Common Questions about ESL and Church Planting

This week, I received an email I wanted to share concerning ESL ministries in local churches. The email was in response to an article I wrote a while back entitled Turn Your ESL Ministry into a Church Planting Machine. For their part, a local church here in Texas is working hard to come up with an ESL ministry that both teaches English well and provides a legitimate gospel encounter for the students involved. In preparing, they stumbled across my article, and asked some great questions in response. The questions were so good, I wanted to share them (and my response) here for everyone.

If your church currently uses ESL as a ministry strategy or is considering ESL, make sure and read that first article, and come back here for the additional dialogue.

Here’s the initial email:

Hello Keelan, I am writing in regards to a blog post you wrote on the NAMB site about ESL classes in people’s homes being an effective way to start new churches.  I live in a small town in TX and my husband and I are in the process of starting an ESL ministry through our church.  We want to have the class in a host home and, if the class grows too large, then find another host home to start a second class.  We are hoping to use the more organic, in-home setting as an opportunity to really build relationships and hopefully see new believers whom we can then walk alongside and disciple in their relationship with Christ.  

My question is, in your experience, how have you found participants who would be willing to host a class?  Did you wait to start a class until you found somebody willing to host? And then, how were you able to effectively teach in a small group setting to people of varying proficiency levels?

Here’s my response:

How have you found participants who would be willing to host a class?

I think this is the key question. When I’ve helped churches set up this kind of thing, I usually have a couple of goals in mind. First, they are attempting to work primarily with foreign-born groups of people they’ve discovered in their community. In this way, the group that forms in a home would be made up primarily of people from that people group. It doesn’t always turn out that way, but most often it does.

The other goal is actually hosting these in the home of someone from that particular community. Often (though not always), these foreign-born neighbors come from cultures that value hospitality and entertaining people in their homes. If this is the case, people from your church can develop a relationship with them and offer to let them host for all their friends who also need English lessons. This actually puts them in a position of honor among their friends, and introduces you to their social circle. And, since it is their social circle that makes up the class, they will have a natural affinity for one another and most likely be from near cultures and language groups.

Now, to the heart of the question: finding people who are willing to host. Meeting these people usually does not happen through an ESL class—although it could. There are multiple ways to do it. I’ve seen churches that initially held a “come and see” ESL class in their building ask people in those classes if they would be willing to host one for friends.

I’ve also seen churches identify an apartment complex whose residents are primarily refugees and simply knock on doors, introduce themselves, and provide them with a flyer or information about the opportunity to host one of these in their homes. Obviously cold calling like this has mixed results, as you don’t know the people beforehand. However, most foreign-born folk are not put off by knocking on their door and introducing yourself. In fact, if you do so in a way that is courteous and welcoming and demonstrates that you are glad they are here, it is often a fast way to make friends.

Finally, simply asking people in your church if any of them have already developed a relationship with someone who may need ESL courses (or would know people who do) can turn up a member’s coworker or neighbor as a place to start. That has the added benefit of encouraging that church member to get involved.

Did you wait to start a class until you found somebody willing to host?

There are trade-offs in either direction. It is hard to get American church folk out of the mindset of hosting events at the building—especially for something like ESL classes. Starting one on campus may keep it from ever moving off. However, it is not impossible. I’ve seen churches that have existing ESL ministries slowly transition from the church building to a host home, but it takes a level of intentionality and a lot of communication with the volunteers involved as to why you’re doing it. These established ministries will, as I mentioned above, often use current students as a means to start in-home studies. Doing it this way will, for a time, mean you are essentially running two ministry strategies under the same ministry heading. You will be trying to facilitate a “come and see” ESL ministry on site with regular teachers as well as trying to work with in-home groups. By design, the in-home approach multiplies the number of groups, which means it multiplies the number of people needed to pull it off. This is good, but may stretch a church thin if they’re trying to run both consecutively.

However, the trade-off to waiting is just that… waiting. It may take a while to find someone willing to host a study in their home, and it is almost always easier to just launch an event at the church building to try snagging some “low-hanging fruit.” Neither approach is bad, but neither is perfect.

The trick to either, though, is training up church members to be good ESL teachers. This is key, and should be done before either approach really gets off the ground. With a ministry like ESL, there is a tightrope walk between teaching English and teaching the gospel. Teaching English without inserting the gospel is just charity; it’s not missions. And, teaching the gospel in an ESL class without actually teaching English well is deceptive. Maintaining both as part of the focus will rise and fall on the leaders, and that comes down to training them well. Choosing a curriculum is important, but so are facilitators who are as passionate about the gospel and making sure it weaves its way into the lessons.

And when it comes to in-home studies, you will want teachers who are more like trainers. They need to understand that the end goal is basically working themselves out of a job; that they are trying to build a small group or maybe even a new church plant. They are acting just like an overseas missionary in that regard, leading a discovery Bible study (in essence), calling people to faith, and hopefully establishing a small group or church. That takes thinking more like a missionary than an English teacher. And… it’s the answer to your last question.

How were you able to effectively teach in a small group setting to people of varying proficiency levels?

This is an important question as well, but the answer is easier than you might think. One of the core realities of in-home ESL instead of church-based is that the groups will (hopefully) have a wide range of proficiency. In a “come and see” model, most people will structure their classes around skill level. But in-home groups are intentionally structured around relationships, not skill. This is an added challenge for teaching, but a great benefit for gospel ministry.

The trick to doing English instruction well in this setting is thinking like a facilitator and not an instructor. The teacher is facilitating the process of everyone helping each other learn English (and learn the gospel). That is the key to the whole paradigm. As I said above, if your volunteers from the church view themselves as missionaries who are working themselves out of a job by training trainers, then they will see teaching a group with a spectrum of skill levels as an opportunity to help each member learn how to teach the person below them in skill level.

People from non-individualistic cultures (which include most non-Western ones), tend to get this intuitively. The whole class is about helping everyone in the class. And, we all know the best way to learn something is to teach it. Again, if we’re thinking like a missionary, we want more than English speakers at the end. We even want more than people that understand the gospel. We want people that can teach and lead others in it. Having a group where everyone is at different levels actually aids this process.

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