How do you make ESOL members feel a full part of the fellowship?

If you find yourself with those who speak a second language in your midst, how can you minister to them faithfully? Are there any ways you can include them more fully in the life of the church, even if you can’t speak their language? Here are some simple suggestions:

Spend time with them

As with anyone, the easiest and best way to help ESOL people feel a full part of the fellowship is to spend time with them. Of course, it’s easier to spend time with people like you. Conversation is just much easier with people who speak your language and come from your culture. But if we are to include people fully in the life of the church, we have to spend time with them.

Don’t just target people who are native English speakers because it’s easy. Purpose to go after those who don’t speak your language or who have limited English. It may be harder work but everybody can recognise when people are making the effort because they want to welcome them. People can tell when you are doing what you can to get to know them as you’re able. The easiest way to help people feel a part of the fellowship, which costs very little, is to simply spend time with them.

Sing some songs in their language

We have a lot of Farsi-speaking Iranians in our congregation. So, periodically, we sing songs in Farsi. How do we do it? We take very well known hymns, put the word into Farsi and Finglish (Farsi written in English script) and then we sing together. We should be able to figure out what we’re singing because we know the hymn and can read it in English in our hymn books. The Iranians know what they’re singing because it’s in Farsi. This is a simple and easy way to include those who speak another language in your service.

Let people pray in their own language

During our service, we have a time of open prayer. At the top of the segment, we tell people that they may pray in their mother tongue and we will add our ‘Amen’ to theirs. This is the easiest way to include people in your service. They are able to pray, adding their voice to the service just like everyone else, without the need for anything to happen in order to facilitate it. Whilst there are large sections of our congregation who are built up through such prayers, we are also encouraged as – somewhat surprisingly – you can pick up occasional words and work out what they are praying about. Whilst we may not know all they are saying, the Lord certainly does, our Iranian brethren do and we can grasp hold of the broad picture simply by listening out for the occasional word highlighting it.

Have the Bible read in other languages

If you only have one group of ESOL speakers in your congregation, this is particularly easy. You just have two readings. If you have more than one language present, you can rotate the language spoken up front for the reading. This ought to be no problem if everyone has Bible’s open in their own language to follow what is being said (or it is projected on a screen at the front). This will include different voices from the front and help people to feel fully included.

Translate as much as possible

The hardest, but best, way to include people is to translate as much of what you do as possible. Now, unless you have degree-level English speakers who are native in the language you are going to translate into, this is always going to be imperfect. It is also fair to say that it is not always practicable to translate everything – just try translating an open, free-flowing community group discussion and you will struggle.

But the more you can translate, the more people will feel included. Sermons and anything didactic are generally easy to translate. Ideally, you can do this with simultaneous translation equipment, this way everyone can sit together as part of the same congregation and listen to the same sermon. Otherwise, you can do alternate translation. This takes a lot longer but it is doable and it still keeps everyone together. There are other ways to do this but these ways keep folks together whilst things are being translated.

Bring them into meaningful roles in the church

Whilst there are lots of things that need to be in place to get to this point, one way to show that everyone is welcome on an equal footing is to bring ESOL people into church leadership. Depending on how your diaconate is constituted, it might be quite easy to get somebody overseeing an area of church service. After all, you don’t need great language skills to keep your eyes peeled on the fabric matters on the church building. But if you have guys who have reasonable English and you are able to pour into them, what is to stop you getting someone onto your diaconate?

If you want folks to feel like they are as included as anybody else, it certainly helps to get folks like them onto your leadership. That may not be possible right now for various reasons, but it would be a good thing to make it a stated long-term aim and refer to it often, making clear that you want to see those from different backgrounds and cultures on your leadership.