Who Lives in Your Neighborhood?

A principled approach for church-based ESL ministry

By and

Our world is more mobile than ever, with thousands of internationals daily crossing geographical borders. In his book Of Beetles and Angels, Mawi Asgedom describes fleeing his native country as a young boy because of war. Along with his family, he spent several years in a refugee camp in Sudan before coming to the United States. Others choose to immigrate because of financial hardships or to seek education.

Although there are well-established English-as-a-second-language (ESL) programs serving this population, many immigrants do not receive these services. The National Center of ESL Literacy Education asserts that the demand for adult ESL instruction far exceeds the programs that supply it. How then should the Church respond?

As I’ve talked with fellow teachers, relief agency workers and volunteers about principles that guide their church-based ESL programs, I have found several recurring themes to aid in the creation of a church-based program.

Become aware

To be aware means to know that something or someone exists. Christians do not look at people as targets for ministry but as neighbors who need friendship. Leaders at Bloomingdale (Ill.) Alliance Church, in a suburb of Chicago, did general demographic research in their community. They discovered the high number of English language learners around them and became aware of people in their community they had never noticed before. This helped their volunteers to extend personal invitations to the church’s English class and expand the outreach.

Build trust through friendship

Dr. Duane Elmer of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, Ill.) states: “Trust makes all the difference in the quality of a relationship. This is especially true if you are sharing something of great importance, like the possibility of following Jesus. People will take you seriously only if they trust you.”1 Friendship with a teacher or tutor can provide refugees and immigrants with a source of encouragement and support in learning English and adjusting to a new culture. This principle of building trust through friendship can affect lives forever.

Organizers of the English program at Bloomingdale Alliance found that students who attended because of a friend’s invitation were much more likely to return and felt immediately more confident in the environment. This challenged the volunteers to create an atmosphere of trust where all students felt as though they were among friends. To this end, the class was hosted at the church’s coffee house with a volunteer at each table to develop a personal connection with the students that grew in trust and openness each week.

Build trust through cultural respect and understanding

An Ethiopian friend told me that one of her greatest misunderstandings about U.S. culture was our concept of hospitality. In her home country people come to visit without an appointment and often stay for an extended time. So when she moved to the United States, she would sit in her apartment and wait for people to visit. Though some people did come, they always called ahead and would usually stay for just a short time. Everyone, she said, seemed to be in such a hurry.

Those discussions enriched my perception of a lost art in our fast-paced North American culture. Both formal and informal interactions in church-based programs can help learners feel accepted and offer opportunities for cultural discussions that can bring clarity or a new appreciation for customs or traditions that seem strange or unclear. Friendships built on cultural respect and understanding will cultivate a healthy atmosphere for teaching and learning.

Evaluate your resources

The answer to a very practical question—What can you honestly do as a church with the resources you’ve been given?—is crucial to the integrity of your ministry and program.

When members of a church that I attended began considering work among refugees in our community, we had to evaluate our resources. After several months of praying and planning a program to meet the needs in our area, our church trained volunteer teachers, another church offered classrooms, a third church organized food and bought supplies and an individual coordinated the program.

Scripture says that “a cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Eccles. 4:12); in this case, three small churches working together were much better than one church trying to change the world alone. Keep in mind the possibility of partnership.

Learn from others

In many cities and towns across North America, church-run ESL classes or tutoring programs take a variety of forms, from teaching oral and literacy skills to training newcomers in handling daily experiences such as a doctor’s appointment or finding a job. Some programs include a Bible study or opportunities for one-on-one English cafes.2

Learn about other community and adult education programs already operating in your area. As you observe and participate, ask questions: Where are the gaps in our community in serving refugees? How can our church offer additional support? What kind of program is this, and when is it being held? In short, learn from others who are already serving adult language learners in your community.

Communicate the program’s purpose to your students

“I came here to learn English, but the teacher keeps talking about the Bible.” I’ve heard this complaint from students too often. Churches have the right to include Bible content in ESL classes, but it’s important to be upfront about it to avoid the appearance of a hidden agenda. Those who claim to be teaching an English class but have evangelism as their main purpose run the risk of having their integrity questioned.3

An alternative approach to evangelism is to encourage church volunteers to pray for opportunities to be open with students about faith. At Bloomingdale Alliance, one couple began to attend church and another student brought his kids to vacation Bible study as a result of ESL classes. In each case, a volunteer who had invested in their lives throughout the semester extended an invitation to church. Though none of the classes were evangelistic, the love of Christ was evident in the lives of the volunteers, who were ready to give an answer for their hope and love when asked (1 Pet. 3:15).

Begin with the learner’s needs

Whether you teach a class or tutor one-on-one, it is vital to perform a basic-needs analysis to find out why students want to learn English—then try to meet those needs as much as possible. Dickerson4 suggests two important questions that should be addressed: “Why do these individuals want to study English? How do they plan to use English in their everyday lives? When you focus on meeting their needs, you’ll find that you have gained your students’ respect, which will go a long way toward helping you to be a more effective Christian witness.”

Aside from the obvious advantages this offers to teachers, meeting a student’s felt needs may also open a hearing for the gospel.

Get teacher training

If you do not have experience, look for an opportunity to teach under the supervision of an experienced instructor. The amount of preparation you need depends on the situation.5 ESL teachers can gain valuable experience by volunteering in classrooms at local community colleges or community-based programs. Of equal importance, you should remain current by reading books and articles on topics such as ESL curriculum development, working with volunteer teachers, textbook selection and learner assessment.

Don’t create unhealthy dependencies

Remember, the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) left enough money for the injured man to get back on his feet and promised the innkeeper that he would pay the full bill when he returned. What an interesting point! The injured man probably had fears from the robbery and beating, but he could not remain in the inn forever. We don’t want to create unnatural dependencies between students and teachers. Realize that we can’t do everything for them, but we can walk alongside them and help them in their journey. This is a true neighbor.

Whether you tutor, partner with other churches, teach ESL classes or volunteer in a community-based program, do it with integrity. The principles proposed here take sacrifice and time; however, it is the very cost of this effort that lends credibility to your outreach ministry and, ultimately, brings glory to God.


1 Elmer, Duane. Cross-Cultural Connections: Stepping Out and Fitting in Around the World. Downers Grove, Ill.: lntervarsity Press, 2002. 2 Dickerson, Lonna. Getting Started in Teaching ESUEFL: Resources for Christian Educators, 2010. CD-ROM. Available through ICCT: Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL 60617. 3 Dickerson, Lonna. “Preparing for an ESL/EFL Teaching Ministry.” ICCT Notes. Wheaton, Ill.: Institute for Cross Cultural Teaching, 2004. 4 Dickerson, Lonna. “Three Important-and Often Neglected-Keys to an Effective ESL Ministry.” ICCT Notes. Wheaton, Ill.: Institute for Cross Cultural Training, 2010. 5 Dickerson, Lonna. “Teaching ESL Bible Studies.” ICCT Notes. Wheaton, Ill.: Institute for Cross Cultural Training, 2006.

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