The Extent Of Orality -- By: Grant Lovejoy

Journal: Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry
Volume: JBTM 05:1 (Spring 2008)
Article: The Extent Of Orality
Author: Grant Lovejoy

The Extent Of Orality1

Grant Lovejoy

Director of Orality Strategies
International Mission Board (SBC)


The oral cultures of the world pose a particular challenge for conventional Christian ministry. Oral cultures are not print-oriented and do not respond well to forms of witnessing, discipling, teaching, and preaching that are based on print. So tracts, Bible distribution, fill-in-the-blanks workbooks, and bookstores are largely unappealing and ineffective within oral cultures. Even spoken communication can be so print-influenced that it has limited impact in oral cultures. Sermons built around outlines and lists of principles communicate poorly with people whose life is lived in oral cultures. Putting those same print-influenced sermons on audio cassettes does make them audible, which is a step in the right direction, but their print-based way of organizing thought is still an obstacle in communication.

Christian churches, mission organizations, and ministries have increasingly had to face the ways of communicating, relating, and thinking that characterize oral cultures. In the effort to take the gospel to all peoples, Christian workers have realized that they need to understand orality and to get a better grasp of just how extensive it is and how to respond to it. This article addresses the extent of orality; others will address how to respond to orality.

It is not a simple matter to determine the extent of orality worldwide. Anyone attempting to do it faces challenges. Chief among them is defining what orality is and determining how to measure it accurately. This article is an effort to address both matters in an introductory way, particularly with the needs of Christian ministers and missionaries in mind. Though there are multiple ways to try to estimate the extent of orality, this article addresses one of the most frequently-used and frequently-misunderstand measures, namely official literacy data. Before addressing the literacy data, however, it is first necessary to discuss what is orality.


Dictionaries define orality rather simply as "a reliance on spoken, rather than written, language for communication." Notice the phrase “reliance on.” It is significant. After all,

the vast majority of people use spoken language extensively. But what sets orality apart is reliance on spoken language. To the extent that people rely on spoken communication instead of written communication, they are characterized by “orality.” There are degrees of orality, depending on whether someone relies on spoken langu...

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