2 friends walk along a tree lined sidewalk in Dusseldorf

Bridging the Gap – part 5

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 [1] 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.

[1] Names have been changed to protect these individuals’ privacy.

This article is 5 of 5 in a series.

2 friends walk along a tree lined sidewalk in Dusseldorf

Bridging the Gap – part 4

“What’s with those girls?”

Our student ministry building was just across the street from the Dental School of one of the largest universities in the world, and their volleyball team needed a place to practice.  We had a basketball/volleyball court behind our building, so when the coach asked if they could practice on our court, my answer was “yes, of course.”

What follows, as you can see, did not happen in an ESL or TESOL ministry, but it does illustrate how to take any circumstance and use it to open a door for sharing the gospel.

I often watched their practices and soon became intrigued by the fact that one of their best players on the team was a very short guy.  After one of their practices, I introduced myself to that player and he told me his name was Iván[1].   One afternoon when the team was practicing one of the men in our Bible study group from our church came by to see me and noticed Iván playing volleyball on our court.  His comment to me was, “What in the world is Iván doing here?  He lives in the apartment just below ours.  He and his brothers are wild, and I mean really wild party animals!  They have wild drunken sex parties all the time!”  I asked him if he had ever tried to share the gospel with them.  “Share the gospel with them?  Not on your life!  They are troublemakers!”

When the university’s intermural volleyball competition began, I started attending some of their games, thinking I might find a way to witness to some of the players.  After one of the games, I walked onto the court and struck up a conversation with Iván.  I asked him how was it that he, a very short player, was one of the best on the team.  He shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t know . . . perhaps his enthusiasm and commitment to the game.  We talked a little about what chance he thought the team had in the league with other schools on the campus.

I finally asked him what he liked to do in his free time, besides volleyball.  Iván brightened and said that he and his two brothers had a music group and they loved playing music.  When I asked him what kind of music they liked most, he said Andean music, which was a little surprising because that style of music is not well known in that country.

I think Iván was a little surprised, but also excited, by my next comment.  I told him that from time to time we have groups of American students come to our student center for a week to help us, and if they would be open to it, I would like to invite them to come play the next time a group came down (which was only a little over a month away).

That group of American students were coming to help us do evangelism on campus and in our student center.  There was only one problem.  Just before that group arrived, the university students went on strike and there was nothing for the American students to do because the university was completely closed.  However, I decided we would have a party at our house and invite Iván and his brothers to provide music.

When the Fernandez [1] brothers showed up at our house that Friday night for the party they were about half drunk, and spent most of the night, when not playing their music, flirting with, and trying to touch or hug the girls.  Fortunately for us, the girls in the group were spiritually mature enough to know how to turn the boys away without making them feel rejected. 

The following Monday, all three of the Fernandez brothers showed up at my office.  The American students had already returned to the U.S., but the brothers wanted to talk with me.  They apologized over and over again for showing up half drunk, and I assured them that it was not a problem.  To my surprise, they said they had a question about the girls.  “In all our years and experience with girls, NO girl has ever turned down our advances! Not once!  What was going on with those girls?”

I smiled and told them, “Let me explain something to you guys.  Jesus Christ has transformed the lives of those girls and they now have a very different concept of sex.  They have decided to save the beauty of their sexual experience for the special man God has for each of them in the future.  They want to bring honor to God with their sex life.”  That completely blew the mind of those three young men and they began peppering me with all kinds of questions and just could not wrap their minds around that whole concept.

I asked them if they would be interested in studying the Bible with me to help them understand what made those girls so different.  They were somewhat non-committal, and it took us several months to get them to agree to study the Bible with us, but when they did accept, they asked if we would be willing to drive down each week to a small town south of the university to do the studies there, so their mother could also join the study.

Once a week for the next three or four months we met them at their mother’s house to study the Bible. We went through four studies based on the Gospel of John and another four studies called “Encounters with Jesus,” mostly based on Luke’s Gospel.  The mother was the first to accept Christ, but the three brothers eventually gave their lives to Christ.  They later lead their divorced father and his new wife to Christ.

[1] Names have been changed to protect these individuals’ privacy.

This article is 4 of 5 in a series.

2 friends walk along a tree lined sidewalk in Dusseldorf

Bridging the Gap – part 3

Celebrating Important Milestones

by Dr. Lloyd and Wilma Mann

I met my wife, Wilma, in Costa Rica as a young, single missionary.  Her university training was in teaching elementary students, but she has prepared herself extensively in teaching English as a second language.  She taught ESL at the local community college for some eight years, until the COVID pandemic shut down that program.  The following is her description of one of the ways she makes the transition from a secular ESL program to sharing the gospel.  She writes:

During one ESL semester, the group of students was very integrated and got along very well.  The size of the group was not too big nor too small: just eight students.  Among them was Consuela[1], who was well along in a pregnancy.  Sometimes her older daughter, who was bilingual, would accompany her to make sure she was fine.  As time drew near to her due date and she was still attending classes, I suggested to the class that we give her a baby shower.

The students decorated the class, brought goodies, cake and presents.  She arrived, as always, to find herself the center of attention as everybody yelled “Surprise!” And it was a real surprise!  She was overcome with tears of joy and excitement.  After delivering five babies, this was her first baby shower.  The party went on for some time, and when it was time to go, I asked the students if I could pray for Consuela and her baby.  Everyone agreed so I prayed a simple prayer for them.  She turned to me and said, “That is what I needed.”

She gave birth to a beautiful baby girl and I went to visit them at their house.  We talked about God and she had many questions, so I offered to study the Bible with her. She happily agreed, and I gave her a Bible.

The next week I arrived at her house we began a Bible study from the Gospel of John.  It was a joy to work with her over the next three weeks and see the Holy Spirit work in her life.   After the third study, when I asked her if she would like to accept Jesus as Lord she responded: “Yes, with all my heart!”  I was so happy that there was a new child of God.  There was joy in heaven!

We continued to meet and soon she started attending church.   Her husband, Ricardo[1], was not at all interested so he stayed home with two of their children who were autistic.

Consuela and I prayed for her husband.  As time passed, he started watching her and noticed her new life in Christ full of joy and peace.  I gave her a little booklet that contained Christian truths.  She left it on a table where he could see it, and one day, he finally read it.  He surprised her soon after when he told her that he was going to visit the church with her the next Sunday.  He was very impressed with the service and became very motivated to continue attending.

Sometime after, they suffered a crisis in their family: Consuela had a miscarriage and both she and Ricardo were very sad.  But in this time of sorrow, several members of our church reached out to help them.  Ricardo and Consuela were very thankful to have experienced the love and support of the church and through this experience they learned to trust God in every situation that He allowed to come into their life.

They continued being part of the church and were very faithful in attendance.  After a few months, Consuela decided to obey the Lord in baptism.  After the service was over, Ricardo came to my husband, Lloyd, and told him: “If the pastor had asked one more time, I would have gone forward to be baptized too.”  Lloyd told him that the next Sunday there would be baptisms again and suggested he could be baptized then.  Ricardo said that first he wanted to meet with Lloyd during the week sometime.  He came to our house and Lloyd explained to him the meaning of baptism and who can be baptized.  He asked Ricardo if he wanted to receive Jesus as his Lord and Savior.  He said he did.  He was excited about declaring his faith in Jesus.  The next Sunday He too was baptized. 

Before the service started, Ricardo gave Lloyd a little box to hold.  After the baptisms were over, he asked Lloyd for the box and went to the front of the sanctuary.  The pastor told the congregation that Ricardo had some words to say.  He told the congregation: “I have just been baptized, as you saw.  I want to do what the Lord asks of me.” He went and knelt in front of Consuela and asked, “Would you marry me?” She was completely surprised, and of course very happy.  The whole congregation started applauding with joy and everybody was crying with excitement.

Ricardo and Consuela had lived together for many years and they had seven children together, but they had never married.  So, at that moment he was, for the first time, asking her to marry him.  The church gave them a beautiful reception when they married a few weeks later.   

That happened about ten years ago and they have been faithful to the Lord, and in these years have reared a beautiful family.  One of their daughters just returned from her second mission trip to Guatemala in two years.  This is a beautiful family that serves Christ in their church, and all this began with a baby shower in an ESL class at a secular university.

[1] Names have been changed to protect these individuals’ privacy.

This article is 3 of 5 in a series.

2 friends walk along a tree lined sidewalk in Dusseldorf

Bridging the Gap – part 2

Friendship and an Invitation to Study the Bible

When I met Alejandro[1], the first thing I did was get to know him on a purely social level, outside the religious context of the church.  I could have chosen any number of activities from sports, cultural events, or inviting him to spend some time with my wife and me in our home.  In this case, he and I chose to meet for coffee several times over a period of a few weeks.  During that time, I wanted to get to know as much as I could about him as a person, as well as feel out his depth of spiritual interest and experience.  Alejandro was a student at one of the local state universities, majoring in international finance.  We talked a lot about political situations in Latin America and specifically about what was going on in his home country.  His political convictions were quite different from my own convictions and there was a lot of back-and-forth discussion with him challenging my beliefs and me challenging his.   

During these times together I asked about how he came to attend our church and I casually tried to ascertain whether he was a born-again Christian.  Since he grew up in a predominately Roman Catholic country, his basic spiritual formation was Roman Catholic, but he had been attending our church for over a year.  He told me he had given his life to Christ during that time.  However, from our experience in working with Roman Catholic and evangelical university students in three different Latin American countries, we never take for granted that even “evangelical” students are actually Christians.   So, after a few weeks I asked him if he would be interested in studying the Bible with me.

Even with pastors’ and deacons’ children we always begin by doing a series of four evangelistic Bible studies based on the Gospel of John . . . because we have had pastors’ and other church leaders’ children, after going through those studies with us, admit that they had never really given their lives to Christ.  We sometimes discover little difference between Roman Catholic-background and evangelical-background students.  Often, both have a religion, but not a relationship with Christ.

The leaders of that ESL ministry wanted to start a spiritual ministry to Spanish-speakers and to plant a Spanish-speaking church (or campus) sometime in the future.  However, several years into that ESL ministry, there was no visible movement toward accomplishing that goal.

As we did the evangelistic Bible studies, it was evident that Alejandro had in fact become a believer, although his moral life had not changed much, and we spent time talking about some of his struggles in that area.  He soon asked if he could invite a couple of friends to join us in Bible study.  Those friends began to invite their friends, and within a few months we had our living room filled each Friday night with young people who came to study the Bible.  During the next year and a half at least a third of those attending were non-Christians.  What really blew my mind was that those non-Christians really seemed to enjoy the Bible studies.  Never in all my experience in Latin America had I ever seen non-Christians who loved studying the Bible.  Gradually some of those non-Christians gave their lives to Christ . . . while some others rejected the gospel and gradually distanced themselves from the group.

With a group of around 30-35 attending the studies (not all at the same time!) we began considering starting a Spanish-speaking campus for our church.  At that point the leaders of the ESL ministry joined forces with us (though none of their students ever attended the once-a-month services with which we soft-launched the campus).  Those 20-25 Christian students (several of them new believers) from our weekly Bible study became the core leadership group of the campus when we officially launched the weekly Spanish-speaking worship services.

I eventually came to realize that it was not so much that those non-Christian students and young professionals loved studying the Bible.  I realized that all those young people were separated from their friends and families in Latin America and they felt drawn to our weekly studies because they longed for close friendships . . . and enjoyed the food we always shared together after the studies.  They saw in those Christian students attractive examples of young people who knew how to enjoy themselves in wholesome ways, and were surprised to see Christians who accepted them, loved them, and did life with them.

Today that Spanish campus runs nearly 300 in attendance each Sunday and has grown way beyond a group of young people to include young couples, families with children of a wide range of ages, young professionals, day laborers, and even many elderly people.

[1] Names have been changed to protect these individuals’ privacy.

This article is 2 of 5 in a series.

2 friends walk along a tree lined sidewalk in Dusseldorf

Bridging the Gap

Has your church/ministry decided to start an ESL ministry with the hope of opening doors to share the gospel with non-English-speaking people in the community?  If so, the million-dollar question is: how to move from just teaching English to using the ESL ministry to open doors for sharing the gospel?

When a church or ministry moves outside of what most would consider “normal” church activities (regular services, revivals, Sunday School, children’s and youth ministries, etc.), it has been our experience in over 50 years of sharing the gospel that churches tend to struggle with how to make the jump from less “religious” activities (like a n ESL ministry) to the desired goal of sharing the gospel.  Whether that activity be a women’s club, a sports program, a tutoring program, or an ESL ministry, most churches struggle with knowing how to build the bridge to sharing the gospel.

A recent personal experience of mine will illustrate a solution to that problem.  When we retired from our ministry as missionaries in Latin America, we began attending a fast-growing, soon-to-be multiple-campus mega church.  The area where we live has a large immigrant population composed of many nationalities.  However, the most visible effort the church had made to reach any of those immigrant groups was a small ESL program started and staffed mostly by dedicated young people that met in a different church’s building in an area of the city where many Latin American immigrants live.  

The leaders of that ESL ministry wanted to start a spiritual ministry to Spanish-speakers and to plant a Spanish-speaking church (or campus) sometime in the future.  However, several years into that ESL ministry, there was no visible movement toward accomplishing that goal.

Since most of our ministry in Latin America was centered around evangelizing and discipling university and high school students, one of the first things I did when we started attending the church was to look for any Latin American youth/students in the worship services.  I finally spotted Alejandro, a Latin American university student and invited him to get coffee with me one afternoon.

To be clear, you will notice that my experience did not begin with a TESOL program, but what I did as I got to know that young man is illustrative of how to bridge the gap between a secular activity and our spiritual objective.  My wife, further on in this article, will share her experience with a secular ESL program in our city and how she reached an entire family for Christ.  Then I will share another example of how I used a sports activity to reach an entire family for Christ.  

This article is 1 of 5 in a series.