Missouri Baptists break language barrier, take Gospel to four corners of the globe
By Bob Baysinger
September 28, 2004
SPRINGFIELD – God confounded the language of the earth, as recorded in Genesis 11, creating a communication barrier that exists today.
Several Missouri Baptist churches – especially Second Baptist Church, Springfield – are attempting to break down that barrier using the English as a Second Language (ESL) ministry.
“The mission of the literacy ministry of Second Baptist Church is to use language communications as a tool of evangelism, with emphasis on worship, serving and going,” explained Bill Payne, a Second Baptist member who heads the church’s ESL ministry.
Enrollment in the ESL program at Second Baptist fluctuates, running as high as 80 during the school year.
“We lose a few students in the summer time, but that is all right because we need to give our teachers some time off. Most of the teachers work regular jobs and do this during the evening. Most are quite serious about what they do,” Payne said.
“Our teachers really get involved with the students, taking them to restaurants and different venues to show them cultural differences. The teachers really make an investment in their lives.”
ESL participants are required to complete a 16-hour training course to qualify as a teacher. Maryetta Dennis, a member of First Baptist Church, Springfield, helps train the teachers.
“We (teachers) are supposed to have a Scripture before every class,” Dennis said. “During the class we can make comments such as, ‘This is a beautiful day God has given us.’ We do this in subtle ways and hopefully after we build a trust with the students, we can share the Gospel with them. Hopefully, they will want to know more.”
Dennis said there are now 21 ESL ministries across Missouri, with 291 students statewide and 117 volunteers.
Payne said most of the students are Hispanic.
“We tell them right up front that we prefer to just speak English in the classes,” he said. “We all pick up some of the students’ language over time, but it is better to use only English when teaching.
“We have a marvelous Hispanic lady who loves to teach. She converses with the students in Spanish, and her students, I would say, are the slowest at learning English.”
Most of the students who enroll in ESL programs have a very limited English vocabulary, Payne said.
“Sometimes they are illiterate – even in their own language,” Payne explained. “Some may have only a third or fourth grade education. We’re seeing quite a number of men like that.
“There was one fellow who was about 70 years old. He would be considered illiterate both here and in Mexico. His parents brought him to the United States when he was just a toddler. He worked as a migrant farmer and never attended any classes. We’re working with him. It’s a big challenge.
“They are so grateful for anything you do for them. They know if they learn English here, they are going to improve their economic status considerably. This makes them more open to a personal testimony.”
Second Baptist has now extended its ESL ministry internationally.
“We’ve got a team that will be leaving in January going to Sudan,” Payne said. “It will be an all-ladies team. They are going to Khartoum to work in a tea house ministry the International Mission Board (IMB) has started.
“Tea houses in Khartoum are a haven for women. Our women will be teaching ESL and others will be doing crafts and aerobics – all with the intent of sharing the Gospel.”
The international reach of Second Baptist’s ESL ministry has also touched China.
“We have been working with a family that came to Springfield from Mexico,” Payne said. “We helped them with their English, and now they’ve gone to China as Mexican Baptist missionaries. It’s kind of scary, but they’re going to China to teach English as a second language.”
Mark Kelly, a spokesman for the IMB, said ESL is serving as a tool to get many missionaries into foreign countries.
“Many short-term missionaries are working on projects at universities in other countries,” Kelly said. “The host countries value the English language and want their people to speak more English because it is good for business.
“That gives Christians an opportunity to be in the country to provide a service that is valued and also develop relationships. Many times these relationships open opportunities to share God’s love and salvation.
Kelly said more and more churches are taking the IMB model and applying it in the U.S.
“People don’t have to have a high degree of training to teach ESL,” Kelly said. “Most anybody who speaks English can teach ESL. The materials are inexpensive and it is a tremendous ministry for churches in the United States.
“Church construction used to be the big deal everybody turned toward for overseas mission trips. Teaching ESL now is an arena where there is a lot of opportunities to serve.”