Showing posts in 'Working with Internationals Series'

International Bible studies: FAQs

Anne Woodcock | 20 Apr 2012

This final blog on running an international Bible study answers some “What ifs?”

What if...
…there are people of other religions?

Don’t panic. Some will know very little about their religion. Others who are devout will probably appreciate your convictions. All are sinners trying to earn salvation, without assurance of hope or forgiveness. They need the gospel. So don’t worry if you don’t know about other religions. Ask them about their beliefs as topics arise during the Bible-study. Having listened, you can then respond with something like:

“That’s interesting. The Bible/Jesus teaches something quite different…”

Talk about the Bible or Jesus rather than what “I think” or what “Christians believe”. Rather than demolishing their beliefs, allow the clear teaching of God’s word to challenge their worldview.

…no-one speaks?

Language problems: Do they understand the passage and questions? If yes, are they too unconfident to speak in English? Get them to work out answers in pairs before discussing as a group. Or perhaps your questions are too simple. As with Brits, they may be embarrassed to respond when an answer is blindingly obvious.

Cultural differences: Internationals from Asia or Africa often regard teachers as authority figures. Students should receive expertise from the teacher, and not question it. This makes people unwilling to ask questions or reveal their opinions, and stifles discussion! Point out often that questions are good because they help us learn. Emphasise that their questions or disagreement won’t offend you. Allow newcomers to watch discussions and question sessions. Hopefully they’ll see that queries are welcomed, and disagreements treated with gentleness and respect.

…you can’t understand what someone is saying?
It happens to all of us! You can: Apologise for failing to catch what was said. Ask them to repeat it. Ask them to write it down, if possible. Ask someone else who understands to explain. Sometimes nothing works! Laugh at your inability to understand (rather than their inability to communicate). Show admiration and sympathy for them in the difficult task of learning a foreign language.

…someone can’t understand what you say?

  • Plan (even write out) what you’ll say—not for reading out during the study, but to check how understandable your English is. Ask someone experienced in working with internationals to identify idioms and words that internationals might not know.
  • Write up unfamiliar words and phrases and give plenty of opportunity for questions.
  • Avoid asking: “Do you understand?’ People say yes, not wanting to appear inadequate or an inconvenience. Ask instead: “Is there anything that you would like me to explain?”
  • Recap lots and often.

Probably nobody will understand everything, but they’ll be happy if they understand most of the study and will enjoy interacting with you.

…you offend someone?
Is it something you’ve said, done or not done? Cross-cultural relationships are ripe with opportunities for misunderstanding. Perhaps someone else (from the same culture?) can enlighten you. Quickly apologise for any offence caused. Don’t criticise their culture or defend your way of doing things. Simply explain how most people will do or understand something in here. Remember, people of all cultures can understand and respond to an apology and friendliness.

But what if the offence comes from Bible truth? Check that they have correctly understood what’s been taught. But remember that the gospel both attracts and repels (2 Corinthians 2 v 15-16). People getting offended may indicate that God’s message is getting through, so be encouraged and keep praying for those who will be saved.

It’s our prayer that through international ministries such as friendship and Bible study, many of us will have the joy of bringing the gospel to “all nations”, right here on our own doorstep.

International Bible studies: Application and illustration

Anne Woodcock | 20 Apr 2012

In our last post we looked at how to speak, what words to explain and how to phrase questions. This time we address:

1. Application

It's best to avoid terms like “implications”, “significance” or “relevance”. Ask them: If this is true, do you need to change? How?

And don’t be afraid to ask how a particular application might be received in their culture—it helps you understand the influences and pressures that can affect their response to God’s word, and it helps them see how some parts of their culture might be at variance with God’s word.

For example, Jesus tells His followers not to store up for themselves treasures on earth but seek God’s kingdom first. Some people may conclude that the Bible is undermining a very important priority in non-Western cultures—the responsibility to bring as much prosperity as possible into your family. You would need to show that Jesus does not want his followers to ignore their family responsibilities, but neither should our family be the top priority and take the rightful place of God in our lives.

2. Your illustrations

It's a good idea to ask yourself if each illustration would be easily understood by someone from a different culture. An illustration that needs a lot of explanation loses its effectiveness, and may cause confusion. Avoid mentioning…

  • western politicians, sports stars or celebrities, unless they are hugely well known. In fact, with older people, or those from non-western societies don’t assume they’ll know even celebrities like David Beckham or Madonna.
  • news stories, TV programmes, or books / films—most language-learners don’t get into TV soaps or serials, go to the cinema or read in English for leisure, because it’s not relaxing to do these things in a second language.
  • British history, institutions or customs and phrases that come from them eg: D-Day, the football pools, cricket (for people from non-cricket-playing nations).

3. Prayer

Truly Christian prayer will come as a revelation to internationals from a non-Christianised background. It’s revolutionary­:

  • the idea that you can address God as your Father; the need to pray in the name of Jesus Christ
  • the fact that you have no set pattern of words, but can converse with God, much as you would with them
  • the lack of any holy place or posture or accompanying rituals
  • the content of truly Christian prayer, with its emphasis on seeking God’s glory, thanksgiving, confession and repentance, rather than simply a shopping list of requests.

Leading in prayer is a great thing to do at some point in an international Bible-study. Why not explain what you are about to do, especially if there are newcomers present? Reassure people that they don’t have to pray themselves if they don’t want to, but can simply watch. Keep prayers fairly short and simple—use words and truths that they have learned in the Bible study. You could pause after each sentence, allowing people to add silently their own prayers. Internationals don’t generally feel uncomfortable or get offended when Christians pray.

Finally, next time… FAQs

International Bible studies: Leading well

Anne Woodcock | 19 Apr 2012

In order to lead Bible studies well, you’ll need to give extra thought to how you ask questions, give illustrations, make applications and use words.

Think about...

1. How you speak

Speak slowly and clearly, but remember they’re language-learners—not deaf, nor children—so be careful not to speak with an exaggerated volume or intonation. Keep your face turned towards them and don’t hide your mouth behind your hands so they can lip-read as well.

2. Difficult words

When preparing, look carefully at the words and concepts that appear in the text which may not be understood (or correctly understood) by people whose first language is not English. Think about…

  • Names of Bible characters—even major ones like Abraham or Moses—or places or nationalities.
  • Special “Bible words”—for example, the phrases “born again” or “eternal life’’ would easily be misunderstood by someone from a religious background that teaches reincarnation. There are heaps of examples. Their meaning may seem obvious but people who are new to the Bible will need them to be repeatedly explained.
  • Everyday words that they probably won’t have come across, eg: “threshing floor” or “wounds”.

3. Your questions

  • First, people need to understand what the passage says before they can discuss if it’s true or what it means. So don’t skip the questions that ask what happened, why, who was involved, what responses there were etc.
  • Keep questions short and simple. If necessary, break one question into several. Eg: instead of asking: What is Paul’s understanding of God from Acts 17 and how does it differ from that of the Athenians? try phrasing your questions like this: What did the people in Athens believe about God (verse 23)? - Did Paul agree? - What did Paul say about God in the following verses? - v24 (2 things) - v25 (2 things)
  • With the question include the verse number where the answer is found. That’s because skim reading is a skill that requires quite an advanced level of English. This may feel like “spoon-feeding” but it’s a vital help for language-learners.
  • For a starter activity, you could relate the passage to people’s experiences. Eg: with the story of the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years, ask them how her condition would be handled in their culture. This helps you get to know people better, helps them feel that you’re interested in them, and perhaps highlights possible misunderstandings.
  • After reading the passage, find out what they really think: Does anything surprise you in this passage?
  • Stick to the passage if possible. Occasional cross-references are ok but not too many.
  • Don’t try to cover the whole gospel in one Bible-study—you won’t succeed anyway. It’s better that they understand one point clearly and want to know more, and so keep coming back.
  • Recap at the beginning; summarise at the end. Why? Because it’s much more difficult to remember what you’ve learned when you are doing it in a second language, and you’re also unfamiliar with the Bible.

Next time… illustrations, applications and prayer.

International Bible Studies: Choosing and using the Bible

Anne Woodcock | 19 Apr 2012

A. Choosing (what version?)

For most internationals (except university and post-grad students), a simplified translation of the Bible is best. The NIV may be suitable for students who have reached an advanced level of English (roughly corresponding with British university entry level). Otherwise, think about using one of the following:

  • New International Reader’s Version
  • New Century Version
  • Contemporary English Version


  1. A limited range of vocabulary— important, because 10 is said to be the maximum number of new words most people absorb effectively in a day. Having to plough through endless items of vocabulary can be demoralising for language-learners and reduces time for opening up the Bible’s message.
  2. Breaks up long sentences into bite-sized ones. Language-learners find it difficult to hang onto the “thread” of meaning in long, complex sentences (like some of Paul’s).


  1. Some simplified terms can be inadequate. On these odd occasions, teach the term that is familiar to English-speaking Christians.
  2. It’s harder to do poetic parts of the Bible (eg: Psalms) in a simplified version because the variety and richness of vocabulary is sacrificed for simplicity.
  3. Simplified Bibles are often “packaged” for children. Check the design of the Bible version you choose before buying.

Dual-language Bibles: Many internationals can get the Bible in their own language printed alongside the English version. Give them extra time to read the Bible passage in their own language as well. However, be aware that in some languages the most widely available translation may be quite archaic, so ironically, some internationals find the Bible easier in English. Dual-language Bibles usually use the NIV for the English part, so make sure that people read the English Bible in the simplified version that you’ve provided.

B. Using (helpful hints)

  • Give the participants a week's notice of what text you are going to be looking at, so they can familiarise themselves with the text and look up new words.
  • Go through the passage several times during the study. Eg:
    1. Slowly read your chosen section.
    2. Go over it, stopping to look at words and phrases where necessary.
    3. Read the section again, or what’s needed for the first question. Remember, even native English-speakers unfamiliar with the Bible need several looks at a passage before they can get the gist or find answers to questions.
  • Avoid “reading round” with different speakers for each verse. Reading English aloud can be stressful and even confident participants will focus on pronunciation rather than meaning.
  • Read the passage out slowly and clearly so that participants don’t get lost.
  • On your third reading you could get everyone to read slowly aloud together. This removes the stress of “performing” in front of the rest of the group, but allows everyone to take an active part in the study.

International Bible studies: Getting started

Anne Woodcock | 18 Apr 2012

So how do we go about starting a Bible study group with internationals?

A. Think about what sort of Bible study to do.

Evangelistic or Christian teaching? A Bible book or a topic? Starting with Genesis or Jesus? The “big picture’” or verse by verse? These questions can help you:

  • How long are your international friends around for? Just for the summer (eg: younger language students)? It’s best to offer a repeat programme of short courses introducing Christianity. Three years or more (eg: uni students and ex-pat workers and families)? Aim to cover a whole gospel. Possibly for ever (eg: economic migrants and asylum seekers)? Build relationships that will encourage them to take part in an on-going Bible-study group.
  • What’s the majority level of English? A Bible overview, topical study or “big picture” approach, involving large amounts of Bible text or lots of cross-references, will be difficult for those with only basic English. Better to stick to stories or one chunk in “bite-size” pieces.
  • What background do they come from? Are they mostly Christianised? (Even so, don’t assume they’re knowledgeable about the Bible, or key Christian concepts). Is everything about Christianity completely new to them. Or have they been given a distorted view of Christianity? For complete beginners, the first chapters of Genesis, the life of Jesus or a suitable evangelistic course are good options. Think carefully about how you explain concepts like God or sin (more on this later).
  • What life-stage have your participants arrived at? For a long-term Bible-study group where the level of English is not too basic you might consider looking at something relevant to their particular situation. For married women with children, you could study what the Bible says about marriage or the role of women? Young single people may respond to a Bible-study on the purpose of life (Ecclesiastes) or a look at the future (Revelation)?

B. Think about the structure of your group.

  • Keep groups small. Language-learners are often nervous about speaking, and this is more difficult if the group is large. 6 people or fewer is probably ideal, but those with very basic English may need one-to-one Bible study, or someone who can translate as necessary.
  • Differing levels of English. This may make it difficult to teach everyone together. If possible, draft in some extra English-speakers to help you. You can start and finish the group together, but split into smaller groups or pairs—each with one native English-speaker as a helper—to look at the passage.
  • Mixed or single-sex groups? Mixed groups won’t be a problem for young people and Europeans. With older people, Asians, Muslims etc. it can be more effective to divide into male and female groups.

In particular, older men from cultures where seeing to be proficient is important are often reluctant to speak English in front of others for fear that their mistakes will cause them to “lose face”. Small single-sex groups or one-to-ones with British men who will work hard to build good relationships with these men are key.

International Bible studies: Are they worthwhile?

Anne Woodcock | 18 Apr 2012

Once you’ve got to know one or more internationals, why not offer them an English-language Bible study, in a group or one to one? We’re going to look at the practicalities of how to do this. But first, there are a couple of reservations about international Bible studies that are worth addressing.

A. Isn’t it better that people learn the Bible in their own language?

Even with a high degree of fluency in an additional language like English, most people understand most effectively what is communicated in their “mother tongue”. However, for many nationalities in Britain, there are few, if any, churches, Bible-studies or even Christians ministering in their first language. This is true of even major nationalities, eg: Japanese.

Also some internationals may actually prefer an English-speaking group, even when one in their own language is available.

  • Some want to investigate Christianity away from the watchful eye of others in their community. Ex-pat communities can be claustrophobic, with news travelling fast back to friends and family.
  • Some have had bad experiences with Christians in their own country, but are still intrigued by the Christian message. An English-speaking Bible-study allows them to investigate further free from pressure.
  • For those who are wary of Christianity, an English-speaking group can qualify as a sort of cross-cultural contact, educating members in the customs and culture of the host country, and therefore less likely to provoke criticism from family or colleagues.
  • A Bible-study in English can attract language students, keen to practise and improve their English. Learning English may not be the best reason for doing Bible-study but it’s an opportunity for contact with God’s word.

B. Is it really possible to teach different cultures in one group?

One-to-one Bible studies are probably the best of way of bringing the gospel to an international friend. Everything can be tailored to your friend’s level of English-language and Bible knowledge, their situation and their questions. However, it can seem intimidating—there’s no one else to answer the questions!

The social side of a group will attract some people. Also you can share this ministry with other British Christians. However, unless you have a large ex-pat community of one nationality in your area, it’s likely that your group will include a mix of races.

Obviously there are differences between people of different cultures—different religions, different ways of learning; different understandings of God, sin, or Christianity; different experiences that affect their responses. But there are more things common to all of us. The Bible addresses human nature and experience, and never confines its message to just one culture.

What’s key is your relationship with the group members. Friendliness, warmth, interest, humility, gratitude, respect and compassion are easily communicated cross-culturally. Once a relationship of trust is established, cultural differences become a source of fascination and fun.

This afternoon we turn to setting up and running an English-language Bible-study group for internationals.

Ministry with Internationals: Chatting across the language barrier 2

Anne Woodcock | 17 Apr 2012

Once we have overcome our worries, how can we ensure we are clear? In this post we'll be looking at helpful ways of speaking to language-learners.

A. Keep things simple and direct, especially for those whose English is basic. Sounds obvious but “simple and direct” can feel a bit intrusive and impolite. We often tend to be circumspect when talking to people we don’t know—we multiply words!

We may like:        They would prefer:
I guess you live locally, do you?        Where do you live?
I can’t quite work out where you’re from.        Where are you from? or What is your nationality?
So you’re here to study or…?        Are you a student? (followed by: What do you study?)

B. Be ready to ask plenty of questions. It’s more difficult for language learners to construct questions, so you are responsible for driving the conversation. Usually open questions (what/where/who/how/ why) are preferable to closed questions (yes/no). But for basic-English speakers it’s best to ask a closed question first (it’s easy for them to answer) and then follow up with an open question:

Are you a student? (Yes) then… What do you study?
Or… (No) then… Do you have a job? Followed by… What do you do?

C. Give them time. Don’t be afraid of a bit of silence. Smile encouragingly. After a moment ask: Do you understand? If they don’t, repeat the question… or change it to something simpler… or write it down… or get someone to translate.

D. Don’t be put off by short answers. For example: Is this your first time here?—Yes. Unfortunately, in English this kind of “blunt” answer usually suggests lack of interest or dislike. We prefer to multiply words: Yes, it is actually, yes. (Five words in place of one!) Language learners answer “bluntly” not because they dislike you but because it’s easier!

E. Answer your own questions. If you’ve asked where they live, let them answer and then explain where you live. This avoids a one-sided interrogation. It keeps the conversation going and the language-learner finds out about you without having to formulate questions themselves.

F. Have a pen and notebook handy. Invaluable! You can write down names, or words/phrases they don’t understand. They can write stuff that you can’t understand. Also useful for contact details, maps etc.

G. Get another Christian to join in. To keep the conversation going when you run out of things to say. To pick up words that you fail to understand because of foreign pronunciation. To explain something more clearly when you can’t make yourself understood. To become a second British friend. And to pray with you for this person.

Now, all these tips may make you feel it’s too tricky to talk to any international. If that’s you, then let me reassure you that nothing is more valuable than gospel-hearted love for others and prayerful dependence on God. These will get you through any number of misunderstandings, miscommunications and cross-cultural crises.

So, why not go find someone from overseas and get stuck in?

Ministry with Internationals: Chatting across the language barrier 1

Anne Woodcock | 17 Apr 2012

Perhaps you’d like to get talking with someone from overseas but there are all sorts of things you worry about:

  • Will I offend them because I don’t know their culture?
  • What can I talk about?
  • What if they don’t understand me?
  • What if I can’t understand them?

For starters, what attitudes will help us overcome some of these worries? Here are my tips…

A. I don’t need to know lots about a person’s culture or religion before I befriend them. We’re certainly both human beings and most likely we share the same gender. So what we have in common significantly outweighs our differences. Both of us are made in God’s image… have fallen short of his glory… respond to warm, loving relationships… fear death… look for meaning in our lives… feel guilty about wrong-doing… and can be redeemed through Jesus Christ.

View this friendship as a journey of discovery about another culture or religion. Listen carefully, watch closely and be kind. Most people love to guide someone through their traditions and customs. And as they share their values, we can do the same. Our ignorance of someone’s beliefs becomes a wonderful opportunity to talk about spiritual matters. Ask questions about their religion; then show them how it compares with the Christian good news.

B. My relationship with this person could be hugely significant. It’s quite possible that I’m the only native Brit to befriend them. Most language students only ever meet English-speakers in a professional capacity and their friends are all foreign language-learners like themselves. Ex-pat communities provide much of what their fellow-countrymen need, resulting in little contact with Brits, let alone friendships. More importantly, I may be the first real Christian that this person has met. So we have both a tremendous opportunity and incentive to get to know them.

C. However stressful it is for me to talk to a language-learner, it’s far more stressful for them. They may struggle to formulate questions and answers in English, or to make themselves understood. They may feel ashamed of their lack of English, and confused about what this new culture expects of them. They will feel frustrated that they can’t express themselves adequately. Like you they fear being embarrassed.

If you’ve ever tried to use rusty foreign-language “skills” on holiday abroad, you’ll understood the pressure and panic caused by attempting even basic conversations in a second language. But despite this, for most language-learners, a conversation with a native English-speaker is a real bonus.

D. Don’t underestimate the value of compassion, a servant heart, and a self-deprecating sense of humour. These will get us through most of the misunderstandings and odd embarrassments that can occur in cross-cultural relationships. Internationals are human too—like us they respond to kindness, apologies and the funny side of things.

Ministry with Internationals: The world on our doorstep

Anne Woodcock | 16 Apr 2012

Not so long ago western Christians had to travel to take the gospel to nations of the world. These days English is the international language of choice for commerce, IT, academics, politics and diplomacy. And the world comes to us. So Christians in English-speaking countries have amazing opportunities to reach the world for the gospel without having to move anywhere.

You may think that you live in a predominantly “white British” area. I live in a small London suburb that looks like that. But a local church ministry to internationals here has made contact with more than 30 different nationalities! How many nations could be reached on your doorstep, by your church, in your local community?

This week on the blog we're going to look at how we can encourage one another to get involved in ministry with the international community living near each of us.

What internationals might be living in your community?

The first step is to identify the communities near you. Perhaps there are international uni students here for three or more years. Or English-language students visiting for a few months. There will be asylum seekers, ex-pat workers, au pairs, migrants recruited to fill employment gaps, and those travelling the world. Look out for ethnic grocery stores; community noticeboards advertising English classes and interpreting services; non-English-speaking parents at the school gate.

Making contact with internationals

It’s not easy for internationals to make friends with British people. Some live here for years but never enter a British home or eat home-cooked British food. Brits tend to be polite but reserved, and many of us are anxious about talking to someone who has limited English or a heavy foreign accent. (If that’s you, look out for our upcoming article on “Crossing the language barrier” tomorrow.) If you befriend an international—welcome them into your home, share food and traditions with them, take an interest in their culture and custom—most will be delighted to get to know you.

Ideas to get you started:

  • School’s a great place for befriending internationals. Unless they have a high level of English, internationals find it difficult to join in with a group conversation, so it’s easy for them to get left out of parents’ friendship groups.
  • If you regularly visit a cafe or restaurant, or a hospital or care home, make a point of chatting to a non-British worker there. Who knows where your conversations might lead?
  • Check what’s going on in your local area. How about opening up your home to language students during the summer-school season? Or inviting international students at Christmas? Are there local support groups that need volunteer help?
  • Church ministries can be helpful and attractive to international people: children’s clubs, pre-school groups, school-holiday activities, cafes or drop-in centres, and social events—especially those centred on food or important dates in the calendar, like Christmas.
  • Perhaps you could start up something yourself: cookery classes related to your own culture; a free English-conversation group; a club that arranges outings and social events for internationals.

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