Literacy defecit shouldn't impede the Gospel

I have often marveled at how we view our world through our American eyes. Living and working in a third world context allowed me the privilege of seeing that the world, and Christianity in particular, is not nearly as “western” as we like to see it. It’s not that we think wrongly, per se, but rather that we simply view the world through our American lenses. I have a professor from Midwestern who constantly reminds us to “get back into the 1st century” and I think he’s right. In fact, I have a feeling that we will be shocked in heaven someday when we realize that it’s not nearly as much like America as we currently like to think it will be.

One of those areas that is difficult for us to understand is that of the transmission of the gospel in  and to an illiterate culture. It really shouldn’t be something that suprises us, really, when you realize that most of the world struggles with literacy. If literacy were a requirement for understanding and communicating the gospel much of the world would simply be out of luck. Not because they choose to reject Christ, mind you, but rather because they have no access to reading lessons. Even a cursory glance at the 1st century church will show us that literacy, while so, so powerful, is not a prerequisite to hearing, responding to, and even teaching the gospel message. Oral cultures are well equipped to do so without the benefit of personally reading and studying scripture.

In a recent Baptist Press article, Dr. Grant Lovejoy does a commendable job of describing the plight of illiterate people in relationship to the gospel. It is a great read. In fact, I’ve republished it below in its entirety if you would like to read it. Otherwise you can read it at its original location by clicking here.

Gospel’s advance can’t wait for literacy
Grant Lovejoy

Posted on Aug 31, 2007

RICHMOND. Va. (BP)–Does the spread of the Gospel depend on literacy?

Jesus Christ is the eternal and living Word, after all, as John declares (John 1:1). The timeless message of His saving grace is proclaimed from one generation to the next in the Bible, the written Word of God. Are those who cannot –- or will not –- read the Word on the printed page essentially cut off from the Good News of salvation?

In a thought-provoking piece for Baptist Press (“Literacy and the Gospel,” Aug. 22), Denny Burk, assistant professor of New Testament at Criswell College in Dallas, expressed concern about the decline of literacy among Americans and what that means for Bible-reading. Burk cited a new poll reporting that one in four U.S. adults did not read a single book last year.

“[W]e would do well to note this cultural phenomenon as it bears directly on the fortunes of the Gospel in our culture,” Burk warned. “Christianity is a book-religion. That is, all of its revelation about God’s redemptive work in Christ is mediated to us in letters on a page. We don’t have photographs, telephone lines through time or a living oral tradition. We have the Scriptures. Apart from them, we have no saving knowledge of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because Christianity is a religion of the book, where it spreads so too does a concern for literacy. That is why when Christianity expands its borders, it is often accompanied by the building of schools and other institutions of learning. Where literacy dies, so does a knowledge of and a love for the Bible.”

Burk posed a key question: “Does it not make sense to interpret a decline in reading as a trend that works against the Gospel?”

Few would dispute the premise that in an ideal world everyone would have high literacy and a good Bible translation to read. It’s also true that many who have those opportunities –- particularly in our own American culture –- don’t use them well, but instead squander their time in activities that don’t count for much.

However, first-century Christians might have been surprised at Burk’s assertion that Christianity is a “book-religion.” Stories about Jesus and His teachings circulated widely by oral means for decades before they were written in the Gospels. Those who believed what they heard were genuinely saved and they formed authentic Christian churches without the benefit of reading a copy of the New Testament. Churches were well-established around the Mediterranean basin before the books of the New Testament were written.

Likewise, given the expense of making scrolls of the Old Testament, few first-century Christians would have had a private copy. Even if people could have afforded their own Old Testament scroll, many could not have read it. Historians estimate that at the time of Jesus, between 3 percent and 20 percent of the populace truly were literate. Even if we take the high estimate, 80 percent of the population would have encountered God’s written revelation by hearing it read rather than reading it for themselves. God graciously encountered them through public reading and oral proclamation, not directly from a written text to their eyes.

This was the case when God led the Israelites out of Egypt. After all, how many of the Hebrew slaves would have been able to read the Law given to Moses? Not many, one would think. But God was able to raise up a distinctive and holy people for His own, despite their very limited literacy and infrequent (or nonexistent) opportunity to read His written revelation. In the case of the Old Testament, God revealed Himself in divine acts, in visions and dreams to prophets and in other ways for hundreds of years before He guided some of that revelation into written form. God has never limited Himself to a book as His only means of making Himself known to man.

The Bible says that the Word of God is “alive and active,” something that cannot be said of mere ink on paper. His Spirit takes the message of God -– whether read from a printed page, faithfully preached or told as an accurate biblical story -– and in His own mysterious way impresses its truth on the listener or reader. The Spirit convicts us and confirms the truth of the proclamation.

These historical realities provide an important perspective as we consider the approximately 4,400 languages in the world that lack even a single translated book of the Bible. Can the speakers of these languages know Christ apart from having the written Bible in their language? Yes, if someone who knows biblical stories will tell them. Those stories are ultimately derived from a written Bible, which, as Burk reminds us, is the ultimate sourcebook of God’s revelation. But given the slow pace of Bible translation, we at the International Mission Board have sought to find ways to make the message of the Bible accessible to people around the world who have no Bible in their language or lack the ability to read it.

In such cultures, speaking of Christianity as a “religion of the book” can erect barriers to evangelism. It can leave nonreaders thinking there is no place for them as a follower of Jesus. Professor David Sills of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has written about facing just that issue last year on a trip to Peru. He told a group that the Gospel is for all people. Afterward an unschooled woman named Fortunata asked him, “What about me? … Can I go to heaven when I die, too?” Seeing the puzzled look on his face, she clarified, “We have always been told that we could not enter into the kingdom of heaven if we could not read.”

Erecting barriers to world evangelism certainly is not Burk’s intent. He is addressing the U.S. scene and the alarming decline of reading. But we should not overstate the linkage between literacy and Christian faith, because that would misrepresent the historical reality of the Old and New Testament eras. Additionally, it overlooks the experience of IMB missionaries on mission fields. We have seen hundreds of thousands of functionally illiterate people come to faith in Christ -– a faith so genuine that they willingly undergo persecution for it. (Such groups have proven to have the doctrinal basics right, by the way. We’ve checked.)

Furthermore, tying Christian faith inseparably to literacy could undermine Christians’ willingness to meet nonliterate and Bible-less people where they are. We need creative strategies to communicate God’s message in non-print methods such as face-to-face witness, Bible storytelling, radio broadcasts and distribution of audio and video.

Does this imply that Scripture is unimportant? Of course not. It is vital. Does this mean that I am against literacy and education? Not at all. Having earned graduate degrees and taught seminary students –- and having just written a big check for another semester of college tuition for one of my daughters -– I definitely have invested a huge part of my life in education. Like Denny Burk, I celebrate the fact that a desire to understand the Bible has fueled many wonderful efforts to provide education.

But I encourage literate Christians to remember that God has been drawing nonreaders to Himself for thousands of years. Many lived godly lives, obedient to the truth proclaimed orally to them. By God’s grace, we hope to lead millions more to know Christ and live in Him –- even if they have never shown any interest in reading.
Grant Lovejoy is director of Orality Strategies at the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

Micah is a husband to Tracy & a daddy to Grace, Kessed & Haddon. He’s Senior Pastor at Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN. Most of all, he’s a debtor to grace.

8 thoughts on “Literacy defecit shouldn't impede the Gospel

  1. Micah,

    Have you ever heard of a teaching called the Universal Disciple?

    It was written by an IMB missionary by the name of Thom Wolf.
    It teaches the pattern that Paul used to spread the gospel during the 1st century, a pattern that was easily reproducible among illiterate people groups. The website is

    I’ve been co-teaching it in our Sunday School class as a method of discipleship and as a framework to fit teaching and doctrine into.

  2. One thing that we do tend to forget is the dependability and detail of the oral tradition. The fact that much of the OT existed for many years before it was written should not distract from either its stability over the years or its accuracy with respect to the events that it reports.

    The Campus Crusade project, The Jesus Film, has impacted many in a non-written manner.

    Bennett Willis

  3. Micah

    I loved this article from Dr. Lovejoy. I had the privilege of having Dr. Lovejoy as a prof for three seminary courses. His, and your words, concerning biblical literacy and the Gospel reminded me of these words from Donald Miller from “Searching For God Knows What” when he was discussing the modernization of the Gospel into bullet points and formulas:

    “I realize it all sounds terribly sentimental, but imagine the other ideas popular today that we sometimes hold up as credible: We believe a person will gain access to heaven because he is knowledgeable about theology, because he can win at a game of religious trivia. And we may believe a person will find heaven because she is very spiritual and lights incense and candles and takes bubble baths and reads books that speak of centering her inner self; and some of us believe a person is a Christian because he believes five ideas that Jesus communicated here and there in Scripture, though never completely at one time and in one place; and some people believe they are Christians because they do good things and associate themselves with some kind of Christian morality; and some people believe they are Christians because they are Americans.

    If any of these models are true, people who read the Bible before we systematically broke it down, and, for that matter, people who believed in Jesus before the printing press or before the birth of Western civilization, are at an extreme disadvantage. It makes you wonder if we have fashioned a gospel around our culture and technology and social economy rather than around the person of Christ.”

  4. Though I agree that the gospel can spread among non-literate peoples, I would have to hold to the position that literacy is essential for the sustained growth of the church among people groups. I am not saying that every Christian has to be literate, but somebody does have to be able to read.

    Though Paul’s strategies may lend to use among people without literacy, obviously somebody from the churches could read his letters. And they were copied, so others could read. Regarding the OT, David Trobish has argued that the early acceptance of the codex by Christians (earlier than its common use by the Roman world) demonstrates that the early church was highly interested in the written text of the OT, he goes so far to argue for an early “Canonical Edition.” See The First Edition of the New Testament by Tobish.

    So, in our right-headed zeal for preaching the gospel to illiterates and non-literates, let us keep in mind the future of the church. The written text plays a role in the future maturity of the church in a particular context. Note, this does not mean that everyone must be able to read, only that some have that ability and take the care to explain the text to the church.

    Again, don’t think I am against reaching out through oral strategies, but they are not an end in themselves, right?

    Tell me what you think?



  5. Micah, thanks for the post. Your thoughts have rekindled a subject that holds a degree of interest concerning discipleship. I have noticed how difficult it is for men with reading disabilities to function in our church climate. I am interested to know how other churches disciple men who have difficulty reading.

  6. Brother Micah,

    Dr. Lovejoy’s article was written as a counter-point piece, so to speak, of Dr. Denny Burke’s piece–Literacy and the Gospel. Dr. Lovejoy’s article does not seem to address the issue raised in Dr. Burke’s article. Dr. Burke does not appear to negate the spreading of the Gospel among illiterates. He seems to advocate once the Gospel gets to them, there needs to be something set up in order to maintain a Gospel witness–thus schools and other institutions of learning.

    If we take Dr. Lovejoy’s premise to its logical conclusion, then we can do away with the Bible and just teach from oral tradition. I am not negating oral tradition, neither am I arguing that is what Dr. Lovejoy is promoting, I am merely pointing out that at some point God had his Word placed in print. If we understand that the Bible is God’s final revelation then that seems to forbid a return to oral tradition. Why? Oral tradition was part of God’s revelation process to get to the final revelation–The Bible.


  7. Excellent article! In fact, the church remained relatively unified until the mass printing of the Bible. Once the masses had access to the scriptures, they began to make interpretations other than the original oral tradition (both good and bad). Eventually individuals began to create their own Jesus to fit their liking. Luther for example, unable to find obedience in his life, interpreted that he no longer needed obedience to be saved.

    No doubt Jesus knew that writing was not the way to start His ministry, as all writings are misinterpreted. Instead He developed a Master Plan of Evangelism, concentrating His teachings to the twelve, with even higher concentrations of teaching to Peter, James and John. Jesus gave Peter the keys to His kingdom while He left for a short while, as was the custom of the Jewish people. While the king journeyed, the keeper of the keys would temporarily hold the authority of the king. And when Jesus returns, the pope will humbly return the keys to their Rightful Owner. Amen.

  8. Brian-

    I appreciate your thoughts but you are misreading both the article and my intentions. I wholly disagree with both your assertion that having the scriptures available to the masses is bad as well as your interpretation of Luther’s actions. Beyond that, your interpretation of Jesus supposedly “giving over the keys to the kingdom” is a popular catholic interpretation but unfortunately doesn’t hold up under biblical scrutiny.

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