Churches can reach communities by offering literacy programs

Churches can reach communities by offering literacy programs

By Beverly Sansom
Special to The Alabama Baptist

Have you ever been to a foreign country whose language you did not know? Remember how awkward you felt and perhaps how you compensated so others would not suspect your insufficient skills?

Low-level readers face this awkwardness every day. Most adults who are struggling readers hide it very well. They do not want to be embarrassed. More than 36 million adults in the U.S. are functionally illiterate. They are in the neighborhood around your church. Some may be sitting in your Bible study classes or church services.

We define someone as functionally illiterate when their reading, writing or computational skills make it difficult for them to function in everyday life. This person performs under a fifth grade level. It is difficult for the functionally illiterate to fill out a job application, read memos from work, decipher notes from a child’s teacher, help their child with homework and read the Bible.

Cycle of despair

Low-level readers often harbor one or more of these feelings: fear, powerlessness, being unlovable, failure, despair and depression. They often withdraw from society and give up easily. It is not unusual for them to have a poor self-image and feelings of inferiority. This can perpetuate itself in a cycle of despair, which can result in dysfunctional behavior and characteristics. Low-level readers usually have limited social and cultural experiences.

There are ways the local church can support struggling adult readers. For example, if they attend services or Bible study, train church leaders not to call on anyone to read aloud unless agreed upon in advance privately. Do not “read around in a circle.” It is not unusual for illiterates to drop out of church when public reading is required. Following the written order of service or singing new hymns is challenging.

Churches can proactively reach out to low-level readers by providing tutoring for a child whose parents are unable to help them at home. The church also can begin adult literacy classes. The local church can become a tutoring and literacy center to reach out to its members and the community. Such a ministry meets felt needs and conveys the love of God.

Faith-based ministries use the Bible as a reading source. This opens the door for life changes which go beyond the temporal.

Beginning a church-based literacy program requires several steps. First pray and then survey the community needs. One may search online for census data that reveals the county literacy rate.

Second gain the church’s approval and support of leadership. A literacy ministry needs a broad base of ownership. It can’t just be “Sara’s thing.” It will need modest funding, space allocation and volunteer directors/tutors. Funding is needed for training tutors and purchasing student and tutor books. The “Laubach Way to Reading” series from New Readers Press is an excellent and economical resource.

Training of interested volunteer tutors needs to be scheduled.

Interest needs to be generated in the community through flyers in public places with a simple message. It also is possible to place a sign outside a church saying, “Need to improve your reading? Call (insert church phone number) to begin.” Free radio or TV spots are another possibility.

Literacy center

Dawson Memorial Baptist Church, Birmingham, recently opened a literacy center. Susan and Alicsina have been meeting for almost four months. Alicsina is excited and proud of the work she’s doing and how much she has accomplished during their time together. Her desire is to obtain her GED so she can prove to her children that, with hard work, you can overcome obstacles and do the seemingly impossible.

Susan got started as a tutor because her church was opening The Learning Center. She had a desire to help people and wanted to make a difference. She always leaves encouraged by her time with Alicsina — who never lets them start a lesson without prayer. Their relationship has become a ministry to her and is as beneficial to Susan as it is to Alicsina.

‘To the least of these’

Churches have an opportunity to see lives changed by reaching out to the functionally illiterate in their community with sensitivity and practical resources.

These words from Jesus are an impetus: “I was in prison (also could be the prison of illiteracy) and you came to Me … whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done it unto Me” (Matt. 25:39–40).


The Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions is sponsoring a literacy missions conference at its office July 27–28.

For more information contact Kristy Kennedy at or 1-334-613-2311.

For online details and registration, visit