How Altoona Alliance Church creates a welcoming environment for its ESL students

A Welcoming Church for ESL Students: Learning from Altoona Alliance Church

Mar 20, 2024 | Blog, Churches, Dashboard, Stories

Many U.S. churches face rapidly diversifying demographics that bring up challenging questions about how to be welcoming in such an environment. Altoona Alliance Church discovered this profound issue as they started their ESL ministry to serve the international community in their city. The growing presence of multilingual speakers unveiled the deep need for their predominantly English-speaking congregation to remove barriers that prevented full participation and connection.

We spoke with Pastor Tim McGarvey, Senior Pastor at Altoona Alliance Church, to learn more about their journey of becoming a welcoming church where internationals can understand and know God’s love.

Background: About Altoona Alliance Church

Altoona Alliance Church is located in Altoona, Pennsylvania, a small city with a population of around 43,963 people (source: US Census 2020). The church is a member of the Christian & Missionary Alliance (C&MA), a denomination full of believers who long to introduce God’s love to all nations. Founded in 1881 by Pastor A. B. Simpson, the denomination now comprises around 2,000 churches across the U.S.

Altoona Alliance Church building

Altoona Alliance Church building. (source)

The Rev. Frederick Senft started Altoona Alliance Church in 1891 and it is one of the longest-standing churches in the city. Its values are centered on Acts 1:8 with a mission to discover how God changes lives. The church offers several ministries that serve the needs of its community, including AAC Youth, Altoona Alliance Mentoring Program (AAMP), AWANA Clubs (Children’s ministry), Men’s and Women’s Ministries, Sunday Morning Groups, and Altoona English Culture & Club (ECC).

How did they include ESL students in the church?

Pastor Tim shared that the church started the Altoona English Culture & Club around six years ago. The program offers free ESL classes for those with limited English proficiency as well as conversational and citizenship classes every Monday night. Around 30 adults attend with their their children to help them easily communicate with each other and get jobs, study for school, and pursue citizenship.

As these classes are held at the church, some students would naturally ask to join worship services and be part of the community. Unfortunately, since the service is conducted in English, most of them struggled to understand it. Pastor Tim asked an ESL student from Ukraine how much of the service he understood. The man answered only 40%.

Pastor Tim explained how this drove him to find a solution:


We sing songs in English, we read the scripture in English, we pray in English, and I preach in English. And that’s a problem if the people that are coming either can’t read English or they have a struggle with conversation and picking up everything. So we thought we gotta do something to help them understand it.


Altoona Alliance Church creates a welcoming church by offering ESL classes and inviting students to join its church service.

Altoona ECC’s ESL class for beginners. (source)

Reflecting on a previous mission trip to Portugal, Pastor Tim noted the struggles he also had in communicating with the local community due to the language difference. 

Because Altoona Alliance didn’t have volunteers who could translate the worship service, Pastor Tim and his team decided to search for a translation system. This led them to, a platform that offered real-time captions and translation in multiple languages.

The impact of multilingual services

Through, Altoona Alliance now offers Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic translations. After a one-month trial to pilot the system in their services, Pastor Tim noted how much they love because it doesn’t require lot of people to manage the translations. Using volunteers interpreters would have been very difficult to recruit, train and sustain. solved this barrier for them.

The first week they launched the translation proved to be a success. Pastor Tim highlighted one heartwarming story from a Spanish-speaking couple from Nicaragua who, after struggling to understand the service for two weeks, could fully comprehend everything thanks to

“…when the gentleman was leaving with his wife, he looked at me, and he says, ‘Pastor Tim!’ and he gave me the thumbs up, [and] that just thrilled my soul. It thrilled my heart. So, that is a great image and story that I won’t forget,” said Pastor Tim.

The translation brought joy to the Spanish-speaking families who attended the service in person and online:


I loved the message of the preaching.



– Obando

Altoona Alliance Church, PA



Thank you very much!

We [will] see you [on] Sunday!


– Wil and Nere

Altoona Alliance Church, PA


This initiative not only helps multilingual speakers understand the service but also preserves their identities and native languages. Pastor Tim shared, “…we want to encourage them to be very comfortable in who they are and where they’re from. But we also want to provide for them help so that while they’re here as guests to our country, we can still help them to succeed.”

How benefits Altoona Alliance Church and its community

The success of implementing’s translation has enhanced their worship experience and deepened their community’s sense of belonging. Pastor Tim shared his excitement about with members of Saturate Altoona, a pastor’s network in the city, and the district leader of the C&MA in Western PA. And he even proposed the possibility of providing translation in some of their conferences to the national office.

Saturate Altoona, a group of pastors from various churches in the city, during a Sunday morning prayer.

Saturate Altoona, a group of pastors from various churches in the city, gather every Sunday morning for a prayer. (source)

As more churches are navigating the language needs of their community, Pastor Tim emphasized the importance of welcoming internationals to their church:


This whole thing with ESL has opened my eyes to the many people that God has brought to our city and has put at our doorstep…there’s a verse in Leviticus 19 that says when a foreigner comes to your land, you should love them, and you should do them no harm, and you should treat them like family. And so that has been my marching orders for the last six years and as well as our team when these foreigners come to our land and come to our doorstep.


Pastor Tim encourages other church leaders who are still unaware or unsure about this transformation to start reaching out to their international community. He suggests they offer ESL classes or provide translations during services and invite them to their respective churches. “…for us, it has been a real blessing. Like I said, all you have to do is get somebody leaving the church with a big smile on their face and it’ll be worth it,” shared Pastor Tim.

Altoona Alliance Church’s experience of embracing language access to become a welcoming church ensures that language is no longer a barrier to faith, fellowship, and belonging.

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