Technology, Orality, and the Gospel – Three Worlds Merge
I had been working in the technology business world for 10 years when my friend and fellow Christian business partner, Mark, suggested that I go into ministry. A little alarmed, my initial thought was “Do you think I’m bad at business?” I guess that initial thought indicated my worldview of ministry leaders, and that I assumed that was his worldview!
I had never really considered ministry. I cared about missions and had always felt called to the business missions field – bringing the gospel to the workplace. I had a sort of passing respect for people who devoted their lives to sharing the gospel. But I didn’t have a seminary degree, and I didn’t really want to go back to school at 45 years old.
Questioning Mark more about his thoughts didn’t get me very far. He just thought I’d be good at ministry, but he didn’t give me much direction beyond that. It was 2005, and iPods were becoming popular. Mark mentioned that he’d bought iPods for his four daughters for Christmas and that maybe since I was a technology guy, I could figure out a way to use those in ministry.
Soon after, I had landed a meeting with John Stark, the Socio-Linguistics Manager for the Summers Institute of Linguistics (SIL). I didn’t even know what social linguistics was all about, and I was confused because I’d been praying about meeting with the technology department, not linguistics. At that meeting, John shared with me that ⅔ of the world’s population, about 4 billion people, either can’t, don’t, or won’t ever read – one of the greatest barriers in bringing the gospel to these cultures. While the gospel is being shared now with more people than at any other time in history, about 90 percent of the world’s missionaries preach the gospel using literate communication styles. This can make it difficult, if not impossible, for oral learners to hear and understand the message and, in turn, communicate it to others. Oral learners, as we have found over the years, communicate with each other and think in non-linear styles and very concretely, rather than in the abstract as we do here in the West. For example, oral learners might say “I live by the Acacia tree at the bend in the river” rather than “I live by the bend in the river.”
As I took in this information, I asked John if using audio technology could help break through that barrier. He gave a resounding “yes!”, and at that point, I could clearly see God beginning to merge my background in technology with missions.
Just six weeks later, I embarked on a two-week mission trip to Myanmar (formerly Burma) with Mike Fisher of East West Ministries to test the idea. I had never been on a mission trip. During the trip, we recorded 25 hours of a local pastor’s teachings in his native language. We shared this material with some Burmese pastors who had not been able to join us in Myanmar, and they immediately saw the value of the recorded material.
After our time in Myanmar, we went on to Thailand, where I met a missionary who said that he had recorded Gospel material but didn’t have the 300 devices that he needed to get it to remote areas of Southern Thailand. On the mission trip, we had tested the theory that we could use MP3 devices to share the gospel and proved that it could be immensely fruitful. I had prayed not only for success on the trip, but also for money raised to cover the trip. God provided in so many ways. When I got home from my trip, I launched MPReach with a plan to put his recordings on devices to distribute in this remote region.
I began selling this technology to ministries. Produced by The God’s Story Project, the recordings included an 80-minute explanation of creation to Christ’s coming in a variety of languages. The recordings were played all over the world – in a barber shop to Buddhists, on public buses packed with people (30-passenger bus with 50-60 people on board). As a result, I began hearing stories of people accepting Christ. One 116-year-old man and his wife had heard about Jesus the first time through these recordings, accepted Christ, and wondered why he’d not heard about this before. These recordings were making a difference, and I was eager to keep going.
I began praying that I would meet experts who could produce these Gospel recordings that focused on reaching oral cultures. In a quick answer to these prayers, I was given the opportunity to partner, and ultimately join forces, with T4 Global (now Spoken Worldwide). T4 Global understood missiology, worldviews, and communication strategies in various cultures. The founders had been employed by Voice for Humanity (non-governmental organization, or NGO) and had been working on using digital audio players to explain the voice of democracy for the first free and fair elections in Afghanistan. Their work reached three million people in six months. They witnessed worldviews being changed and, as believers, they wondered how they could do the same with the gospel. They started T4 Global just months after MPReach and were focused on reaching non-reading people groups (oral cultures) who had never heard of Christ or Christianity, bringing both the gospel and community development education to them. I understood technology and brought additional business experience to the team.
In September 2007, MPReach and T4 Global, now Spoken Worldwide, did a soft merger, where I joined the team as the Executive Vice President of Programs. Two years later, the board of directors asked me to be the president and CEO of the organization after the departure of the two founders.
Since the merger, this organization has grown to cover work in 12 countries and over 70 languages – and we continue to encounter endless possibilities to bring the gospel to unreached people groups, especially as we continue to learn and better understand the needs of oral learners. Initially, our focus had been evangelism, but through the counsel of some partners, we realized the need to include leader discipleship into our mission. In addition, we train other ministries to use these same methods since it will take all of us to reach 4+ billion non-readers! This has helped us create a sustainable model of ministry, whether Spoken is currently engaged in the work or not.
As we’ve expanded our programs, we’ve been asked if we’ll eventually create video or stick primarily with audio technology. As of now, audio technology is the most cost effective method, though that’s changing as smartphones and video become more mainstream around the world.
Our vision is to stay focused on the hardest to reach people who we feel are being left behind. We want them to have equal access to the gospel, regardless of their ability to read. We are working to empower oral churches that will become an outlet for our work. If people who can’t read attend a church where there are readers, they may feel unequal. And because we’re all equal and joint heirs of Christ, we want to focus on making sure they have access to the truth of God, because “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.”
Interested in supporting the work we’re doing to bring the gospel to people with oral cultures? Donate to Spoken Worldwide.