Global Analysis

Tracking the Orality Movement

Some implications for 21st century missions

Tom Steffen Mar 2014

“You’re not going to bed till I hear about what you’ve been doing in Palawan,” I impatiently said to Trevor McIlwain at the New Tribes Mission guest home in Manila. That conversation evolved into McIlwain speaking at the upcoming New Tribes Mission (NTM) Southeast Asian Leadership Conference in Thailand and to what would eventually be called Chronological Bible Teaching (CBT).

That was over 30 years ago. Since then, CBT has gone global, and from rural tribal settings to the urban centers of the world. McIlwain reintroduced the missions world to the powerful use of story in ministry. Interestingly, many church leaders today remain unaware of the movement.


The McIlwains found themselves assigned to follow up with a people movement among the Palowanos of the Philippines in which many were thought to have suddenly believed in Christ. What they soon discovered, however, was that many misunderstood the gospel. Destroying fetishes, abstaining from certain practices, and attending church services became substitutes for salvation (McIlwain; Steffen and Terry 2007).

To try and correct the situation, McIlwain decided to start from the beginning of the Bible, identifying salvation themes from Genesis to the ascension. This provided a foundation for the New Testament Jesus story while allowing time for the Palawanos to sort out truth from error. Syncretism birthed the CBT model.

Over time, McIlwain developed a seven-stage story model (of which I will address only four) that covered the entire Bible in a relative short period, moving seamlessly from evangelism to follow-up:

  • The 68 lessons of Phase 1 (Genesis 1-Acts 1) focused on evangelism (separation from a holy God and the solution through Christ).
  • Phase 2 repeated Phase 1, adding the theme of security for believers.
  • Phase 3 (Acts 2-28) introduced new believers to church life and the spontaneous spread of the Christian movement.
  • Phase 4 (Romans-Revelation) covered the epistles, bringing conclusion to the God-story with Revelation.

Several assumptions drove CBT:

  • The Bible is one story.
  • It is not only the record of the words of God, but also an account of the historical, revelatory acts of God.
  • God, in his Word, has not only told us what to teach, but by example, shown us how to teach.
  • Doctrines can only be understood if taught according to their historical revelation and development.
  • God prepared the Bible as his message for all cultures.
  • There must be adequate Old Testament preparation for the gospel.

NTM encourages storytellers to conduct extensive worldview studies of their people before conducting ministry. Most of their workers serve with primary oral learners, i.e., those who prefer to communicate through verbal and visual means (Ong).

International Mission Board

It did not take long for the International Mission Board (IMB) led by Jim Slack to adopt CBT. Having ministries among lowland Filipinos with low reading abilities, they recognized the wisdom of using a story-based ministry model.

However, they felt that CBT advocated too much teaching and was weak on storying. J. O. Terry coined the term “Chronological Bible Storying” (CBS) to refocus the model. To allow for more need-based topical teaching, Bible Storying (BS) soon followed. Some titles include Water Stories from the Bible, Death Stories from the Bible, Grief Stories from the Bible, Food Stories from the Bible, and Hope Stories from the Bible.

Feeling that CBS took too much time to cover all the Bible stories, Creation 2 Christ (C2C), a brief evangelism tool, eventually replaced CBS for many.

Because of perceived time constraints, IMB encouraged their personnel to limit worldview studies, sometimes to a people’s religion only.

IMB began producing training tools for storytellers, now leading the way in the orality movement. Other agencies were quick to get on board, picking up CBT or CBS, contextualizing them to fit their own philosophies and theologies. McIlwain had started a modern-day movement (Steffen 2013).

International Orality Network

In 2005, those who had worked on Making Disciples of Oral Learners during the 2004 Lausanne Forum and members of the Oral Bible Network merged to form the International Orality Network (ION). ION seeks to “radically influence” the use of primary and secondary orality among unreached peoples in rural and urban contexts. Secondary orality refers to those who are literate, but still prefer to communicate through verbal, visual, and digital means (Ong).

ION task forces focus on prayer, music and the arts, secondary orality, publications and websites, annual consultations, research, discovering best practices, field training, theological education, orality for women and children, and funding.

Recently, ION began addressing the role of orality in theological education at two consultations, Wheaton (2012) and Hong Kong (2013):

  • Teachers began to recognize that their students were having great difficulty following their teaching.
  • Their oral-preferenced students, or “digitorals,” preferred watching to reading, screens to paper, interacting to writing, dialoguing to listening to lectures, and group activities to individual activities.
  • The consultations began to identify vocabulary and categories to address required changes.
  • Out of the Wheaton consultation came Beyond Literate Western Models: Contextualizing Theological Education in Oral Contexts.

Educational institutions 

Various Christian educational institutions began to respond to the movement.In 1995, I launched the course “Narrative in Scripture and Ministry” at the Cook School of Intercultural Studies, Biola University. In 2011, Cook inaugurated a graduate concentration in orality that addresses primary and secondary orality.

In 2004, Roberta King began the course “Communicating Christ through Oral Performance: Storytelling & Song” at the School of Intercultural Studies, Fuller Theological Seminary. Oklahoma Baptist University began an orality minor in 2007.

Secondary orality 

A life-changing question began Avery Willis’ journey into secondary orality in 2000. Willis was at the time Senior Vice President for Overseas Operations with IMB, overseeing some 5,000 missionaries. Marcus Vegh, a friend of his participating in the Billy Graham conference for evangelists in Amsterdam, asked:

“Avery, how do you make disciples of oral learners?” “I don’t know,” I replied with a shrug of my shoulders. “People have asked me that question for twenty years. I just say, ‘I’m not working with illiterates. If you are, figure it out.’” “It’s been twenty years, and no one has done it,” Marcus retorted. “You know about discipleship. Avery, it’s your job. Seventy percent of the unreached people are oral learners” (Willis and Snowden 21-22).

In his journal, Willis continued, “Little did I realize that addressing the challenge of discipling oral learners cross-culturally would solve a close-to-home problem I had wrestled with for more than 40 years: how to make disciples in America – not just with people who can’t or won’t read, but also with millennials[1] (18-29-year-olds) who don’t like to read books” (Ibid., 22).

In light of the 20 years of successful IMB orality history, primarily but not exclusively in rural settings, Vegh’s observation identifies the lack of communication between those involved in similar ministries at home and abroad. Willis’ paradigm shift would more than make up for this oversight, however, when he became Executive Director of ION.

The orality movement had moved from the country to the city, and from primary oral learners to secondary oral learners.


Looking ahead, we need to encourage more in-depth worldview studies. Worldview Resource Group is constructing a test instrument that could help.

People groups often integrate symbols, stories, and rituals differently from cross-cultural workers. We must create models to analyze this integrated, sacred trio on multiple levels: individual, family, community, nation, and international.

We also need to:

  • avoid creating an abridged picture of God by translating the whole Bible, not just one-third;
  • discover how faculty in theological institutions can communicate more effectively with students influenced by “transmedia storytelling” (telling a story through multiple means of current technologies);
  • investigate how to restructure Bible curricula in our theological institutions so that it flows from whole to parts, and make sure teachers tie their parts back to the whole;
  • discover how the digital world can be used for evangelism and follow-up with primary oral learners; and
  • learn how to tell Bible stories from an “honor-shame” framework rather than guilt-innocence.[2]

“If you mess up the message, you mess up the movement” (Steffen 2011, 132). We need to provide sufficient foundation for the gospel to help avoid the syncretism that is so prevalent today. Evangelists too often sacrifice foundation for follow-up. Foundation is follow-up in advance.

In addition we need to:

  • become as proficient in experiential apologetics as we are in evidential apologetics;
  • become as proficient in narrative theology and biblical theology as we are in systematic theology;
  • train people to tell their faith story – no more timid testimonies;
  • learn to see the Bible as a Sacred Storybook rather than a textbook or a self-help book (Steffen 2005); and
  • write textbooks in the narrative genre, eg The Facilitative Era.

Global ministry implications

The modern orality movement impacts global ministry on every level, whether one is aware of it or not. It influences every aspect of ministry: training, theological education, Bible curricula, Bible translation, evangelism, church planting, community development, business as mission, creation care, the arts, media, hermeneutics, and homiletics. Hopefully it will not take 20 years, as it did for Avery Willis, for global church leaders to discover its contributions. The present orality movement can provide many answers for global ministries if we can shed our silos.


  1. Millennials refer to Generation Y, those born approximately between 1980 and 2000.
  2. Many in the West prefer to address life’s issues from a guilt-innocence framework while many in the East prefer addressing them through an honor-shame construct. In that most Western evangelism and follow-up curricula is written from a guilt-innocence framework, this requires many Eastern listeners/readers to jump through unnecessary, confusing pedagogical hoops.


Lausanne Issue Group. Making Disciples of Oral Learners. New York: Elim Printing, 2005.

McIlwain, Trevor. Building on Firm Foundations: Guidelines for Evangelism and Teaching Believers, Vol. 1. Sanford, FL: New Tribes Mission, 1987.

Ong, Walter J. Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Steffen, Tom A. Reconnecting God’s Story to Ministry: Crosscultural Storytelling at Home and Abroad. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005.

Steffen, Tom A. The Facilitator Era: Beyond Pioneer Church Multiplication. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011.

Steffen, Tom A. “Chronological Practices and Possibilities in the Urban World.” Global Missiology, 4(10), 2013. Accessed at

Steffen, Tom and J.O. Terry. “The Sweeping Story of Scripture Taught Through Time.” Missiology: An International Review 35(3), 2007, 315-335.

Willis, Jr., Avery T. and Mark Snowden. Truth That Sticks: How to Communicate Velcro Truth in a Teflon World. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2010.