Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Some words of clarification are in order. First, working in English is no
substitute for speaking the national language or local dialect. While a person may
be able to bridge language barriers to some degree, people really need to hear the
message of love and grace in their own "tongue." Second, short-term workers are
no substitute for long-term workers. And, third, American Christians working in
foreign lands are no substitute for nationals working in their own country. While
Americans may not have the same potential for effective evangelism in a foreign
country, they certainly are capable of filling in the gaps which exist, i.e., before
there are national Christians or before the national Christians can prepare
themselves to be effective evangelists. Obviously, Americans working in foreign
countries bring certain risks and dangers with them, but most of us are convinced
that these may be minimized with appropriate preparation.
While teaching English as a tool for sharing one's faith is most
likely as old as the English language itself, the approach that the LET'S
START TALKING Project has taken in the last few years is unique in
modern times. In each of the almost eight years that my family and I
spent in Germany as full-time missionaries, we worked with student
mission groups from Christian colleges during the summers, normally
using the more traditional methods of employing English speaking
students in a non-English speaking country for evangelism. We sang in
the streets, used the students for mass literature distribution, visited
local high schools, even set up a puppet theater in heavily-trafficked
shopping areas and pantomimed the message with pre-recorded
In 1981, we combined the ideas of several people, both in the
States and in Germany, especially the work of Kieth Mitchell at the
World Trade Center in Manhattan during the 70's. We began to use
short-term American students to offer English conversation classes as a
Bible study method because we believed it had unusual potential with
non-English speakers and could be especially effective for Americans
working in non-English speaking countries.
Using English conversation classes for evangelism has been
successful not only for us, but for others who have copied the basic
structure of our program. LET'S START TALKING materials have
been imitated fairly broadly in the last few years. Many have copied the
idea and the semblance of our program, however, without the same
philosophical undergirding. I cannot speak for all "English programs."
My comments pertain solely to the LET'S START TALKING Project.
-1 We teach more people. One of the basic problems in any
mission field is how to come into contact with the people you want to
teach. In most foreign situations, certain barriers must be overcome:
language, customs and, perhaps the most difficult obstacle, status. By
this I refer to the barrier created by the term "missionary" or "Bible
teacher." An unusual curiosity about Americans will assist some people
in overcoming the barrier, but for many others, after initial contact, they
avoid us. Using an English language approach usually brings us into
contact with more people than we are able to assimilate into the
program. The language barrier is virtually non-existent and the cultural
differences are integral to the motivation for participation in the
program. The nationals want to be around Americans, they expect
different customs and, with short-term workers, the status question is
answered since a university student intends to be in the host country for
only a short period of time. Moreover, there are simply more people
interested in learning English than there are people interested in
learning about God. Therefore, you offer them what they want and
package it in such a way they get more than what they expect. The
comments we hear at the end of every summer are "I just came to learn
English, but I learned much more about myself and about God."
-2 We make contact with more unbelievers. This approach has
been especially productive in urban centers of post-Christian countries.
We began in northern Germany among a mostly skeptical, Protestant
community. As long-term missionaries, we had tried everything. We
can attest, however, that we came into contact with more unbelievers
with these English classes than we ever did with any other method. We
did adult education seminars, gospel meetings, children's works,
choruses, Bible correspondence courses, and camps. God blessed them
all, but nothing appealed to the "typical" German better than the
English classes which we offered. They tolerated the use of the Bible at
first, but many grew to appreciate it as the classes continued. We have
very few structured approaches that make any inroads with the truly
skeptical or culturally apathetic unbeliever.
-3 We create a non-threatening environment. We have
eliminated most of what I call "conversion tension." Conversion tension
occurs when the Christian is trying to cautiously, carefully, but
determinedly influence a non-Christian who is trying to graciously resist
the evangelistic effort. We offer people something they want! They
come to us. They volunteer to participate. They choose to continue.
Almost no one drops out because of dissatisfaction. We create a friendly
environment where it is natural for religious questions to occur, and,
when questions arise, we share what we know and what we have
experienced. Furthermore, we are committed to the student as a person,
not as a "contact." Our English classes are not bait. We deliver what
we promise to everyone, that is, a chance for them to practice their
English with a native English speaker, regardless of their further interest
in the Gospel.
-4 We work (as a rule) in one-on-one teaching situations. The
person-to-person element is absolutely important to our approach.
Without forming a relationship, there is really little basis for trust. To
touch the heart as well as the mind, a friendship between the two
participants is essential. Surprisingly, the bonds of a 6-week friendship
can be very strong. We have resisted the temptation to use group
classes, even in the countries where we might be able to enroll 10 times
as many people. Not that this is necessarily an invalid approach, but we
feel too many of the essential advantages are lost in group classes.
-5 We make a powerful impact. Public preaching certainly has
its place, but can never replace the personal testimony of a committed
Christian. The whole reason for being there is to tell what the Lord has
done for us, how He has had mercy on us.
-6 We see the development of genuine faith. We always begin
with the story of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. Many have heard of Him.
Most know the familiar stories of Christmas and Easter. We do not
focus on doctrine, on the church, or on the Christian life until the
person believes in the Jesus of the Gospel, not the Jesus of public
-7 We find students want to continue learning. We are very
concerned about follow-up. We begin by investigating the desires for
and plans of potential host sites for such follow-up. Then we design our
program to foster it. Two things have been discovered. First, the
interest in English, which was the original attraction, does not disappear
when the special campaign group leaves. The opportunity to continue
with English increases the chances of carryover from the special project
to the regular outreach of the local congregation. And, second, during
our projects, we have several social functions to which we invite all of
the local Christians as well as the students. At these functions, both
Christians and students have an opportunity to meet each other on
"neutral" ground. Here it is possible to become better acquainted than
is typically possible at "church" events.
-8 We are able to start new congregations. These short term
English projects accomplish several things. One of the best results is
planting new churches. For one missionary family to make initial
contact with enough people to start a congregation at the beginning of
a new work is a considerable challenge. And, if they are able to make
many initial contacts, it is more difficult for 1 or 2 missionaries to teach
all of them. A group of 4 to 5 short-term workers can not only contact
but also create interest among 100 people in six weeks! George
Winegart, who was beginning a new work in Muehlhausen, Germany,
said that the LET'S START TALKING Project set his work ahead five
years. The same can be said about many other places.
-9 We find short-term workers become long-term missionaries.
Our projects provide wonderful opportunities to "live" in another
culture for a few weeks, to come into contact with the nationals in a
congenial setting and to have intimate conversations with them. All of
this provides marvelous insight into the local mentality and milieu. We
have had moderate success in short-term workers becoming long-term
missionaries. The opportunity to see for themselves coupled with a
positive experience certainly increases the likelihood of a long-term
-10 We can encourage more mission activity among local
American churches. With the "aging" of America, more Christians
have time for travel, cruises, etc. This means more of us might be
willing to go to other cultures to share our faith. Churches can send
their own members to work for short periods of time with their long-
term missionaries. English language campaigns are a way for local
American churches to participate more personally in their foreign
mission work, thereby strengthening the home base support.
LET'S START TALKING has been used on every continent.
There are two situations in which this method might not be appropriate.
First, it would be very difficult where English is totally unknown.
Unless campaigners were trained ESL teachers, this would be an
insurmountable problem. Second, English speaking countries would
seem to be out of the question. However, we have had requests from
England and Australia for groups to come and work with immigrants.
This draws on the same interest that we have in this country among
international students on university campuses.
Certainly this strategy like all strategies has its own inherent set
of limitations. Nevertheless, the fact that fifty or more missionaries have
requested groups to conduct this kind of program, that these requests
represent opportunities in North American and Eastern Europe, in
South America and Asia, suggests that those on the field think it has
merit. It is only a method. Its day will pass like all other methods, but
for today it is useful and productive.
If the reader is interested in further information, write:
LET'S START TALKING
C/O Mark Woodward
Oklahoma Christian University
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73136
This site mirrors the JAM site at the ACU web site.
Mirrored by permission of ACU Missions Personnel
Direct questions and comments to Ed Mathews,
Last updated on February 4, 2013
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