In America, we often take for granted easy access to education and a high literacy rate. That’s not the case in Africa, which is home to nine of the 10 countries with the lowest adult literacy rates in the world*. How does that impact the sharing of the Gospel? How can one share God’s story without the written Word of God?
Oral tradition—storytelling—has been around for centuries, and it’s powerful. Plus it is often much easier for people to remember things they’ve learned through stories. Storytelling is an effective means for people to pass along their historical and spiritual heritage from one generation to the next.
Missionaries Paul and Stephanie Whitney have made a remote, rural town in East Africa their home. “It has taken time to gain the trust of many of the villagers,” Stephanie says. “Many people in this region live in a state of constant fear. They expect bad things to happen to them. Much of this stems from their animistic belief system. They worry about what ‘powers’ may cause evil in their lives.”
The Whitneys face other cultural obstacles to the advance of the Gospel where they are, including some churches that neglect to share the full Gospel—resulting in a misunderstanding of the truth of the Gospel message. “Our job has been to tear down those walls of lies,” Stephanie says, “and start with the basics. We begin with creation and explain that it is really about a relationship with God. Not a lot of people in this area read, so we have learned to communicate God’s Word to them through telling Bible stories.”
As a result, Paul and Stephanie invest their time in small discipleship groups, meeting with men and women weekly and sharing Bible stories with them. It’s an excellent opportunity to start a new oral tradition of telling Bible stories full of truth, hope, and love that can be passed from one generation to the next.
“We start with the basics—the creation story in Genesis and talk about how God intended it to be. It really helps them to see God caring for his children.” Stephanie shared about the impact this has on one of the women in her group. “I meet with Mama Kalindo (ka-lin-do) each week. She has memorized the first part of Genesis as a result of hearing the stories! She is in her 60s and can’t read but she can remember God’s words in her heart.”
Stephanie describes another woman with whom she interacts. “I got to know Johanna** as she worked in my home and I ministered to her during her work breaks. She shared the hardships she has endured—including how oppressive her husband can be and that she was once imprisoned for something he did. But since learning about God’s love through Bible stories, she has made Him the Lord of her life. Despite her troubles she is at peace and relies on Jesus for strength—a strength so noticeable that other women who are in similar situations want what she has . . . God’s peace.”
*UNESCO. Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2010: Reaching the marginalized. UNESCO, February 2010.
**Not actual name