The power of story

Feature

The Power of Story

How orality is transforming a previously unreached people group

By and

On a dusty road in southern Congo, five of our story team rode in our pickup truck, headed toward a Vili community to introduce two new team members. Firmin and my husband, Jay, accompanied us on the motorcycle we often take to visit this previously unreached people group. The Vili had never heard the gospel until 2016, when our orality (see sidebar) team began sharing with them the Bible narratives we had translated and recorded in their heart language.

But that day our trip was suddenly interrupted near Sintou-Nkola village, when a crowd of adults and children came pouring out of their homes, shrieking and crying. We pulled over, and Firmin’s wife, Vero, who speaks Vili and Lumbu, another local language, jumped out and began translating.

Word had just reached the village that one of their hunters had collapsed in the woods and was presumed dead. His body was too far into the forest to retrieve on foot. Two of our team members immediately volunteered to take the party to retrieve the man’s body and bring it back in the truck.

The sister of the man presumed dead sobbed as she invited the rest of our team to wait outside her house. Vero began speaking to her in Lumbu, telling the story of Jesus calming the storm, before asking, “Do you see yourself in the story?” The woman immediately said, “I see myself in the disciples who didn’t trust Jesus even though He was in the boat with them.” The two then prayed together.

When the truck returned, the group piled out of the cab as the village gathered around. To their surprise, the hunter emerged from the bed of the truck—alive!

His sister cried, “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! You are here!”

When the group found the hunter in the woods, he was on his feet, dazed and severely dehydrated. After taking him to his home, the hunting party returned.

“We often saw you driving by our village on your motorcycle,” someone said. “But we never knew who you were. Now we see that God really sent you! You came at the moment we cried out to God for help. We want you to come back and tell us more stories.”

The next month, some of our team returned to Sintou-Nkola to share the good news. As a result, the village chief, Honoré, and his wife became believers.

Storytelling Among the Vili

Pastor Willy, an Alliance Congo national church member, travels with the orality team to bring the gospel to the Vili people.

The Vili of southern Congo are oral learners—preferring to take in information through means other than reading—and for centuries had no access to God’s Word in their heart language they could understand. Seeing this great need, we formed a story team composed of three Vili speakers who helped us translate and record 12 key Bible narratives—from the Creation to Christ’s ascension—in Vili. On the first storytelling trip in 2016, two of our team shared the biblical narratives in the Youbi region and 53 villagers gave their hearts to the Lord. (See “The Lord Added to Their Number” in the July/August 2017 Alliance Life.)

As the team’s monthly visits continued, 11 villages formed story groups to review the stories and worship God. Sintou-Nkola had never welcomed our story team before the incident with the hunter, but now they are part of an expanding network of house churches among this tribe.

Opposition

When story team members Firmin and Willy visited Honoré and his wife again, the couple welcomed them warmly. But they had bad news. Two more people had collapsed like the hunter; both had died.

A man had visited Sintou-Nkola from the Youbi region, telling villagers that the story team members were dangerous magicians. “Some of the villagers are beginning to think that you are the reason for these two deaths,” Honoré said. “My people are terrified; they are fleeing the village because they think we are cursed.”

Firmin knew the man was a cult leader in Youbi. When he and Willy went to confront him, they brought a video camera to record the conversation. At first, the man tried to deny any wrongdoing.

“You need to be very careful,” Willy said. “We are only carrying God’s Word; if you oppose that, you are opposing Him. We would not want to be in your shoes.” The man agreed to tell the truth, and Firmin and Willy returned to Sintou-Nkola to share the videotaped conversation, which dispelled the lies he had told about them.

Orality in Action

During their visit in Sintou-Nkola, Firmin and Willy shared the Creation narrative with 14 men and several children who gathered to listen. Fascinated by the story, a lively discussion ensued.

Someone asked, “Why did God create man last? Is he less important?” (According to the traditional worldview of the Vili, man is an afterthought in the Creation story.)

Firmin led a discussion with the villagers, who concluded that, far from being an afterthought, God had created humans after He prepared a place for them to live.

“Is there anyone here who wants to become a child of God?” Firmin asked.

“Well, of course, that’s what we’re here for!” the group responded. Willy helped to lead all 14 adults and several of the children in prayer after explaining how to have right relationship with God. Today, counting Honoré and his wife, there are nearly 20 believers in Sintou-Nkola.

When a hunter from a local village collapsed in the woods, two orality team members helped retrieve him—dazed but alive!

After prayer, the men asked: “Will you come and build a church here?”

“You are the church,” Firmin replied. “When you gather to study God’s story and pray, He is here with you. You can choose a place to meet, but you are the true temple of God.”

He explained to them how to retell the stories when they met together. “You will hear new things from God each time, because He will be here with you,” Firmin added. “And you can go and visit your brothers and sisters in the other villages.”

Willy and Firmin promised they would return at the end of the month to teach the new believers another story. “We’ll be here,” the group replied. “We’re going to tell everyone in the village this story!”

Countering False Teaching

When a group of Vili come to know the Lord, they form a story group. Since they do not have trained pastors, the new believers gather to review and discuss the Bible stories. In each group, one or two leaders emerge. Although Christ has transformed them and they love the stories, they tend to add their own commentary, allowing errors to slip in.

As an example, we introduce the Trinity in the Creation story, but Vero realized the Vili speakers were saying, “Three gods—but only one of them is God.” To counteract these errors, Firmin and Vero focus on training and story repetition when they return to a village. They also address critical discipleship issues, such as the importance of getting rid of fetishes associated with demonic spirits.

Translation Challenges

When we’re at our home base in Pointe-Noire, the Republic of Congo’s second largest city, we focus on revising our translations to ensure accuracy. Firmin and Vero then test the new translation in the villages to see if there are any problems.

One time, two of our team members were listening to the story of Creation and both smiled. “What?” I asked. “The Vili word for green means saka-saka water, because the water turns green when it’s used to cook manioc leaves,” they said. “When you say, ‘On the third day, God separated the land and made all of the green plants and the fruit trees,’ it literally means, ‘God made all of the saka-saka water and the fruit trees.’”

So, we changed the translation to say, “God made all the plants and fruit trees that were good to eat.”

As we work to improve our Vili Bible narratives, we are also translating the stories into more common languages so that our Christian radio station—with the capacity to reach more than a million listeners who have no other access to the gospel— can broadcast them to the diverse population in and around Pointe-Noire. My goal is to record the Creation story in Kitouba, French, Vili, Lingala, English, and Mandarin by February and then work on one additional Bible story each month.

God continues to provide new opportunities for completing His work among the Vili. While Davy, one of the first on our team to take the stories to the Vili in 2019, passed away in April 2019, the work God accomplished through him is continuing through Willy, Firmin, and Vero as well as the rest of our team in Pointe-Noire.

We praise God for what He has done—and continues to do!

Sidebar: What Is Orality?

Orality—spoken or verbal communication—is the preferred means of receiving and passing on information for more than two-thirds of the world’s population—about 4 billion people. Oral cultures learn primarily through stories, poems, music, and other cultural art forms.

Our team in Congo uses an interactive storytelling technique that connects the Bible with the Vili, who are oral learners. Since 2016, when our Alliance story team began sharing translated, recorded Bible stories with the Vili in their heart language, hundreds have come to faith in Christ.

If you would like to support our monthly trips to the Vili, please go to the Give page at cmalliance.org and search for “Orality Center-PNR.”

2 responses to The Power of Story

  1. And it continues, even with Coronavirus, stories are continuing in these villages.

  2. I greatly enjoyed the article about orality by Beverly and Lauren Bellamy. We had someone visit our church small group and talk about her ministry of helping people learn to use stories in communicating about God. As a former missionary and pastor, I wished I had heard this earlier in my ministry. When Jesus wanted to communicate, he made up a story. We call those stories parables. Enjoyed the article and I am delighted that people in Congo are hearing the good news in this way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Past Alliance Life Issues


Share

Get Involved...

Pray.

We cannot “Live the Call Together” unless prayer is central to all we do.
Pray with us »

Serve.

Is God calling you to service? We’re here to help you connect your passion with God’s purpose.
Serve with The Alliance »

Give.

Help build Christ’s Church by supporting the ministry and workers of The Alliance.
Give today »