Sheard, Daniel. 2007. An orality primer for missionaries. Daniel Sheard:

Sheard, who has a Ph.D. in Preaching from Spurgeon’s College, is a Southern Baptist pastor in Maryland. He also teaches at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and (with his family) has served as a missionary with the International Missions Board in French Guiana and Martinique.

Sheard’s book is a practical polemic for the oral Bible storying methodology, similar in many respects to the more “traditional” approach of the Chronological Bible Storying, but with some particular twists and turns.

The author experienced the fact that most people in the communities of the islands where he worked were oral communicators, despite pastors who were more familiar and at ease with education and theology based on written texts. His own perspective changed radically when he saw that as a missionary he would need to learn to relate orally to the people, despite his own literate and Western education perspective.

The small book, then, is a brief record of Sheard’s experiences and perspectives based on his interaction in an oral society. His thesis is simply that nothing but the oral approach will be effective in an oral society. To support this perspective, he has developed two methodologies that he calls “parabolic engagement” and “Biblical oral pedagogy (BOP).” For Sheard, pedagogy is essentially patterned drills of Bible verses and concepts that illustrate and support basic theological doctrines. He gives a 27 of them in “Presentation 15” (pp. 81-83) in the form of questions, e.g., What is sin?, Is Jesus the only way?,. Are the Scriptures without error?, What is the Godhead?, Was Jesus really born of a virgin?, Does each believer have the Holy Spirit?, Is the Lord’s Supper (Communion) important?, and so on, which lead to a “more complete systematic theology.” To learn the answers correctly the oral respondents follow Sheard’s  BOP, which he diagrammes as Delivery > Repetition > Correction > Repetition > Mastery. Coupled with this sequence is Sheard “oral accountability” i.e. repeating the verse or story part to someone else for correction (volume, speed, accuracy, etc.). His approach is heavy on doctrine, Scriptural focus in the framework of CBS, and orthodoxy

Sheard insists that preaching should be mainly oral, without notes, and in an appropriate cultural environment, providing “social quality.” He correctly notes that “Orality is a vast repository of cultural detail,” (p.55) and is exemplary by following Spradley and doing extensive ethnographic interviews. Because orality and oral methods are fluid, there can be contextualization and flexibility, and in this respect is positive because it does not have the rigidity of printed matter. He notes the use of metaphors and symbols within cultures and took the time to record and discover how the people interpreted them.

Returning to pedagogy, Sheard also discusses “parabolic preaching”, i.e. preaching in an engaging and figurative manner. He uses cyclical parables (more often instances of something done three times in a story), image parables, and negative parables in his storytelling techniques. He notes wisely “The danger of using modern day storytelling technique is that we might be inclined to follow our culture and believe that a good story works similarly to a parable.” (p. 67).

This small book contains a wealth of good examples on how missionaries can use oral storytelling and why they should learn how to do it. The author has gone through cultural and pedagogical storytelling learning stages in his missionary career and he shares them openly with his readers.

The shortcoming of the book is that Sheard has no desire or interest in learning about storytelling as a discipline or art. For him it is a means to an end—planting churches and converting people, admittedly forming relationships and friends as he does so.  However, in my opinion, his lack of interest in other approaches and in storytelling in general is a serious shortcoming. Nevertheless, I would recommend the book to students of orality, particularly those engaging in the CBS methodology.  Sheard is willing to examine its problems and to suggest improvements.

Karl Franklin
September, 2008