As a reformed Christian, what sense am I supposed to make of the current ‘migrant crisis’? Whether I like it or not, and sometimes I don’t, people are on the move like never before, and most of them are coming to Europe. People are settling in our cities, our towns and our countryside, some seeking a better life and others fleeing war and violence.
The Office of National Statistics predicts that migrants, and the children born to them here, will add 10 million to our population over the next 25 years (bit.ly/migrantstats).
This can’t have taken the Almighty by surprise – we know that our sovereign God is Lord of the nations and that ‘He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands’ (Acts 17:26). So what is he doing?
We’ll never understand everything he’s doing, of course, but one thing is for sure — his sovereign stirring of the nations is giving opportunities to British churches that they could only have dreamed about fifty years ago. Back then, the only way to do cross-cultural gospel outreach was to send missionaries to distant lands. Today we should keep doing that, but we can also reach internationals in our own communities.
How? Through language. What has God already placed in our hands? When people arrive in our communities they want and need to learn the local lingua franca. They need English; they might also need Welsh. When members of Carey Baptist Church, Reading, asked local internationals what their church could do for them, some obvious things emerged. Top of the list were help with English, accommodation, jobs and experiencing a sense of community.
We’ve got what they need
It seems to me no coincidence that UK churches are full of competent English speakers, good sized rooms, photocopiers, mingling areas, practical people (to make tea), radiators and coat racks, teachy-types (to run classes), tea pots, Bibles, laptops and projectors, warm fuzzy-types (to develop relationships outside class), tables and chairs and Sunday services (where the gospel is explained). Stop me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t your church have most of those things? I’m not sure what that little lot looks like to you, but to me, it shouts out ‘Language Classes for Migrants’!
Picking up the tale in Reading again, the church started with a short ‘no-commitment’ pilot programme in 2008, trialling ESL [English as a Second Language] conversation classes for a few weeks, then had a cooling off period to evaluate them. Everyone was keen to continue, so regular classes got under way that September. Several hundred students from every country you can name have been through the doors since then.
Nearly a decade later, having been involved directly and in an advisory capacity with ESL outreaches run at several UK churches, here are four of the advantages of church-based English conversation classes as I see them. I won’t fully explain what I mean each time, but just throw these out there for you to think about.
Four good reasons
Firstly, every church member, no matter what their gifting, can get involved. Members can be welcoming faces on the doors, register students, teach classes, invite students home, pour tea, bring students to church events, photocopy worksheets, pour more tea, play with babies and help students when they come to church. And doesn’t every church member have a testimony to share? Just teach them to do it without big words.
Secondly, you only have to advertise once, then run good quality conversation classes. No more flyers. Sounds easy, I know, but believe me, run good classes and word just gets around. People come. People keep coming. Andrew brings Peter. They want what we have got (read that linguistically and spiritually, both apply). Please note that the operative words are ‘good quality’. And if you’re running a tight ship, students will be more than happy to pay a small fee, say £1 an hour, and will often ask you why you don’t charge more. The ministry pays for itself. The gospel, not the classes, should be offered freely.
Thirdly, people learn English, become Christians and find fellowship. A disclaimer here: not every student gets better at English, but most do and are hugely grateful. One Chinese lad, Oscar, just before returning to China, nearly reduced me to tears with his humbling expressions of gratitude to our teachers for bothering to help him. He was visibly moved too. All we did was share what was already in our hands. Not everybody becomes a Christian, at least, not straight away, but many do. Hearing testimonies, studying the Bible one-to-one or in small groups, going to evangelistic events and attending church are just some of the ways we’ve seen people come to faith. Anastasia, from Poland, struggled with the implications of the gospel in her own life for several years before ultimately being able to say, ‘Now I finally understand that the most important thing of all is Jesus.’ Of course, some students are already Christians, and their warmth and friendship add so much richness and depth to local church life.
Fourthly, engaging with people from other cultural and linguistic backgrounds holds a welcome mirror to our own face. We all want the local Iraqi family down the road to become Christians and join our church, don’t we? Certainly, but will our church be the welcoming place for them that we want it to be? Might we need to re-think a few things that we take for granted? Are we as hospitable as we should be from Monday to Saturday? How can we make our preaching clear as they listen in a second language? Aren’t we a bit obsessed with the clock? Are white Anglo melodies really the only kind of music God likes? Are we honestly going to throw out the lamb samosas our Iraqi friends have brought in because they weren’t prepared in our sterile kitchen?
For ‘barriers’ read ‘bridges’
To some extent, the use of English and Welsh in our churches constitute language barriers, which is precisely why migrants will come to classes, of course. Looked at another way, our languages are bridges, across which walks communication, warm welcome, human friendship and the message of the gospel. That’s why some of the English classes in Reading, are simply called ‘Bridges’.
And just to be clear, the traffic on these bridges, for those churches welcoming migrants in this practical and loving way, is always two-way traffic. Don’t think for a moment that churches making the most of ESL outreach opportunities will be unaffected themselves – they will be enriched and changed forever.