Integrated Orality

Billy Coppedge 15 May 2024

In his volume uniquely entitled, Stuff,[1] Daniel Miller discusses the humility of things, a shorthand way of trying to show how material objects have a way of fading from our conscious view, yet often possess an under-appreciated power in dictating personal and communal movements and choices. In this article, I propose there is an analogous relationship between Miller’s humility of material artifacts and orality. 

For many on mission with God today in the world, the concept of orality remains a familiar, yet unclear term. Certainly, not a working category for shaping and sharpening twenty-first century missional communication strategy. I encountered this in the summer of 2022 while at a gathering of mission leaders from forty-plus nations. As my co-orality catalysts and I discussed orality with some of our colleagues, we began to notice a pattern which might be summed up in some version of three well-meaning but concerning themes. 

First—I know orality is important for reaching rural-based people who can’t read; I am glad you are doing that. 

Second—That is not my target audience; God has called me to work with important global leaders and social influencers. 

Third—Do you know where to find the catalysts who work with those important people?

Granted, no one was rude and I am not questioning anyone’s concern for rural people who cannot read. But what concerned me was the realization that for many missional leaders, there has developed (or remains) a—perhaps negative—stereotype of orality as a merely pragmatic tool for reaching rural-based illiterates who, while important to God, are not considered strategically important for missional strategy today because such people carry no weight among the contemporary social media influencers and urban gatekeepers of the world. 

Over the last year or two, we have tried to address this misconception of too narrow an understanding of orality by publishing several articles, including Towards a Theology of Orality and The Living Word for Living Languages. The first of these sought to situate orality in a much wider theological frame; the second highlighted how orality has to be a strategic category for not only evangelism and discipleship but for such critical missional concerns as Bible translation, if we are going to indeed fulfill the Great Commission. Either of these would suggest that one overlooks orality in today’s missions era at one’s own peril. But there remains a wider concern that we’d like to address here:

It is this strategic question (and the missional leader asking) that this article seeks to engage. Ultimately, answering the question, ‘What does orality have to do with me?’ requires re-imagining orality, not merely as a pragmatic tool for Scripture engagement among the uneducated, but as an inherent quality of human persons made in the image of a communicating God. Furthermore, it requires acknowledging the re-oralization that is here to stay among Western, digital-oral communicators. Once this re-imagining commences, only then can we begin to recognize the strategic importance of integrating orality across every domain of missions today.[2]

Ultimately, answering the question, ‘What does orality have to do with me?’ requires re-imagining orality, not merely as a pragmatic tool for Scripture engagement among the uneducated, but as an inherent quality of human persons made in the image of a communicating God.

To help us re-frame our conception of orality, I want to draw on a series of conversations that our Lausanne orality catalyst team had with other catalysts from nine different issue groups within Lausanne. Some groups have natural affinity with orality, such as Church Planting or Children and Family. But we also met with networks such as Leadership Development, Ministry Fundraising, Creation Care and Business as Mission (BAM) as we wanted to stretch our own understanding of each of these critical spheres of influence, as well as explore the interconnections with orality. The results were robust conversations, full of passion for God and for people throughout the world to not just meet him, but to experience and know the full measure of salvation available to them today. While a variety of critical topics surfaced during our discussions, several strategic themes emerged that may help answer the significant question: What does orality have to do with me if I am called to reach today’s strategic influencers and gatekeepers?

First, each of the networks shared some version of the same goal: human flourishing as possible only through the work of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Second, such flourishing is always relational in multi-faceted ways and, third, cultivating and redeeming those relationships always includes vital communication strategies. I suggest orality is intimately related to all of these categories. 

To begin, representatives from networks as diverse as Creation Care and Health for all Nations formulated a deep appreciation for the biblical concept of shalom, the restoring of all relationships that have been broken by sin, whether with God, each other, oneself, or one’s environment. Furthermore, the Disability Concerns Network voiced a strong desire to help those with impairments of all kinds overcome diminishment. Even the BAM’s discussion of their four-fold bottom line (social, environment, economic, and spiritual) points to this deep commitment to see God transform every part of human life. These Lausanne network champions believe biblical salvation engages the whole person, not just disembodied souls. God wants to engage each person’s physical, spiritual, material, and even spatial wellbeing. In a real sense, these networks’ multifaceted concern for people across the whole spectrum to flourish could be understood as a concern for all people to worship God holistically, in all areas of their lives.

But this immediately highlights a second observation—a corollary that emerged. Such flourishing cannot happen without right relationships. With broken relationships, people lack clarity on their true identity. Therefore, Jesus Christ came to recreate those relationships, model how to be in right relationship, whether with God, oneself, other persons, or creation, and to bestow true identity on his followers. Significantly, every one of the networks interpreted their issue as highly relational. This seems straightforward among the Leadership Development Network but perhaps less so among groups such as Creation Care; nevertheless, catalyst Jasmine Kwong summarized: ‘Creation care is all about relationships.’ Furthermore, each of the catalysts saw their network as intentionally trying to address at least one if not more of these broken relationships. Curiously, integration was a critical category for many, specifically the lack thereof. Numerous network representatives discussed their concern with silos, both within the wider Lausanne network but also the broader mission world whereby groups (even the Lausanne issue networks) emphasize one or two relationships but without actually offering appropriate models or paradigms for how to integratively engage the full measure of broken relationships within a particular community.

Herein we come to a third theme that risks using overly simplistic terms but is worth reiterating: At the heart of broken relationships is failed communication. The reasons for this are broad and complex, going all the way back to Genesis 3. But for our purposes here, it is worth noting that each network acknowledged, in some way, the challenges of communication around their particular issue. So, the Disability Concerns Network lamented how the lack of awareness remains a critical communication concern for their shareholders; the Ministry Fundraising Network emphasized how difficult cultural barriers and stereotypes complicate communication around their issue; the Children and Family Network discussed the need to create relational connections with children, and the Freedom and Justice Network had testimonies of how students had to compensate for misunderstood communication preferences within educational contexts. Thus, for every one of the networks, communication remains a critical concern—perhaps, dare we suggest, one of the highest concerns. In light of this reality, each network acknowledged trying to address some specific broken relationship through a communication strategy—some more intentional or developed than others.

orality is our baseline for all human communication. This is the humility of orality that has been overlooked by thought leaders in missions today.

While expressed in different ways, each network seemed to intuit that if they do not communicate well with their shareholders, clients, target audiences, unreached people groups, and other partners within their sphere of shared concern, their impact will be minimalized at best, if not negated all together. The conclusion of all of this is that communication is not a secondary issue but an essential issue for each of Lausanne’s issue networks. To summarize thus far, communication is critical for re-establishing right relationships, which is essential for cultivating human flourishing.

But what does this have to do with orality?

Any discussion of communication has to recognize the inherent role of orality for all interpersonal communication. Herein is the point. While other modes may be involved, such as digital or textual modalities, ultimately, they are external to human persons. They help preserve communication and allow for the overcoming of geographical and time barriers; nonetheless, all texts and digital media remain external to human persons. This remains true even of emerging AI technologies thus far. They may be added to human persons but orality is inherent to personhood world over. Thus, all human persons begin as oral communicators. Yes, we have to factor in other textual and digital influences today but the simple fact is that orality is our baseline for all human communication. This is the humility of orality that has been overlooked by thought leaders in missions today.

Ignoring orality or relegating it to a stereotype that only fits rural illiterates far from the powers that be is not merely ignorant and prideful, but also foolish. Curiously, many of the catalysts we interviewed seemed to intuit the significant relationship between their special issue and orality. A Health for all Nations catalyst summarized it well, ‘You cannot practice whole person care without orality.’ Likewise, the representative for the Disability Concerns Network declared, ‘Every time this topic of the relationship between orality and disabilities comes up, my mind is flooded; we’re not asking theoretical questions. The connections are extremely strong with orality.’ So where do we go from here?

We propose several strategic considerations for the broader Lausanne constituency, particularly as we all participate in the L4 process and move toward Seoul-Incheon 2024. First, remember that communication matters to your networks and spheres of influence. Communication is not merely of pragmatic importance but theological significance.[3] Does your church, organization, or network have a theology of communication? Second, every person you and your network are trying to engage for God was born an oral-reliant communicator. Whether you serve among rice farmers or university students, on seminary campuses or on the streets among sex workers, the people you carry in your heart have some degree of oral reliance. For more than we tend to acknowledge, that oral reliance is much higher than we (or they) imagine.[4] Thus, if you want to cultivate influence in the kingdom of God, begin to pay attention to the nature of orality and its humble, yet ubiquitous presence. Third, be encouraged because many are already moving in the right direction. Due to orality’s humility, many of us incorporate oral tools in ways we may not even realize. One of these is storytelling.

A critical question for the church today is this: How can we get really good at telling better stories, specifically the stories of God? Certainly, orality is much more than storytelling, but narrative-shaped content is often the modus operandi for oral communication. Today, with the advent of social media, people have (re-) discovered the power for transformation through storytelling.[5] So, for example, every single Lausanne network we interviewed discussed the critical role of storytelling for their network. Most of them did not acknowledge it as related to orality. But they have intuited its power. We recommend that the church needs more of this. So often, the best way to counter a false narrative is not with facts and figures but with a counter-narrative.

Story is the language of the heart,[6] and when we tell God’s story, when we recount the testimonies of his faithfulness, we create an atmosphere that fosters spiritual change. Thus, orality-oriented tools, such as storytelling, have to be front and center for any of Lausanne’s attempts to address the gaps in fulfilling the Great Commission.[7] For those who want to continue to hold orality at arm’s length, we humbly suggest that the most promising way one can influence the gatekeepers of the day is through telling better stories. Let us share them, record them, sing them, and perform them for a world that is hungry for the true story, but even more, its Author.


  1. Daniel Miller, Stuff. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010). 
  2. While not specifically oral-centric, Andy Crouch’s article on shame draws attention to the fact that issues such as orality and shame, while maybe not traditionally considered to be “Western culture” issues, are now, indeed, part of American contemporary sensibilities. See “The Good News About Shame,” Christianity Today, Vol 59, 2 March 2015.
  3. For more on this, see
  4. For more on the exciting, emerging research on orality quotients among people groups, see
  5. For a helpful introduction to the power of storytelling to cultivate transformation, see James K.A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013).
  6. For elaboration on this, see chapter 5 and chapter 6 in James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 155–214, 215–30.
  7. See