Reaching and Teaching in Animistic Oral Cultures

In my last post we looked at Sills’ book Reaching and Teaching: A Call to Great Commission Obedience. This book is clearly a follow up to this work. It is in essence an application in practice of the principles in the earlier book. “This book explores how the Lord led missionaries to minister effectively among a specific people whom he called to himself: the Highland Quichua people of Andean Ecuador.”(pp. 2, 3).

The book highlights the challenges of reaching and teaching an oral people group with a long history of syncretism:

The challenge of providing culturally appropriate training presents itself repeatedly throughout the Global South. Unfortunately, a common theme of many good missionaries is one of defeated capitulation to the challenges as if it is too difficult, unnecessary, or less important than taking the gospel to the next group. None of those assumptions is true. Indeed, I strongly differ. It is not too difficult to disciple and teach primary oral learners, unless you are seeking to do so using highly literate education models. It is not unnecessary, but rather it is an essential aspect of the Great Commission. Jesus said to make disciples of all people groups, “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt. 28:20 emphasis added). Thus teaching them is not less important or less urgent than evangelizing the next unreached people group. In fact, I argue that no people group should be considered “reached” until they understand the gospel in their language and worldview, have repented, are born again, and have culturally appropriated New Testament churches with biblically qualified leaders who have been prepared to pastor and have been trained to train trainers. Anything less than this is a start, but it does not represent obedience to the Great Commission among a people group. (p. 7)

The book is made up of three parts; Part One – Highland Quichua History and Culture, Part Two – Religious Identity among the Highland Quichua, and Part Three – Challenges and Solutions for the Quichuas and other Oral Cultures. The book provides a good model that can be applied among other people groups. Similarities between the Quichuas and Alaska Natives and Canadian First Nations peoples caught my attention. Though there are differences in culture, I think there is much that we in SEND North can learn from Sills’ experience in Ecuador.

Part One gives us an understanding of the historical and cultural information that is necessary for us as we work among a people. History does not begin when we arrive. Much of this information can be found through reading. Yet we can start to build relationships by asking about local history and traditional stories.

Part Two helps us see that old religious beliefs do not just go away when one becomes a Christian. Unless the previous beliefs are understood and addressed they will simply go underground. New converts need to grow in their understanding of the gospel. “When the change in outward form of religion comes without understanding the new, the old religion simply finds expression in an acceptable form within the new religion.” (p. 66).

Part Three provides practical solutions for training leadership. The following quotes show the heart of the training program:

The most effective manner in which to train EPHQ [Evangelical Protestant Highland Quichuas] pastors and leaders will utilize the traditional methods of teaching such as mentoring, “watching and doing,” on-the-job training, and master-apprentice relationships with missionaries or older pastors. More specifically, the program must seek to train men who are recognized as leaders by their churches according to traditional cultural criteria. (p. 174)

The mentor relationship will be the foundation of the program, which will be realized in the communities the EPHQ live and worship. The men being mentored will become mentors by program design, thus incorporating a multiplication principle as well as making EPHQ leaders who have been trained the faculty of the program. (p.175)

…, for them [oral cultures] truth equals relationship plus experience. They embrace truth taught to them in context by someone they trust and with whom they have a relationship. (p. 192)

Remember that it is naïve to think that oral culture learners will benefit from sitting in a classroom listening to lectures the way you have. … The best method for developing leaders in oral cultures is through mentoring relationships, modeling the kind of ministry and leadership that you want to develop in them. … Model for them what you hope to see them be and do. Challenge them to develop two or three men in the same way that you are spending extra time with them. (p. 196)

The book contains more details of how leadership training programs are working in Ecuador. I encourage you to read the book and explore how you can apply some of the principles in your context.

Gary Ridley, SEND U Missiologist

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