Integrating ESL Students into the Church

Connecting with the Worship Service

Many ESL ministries want to figure out how to best integrate their ESL students into the church. This is a significant question that requires prayer, thought and planning. Some ESL ministries may partner with a local non-English language church (Spanish, Korean, Chinese etc.) and direct their ESL students to a church in their home language.  This is a viable option and encourages the students to worship and be discipled in the language most comfortable for them. 

In our ESL ministry, there were no first language churches that most of our students could attend, therefore, we needed to integrate the students into our English-language church.  In addition, the children of our students spoke English and were a part of our children’s ministry.  Because of this, we were left with the question of what to do with the parents? How could we integrate them into our church?   

This is not a question for the faint of heart.  It is not easy to suddenly try and integrate a group of non-English speakers into English language churches.  Your ESL students come from different cultures.  They will possibly look different than your other church members.  They may have a very different socio-economic status.  Often, their way of relating to others is different. The differences can quickly add up; leaving everyone discouraged as they try to unite as one Body of Christ.

In our church, one of the values is “unity in diversity.”  Finding unity in diversity takes work, even more so when there is no common heart language.  We have to be patient with each other as we navigate towards unity.

There are, however, some practical steps for achieving unity. In our ESL ministry, we decided to have an extra “class” after the official ESL class.  In this class, we introduced the Scripture for next Sunday’s sermon and gave a simplified summary of the meaning of the verse.  Because we also were able to speak the language of the majority of our students, we had a short explanation in their first language.  We gave about 10 English vocabulary words that they were likely to hear in the sermon and reviewed those words with them.  We then allowed time for them to ask us questions.  

Recently, I attended one church that did a fantastic job of utilizing resources that can help English language learners (ELLs) connect with the sermon.  This church provided several visual aids that can help an ELL gain a better understanding of what the sermon is about.  The church gives each person a simplified outline with the main points of the sermon. ELLs are probably not going to comprehend every part of the sermon, but an outline will help them follow the main ideas.  The church also projects the Bible passage and uses tools that allow them to underline and circle key words.  This allows people to both see and hear the message.  The following is an example:

These ideas help English language learners connect to the worship service and feel a part of the Sunday worship time.

Connecting with the Body

English language learners not only need to connect with the worship service, but they also need to connect in a personal way with the Body of Christ.  At our church, we had one lady who was our “ELL Superhero.”  She naturally gravitated towards any new ELL and talked to them before or after the service.  She also made sure that she brought them to the pastor so that he greeted them too.  When we had dinner after church, she would invite them to sit with her and her husband.  

If we all looked out for who is new in the church, we would not have a problem integrating new people into the Body.  However, even at church, people are busy with responsibilities.  If you plan to have students from your ESL ministry come to church, make sure that you recruit some volunteers who will be on the lookout for these students.  They can make sure that the students know where to go, what to do, and feel welcome.  A smiling face and Google translate can go a long way.  

Welcoming new English speakers into the Body takes time and thought.  Can your church provide a small group or Sunday School class for new ELLs?  What kinds of Bible studies and activities does your church have already that would best be suited to a new English language learner?  Can you include the home countries of ELLs as a part of your prayer requests when there are big events happening in those countries? Are there areas where the ELLs can serve?  

Serving together gives people the opportunity to bond.  ELLs can serve with other church members as greeters, as part of a hospitality team, on a church workday, or any special event participation.  It is important to make sure that your ELLs get connected to appropriate ways to serve together with others.  If your church participates in a sports league or packs food for a regular food drive, these are other avenues for English language learners to be involved with church members.  A vast vocabulary is often not needed to play soccer or basketball or pack food together.  

Any church group or activity that is focused on “doing” instead of “speaking” is a great way to begin involving ELLS in the life of the church.  The above are just some beginning ways to begin thinking about how to incorporate ELLs into your church body and give them the feeling of “home” here in the US.

**Activity** I highly encourage you to visit a non-English speaking church, possibly one that speaks the language you studied in high school or college.  As you go through the service, think about things that would help you worship even when you don’t understand much of the language.  

Laurel Bohrer is an ESOL teacher and adult second language learner who enjoys seeing her students gain confidence in their ability to use English.  In her free time, she loves to spend time with her husband and 2 daughters. 

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