Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 4, Number 1


Teaching English as a Tool of Evangelism

Mark Woodward
Oklahoma Christian
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 German-language scripts.

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 opinion.

  • -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 commitment.

  • -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:
    C/O Mark Woodward
    Oklahoma Christian University
    Box 11000
    Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73136

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