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Preaching to Oral Learners

Having a background in orality puts me in interesting situations at times. I think we all recognize that most people in America, especially Cincinnati, have a non-reading preference as orality continues to grow. People are just not reading, for one. But I’ll save that topic for another blog. For this podcast, I’d like to address preaching for oral learners.

At a pastor’s conference a few years ago, I took on the topic, “Orality in Preaching.” What I was a little shy about is that I would be following Herschael York, who at that time was Southern Seminary’s preaching professor. Okay, he was the keynote and I led a breakout, but I still had 15 eager pastors attending my session.

The interesting thing to me was that the Dr. York didn’t sound all that different from what I was ready to teach. And he was focused on expositional preaching. He used different words for some things, but we were remarkably close. It helps that I had been trained by preaching professors like Grant Lovejoy, who taught at Southwestern Seminary.

Here are five tips for using orality in preaching.

1.      Stay in the Story: Oral learners don’t like to skip around the Bible. By sticking with one passage, then it is possible to focus on the main Bible truth that it conveys. Skipping around often pulls truths out of their context to make your point instead of God’s point. Also, the story is easier to reproduce.

2.     Convey all the text first: Tell the Bible story and don’t break it up to do the exegesis. You can tear apart the verses later, but get it entrenched intact while everyone is still listening (and awake!).

3.     Discovery: What does the exegesis? In small groups, it is wise to ask open-ended questions and allow the discovery to happen by the participants. When you’re the lone voice in the pulpit, then what if you asked open-ended questions and just let them hang in the air for a bit? Allow for quiet. Engage the imaginations of those in the pew. Help them become active learners. You can do your explanation, of course, as a matter of proclamation, but remember that Jesus asked questions that led the listener to Truth.

4.     Organization: Preachers are taught to use an outline in presenting their expositional sermons: text, application, and response. In oral methods, we’ve learned that it’s a lot easier to remember Head, Heart, and Hands. Head helps everyone learn the story without embellishing it. Heart gets and the application to our lives. And Hands is not only a personal response, but a response that often demands action (ministry, witness, etc.) among those we know who need the biblical truth.

5.      Oral Bible: Each Bible story helps internalize God’s Word. It’s the essence of hiding or storing up God’s Word mentioned in Psalm 119:11. When the stories are strung along chronologically, that is one method to help learn the redemptive arc of God’s meta-narrative. And if the story is placed firmly in a specific context, it’s possible to return later and fill in some details that oral learners crave.

In our world today, people simply do not know Bible stories. When preaching, we sling words from the pulpit that people just don’t know. Sin, for one. Is that just something that we feel guilty about when we get caught? They often know God, but not Jesus. And Satan and the Holy Spirit don’t really exist, do they? George Barna, in his book, Think Like Jesus, pointed out that due to rampant biblical illiteracy, people have been actually making up their own theology. And today’s preachers for the masses are no longer in our churches, but on our movie screens, our TV commentary, and voices of friends who just don’t know any better.

Proclaiming the Word of God is biblical. The Apostle Paul had churches full of oral learners. I think that may be why 1 Corinthians 14:9 says that we should speaking using words people can understand. And when oral methods are used, I have found that I can communicate in a way that leads to what Paul pointed out in Romans 10:17 that calls for faith by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.

-Mark Snowden directs the Cincinnati Area Baptist Association

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