When an unschooled man believes God can use him

I recently got an email from a friend in Africa.  A couple months ago I did a training in Ghana (Storying in Ghana).  One of the men who came lives in a remote Muslim area.  For the past year he has been trying to start a church, but has not been able to.  He has never been to school and he can’t read.

Sharing stories to a groupMy friend wrote, “Since he returned from the training, he has been sharing the stories he learned.  47 Muslims have been coming regularly to talk about these stories.”

Why is this happening?  What was different from a year ago?  Probably two things that stand out to me.  Our friend saw that God wasn’t limited to just use people who have been educated (Memorizing vs Knowing).  And his village didn’t see his talking about Jesus as a threat or “infidel evangelism”; it was natural, relational, and simple.

It’s finding ways to get people into God’s Word and God’s Word into people with the fewest number of obstacles possible.

Day 2

I show up at the seminar room…and nobody is there.  This does not bode well after yesterday’s experience (previous Not Everything Goes Smoothly).  But most places around the world you have to add “-ish” to any time reference as relationships are much more important than punctuality.

So about 1:00-ish (which means at 1:45), the room started filling up.  Instead of several days of training with one large group, because of the language issues I decided to do one day in one language, the next day in another, and the third day in yet another.  There wouldn’t be much depth, but at least there would be an introduction that we could build on in the future.  So for this day, I had 75 people who spoke Hindi.

It might help to understand the make up of those who were here.

  • Most had been believers for less than a year.
  • For most, they were the only Christians in their village.
  • Each of them was trying to start a church in a Hindu village.
  • Of the 75, only about ten had been in school.
  • Most could not read.
  • Their Bible knowledge was minimal at best.

And so we began.  Rather than “instructing” them in traditional ways, I shared a Bible story and we talked about it, raising all sorts of points that were theological and practical.  I don’t think they even knew they were learning.  (In another blog I’ll share some observations I’ve made about teaching unschooled men and women.)

StoriesWe have people retell stories in groups and I try to get them to talk about it.  This is a simple model of how they can “have church” back in their village – non-technical, simple, and reproducible.  I had a few people retell the stories up front and from the expressions of many people, they were surprised they had learned the stories!  For many, these were the first Bible stories they had learned!

At the end of the seminar, I told them that the next day I was going to do the session in a different language.  They left and I wasn’t sure exactly how it had been received.

The next day, the same 75 people were there!  I don’t know if they misunderstood that it was going to be a different language today or if they had secretly told the other folks not to show up.  So we did a second set of stories and teaching.

The last day, the same thing happened.  So we did more stories.

What a difference 72 hours makes.  On this last day I had everybody in groups retelling stories.  They were animated and passionate.  Instead of a stoic “Bible study” as many of us experience, they looked more like a group of friends talking in a family room with a football game on the TV in the background.  After 30 minutes I asked my translator if he could tell if most everybody was done.  “I’m so sorry, but they don’t want to stop.  They’re still talking about the story.”

Sharing StoriesAfter another 30 minutes they were still going.  Most Americans don’t go that long on any one topic so I wasn’t sure if they were still on the story or not.  With help from the translator, I sat in a few groups and they were STILL talking about the story.  One man told me he was sorry, but this is the first time since he had become a Christian that he had ever been able to talk about Jesus or the Bible with others!

After they left, I admit a few tears leaked out.  72 hours before I was pulling hair out, wondering what in the world we were going to do.  Now, I had just spent 3 days with 75 unschooled believers who were learning the Bible and talking about how to plant churches in Hindu villages.

Not everything goes smoothly…

After visiting some time in the first village (previous First 48 Hours), I took another night train to a conference of national believers.  There were about 600 attending and I was coming to lead sessions on orality and using stories to plant churches.   Sounds simple.

 I walk into my seminar room and only two people were there.  Thirty minutes later only four.  But they hadn’t missed anything because the translator hadn’t shown up either. 

A few minutes later we got up to fifteen people and I snagged somebody to translate.  We started 45 minutes late, which for overseas is about on-time. Five minutes after starting another ten people show up and we make the circle bigger. I talk about 2 minutes and another 15-ish show up so we rearrange again and start again. Then my original translator shows up so we try to get him up to speed.  We now have an hour left and a good size group of thirty.  I start again…and more people come in. After ten minutes of trying to figure out how to arrange so people can see around the columns holding the roof up scattered around the room we started again. 150 people. BUT…

They spoke 6 different languages and most people only spoke one.  And the translator only knew 1 of them.  Some could understand another language they heard but couldn’t speak back in it.  We tried multiple language translation translating 6 times, which very quickly became obvious that was a ridiculous idea to try.

Hard to have an interactive session when people can’t speak to each other. So I changed plans again and started more lecture style knowing people were being left out. Have you ever tried to teach to a wall…it gives more response than I got.

So I tried an interactive exercise.  Well that went over lousy. 

Finally I told everybody what was obvious, that I had no idea how to work this situation and needed to think on it tonight. Of course only 1/2 understood what I had said after it was translated.

And I have 3 more sessions with this group. 

 That was Day 1 at the conference.  Fortunately, well, have you ever heard the phrase around Easter time, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’”?  Well, it’s Day 1, and Day 2’s comin’…

First 48 Hours in India

A few hours after my twenty-six hour flight to India, I was put on an overnight train, told to get off at some town that I couldn’t pronounce and some guy I didn’t know would meet me.  At 6’2” in a place full of 5’ people, when I got off I was easy to spot.  We got on his motorcycle for a dusty twenty minute ride while every person we passed stared at the “tall white man”, a phrase I have gotten used to over the past few months.  It was 115o.

We arrived at the small village I would be at for a couple days.  It’s in a region where believers have been persecuted in the past.  Though the town itself hadn’t had any problems, my host didn’t let me walk around the village by myself.  So when I had free time I would go on the roof terrace and pray, looking at the Buddhist shrine next to the house, watching people.

That morning I sat with 12 men and women and began to teach them how to use stories in their villages.  There is no alphabet, no Bibles, and no Jesus film in their village language, K.

Tree Adjusted That night we walked a few kilometers to a nearby village.  I stopped at a well as an old woman offered to draw some water so I could wash my hands and feet.  Nearby was a tree that looks a lot like our logo.  In many places of the world that image is what church may look like.  We prayed that this village would have a church soon.

We got to the village as the sun was setting and set up a TV and DVD player to show the Jesus Film in Hindi (one of the major languages of India).  Fifty people came and afterwards about twenty said they wanted to learn more about Jesus.  In a Hindu culture with 330 million gods, adding Jesus to your deities isn’t hard to do; establishing His singularity is.  We told them the next morning we’d come back and share some stories of Jesus.

A couple hours after sunrise we were back.  Thirty people – men, women, kids – were sitting under a tree.  And we told a story of Jesus in K.  Then we told another.  And another.  At that point an old man stood up.

Man with stories “When I was a boy (obviously a long time ago), a man from England came and told us about Jesus, but we didn’t understand.  Many years later, an Indian came and told us about Jesus in Hindi.  We understood what he was saying, but only in our heads.  Today, when you told us stories in K…I felt it in my heart.  Will you tell us more about Jesus?”

I told him I have a friend who lives not too far away.  If my friend came every two or three weeks, would the old man bring two or three others and meet him underneath this tree and learn the stories he would share?  And would he then tell those stories to people in the village underneath this tree?  The old man said yes.

So underneath a tree in a remote Indian village, Hindus are gathering now to hear for the first time stories of Jesus in K, learning why Jesus is unique from 330 million gods.

And that was the first forty-eight hours in India.

Memorizing vs Knowing

One of the questions I know I’ll get each time I’ve done a training anywhere – US and overseas – is “Don’t you feel it’s important for people to know where things are in the Bible?”  Absolutely.  But every situation it is not needed or sometimes even right to whip out a Bible and “get my preach on”.

In Ghana a cool scene occurred.  One guy said something like “I can’t memorize the Bible.  I can’t read and I only know a couple verses.”  We had just done four stories together and he had done an incredible job.  When I told him that the four stories were made up of over sixty verses, he got WIDE EYED and a huge grin and all the brothers around him started cheering him, rubbing his head, and making noise.  It was great.

Storying in Ghana

In Accra, the coastal capital of Ghana, the prosperity gospel is very present.  People name their shops after something about God in the hope they will be abundantly blessed, so there are thousands of places like “Halleluiah Redemptive Praise Hair Salon”, “Christ Fire and Salvation Repair Shop” or “Magnified Creator Our Savior Restaurant”.  My favorite was the “Though Millions Have Come To Heaven There Is Room For One More Motor Repair”. 

Several hours north of Accra I spent my week training people who had a different label.  Illiterate.  That adjective has affected how they view themselves being able to contribute to reaching the unreached people groups around them.  The first region I was in has the highest number of Muslims in the country.  Christians work all day in the fields and try to do ministry among their Muslim neighbors. They have felt under-qualified to do so because they can’t read.  The focus of this trip was to help a West Africa region ministry begin to answer the question “How do we train illiterate missionaries?”      

For two days we sat under a mango tree in this village with a mixed group of twenty literates and illiterates, sharing stories from the gospels.  During the first few hours, you could see those who could not read remain silent as those who could read started analyzing and questioning everything.  I tried very hard to not have us pulled this direction. The illiterates were used to these sorts of trainings and being left behind. 

On the third story, everything changed.  The illiterate men began to see that this method of ministry was something they could do!  The literate men wisely joined in instead of trying to take control.  Using the story content as our context, we talked about evangelism, church planting, personal spiritual growth, prayer, God’s character, the nature of sin, and salvation through Jesus.  At the end of the two days, one of the older men stated what had become obvious to everybody – “We can’t read.  We don’t need more training in methods.  We need you who can read to teach us more stories so we can reach Muslims!” Everybody’s head nodded and voices echoed agreement.

Driving several kidney-busting hours further, I spent two days in a village made up of mud and bamboo houses that doesn’t appear on any map.  The place we trained in is four bamboo posts on top of which lay bamboo leaves for shade.  After we arrived, fifteen men and women began to show up from the orange fields and nearby villages to meet the oburuni (white man) teacher.

At the end of the first day I gave an assignment.  Go share one of the stories we did with somebody, anybody.  Animism and traditional religion dominate this region.  People live in fear of evil spirits being everywhere.  The next day, every single one of the people who couldn’t read gave testimonies of sharing their faith with neighbors and other workers in fields through a story.  (Interestingly, most of the literate men did not share a story that night.) 

The story most shared was about the demon possessed man being healed (Mark 5) and many said their friends had never heard anything before about evil spirits being submissive to anything else.  One man stood up and said his friend demanded to hear more stories of Jesus because he was tired of living in fear.  He made a plea to his literate brothers, “PLEASE, teach me more stories so I can reach my village!”

In both these villages, national ministry leaders were present.  When I debriefed at the end of the trip, the West Africa director of mobilization said, “This changes everything we do.”  We will be talking more to see how throughout Africa training can be done so that the focus of the phrase “illiterate missionary” is on missionary, not illiterate.


Yesterday I was taking a Sunday afternoon nap and when I woke up I heard the recurring “shump shump shump shump” sound of a sewing machine in the next room.  I walked in the room expecting my wife, but instead one of my daughters was working on a project for a friend.  She just learned how to sew in the past couple weeks from my wife.

When I went downstairs, in the kitchen was my youngest son with an apron on backing brownies, under the tutelage of our other daughter who was making sure three tablespoons of salt were used, not three cups like he was about to pour in. 

Going in the other room I found my oldest son on the computer creating some promotional fliers for his sibling’s sewing and baking “businesses”.  He had pictures and layouts and I think the video camera was being charged to make a video to post on YouTube.  I’d like to say that I taught him everything he knows, but honestly all I did a few years ago was get him started and he took of with it from there.  Now he’s flourishing in creating things on his own.

Finally I found my wife, sitting on the couch reading a book.  It hit me later last night what I had seen, besides the house being quiet.  We were seeing my kids do things that they had been taught by us, now on their own and even teaching others how to do what they had learned.


“You have heard me teach things…Now teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others. (2 Timothy 2:2)”

When we get the opportunity to train people in how to use storying, we don’t just want them to walk away with notes in a binder to file away.  (Actually, the way we do training we don’t use any handouts or notes anyway, but that’s another topic.)  We want people to leave the training prepared to train others in what they have learned, and do it in such a way that those people can in turn help still others learn.

This short excerpt is from an email I received in December.  It is from a friend in Congo who oversees the people we trained in October.

Your mission to Congo has been a blessing to Church of The Holy Spirit. We keep practicing the training we got from you and it really works. Even a week ago we went to M______ on 18th afternoon and sent a couple of people from the church [my note – these were people who had never gone out before to other villages.] to God’s field telling Bible stories and 8 people come to Christ. Let me tell you that the same day, in the morning we baptized 8 new believers.

Storying is very transferable or reproducible.  Something is easily transferable usually because it is very natural.  And when what is taught is caught, it is able to be passed on to others.

Now if only my kids could learn to keep their rooms clean like they learn other things…but then again, a clean room might not be natural for them.

Churches and Baptisms in India

Not all the stories we will share here are ones directly related to people we have worked with, but we want to share because they highlight how storying is being used by God in situations where traditional Western ministry methods may not be connecting with the people as well.  This is one such story.  We had a chance to be in India for a training a while ago and met men and women like this pastor. 

 A pastor in India tells this story of ministry among his people.

 I was saved from a Hindu family in 1995 through a cross-cultural missionary.  I had a desire to learn more about the word of God and I shared this with the missionary.  The missionary sent me to Bible college in 1996.  I finished my two years of theological study and came back to my village in 1998.  I started sharing the Good News in the way I learnt in the Bible college.  To my surprise, my people were not able to understand my message.  A few people accepted the Lord after much labour.  I continued to preach the gospel, but there were little results.  I was discouraged and confused and did not know what to do.

 But then the pastor’s story takes a major turn.

 In 1999 I attended a seminar where I learnt how to communicate the gospel using different oral methods.  I understood the problem in my communication as I was mostly using a lecture method with printed books, which I learned in the Bible school.  After the seminar I went to the village, but this time I changed my way of communication.  I started using a story telling method in my native language.  I used gospel songs and the traditional music of my people.  This time the people in the villages began to understand the gospel in better way.  As a result of it, people began to come in large numbers.  Many accepted Christ and took baptism.  There was one church with few baptized members when I attended the seminar.  But now in 2004, in six years, we have 75 churches with 1,350 baptized members and 100 more people are ready for baptism.

 This account is taken from the booklet “Making Disciples of Oral Learners” (Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 2005, 2-3).  This is probably the best non-technical read (about two hours) on who oral learners are and why ministry to them needs to be approached differently.  We like it because it is written by the leaders of many organizations and so doesn’t have an organizational agenda hidden in it.   Available in paperback or as pdf.

Under a tree

In a North African country, a group of national Christians entered a Muslim region.  Before long, they could see a cloud rising in the arid horizon.  The believers sat in the shade of the only tree grove around.  Before long, the Islamic horsemen arrived.  “What are you doing here!  You are on our land!”

The believers told them they came to tell people stories from the injil (Bible).  The armed men dismounted, sat under the tree, and began listening to the stories that were shared.

After several stories, the chief stood up.  “I will make a deal with you.  We will give you the land around this tree and build a hut for you if you will send men to teach us more of these stories.  You will be under our protection.”

Unbeknownst to anybody else, two of the believers had been praying that day, offering themselves to live among this extremist people group.

Today, there is a hut near the tree where a group of men regularly arrive by horseback, sit under the tree, and discuss stories from God’s Word. 

(This story was one inspiration for the logo we use.)

How a 7 year old helped start a church

Taj trip 11.06 071There’s a mountain area in Central Asia where getting 20’ of snow is common during the winter.  People have to dig tunnels to get between houses.  There’s no electricity during the winter.  For six months the villages in this region are isolated from the world.

Afareen (not real name) and her family moved to this region right before the snows came.  Afareen began going to the village school. During the winter, after school the kids rush to one another’s homes for hot tea and candies or cookies.  One day they were in Afareen’s house and she told them one of the stories her family had learned.  Then the kids came up with a song about the story.

Taj trip 11.06 083That night, back at their own homes, some of the children sang the song.  “What is that song you’re singing?”  “We made it up at Afareen’s house.”

“What’s it about?”

“It’s about a story she told us…” and they tell the story to their Muslim family.

The parents go to Afareen’s parents.  “What is this our children are telling us?”  Afareen’s parents begin telling them more stories.

Taj trip 11.06 114By the time the snows melt, Muslim families are regular gathering at Afareen’s house, drinking tea, and sharing stories from God’s Word.  Now they are going to the nearby villages and sharing those stories with others.