What if you don’t speak the language?
You possibly will have noticed that the three examples of how my wife and I bridged the gap between an ESL/TESOL activity and sharing the gospel were with people whose language my wife and I already spoke. But what can be done if no one in your program speaks the language of the students with whom you want to share the gospel?
That presents a difficult problem for any church/ministry trying to use an ESL/TESOL program to share the gospel because all the evidence points to the fact that comprehension of the gospel is best when the gospel is shared in the “heart language” of the listener. However, this is not an unsurmountable problem. Let me share some suggestions.
One of the first things anyone involved in an ESL/TESOL ministry should do is begin to pray that God will bring people around their ministry who speak the heart language of most/many of the students that will be attending the classes. God can move His sons and daughters around to make them available to your ministry! These could be people who live in the area who are already Christians, even members of another congregation that speak that language. However, I would not recommend the use of non-Christian interpreters because you would not be sure of what they are communicating.
If you have a lot of Spanish or French-speaking students in your ESL/TESOL ministry, you might recruit some spiritually mature high schoolers who are studying Spanish or French to become resource people to work alongside the teachers when the personal relation with a native speaker of one of those languages develops to the point where sharing the gospel would be natural.
Another option would be to have one or two people in your group accept the challenge of learning the target language of those attending the classes. They would need to learn not only basic communication skills in that language, but also specific “religious” vocabulary in order to convey the truths of the gospel.
Do not overlook the tremendous value of what I call “body” evangelism. One example of this was mentioned in my wife’s description of the how several people from our church reached out to, and served Consuela and Ricardo when Consuela suffered a miscarriage. Those church members did not speak Consuela’s language, but they showed love and generosity and emotional support, even when they did not speak her language. Some of the best evangelism occurs when members of the Body of Christ, through friendship and serving others, break the ice by giving of themselves to a non-believer. Each believer has a gift God has given them to function in the Body. Some will be gifted in evangelism, others in generosity, others in hospitality, others in service. Evangelism is not just an “individual sport”, but rather a “body sport”. And the ones who are often “greater” in this ministry are precisely those who are more in the background.
Another way to, at least partially, solve the language problem would be to have a series of “question-and-answer” evangelistic Bible studies (like the studies we use based on the Gospel of John) in both English and the heart language of the student with whom you want to share the gospel. Even with limited English skills a person who has the printed Bible study and the Scriptures in his/her heart language can generally communicate in basic terms what he/she understands from the study. The Spirit can use the Scriptures in that person’s heart language to show him/her the truth, and in simple English the one witnessing to him/her can clarify any doubts.
In any case, the ministry should have on hand copies of at least the Gospel of John or perhaps New Testaments in the target language, and supplemental literature (such as gospel tracts and evangelistic Bible studies) in that language.
Lessons to be Learned
- The most basic step to creating a bridge to sharing the gospel is to cultivate relationships with at least a few of the students in a TESOL, ESL program (or sports or women’s club, etc.). Relationships are what open doors, and without them, any attempt to share the gospel will most likely fail. Two people had the same opportunity to build bridges to the Fernandez  brothers. One condemned and separated himself from them; I sought them out, prayed for them and developed a relationship with them.
- How that relationship will start has an infinite number of possibilities. How I did it, or how Wilma did it, might not work for you, but you must find some common ground with which to start a relationship. As you have seen in this article, even the topic of sex can be used by God to help build that bridge.
- Although eventually the doctrinal aspects of the gospel will need to be highlighted, people need to get to know Jesus Christ as a person. They need to see how He interacted with people in the Gospels, they need to understand that He loves them. In short, they need to be put into prolonged contact with the Scriptures. The Spirit uses the Scriptures to draw them to God. It doesn’t matter if they don’t believe the Scriptures are inspired by God. The Word of God is still sharp and powerful as a two-edged sword and strikes to the heart of the person.
- I would recommend that you read my article “Communicating the Gospel Cross-Culturally” on this site, if you have not yet read it.
 Names have been changed to protect these individuals’ privacy.
This article is 5 of 5 in a series.