EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story on Avery Willis, a key advocate of Bible Storying until his death on July 30, 2010, at age 76, appeared in Baptist Press on April 10, 2010.
NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Avery Willis, retired senior vice president of the International Mission Board and founder of the International Orality Network, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of the disease on Jan. 7 (2010). He surprised doctors and family members with a quicker-than-expected remission in February.
With his health improving, Willis, 76, is turning his attention back to discipleship. He sees a parallel between the church’s struggle with discipleship and the disease he has begun to battle.
Normally, bone marrow in the human body produces red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets, Willis explained. Red cells carry oxygen while white cells fight viruses and bacteria. The platelets help the blood to coagulate.
“What happens in leukemia is an abnormal development in the DNA so that the body produces large numbers of immature cells that do not do their function,” Willis said. “They don’t carry oxygen. They don’t fight disease and they don’t clot.
“We produce a lot of [church] members,” Willis reflected, “but they are not carrying out their functions because we have an overabundance of abnormal cells.”
Willis, however, is calling for a return the original “DNA” of discipleship — to Jesus’ method of teaching: Bible storying.
Bible storying has been used as an evangelism and discipleship method for more than 25 years. Many missionaries use the approach to reach illiterate cultures. However, Willis believes that storying can be a universal method for discipleship not only for oral cultures overseas, but in the United States as well.
“Jesus told parables because He knew that 90 percent or more of the people in His day didn’t read,” Willis said. “God wired us for stories. We like stories. We remember stories. They penetrate beyond our heads and get down into our hearts.”
Willis and other proponents of Bible storying will launch “DNA 21: Discipleship Revolution” at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary April 22-24, 2010. The launch will be simulcast via interactive video in Atlanta; Orlando, Fla.; and Little Rock, Ark. The conference will teach church leaders how to implement a Bible storying discipleship approach in their churches.
Another former IMB vice president, Tom Elliff, will be a keynote speaker at the event along with Willis and Jim Putman, pastor of Real Life Ministries church in Post Falls, Idaho. Experienced Bible storying disciple-makers will assist with the conference program in New Orleans and at the simulcast sites.
“Our job is to disciple the church using the Bible stories God has given us,” Willis said. “The stories are so rich. A person has to experience [storying] to actually believe it.”
Willis was awakened to the plight of oral learners during the “Amsterdam 2000” conference on evangelism. When a friend asked how to disciple non-readers, Willis answered with an honest, “I don’t know.”
“I have been asked that question for 20 years. I’m not working with illiterates; if you are, you figure it out,” Willis said at the time.
His friend replied to Willis, creator of the MasterLife discipleship series, “You know something about discipleship; that’s your job.”
“I realized then that 70 percent of the unreached people groups are functionally illiterate,” Willis recounted. “With every effort I had made to try to simplify discipleship and make it as clear as possible, including MasterLife, I still missed altogether the people who didn’t read.”
Willis began to look at the way Jesus taught — using stories, parables and proverbs — and he learned about Bible storying. Willis and eight proficient Bible story tellers spent three years developing and recording an audio resource of 400 Bible stories. The stories can take a person with zero biblical knowledge to the level of a pastor or church leader without having to read, Willis said.
In 2004, Willis helped organize the International Orality Network during the Lausanne Forum on World Evangelism. The group now focuses on what Willis calls the world’s “oral majority” — the 4 billion people who cannot or will not read.
About four years ago, Willis began to think about the discipleship needs of the American church. Then it clicked — Willis began to see Bible storying as a viable option in literate cultures. In fact, Willis believes storying can be a universal discipleship method.
First, Willis noted the number of non-proficient readers in the United States: Just less than 50 percent of the population cannot read or cannot read well enough to feel comfortable reading aloud in a small group context. Willis also realized that many Americans under the age of 25, who grew up with electronic media, the Internet and social networking, choose not to read even though they can.
And he saw that Bible storying is easily reproducible.
About that time pastor Jim Putman of Real Life Ministries, a young church plant in Idaho, asked Willis to help develop and implement a Bible storying-based discipleship program. Willis agreed to the challenge. Real Life would serve as a test case for his theory.
The results: Real Life, which started in 1998 with only four couples, now has 8,500 members, with 7,000 involved in small groups. The church has planted five additional churches in the region and trains other churches to implement orality-based discipleship programs on a monthly basis.
Willis has discovered a number of advantages to this method. First, deep truths can be communicated clearly in a short amount of time. The stories take only about five minutes to tell. Then the leader asks questions and allows the group participants to dig out the truths God has placed there. Leadership development happens naturally in the context of the group.
Second, the stories are memorable. After the meeting, participants are encouraged to tell the story to others in their spheres of influence. Parents take the story home and share it with their children. Churches like Real Life Ministries have found that orality-based discipleship is an effective way to develop a biblical worldview in both children and adults.
Another advantage to Bible storying is that discipleship groups remain “open.” Someone can join the group at any point, which is not always the case with other discipleship methods.
People who attend the DNA-21 launch in New Orleans or at a simulcast location can expect to learn the basic skills needed to implement orality-based discipleship in their churches. In addition, participants will receive several resources to help with the implementation of the method.
“Our goal of DNA 21 is to bring back first-century discipleship,” Willis said. “We believe the same elements of first-century discipleship still work today and can replace the DNA of the 21st century. And that’s why we are having this launch April 22-24.”
Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.