s what she asked:

Did you have the chance to go to school?

Never, but my oldest son’s in first grade and he’s learning to read and to write words.”

So he’s reading and writing words already? What is a word, exactly?

I don’t understand your question. Sometimes it’s one thing and sometimes it’s another.

Well, how do you think about words?

Like everyone else, we make sounds when we talk. I say words and you see the picture in your mind, sort of like TV.

Can words last forever?

They last as long as we remember them. For instance, when something funny happens on my garbage route, I tell Faht-ma and the kids when I get home. They giggle and say, “Tell it again” and I do. Then they tell their friends and Faht-ma tells our neighbor when they drink tea together. Words can last a long time but even the most important words die when you do….unless you give them to your children.
This is what writing looks like to Nasir and Fatma

Does Nasir know about reading and writing?

How does it impact his life? (spends money for school fees)

How does he think of words? (sounds to make pictures)

How long do words last? Unless?
As illiterates, both Nasir and Fatma are oral communicators by necessity.

Their lives are based on what they learn through stories (cultural and anecdotal), songs, proverbs and practical experience.
Anyone here hoping to work with people like Nasir & Fatma?

Next to illiterates are the people described as FUNCTIONAL ILLITERATES.



y name is Ah-lee. I’m 34 years old and I manage a blanket factory. I live here in Cairo with my wife Eye-sha and my daughter, E-man. A while back, a professor from the university came to our neighborhood doing a study on Egyptian literacy. Here’s what she asked me:
Tell me about your early life. Did you always live in Cairo?

No, I grew up in the Nile Delta. My family grew vegetables and on the weekends I would catch fish and sell them in the market for pocket money. I studied hard to do well in school and I finished 8th grade.

How did you get to Cairo?

My family moved here so my older brothers could work in construction. By then I was big enough to work, too, and I wanted to help out. I could read and write already, so why not? When I turned 18, I joined the army and during that time my family introduced me to Eye-sha.

How much did you use reading and writing while you were in the army?

Well, of course I had to sign the induction form. But it was too long to read so I just looked at it for a minute and said, “Where do I sign?” They already told me what it said. Eye-sha wrote letters to me while I was away but I usually saved my pay and called her instead of writing back.

And how much do you actually need reading and writing in your life today?

My secretary does most of that at the factory. At the coffee shop, I read the headlines in the newspaper and I read those campaign posters before I vote in elections. But do I read books or magazines? Not really. We mostly listen to the news on TV. And when there are two sides to a story, we talk about it at the coffee shop. That’s where my friends and I figure out what to think.

Ali, every country in the world says that you literate. Are there any reading or writing activities that you wish you could do better?

Well, I feel embarrassed to tell you this. My daughter E-man is at the top of her sixth grade class and I am so proud of her. I used to help with her homework but it’s a lot harder now. I can still read the words but I’m not always sure what they mean, especially when it’s a subject I don’t know much about. So now I have her read out loud and then I ask questions to help her study. But soon I won’t be any help. How does a father feel when his daughter is smarter than he is?

Why did Ali called Aisha instead of writing? (calling is expensive on army pay)

If he could read when he left school, what happened by the time he was 18?

What is the limit of his reading ability…where does he run into trouble?

How much does printed material shape his thinking?

How does he feel about his level of literacy?

Here’s shopping list. In ten seconds say where to go and what to buy.

How much would you read if it were that hard instead of looking like this?
As a functional illiterate, Ali is an oral communicator. His life is based on what he learns through stories, songs, proverbs and practical experience.

Anyone here hoping to work with people like Ali?

In the middle of this learning preference continuum are the SEMI-LITERATES,


I’m Ah-lee’s wife, Eye-sha. I’ve always lived here in Cairo and after I graduated from high school, I went to work for Bank of Egypt. I married Ah-lee while he was still in the army and I kept working until our daughter E-man was born. As he already told you, a professor came to our neighborhood to study literacy in Egypt. This is what she asked me:

What kind of work did you do at Bank of Egypt? How much writing did you do during that part of your life?

I was personal assistant to a manager in the loans department. I did secretarial work, wrote letters and filed correspondence, sent out for tea, things like that. Mostly I wrote form letters; I’d fill in the names, addresses, and other personal information then give those forms to my manager to sign. And, course, I was writing letters to Ah-lee.

And how do you use reading and writing in your life today?

I do secretarial work at Ah-lee’s factory once a week and, of course, I help E-man with her homework. And there’s a magazine called Him and Her -- it’s published by Christians but it has really interesting articles and I buy that each month. There’s also a library in our neighborhood so sometimes I borrow novels to read while I’m at home during the day. But I never read on Friday afternoons because there’s always a good movie on TV. That’s my favorite thing to do all week!

Suppose Ali needed some specific information related to work, how would you help him find it? Would you go to that library to look for a book or journal, would you go on-line? Where would you start?

I suppose I could go to the library or I could go to an Internet Cafe. But even when I understand technical information as I read it, it’s hard to explain to someone later….especially when I don’t know too much about the subject anyway.

So what would we do? Ah-lee and I would find someone else in the business to ask. In the end, people you trust are the best sources of information anyway.

How challenging were Aisha’s reading and writing tasks at the bank?

What is the extent of her reading today?

What’s her favorite pastime?

What limits her ability to get information from printed texts and pass it on?

What is the best way to get technical information?
Semi-literate, Aisha prefers oral communication to print communication.

She learns best and most easily through stories, songs, proverbs and practical experience.
Anyone here hoping to work with people like Aisha?

Moving toward the other end of the scale are LITERATES:

I’m 20 and I’m a history major at the American University of Cairo. I’ve always enjoyed studying and learning new things. Last month a literacy researcher on campus interviewed me and this is what she asked:

How do you use reading and writing as a university student?

Those notebooks that you see the students carrying everywhere? Most of them are empty! They’re really to keep the dust off the guys’ pants when we have to sit outside before class. But I have two professors who add new things to the lectures so I take notes in their classes.

What about your class assignments?

My brother and I have a computer at home. It’s much easier to write and correct assignments that way instead of handwriting them over and over. Sometimes we go to the Internet Café to do research for class but mostly we go there to surf the Web and see our friends.

What are the lectures like at AUC?

People skip class a lot because most of the lectures never change from year to year. Someone got the idea to tape and transcribe them so you can just buy the notes, learn them at home, and save bus fare. I wish my professors helped us to think more about subjects instead of just memorizing everything.

What forms of written material do you and your brother read the most?

Well, we read those photocopied class notes. Sometimes we have to read textbooks but that’s usually slow going…long chapters, no pictures, hard to figure out what they are saying. And books in the library can be too old.

We like web pages the best. You get information in bite-sized pieces with pictures and textboxes and it’s so much easier and faster to find what you need. Google does most of the work for you!
What’s in those notebooks that Cairo university students carry around?

What are they really for?

Why don’t students need to take notes? Same every year, nothing new

What changes would Mona like to see in her class lectures?

What does Mona use the Internet for?

In her mind, how do books compare to web pages?

As a literate, print communicator, Mona can learn and share information with others using outlines, point by point teaching, lists, tables, graphs and steps in a plan.
But she’s still loves a good story, her favorite songs and poetry, and her conversation is enriched by the proverbs and traditional phrases she still hears at home.
Anyone here hoping to work with people like Mona?

At the far opposite end of the learning style continuum, as far as you can get from Nasir and Fatma, are the HIGHLY LITERATE print communicators.


Thank you for inviting me to tell my story. I’m a nuclear physicist, born in Egypt but now I’m a laboratory director at the underground research facility outside Aiken, South Carolina.

How do you spend your free time?

Before my family joined me last year, I practically lived at the lab. When they came, I had cable installed to help my wife Noor and my girls learn English but I hardly watch TV myself. I’m usually in front of the computer finishing up reports or working on my department budget for next year.

What was it like for your family, moving to a new country?

Getting acquainted was hard for us. We look too much like the 9/11 terrorists. But then some colleagues at work invited me here. We’d never been inside an American’s house and we were a bit nervous, too, since your husband is a Christian priest. I suppose we came out of curiosity at first….and because our friends invited us.

What do you think about this meeting now?

We love these stories from your holy book. We already know the prophets…Noah, Abraham, Joseph….peace be on them all. But these stories make them come alive, like real people that God took care of and used for His own purposes. We never thought of God as being involved with people’s lives before.

That’s why, whenever there’s a big conference at the lab, the group asks you to postpone this meeting until it’s over. No one wants to miss the next installment!

How does this storytelling meeting compare to the group’s visit to church last Sunday?

Well, Muslims don’t sing at the mosque and Christian prayers are very different from ours so we were just looking forward to your husband’s sermon and a new story.

But there wasn’t any story. He kept jumping from place to place in his Bible, referring to things we didn’t know about. I could follow his sermon points but my wife couldn’t and It didn’t seem personal for either of us. And, of course, there wasn’t discussion time like in the storytelling group.

We probably won’t go to the church again but we always looking forward to the stories about God.
Remember what Nasir thought about words? How does Omar think about them?

Words are not sounds; they are objects to be cut and pasted, and processed.

Nearly everything Omar “knows” is stashed by topic in some mental or electronic filing cabinet. How efficient would Omar be at work without his peripheral brains?

As a print communicator, Omar is highly literate and spends most of his waking hours working with points, outlines, lists, tables, graphs and other abstract data.
So why do he and Noor like the stories so much? They are captivated by the way in which God seems so real to the patriarchs. They are beginning to wonder if there is more to faith than just knowing about God.

Which of these people is the smartest?
Nasir and Fatma, Ali and Aisha can learn just as well as Mona and Omar can….as long as the content is packaged appropriately: stories, songs, proverbs and practical experience.
Even literates like Mona and Omar… and you.. need practical experience or mentoring to turn new concepts into beliefs and values and behavior and pass them on to others.
And remember, CPMS are about reproducing, not just understanding.
Here is a picture of what we’ve just discussed. How does this affect how the gospel spreads through a people group?

  1. Can Mona learn from her uncle Omar using print communication style?

  2. Can Mona effectively teach her aunt Aisha the same way?

  3. Can Aisha effectively teach her husband Ali this way?


  4. Does Fatma have a way to pass information to her neighbor Aisha?

  5. If Fatma were a maid in Mona’s house and social barriers didn’t prevent it, could Mona learn from her?

Suppose you were on a two year assignment in Paris with a team whose vision was a CPM among Sousi Berbers in southern Morocco.

You’ve met two Sousi Berbers, Mona and her brother Muhammed, at the University of Paris. All three of you are fluent in French and they are very interested in learning more about the prophet Jesus. They want to meet with you every week until they return to Morocco during the summer break.

Their father is a well-educated, tri-lingual businessman in Agadir but the whole family, including his parents, still lives in their ancestral village. Mona’s mother speaks Berber but little Arabic and no French at all. She’s illiterate in all three languages. And although both grandparents are illiterate, they exert a powerful influence over everything that affects the extended family.
How will you package the gospel for Mona and her brother so that it can transform their lives and the lives of their entire household in a way that establishes and multiplies churches in rural Morocco? (your team’s CPM vision)?
What is the only style in which the gospel can flow to the farthest edge of the people group?

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the learning preferences of Egyptians and Moroccans.

How does this apply here in the United States?
The Learning Grid is a (literate, abstract!) summary of the information. It helps you determine how much exposition (“teaching points”, steps, lists, tables, deductive reasoning and explanation) your listeners can understand and pass on to others.
Are you stunned at the huge percent of illiterates and functional illiterates in the U.S.? Here is Monica Baxley’s story, featured on ABC news, 25 February, 2008.


Follow the links to find out more about this “life in the shadows”.
So what questions does this raise for your and your ministry?

  1. How do those at the center of your people group share information, the teaching and learning that forms or changes behavior?
  2. How do you learn best? What is your natural teaching style? (It’s likely to be the same as you were taught.)

The Orality Assessment Tool can help you discover these answers.
It contains two sets of statements. The set of 40 on the left describes the behavior of people who are very oral in their communication style. The corresponding set of 40 on the right describe contrasting behavior of those who prefer print communcation.
Because the statements paired right and left represent two ends of a continuum, you will find yourself sometimes at one end of the pole and sometime closer to the middle.
Orality Assessment Tool self-scoring Excel version or PDF file
Mark your score on the scale below:

Now evaluate someone from your target audience, the average “person on the street” who could conceivably pass the good news along to most others in that people group.
Mark this score on the scale below.

How significant is the mismatch between you and them?
Or have you not had enough interaction with them to answer the questions?

Where this is a problem, literacy rates are sometimes used as a general indicator of communication style.

Do you know the literacy rates for men and women in your people group?

For example, here are literacy rates for the Arabic-speaking world.

What do these numbers mean? Is there a universal definition of literacy?

No, each country defines and reports its literacy rate by its own standards!

These U.N. figures reflect the percent of people over 14 whom a country’s census reports as having completed 4th grade or entered the 5th grade.

There is a direct relationship between government published literacy rates and IMF loans. So how accurate do you think these figures actually are??
A team in Cairo used the Orality Assessment Tool to evaluate the communication patterns of five female Egyptian university students.
Where do you think they were on the Orality Scale?
Remember: Although this may not be an absolute a reflection of what people can do, it does indicate what they prefer to do.
A Story

Matt was learning Arabic in Cairo when he met a university student a gym. Over the next few months, they became close friends and, in a combination of English and Arabic Matt led him to the Lord. Matt’s Arabic wasn’t strong enough for discipleship yet so Muhammed began formal inductive bible study with another Western worker.

Muhammed was just eating this up and Matt was impressed with the quality and depth of what he was learning. And he said, “That’s how good I need to be in Arabic…so I can do the same thing with the people I lead to the Lord.”

One day he was talking with Muhammed, “You love this kind of study so much. How many people here in Cairo would learn as much from this as you do. 25%?”

Muhammed laughed, “No way!”

Well, 10%?”

No, almost no one could do this…a few of my friends at university….I’d say 1%…maybe of the people in Cairo. But outside Cairo, don’t even think about it. Just tell people the bible stories.”
So how likely is your people group to have literacy skills that equip its members to read scripture with understanding and to be evangelized through:

Point by point explanation

Lists or outlines of biblical information


Topical bible studies

An even more crucial question: How likely is your people group to be able to evangelize and disciple others using print communication style?
Are you working with oral communicators?
Some of you are still not convinced. You’re thinking, “This is fine for somebody sitting under a tree in Africa but I’m working with college students.” Or, “Hey, I’m working with professional people--doctors, lawyers, university professors. I would be insulting their intelligence.” (But did Omar seem insulted?)
So here are a few more stories:

Rob lives in North Africa and works for a company that provides computer program expertise to local businesses. “Companies hire me to set them up with the Lotus Notes program,” he said. “I don’t understand why I have so much trouble convincing them to make needed changes when they are paying me to do this. We run into some problem and I go through it step by step, to show them the logical solution (a secular example of Roman Road thinking). But most of the time they just look at like me like “So, what’s your point??” I know my French is still weak but they understand me at other times. Why can’t I get through to them?”
Dr. Hani is a cardiologist in Gaza City who, still in his thirties, jumped the queue to become director of the Coronary Care Unit at a large local hospital. He was energetic, fluent in English and proud of his achievements. Whenever he was making rounds me, Dr. Hani liked to quote passages from a English cardiology textbook so big it takes two hands to lift.

But Dr. Hani didn’t seem to be able to use the information he quoted. He practiced medicine according to the traditions of the “medical fathers” who trained him years ago in Alexandria. When a patient had symptoms that could be caused by one of several diseases, Dr. Hani prescribed treatment for all of them. He didn’t arrive at a diagnosis using the process of elimination in order to treat the patient for the most likely condition.

If he knows the cardiology textbook so well, why does Dr Hani have difficulty “diagnosing” patients?
I was teaching basic math to first year nursing students so they could calculate drug dosages. Every day they had homework problems and then we would go over them in class. It was time for the first test and I explained that they could expect exactly the same type of problems we’d been doing all week. But during the test I could tell that many of them were upset. Afterward, one of the students burst out, “Doctora, it’s just not fair. We’ve never seen these problems before. You changed the numbers in them!”
So How Do Oral Communicators Learn?
ORAL COMMUNICATORS depend on memory—theirs & others

Let’s look first at people with no useful ability to read or write even though they may be able to sign their name.
Can you imagine living in a world where the only things you know are the things you can remember? Right now---no computer, no daytimer, no notes,---could you even catch a plane to get back home?
If this were your world, what things would you do to increase the amount of information stored in memory?
REPETITION…creating occasions for remembering:

Most of us think repetition is boring, uninteresting. But how would that change if we really intended to store information for living in our heads???
TELL OTHER PEOPLE so if you forget, they’ll remember:

But this requires staying in touch, talking a lot, maintaining good relationships. In an oral world, the really important information comes from other people. If that were your way of knowing what is going on, might you be willing to bend the truth to preserve harmony in the group or keep people from losing face? We call this lying; oral communicators call it common sense

INFORMATION is common property:

Confidentiality is a foreign concept. If you don’t want everyone to know, you don’t tell. Where people share basically the same information, they tend to think the same kinds of thoughts and have the same kinds of opinions.
How does this affect decision-making? Group decisions, talking through issues, need for consensus, private decisions seem disloyal to the group, threaten solidarity.
The world of sound is a shared world. What do you call a group of people who are listening to someone read aloud?
What do you call a group of people who are silently reading to themselves?

A group of people listening is collectively called an audience but there is no collective word for a group of readers because reading is a solitary activity.
Shared experience vanishes as each reader retreats into a private world.

MEMORIES support tradition:

If you’ve gone to all this work to remember, how ready are you going to be to take “new ideas” from strangers….like ourselves?? Is there risk to innovation? What if it doesn’t work and the old ways have been forgotten or devalued?

So what about your people? Do they….

Enjoy the repetition of hearing familiar stories?

Stay closely connected to their group?

Make group decisions?

Value tradition?


As people become print communicators, they don’t need others to get information. They learn privately, value new information, and begin to “think for themselves”.
ORAL COMMUNICATORS learn by apprenticeship

They don’t use cookbooks.

They don’t buy do-it-yourself manuals.

They don’t develop “programmed learning” or correspondence courses.

They learn skills through on-the-job training.

In traditional societies, girls watch and work with their mothers. Boys do the same with their fathers.

Western people learn trades this way…building, plumbing, brick-laying.

Sports and the arts are also learned through apprenticeship, even by those who are not oral communicators.
In a world that runs on oral communication, medicine is also learned this way. And it’s not just the practitioners of traditional medicine.
So it isn’t surprising that Dr. Hani treats his patients for all possible diseases rather than the most likely one.

  • His training didn’t require him to use memorized information to make clinical decisions.

  • Printed information goes into a “file” that doesn’t inform what he does.

  • He accessed that information to pass his exams and to impress people when he was making rounds.

  • But many years out of medical school he was still modeling what he saw his professors doing.

  • He may read an occasional medical journal “to keep up” but it will probably not change the way he treats patients very much.

So if you want to teach oral communicators, you’ve got to model, to show them.
We’ve taken a pretty big jump here. We started out talking about primary oral communicators who’ve never “seen” a word and all of a sudden we’re talking about how the people at the top of the pile actually learn.
So the rest of our discussion may also apply to those who can read but don’t process what they read in the same way we do.
These next characteristics of Oral Communicators illustrate Hesselgrave’s third filter that obscures meaning: ways of thinking, “cognitive processes”

ORAL COMMUNICATORS use situational thinking instead of “formal logic”

80 years ago, a Russian researcher named Luria studied the thinking processes of Uzbek and Kirghiz peasants in the former USSR. Most of them had no formal education at all while a few had one to three years of primary schooling.

Here are the kinds of questions he asked his subjects:

Logical” Thinking

In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zembla is in the Far North and there is always snow there. What color are the bears?

The first time a 45 year old collective farm chairman heard this, he gave a typical reply: “I don’t know. I’ve seen a black bear. I’ve never seen any others.”

but the second time he was asked this question, he said, “To go by your words, they should all be white.” (not totally convinced)

And he’d gone to school for several years

How did you know that the bears are white?

If A = B and B = C, C = ?

Luria found that illiterates appeared to operate without formal deductive procedures. They understand riddles which require canniness to solve, drawing on experiential knowledge beyond the words of the riddle themselves. But they don’t understand the special rules of formal logic which allow us to solve a problem solely on the stated information. They weren’t even interested in this kind of reasoning because their world didn’t present them with problems which required it.


Try to explain to me what a tree is.”

“Why should I? Everyone knows what a tree is.”

How would you define a tree in two words?”

“Apple tree, elm tree, poplar tree”

Remember that primary oral communicators like Nasir and Fatma use words to paint sound pictures on the listener’s mental canvas? Single words, by themselves, don’t have much meaning…any more than one note of a music has meaning. So is this a “dumb answer” or a “dumb question”?? It depends on your point of view.
ORAL COMMUNICATORS think externally and concretely. They are not, by nature, introspective.


Each person is located at the center of his world experience and the only direction he looks is outward to the other components of that world (like, the only direction you can look from the North Pole is south). Self-analysis requires the subject to step away from the personal situation in which he is embedded and look back at himself “from the outside”.
Oral communicators have little practice thinking about themselves as individuals because their life experience doesn’t require it. So Luria asked his subjects:
What sort of person are you, what’s your character like, what are your good qualities and shortcomings?” I came here from my village, I was very poor, and now I’m married and have children.” “Are you satisfied with yourself or would you like to be different?” “It would be good if I had a little more land and could sow some wheat.” “And what are your shortcomings?” “This year I sowed one acre of wheat, and we’re gradually fixing the shortcomings.” “Well, people are different--calm, hot-tempered, or sometimes their memory is poor. What do you think of yourself?” “We behave well--if we were bad people, no one would respect us.”
The response contains nothing but externals. Self-evaluation becomes group evaluation (“we”) and then turns into expected reactions from other people.

Another response: “What can I say about my own heart? How can I talk about my character? Ask others; they can tell you about me. I myself can’t say anything.”

Where does judgment come from, inside or outside? In such a context, shame is readily perceived...but guilt is not.
This illustrates Hesselgrave’s fourth filter, motivations or “ways of deciding” which we will deal with in much greater detail tomorrow.

Another example highlights Hesselgrave’s fifth filter, social structures or “ways of interacting”
Intelligence And Worth To The Community

A researcher in Central Africa was chatting with a local man at a big village celebration where everyone was dancing and she asked him,

What do you think about this new principal at the school”

And the man said to him: “Let’s watch a little how he dances.”
My Story
I spent my first ten years on the field thinking that being the most careful, caring doctor in Gaza was the best thing I could do. And one day I realized that I hadn’t seen one of our church members for quite a while. It turned out that her mother had had a stroke and was paralyzed so I went to see what I could do to help.
I raised the bed, got bedrails, cut the seat out of a chair to make a bedside potty, even created a makeshift wheelchair to get her into the bathroom for a shower, trying to get physical therapy at home. Every day after lunch I was coming over with sawdust in my hair to make caring for her mother easier.
For weeks this was taking up a significant amount of my time until the day came when I thought, “Everything is done and I don’t need to go there today.”

About dark, the phone rang and it was my friend. With absolute panic in her voice, she said, “Where are you?” So I’m thinking there’s some emergency with her mother. So I say, “What’s happened? What’s wrong?”
What’s wrong? she said. “You didn’t come!”

What was really wrong was that I had been oblivious to the impact of Hesselgrave’s sixth filter, behavior, “ways of acting”, especially in regard to our Western bugaboo, time.

How well was I dancing…according to my ruler? According to her?
How well do you dance? What kind of ruler is your people group measuring you with?

When we pose these kinds of questions to oral communicators, they don’t “measure up” to our standards. They may be able to memorize large amounts of material but they clearly do not process it in the way we expect.

So let’s test you on some other questions researchers used to understand the thinking of people without much formal schooling.


What is this?

And this?

Which one is different and doesn’t belong in the set?

The answer is obvious to anyone.

Which one is different?

From which perspective?
Illiterates who associate with literates know that other people think differently. An illiterate West African man was asked to identify the item which does not belong in this set. What did he say?

So what are these?
You think this is only true for people who haven’t gone to school?

I was doing this exercise at Kenya Baptist Seminary by giving people pictures and asking them to group the objects by standing together. A young woman who had just graduated had the orange picture and every time the person with the knife picture stepped away from her to be with the cup and the plate, she kept following so she could be right beside him.
The World Of Oral Communicators Is Concrete!

When we move into their world, we are the ones who are “learning disabled”

And we presume to be their teachers?!

Luria tried to teach categorization to primary illiterates but they never really grasped it. They could memorize the “correct” answers to the problems he gave them. But when he changed the pictures, they went right back to situational thinking.

It turns out that people with as little as two years of formal schooling learn to categorize objects abstractly…by shape or by some other grouping.

But it takes ten to twelve years of rigorous Western style education for a person to begin using formal logic for problem solving.
It takes about the same amount of time to learn to read abstract information (topics, facts) and assimilate it in a way that produces some kind of internal change.
Western education (at least in theory) teaches students to create new information out of old information.

But wherever education
leans heavily on rote memory, you know that it values traditional information and doesn’t expect students to become innovators. No matter how many years students spend in such a learning environment, they will probably not fully develop the thinking process we call “formal logic”.
So it’s no mystery why Dr. Hani cannot apply the information he has memorized and has trouble deciding which disease a patient has.
It’s no mystery that a Moroccan businessman misses the point of Rob’s “logical” solution for his computer problems.

And it’s no mystery why my nursing students were upset when I changed the numbers in the math problems. When they graduated from high school, all they had to do to get a perfect score in the math section was memorize all the problems in the math book and reproduce them on a test paper.

Understanding “concepts” and applying them in new situations is not a culturally relevant definition of learning.
What seems to be their definition of academic learning? memorization

How do they prove that they “learned well”? Verbatim recitation

How Do Oral Communicators Learn Best?

They learn through CONCRETE EVENTS in the form of stories, songs, proverbs and practical experience.

----Verbal or even physical conflict holds their interest far more than abstract problems or difficulties.

-----As every soap opera screen writer knows, he has to keep coming up with new conflicts to keep people watching.

------and scripture itself is full of examples:
Who won the verbal battle as well as the physical one?

David -- as he “one-upped“ Goliath, giving the bodies of the entire Philistine army to the birds and animals to eat!
ORAL COMMUNICATORS explore the bible’s worldview through its stories

Stories are especially powerful because oral communicators identify with the people in the stories and feel what they feel. The separation between story events and the lives of the listeners becomes blurred as everyone “gets into” the story. It’s like watching a gripping movie and being “there”, living the story yourself.
Annette was telling the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar to a group of Moroccan women whom she describes as being “illiterate in three languages”. She was nervous about how they would receive it because Muslims have great respect for Ishmael. When it was over, the leader of the group, Jamila, said, “That’s a true story”. (Whew!)

What makes you say this?” Annette asked her.

God made Abraham a promise and Abraham didn’t have the faith to wait for God. He acted on his own. And look at all the trouble that came to that family. It happens all the time. People don’t have the faith to wait for God. They act on their own and they get into trouble just like Abraham did. It’s a true story.”

With no prompting from the storyteller….not even discussion questions…Jamila identified with the characters and received the truth of the story to make it her own.

Through this identification, the listener is able to “try the Biblical worldview on for size” to see if it “fits” his needs, to see if he wants to “buy” it.

  • What would it be like to worship a God who is more powerful than jinn and could protect me from the evil eye? And this isn’t just for Muslims…I saw plenty of folk Christianity when I was living in Gaza

  • What can I expect from a God who makes promises and keeps them?

  • Does God bother with women? Is heaven for women, too?

The Task We Face

So how big a deal is this issue of communication style mismatch?
More than 90% of the world’s ministers can read, at least to some extent, and they have been taught to teach and preach using sermon points and explanation and exhortation. Stories are for women and children.
But most of the world’s people are oral communicators, even the ones we think of as being literate.

Tex Sample (Ministry In An Oral Culture—Living with Will Rogers, Uncle Remus, & Minnie Pearl) believes that oral communication is much more common than we think.

It is my contention that about half of the people in the United States are people who work primarily out of a traditional orality, by which I mean a people who can read and write (though some cannot) but whose engagement with life is oral.

More than this, I am convinced that most churches have a clear majority of their membership who work from a traditional orality.
We already saw that the National Adult Literacy Survey bears this out:
Richard A. Jensen’s Thinking in Story; Preaching in A Post-literate Age gives us another look at orality in the pews.)
The bottom line is:
  • most people across the globe have no understandable access to the gospel and that remains true when they come here as refugees.

  • a major portion of Americans have missed being transformed by the gospel, even those who hear it preached every week.

  • George Barna’s research bears this out…he finds little statistical difference in the behavior of people who are “born again” and those who aren’t.

Why do so many Christians operate with the worldview of lost people? Why has there been so little “transforming of the mind?”
Could it be due to a mismatch in communication style right here at home?

In Summary

Print communicators learn by breaking information down into bits, analyzing it, and rearranging it in topics, points, lists, and explanations

and that is an effective way to evangelize and disciple the literate and highly literate people of this world.
But it’s not an effective way to transform the lives of oral communicators who

  • depend on memory

  • Learn by apprenticeship

  • Do not use or understand “logic”

  • Think concretely

AND equip them to share the whole council of God with others.
2 Tim. 2:2 And that’s how the gospel moves through a people group, a Church Planting Movement.
SO, going back to where we started. If there’s no change in behavior, maybe teaching occurred, but learning didn’t.
I can have speak with the tongues of men and of angels…and add love as well…and still present the Good News in a way that people cannot understand.

Faith comes by hearing and it’s our responsibility to reshape our telling of the Good News so it can change oral communicators’ lives like it’s changed ours.

and equip them to accurately pass it on to others.
Whatever our focus is….evangelism, discipleship, leadership training, we can do this by telling and teaching the STORIES OF GOD which have the power to transform everyone’s worldview. The “renewing of our minds”
But this creates a problem for us…they will understand the message presented in story form but can we tell it that way???
We must!
And when we tell the stories accurately, without explanation, we remove our Western worldview filters and allow God speak directly to Abu Muhammed, Nasir & Fatma, Ali & Aisha, Mona and Omar ….and your people group too, through His Story, the one beginning in Genesis.


LLAJ 9/09 lynneabney@pobox.com

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