The Role of ESL in a Church’s Ministry to Internationals

ESL in the Bible

Is ESL in the Bible? Well, sort of. Jesus never really addressed the issue of language teaching, but He did talk about loving our neighbor. Matthew 22:34-40 highlights a question Jesus was once asked: “Which command in the Law is the greatest?” In His answer, Jesus pointed to two commandments: 1. Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. 2. Love your neighbor as yourself. The Old Testament context for the second command is found in Leviticus 19, where it appears in two different contexts: loving your fellow countrymen (Lev. 19:17-18) and loving the stranger residing among you (Lev. 19:33-34), “for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Since the Israelites knew what it was like to be foreigners, they were called to welcome the strangers in their midst. And as citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20), aren’t we all aliens living in a strange land? Teaching ESL is simply a practical application of the the command to love our neighbor as ourselves.

ESL Myths

What is ESL, anyway? Maybe you have heard something about it, but you’re not really sure what it looks like. Let’s begin by dispelling several common myths:

1. You have to speak Spanish to teach ESL. After all, doesn’t ESL mean “English-Spanish Language”? Not exactly. ESL means “English as a Second Language,” so you can teach ESL to people from any language background. (Besides English, that is.)

2. You have to know the language of every student you’re teaching. Similar to #1, this is probably based on the notion that language teaching is just translating from one language to another. There was a time when the Grammar-Translation Method was the prevailing method of teaching English (Hint: A very long time ago), but not anymore. The focus these days is on providing a communicative environment for students from all language backgrounds.

3. Teaching ESL is just teaching English grammar. And so, if you’re not comfortable with English grammar, you’re not eligible to teach English, right? Wrong again. Teaching English is much more than just helping students master grammar rules.

A Snapshot of ESL

Basically, ESL is a way to help students from other language backgrounds gain a functional proficiency in English. ESL can also be a very practical way to demonstrate the love of Christ to the nations in our midst.

Put yourself in their shoes. If you were living in a foreign country (not just for vacation or a business trip, but as an immigrant), and you didn’t speak the language well, how would you get along? And how would you feel if a group of people offered you a warm welcome and a place to learn the language in a non-threatening environment? You just might feel loved and accepted.

Fitting ESL into the Bigger Picture

Here’s the key point: ESL should be part of a church’s ministry to internationals. It’s common for churches to make two strategic errors with regard to ESL:

1. Putting all of our eggs in one basket. A church sometimes puts too much weight on ESL. Leaders may think that if they have an ESL ministry, that is the sum total of their ministry to internationals. Well, it’s a good start, but ESL cannot be the whole picture. 

2. Leaving out the golden egg. In seeking to reach the nations around them, some churches may neglect ESL and try to do it through other means. It’s difficult to imagine how a church can effectively reach the nations around them without dealing with language barriers. For immigrants and other internationals in our midst, language learning is not just a nice hobby; it’s a matter of survival. Maybe ESL isn’t really a “golden egg,” but you get the point.

Guiding Principles

As you prepare to integrate ESL into your church’s ministry to internationals, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Train the volunteers — If you already have teachers who are already trained in teaching ESL, that’s great. If not, take advantage of weekend workshops provided by the Literacy Missions team of your state convention. You can also find experienced ESL teachers in your area who can come and offer guidance.
  • Decide on the curriculum — Depending on your church’s vision, you may want to use a general ESL curriculum focused on daily life skills, or a Bible ESL curriculum that uses Bible stories or spiritual principles to center each lesson on the gospel.
  • Keep the bigger picture in mind — Remember that the goal is not just helping people learn English, but making disciples and integrating them into the church.

Let’s be honest: one hour a week will not help people master English, but it can provide a safe place for people to practice their conversational English. If it can help build bridges of friendship, ESL can be a great door-opener for the gospel.

Billy has an M.Div. from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) and an M.A. in Teaching English as a Second Language from the University of Alabama. Billy serves as an adjunct instructor at in the ESL certificate program at SEBTS. He has taught ESL for Westminster Theological Seminary in the Mastering Theological English Program, for North Carolina State University in the Intensive English Program, and for Messiah University in the TESOL certificate program. Billy and his wife, Mary Jo, and their three children, lived in Taipei, Taiwan for nine years, where he served at Overseas Radio & Television, Inc., a Christian media ministry.

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