Skip Navigation Links
Seeking God?

Visit this room to learn how to advance Christ's mission in Canada and abroad

English Exchange
Christians who use English language instruction as a pretext for missionary work are drawing criticism from some observers.

A student in China dreams of a job that will make the most of her interest in science and technology. She struggles with English through grade school until she reaches university, where a professionally trained English language teacher brings the words to life for her. Her success opens the door to a good government job once she graduates. She sends any surplus money to her parents, who, in turn, are able to purchase mechanical irrigation which allows them to double their crop yield.

A Lithuanian taxi driver takes free English classes offered at a local church by a North American missionary. Soon his improved fluency helps him drum up more business with visiting tourists. He is able to put his son through school and enhance the quality of life in his family for generations to come.

The global demand for English skills is growing dramatically. According to SIL International's Ethnologue, more than half a billion people in 100 countries around the world speak English. The growing influence of Western culture and the predominance of English in the global arena are fuelling demands for English language skills and teachers.

Christians have long been among those interested in filling the need. For some, teaching English seems to be a natural tent-making activity, a good way to pay the bills while creating opportunities to be a witness for Christ. It seems to require little training—in some cases a native accent is all that's needed. English teachers can sometimes acquire visas for countries where religious proselytizing is forbidden. Even in countries where access is not an issue, teaching English is viewed as an effective way to get an audience.

But Christians who use English language instruction as a pretext for missionary work are drawing criticism from some observers. The critics condemn those who use the English teacher's podium as a pulpit for Christian beliefs as undermining the ethics of the profession, especially in countries where Christian missionaries are not welcome.

The article, "The Stealth Crusade," published in the alternative investigative magazine Mother Jones, questions the ethics of Christians who carry out evangelism while masquerading as something else. The article quotes one missionary leader telling his students that Jesus didn't lie—but he didn't necessarily tell the whole truth. Likewise, the missionary said they should find an activity—like teaching English—that can mask their true purpose.

Julian Edge, chair of the TESOL Association publications committee (teaching English to speakers of other languages), echoes that criticism in articles he's written for professional English language instructors. In "Imperial Troopers and Servants of the Lord" featured in TESOLQuarterly, Edge denounces those who say the end of saving souls justifies the means of deception and manipulation. He said he is "bewildered, and finally repelled, by the morality of the stance being taken."

These are charges that beg for a response, and Christian English language instruction professionals are beginning to answer. To start, they acknowledge that some of the criticism is valid as it applies to organizations that view English language instruction as simply a tool to get around government regulations.

Bill Acton, PhD, director of the new Masters of Arts in TESOL program at Trinity Western, agrees. With 20 years' experience teaching English and training English teachers at Nagoya University of Commerce and Business in Japan, Acton says the so-called tent-makers who rely on unprofessional tactics, undermine the integrity of all English language teachers.

"The kind of problems that [such unprofessionalism] can create for us all has got to be as much or more of a concern for [Christian language teachers] as it is to the rest of the profession," says Acton. "That doesn't represent the Gospel or us well."

Language instructors must be honest from the outset if they hope to build trust, which is the foundation of a solid, long-term relationship, says Philip Goertzen, PhD, co-chair of the linguistics department at TWU, director of the TESOL program and board member of English Language Institute/China. There is a place for discretion but, in the long run, it is best to be clear about whether your purpose is language instruction or evangelism, he says.

"With regard to teaching ESL, I like organizations that use the 'front door'," says Goertzen. "By this I simply mean that they will walk up to the front door, knock, and ask to come in. If the door is closed in their face, they'll walk away and then later, they'll knock again—but they won't sneak in across the border of a country that doesn't want them."

How Christians represent their qualifications is also important. For a short-term summer camp or something similar, a few weeks orientation and basic grounding is probably sufficient, said Acton. But longer postings and high-level positions require a minimum of a TESL certificate or an MA in TESOL, he says.

… some of the teachers actually encouraged teaching the Bible so that students could understand Western literature.

The demand is high enough that some countries and institutions will accept just about anyone, regardless of skills or worldview, said Goertzen. But it is crucial that Christians who go to a country claiming to be English teachers are able to deliver. The quality of the teaching they provide will shape what their students and employers think about them.

"There are other organizations that don't specialize in teaching English that are trying to use teaching English as a means of getting into a country or setting up shop in a country. Those are the ones that kind of get my back up a bit," said Goertzen. "I don't know about others, but for me, a tent-maker has to know how to make tents. If your tents leak, nobody will want them!"

Making sure Christians who go overseas to teach English are both transparent and professional goes a long way to answering critics. But even when Christian language instructors are well-qualified and their motives appropriately stated, academics such as Edge are suspicious of those who view their profession as part of their witness to Christ.

In his article "Keeping the Faith," Edge questions anyone who would use English language teaching as a way to "export" their beliefs. Edge says he is concerned about students in the receiving culture who may be subjected to the influence of teachers who are determined to undermine the faith and cultural values of their students.

Earl Stevick, PhD, a Christian who is a highly respected author and leading scholar in the field of language instruction, jumped into the lively, academic debate and engaged Edge on that question.

In a published response to Edge's concerns, Stevick agreed that using English language training to lure people into accepting another worldview is wrong. But, there is nothing wrong with making that worldview freely available in the marketplace of ideas.

Looking back on the exchange today, Stevick says he would change his answer slightly. The free market metaphor doesn't accurately describe the classroom because there is a basic power imbalance that exists between language teachers and their students, he says. This imbalance tends to favour the instructor and, in the context of teaching English in a foreign culture, can be exacerbated by the political, cultural and economic baggage Western teachers carry with them.

A partial remedy, some have suggested, would be to have Christian language teachers declare their worldview at the start of class to their students, their employers and the government.

Acton responds that even those who aren't Christians still have a worldview and will inevitably convey it through their teaching, whether or not that is their intent. If Christians are required to declare their worldview publicly, everyone should be.

"Imagine the declaration of an activist worldview such as 'I am anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, post-modern, and I am here to help you overcome any power structure that affects you in your culture,'" says Acton. "Were any English teacher to articulate a belief structure like that, they would be kicked out as quickly as a Christian who was required to make a public statement about his or her core values."

Experienced language teachers know students want to learn more than just grammar. Avoiding hot issues such as politics and religion is not only difficult but is, some argue, not even good teaching. Discussing deep, personal issues engages the imagination of students and inspires them to learn the language so they can express their own thoughts. Of course, such discussion also helps them understand their teachers' culture and language.

After four years teaching English overseas, Amanda Baker is in her second year of TWU's MA TESOL program. When she moved from teaching junior high in Japan with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) to a teachers' college in northern China, she was prepared to keep mum about issues such as faith and politics.

In terms of sharing faith, what is permitted and what is not is usually quite clear …

"I went to China thinking you can't say a word about Christianity, can't talk about God or Jesus or anything like that," she says. "About halfway through [my contract] I found out some of the teachers actually encouraged teaching the Bible so that students could understand Western literature. As long as you're not trying to convert your students, if you're just teaching about Western culture being based on the Bible, they seem to be okay with that."

In terms of sharing faith, what is permitted and what is not is usually quite clear, said Goertzen. As long as Christians behave professionally and abide by the rules set out for them, they have little to be concerned about.

"When I went to China with TWU, it was clear that we were not to engage in public religious activity, but it was okay to answer questions when asked," he says. "I think that it's important to provide the service that you say you're providing. English isn't an excuse for religious activity—TESL, like any other work, should be a service to people as a natural expression of God's grace and love."

Christian English language instructors do need to be wise about when and how they share what they believe with their students, says Goertzen. But in his experience, secular academics are much more concerned about the faith of English language instructors than the receiving countries are. Goertzen once asked a Chinese professor, who had visited TWU many times, how he felt about his interaction with Christians.

"He told me that when he first visited, he was suspicious, but then he got to know some people—primarily Christians," he said. "They took him to church, to chapel, to classes. They were kind to him and made him feel comfortable and nothing seemed subversive to him. We will never know, but wouldn't it be interesting to find someday that English teachers were partially responsible for China's peaceful changes of the last decade?"

"For the most part, someone today who gets an MA in a Christian teaching environment is very well versed in the Christian worldview. They know how to represent it appropriately in their lifestyle and the way they engage their students," Acton says. "People will be drawn to them, and that is our model: that people are drawn to you by your attitude and perspective and competence as a teacher."

The challenge for Christian language teachers is to present their worldview appropriately: to use their skills to start their students on a journey of learning and exploration, not only of English but also of self.

Brian Jonson (International Studies '98) knows a thing or two about teaching in other cultures—his wife, Maya, from Lebanon, was his first trainee when he was acting communications director at World Vision International in Vienna. Brian holds an MA in journalism from the University of Western Ontario and spent four years working in the Middle East, Balkans and Central Caucasus. His main beat as a staff reporter at the Penticton Western News is education.

Originally published in the Trinity Western Magazine, Winter 2004.




  • Redeemer University - Christian university changes everything. Starting with you.

Visit our Marketplace

Support the EFC ministry by using our Amazon links