Sign language is the fifth-largest minority language in the United States, but those who use it are often overlooked by the church.
In the United States alone, as many as 2 million deaf individuals are unable to listen to church sermons or speak with members of their congregation.
The Evangelical Free Church of America reports that "about 20 percent of Americans have some level of hearing loss," according to Dr. Marguerite Dartt, an Arizona-based audiologist.
"Deaf individuals have such severe hearing loss that they cannot be helped with hearing aids or cochlear implants, and they communicate through American Sign Language (ASL)," she said.
Because of this language barrier, many of the deaf are unable to participate in the church. Another reason is oftentimes churches don't always know how to incorporate deaf ministries into the church body, or don't have the means and resources to do so.
The EFCA is working to change that and give other churches help and ideas for implementing ways to reach the deaf. They have three approaches that churches can adopt.
According to their website, "The first approach – requiring only minimal funding – implements specialized technology so that the deaf and hard of hearing feel more connected to your church."
These include: installing telecoils loops in auditoriums, which will allow many hearing aids and implants to pick up anything spoken into a microphone; providing FM pocket receivers, to permit the hard of hearing to listen in on services; and using open captions for all sermons, songs and announcements.
Social media and text messaging are also good ways of staying in touch with deaf members of a congregation.
The second approach takes a bit more commitment, and involves hiring or training hearing signers who can interpret sermons, songs or classes at the church.
The EFCA's website says that while these steps are important, the church also has to realize that the deaf have their own culture. "Consequently, language translation alone is not fully adequate to carry out a comprehensive ministry," it states.
Their third approach implements both hearing signers and deaf leaders to provide "a church within a church," and reach the deaf within their own culture.
In Oklahoma City, Okla., an EFCA church called The Gathering has a large ministry called The Expressive Deaf Ministry. The congregation has many deaf or hearing impaired members in their church and they have certified sign language interpreters that praise with the worship team and stand alongside the minister during the sermon to sign the message.
Lead Pastor Ray Hollis and his wife, Jan, have two children who are deaf and hearing impaired. Jan Hollis is the main interpreter during Sunday morning sermons and an instructor for sign classes.
But training church members to become ASL interpreters is a commitment, often taking a number of years. Although learning basic sign language can take as little as six weeks to learn.
According to the EFCA website, "Unlike most 'foreign' languages, American Sign Language does not conjugate verbs or inflect adjectives; however, there is not always a word-for-word equivalence with spoken English, and the word order in an ASL sentence may vary from its English equivalent."
"The fields are white and ready for harvest, but to reach the deaf, we must learn their language," Pastor Hollis said.