The Role of Literacy Training in Tribal Church Planting

About twenty Inapang men were gathered together in the open thatched meeting house in the middle of the small hamlet. The logs in the fire crackled as we discussed the upcoming literacy initiative. Ankərerəge, the village chief, listened carefully, staring into the fire’s glow and poking at its embers underneath. He gave it one last thrust and then stood up, walked over to us, and said resolutely,

I am the village chief and I will be one of your first students.  I will come to your literacy class and I will learn what you have to teach.  But, at the end of this class in four moons (months), if I still cannot read or write in my own language, I am going to be very ashamed and I will leave the village and build a small house in the jungle and none of you will ever see my face again. My talk is finished.

The Inapang language had never been written down before, and there was no alphabet. There was no one literate in this language group of 4,000 souls! But the Inapang history was about to change.

Orality and Literacy Meet

Introducing literacy to an oral society is no easy task. It takes the one thing many Westerners find the hardest to give––time.  Some may even argue that it is a waste of time. In all honesty, if our goal had only been to evangelize the Inapang back in 2007 and then move on, then we would have to agree. But our team’s vision was not only to plant a church, but also to see that church through to maturity and then give it the discipleship and resources it would need to make disciples who could then make more disciples.

We wanted to see other neighboring villages and tribes around our home in the Ramu Valley reached with the same gospel message. And we wanted to see the next generation brought up under the Word of God as well.  As we learned their language and studied their culture, we found the discrepancies in their ancestral stories quite interesting. One thing was sure: these stories had not been preserved in their original purity, if you can call an ancestral myth pure.

The plot and characters would often change depending on the person or clan spinning the yarn. What could we do to ensure that the precious truths of God’s Word would not also be manipulated and changed in the years to come?  How could we preserve Scripture for the future church to help her weather the storms that most certainly would come?  How could we train them to use Scripture to identify and refute false teachings that arise from within and without? The answer was clear to us: after we presented the oral story of ‘Creation to Christ’ in their mother tongue, the growing church would need the written Word.

They would need literacy.

Kewaka, a convert of seventeen years and church elder from Maleu, Papua New Guinea, put it this way:

Without literacy, the hearers will then be dependent on their own memory and interpretation as they pass the message along.  Without literacy, people may be saved, but the purity of the Word will not be preserved. We are mere men and we need the written word. 

We have found this to be very true. As missionaries partner with national churches around the globe, we must train and empower men and women to become literate so that they can read and study God’s Word for themselves. Literacy training takes time, and it is only one aspect of effective and self-sustaining church planting. Nevertheless, it is crucial to planting mature churches that make disciples who can think critically about the faith and make more disciples.

He Chose the Written Word

Of all the venues that God could have used to preserve His Word, He chose the written format. This is consistent with the requirement for Israel’s kings:

. . . when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law approved by the Levitical priests.  And it shall be with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statues, and doing them . . . (Deut. 17:18-19; emphasis added)

God commanded Israel’s kings to copy the law by hand, and then to keep it and read it. All of this was for the purpose of learning to fear and obey the Lord. We wanted the same for each of our Inapang friends who would believe the oral gospel presentation. We wanted them to have the same joy we have as we read, learn, understand, study, grow, and fall in love with God’s Word; we wanted it to change their lives as it has ours. As one of our fellow church planters in the Ramu Valley, Taylor Goheen, explained,

In Psalm 119, the Psalter strives after God’s Word.  He lives by it, delights in it, remembers it, seeks enlightenment from it, longs for it, meditates on it, and keeps it.  In this psalm, we witness the incomparable value placed on God’s Word by the author.  The aim of his life was for God’s Word and based on God’s Word. This ought to cause us to stop and think about the great privilege it is to read the unchanging pages of God’s written word.  How cruel it would be, should we place a translation of something so precious into the hands of the Lord’s church, but not equip them to interact with it as the psalmist did.

God was very gracious, and after two years of studying the Inapang language and culture, we were finally able to speak in their mother tongue at a discourse level. We were ready to tackle the three legs of our church planting stool: New Testament translation, Bible curriculum development, and literacy. The alphabet was complete and the first Inapang primer books had been written and printed; the newly built schoolhouse with its thatched roof sat in the middle of the village and the first adult literacy class would begin very soon.

Straightening the Road

And our friend, the village chief? Ankərerəge came to class every day (for four months) of that first literacy class, and he did learn to read and write.  I felt the tears welling up as I watched him read his own handwritten story at the graduation ceremony with a huge smile on his face. He would soon be reading and studying God’s Word in his beautiful mother tongue and we couldn’t wait for that day.

As we worked hard in literacy class, my husband, Bill, was working hard in his little translation office as he “turned God’s Talk” from the source texts into the Inapang receptor language. Now, ten years after the first Inapang literates read their graduation stories and the church was born, the Itutang church elders have developed their own love for reading God’s Word. They read, memorize, study, outline, write lessons, and teach. Amazingly, they have planted eight more churches that are growing as well!

As our Inapang brothers say, “Literacy is like John the Baptist.  It goes before and straightens the road” for the translation and the oral telling of the greatest story ever told.  Literacy works to preserve God’s Word for the generations to come.  It is hard.  It takes time.  But the purity of Christ’s story and the growth of His Bride is worth it. 

–– For previous posts in this series on reaching the Inapang with the gospel, see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

________

Kelley Housley currently serves as a Literacy consultant and Missionary Trainer for Ethnos360 in Papua New Guinea. She has lived and served among the Inapang people group with her husband, Bill, and daughters, Madison and Sabra, since 2004. They are currently working to complete a translation of the New Testament in the Inapang language.

Sign up for Radical Updates

If you would like periodic updates on Radical and the ministry of David Platt, please sign up here.