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Is your congregation oral?

In Montreal, Canada, a few years ago, I tore pages out of a novel and gave it to the 60 people attending the very first TruthSticks Bible storying workshop. I asked them to tell me what they thought the book was about based on that single page that they held in their hands. Nobody got it right. Yet, Sunday after Sunday we do the same thing in our churches. We may not physically tear out pages, but we focus only on small biblical snippets to make our own teaching points and themes.

We fall very short of disciple-making ideals when preach or teach when we race through Scripture to get to our own ideas.

Why is orality in North America seen as something new? First century believers had very low literacy rates. Some have estimated it at 90 percent, yet the gospel advanced (Acts 9:31)! Everyone loves a story. It takes some years to enjoy reading. Oral methods are very reproducible! And, hey, Jesus did it!

Speaking of reproducibility -- are those who genuinely seek to make disciples of all peoples in North America actually making disciples? Isn’t that our command from Christ (Mt. 28:18-20)? If disciple-making is our commission by Jesus, and a majority of the people have an oral-learning preference, why is it not commonly used in our churches?

Examine what is happening in the average evangelical church. Sermons are of the highest literate formats possible – fill-in-the-blank sermons, intense exposition of not only single verses but word-by-word analysis in the pulpit, overhead projection that provides outlines and pithy quotes sometimes intermingled with video roll-ins that reinforce the worship theme of the day. In our Sunday School classes (those churches that still have them), we find quarterlies tucked in Bibles, workbooks, and learning environments that despite the occasional poster have the austerity of sterile hospital wards. Those that DO read their Sunday School lesson are preparing only for Sunday and it has no connection with their everyday activities.

Beyond the superficial appearances, the Sunday School teacher is a mini-version of the pastor. He gives a lecture to adults and teens. People passively listen. They read verses when called upon, but many do not comprehend what is being read. Yet the lecture drones on.

When my wife and I were teaching a college-age class, one of the young men said, “Why do you get us to think about these lessons? Why don’t you just tell us what to believe.” He was wanting a veneer of information rather than deal with life-transforming truths!

Church members hop from one church to the other. Denominational loyalty is something of whatever past we thought there was. And because of budget shortfalls, many churches increasingly cut back on efforts at making disciples among adults. And, as I frequently state, teaching a Sunday School lesson is not the same thing as making disciples.

Contrast this to what is at least underway in the children’s areas. Because of efforts of teachers to engage young minds, the learning environments are often bright and filled with music, crafts, well-told Bible stories, teaching pictures, and wall decorations that interpret desired themes for a month or quarter. Somehow between childhood and adulthood, an incredible learning gap has emerged. We assume the adults and tends got the same stories, the same biblical background. Well…did they?

However, even that could be improved. When leading a Children’s Workshop in Missouri, one of the teachers said, “One of my 7-year-olds said, ‘Hey teacher, I just thought of something. All of these Bible stories that you tell us are from the same book, but you tell them out of order!” To me, that made an incredible case for putting every story we tell in the biblical timeline and context.

Praise God for believers that are awakening and engaging an oral approach that intentionally enables disciple-making. Check out more than 100 blogs on and write to me for a Catalog of Bible Storying Resources at

So, with a little help you can take all those stories instead of random pages in a book and see the wonderful narrative of God’s work among us.

Mark Snowden leads a Bible storying ministry and also directs the Cincinnati Area Baptist Association.

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