Next time you're in your local supermarket or restaurant, take a look around you. What types of faces do you see? Chances are, you live in a diverse community. American communities and towns are becoming more diverse since the United States is one of the leading countries for immigration. With such diversity abounding, many people are moving to the U.S. where English isn't their first language.
As the U.S. expands, so does our need to reach others for Christ. Using English as Second Language (ESL) ministries can reach others for Christ who may not be able to attend church or other events because they're unfamiliar with English. Ephesians 2:19-22 says, "So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. The whole building, being put together by Him, grows into a holy sanctuary in the Lord. You also are being built together for God's dwelling in the Spirit."
Even though someone may be an alien to a new country, it doesn't mean that God has left them to be a stranger to Him. Christ has made it evident in His Word that no one will be a foreigner to Him. People who move to the U.S. may feel like outsiders, but as Christians, we're supposed to tell others that in the name of Christ, they are not strangers.
As the Word commands, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). Christ doesn't leave any people group or nationality out of this verse because He instructs believers to reach out to all nations, no matter who they are or what language they speak.
According to the Pew Research Center, more than 40 million immigrants live in the U.S. With those numbers, it's no wonder that ESL ministries are becoming a great way to share the gospel. But don't leave it up to others. There are ways to get involved in your community as well. Here's a look at how people are changed through ESL ministries and tips on how you can reach others for Christ through an ESL ministry.
The Need for ESL
Cathy Lentz, the English Language Missions Coordinator for the Florida Baptist Convention said that Florida has a high number of ESL speakers. "The need for ESL is great here," Lentz says. "We're around fifth in the country for non-English speakers. Just over 19 percent of our state's population is foreign born according to the 2010 census."
Kristy Kennedy, the Alabama Baptist State Literacy Missions Coordinator, said that Alabama is "reaching a huge population of internationals throughout the state, up to 70 different nationalities."
Although reaching ESL speakers for Christ is the main goal, Kennedy and Lentz are also using their ministries to focus on equipping ESL speakers for the work force and for adjusting to life in the U.S. "Non-English speakers have difficulty with employment, receiving adequate health care, and advancing in education. Internationals come with many needs in order to assimilate to our culture," Lentz says. "ELM (English Language Missions) is a tool used to build relationships while meeting the need of English. Relationships and trust are built while opportunities to share Christ are presented."
Lentz says that the Bible is incorporated into their teaching events, so while ESL speakers are learning English, they can also be learning about Christ.
Kennedy also works with her ministry to ensure that ESL speakers are learning English and fostering relationships. The ministry offers several ways for ESL speakers to get involved; from grammar courses to Sunday school classes and other events. Another event Kennedy offers is a conversation café, where native English speakers can interact with ESL speakers. By equipping ESL speakers with tools for daily American living, ministries across the nation can foster relationships that lead to sharing the gospel.
Reaching Through ESL Ministry
Though you may be wondering how to best reach ESL people and families for Christ, some workers are getting involved by living near and fostering relationships with ESL speakers.
Ashley Fricks, on staff at LifePoint Church in Smyrna, Tenn., was on board when her church partnered with a non-profit organization in her area called Community Servants. Along with Community Servants, her church was able to minister to the inhabitants of Wherry Housing, a community of low-income housing in the city.
"I learned about Community Servants a few years ago through some friends who decided to move in to Wherry Housing and minister to the community by interning," Fricks says. "Through these friends, I began to get involved in the community. I began teaching English to refugee and immigrant adults."
As an intern, Fricks was able to move into the Wherry Housing. Later, after she accepted full-time employment with her church, she looked for other ways to continue to devote her time to the ministry at Wherry and decided to remain living in the community.
"Because I've been given the blessing of living affordably on my own, I've been able to open up my home to use as a blessing to others and hope to continue to do so. The more I pour into the community, the more the community pours into me," Fricks says.
Where Can I Start?
You may be interested in getting involved in ESL ministry in your own community. There are many ways to get involved with working with ESL speakers, and learning multiples languages isn't a requirement. "The only requirements for being involved are a love for God and His people, a willingness to be trained, and a commitment to the time involved," says Brenda Harris, a worker for the Tennessee Baptist State Convention. Harris says that the growing number of ESL speakers entering the country makes for a great need for workers in ESL ministry, and there are ways to get involved.
"The best way to get involved is to contact your state convention for information about training workshops and churches who already have established ministries," Harris says. "With so many people from other countries coming to the U.S. to study and find work, there are an abundance of people who need basic reading, writing, and speaking skills to function here."
Invite your church family to get involved with you as well. Meet with leaders of your congregation to see what programs are offered for ESL families. If there aren't any ESL ministries in your areas, pray about how you can effectively reach others for Christ.
As more people move to the U.S., the need for ESL ministry becomes greater. Ask God how you can become involved in ESL ministry, and continue seeking ways to demonstrate God's love to others — no matter the language.