Before Ephesians 2:8-9 heralded my salvation, it was a tongue twister.

It was 1992. We were in northwest Poland, an hour's drive south from the Baltic Sea.

"For it is by grace you have been saved," said a redheaded Californian, looking at me intently.

"For it is by grace you have been saved," I repeated after the missionary who was my conversational English teacher. He was the best deal in town (the lessons were free, under one condition: we use the Bible as our textbook).

"Through faith," he continued. Ah, th, the great bugaboo of all Poles learning English.

I gave it a try: "Tru fait."

"No—through, through," my English teacher said. "Look here." He stuck out his tongue demonstratively. "Through."

"Fru fayf." I couldn't get myself to repeat the vulgar gesture.

"Through, through, through!" he said, spitting.


After a few more lessons, I dropped my inhibitions and learned how to pronounce th—as in "through faith," "God so loved the world," and "there is one God and one mediator."

Sometime between "tru" and "through," I was born again.

When Tom Scovel—one of the world's top teachers of English teachers, linguistics professor at the politically correct San Francisco State University, and a committed Christian—says that "learning a new language is, in many ways, like being born again linguistically," it resonates with me.

I was one of many young Poles wooed by God in the world's most popular and powerful language. Eager to wake from a communism-induced malaise, my generation (born in the 1970s) studied English hungrily. Soon after the Iron Curtain lifted in 1989, we abandoned the foreign, yet eerily familiar, Russian language (mandatory classes attempted to indoctrinate us with readings that idolized Lenin and Stalin). Instead, we took up the tongue, it seemed, of Liberty herself: the sensuous, many-idiomed, supple English.

Along with countless numbers of learners worldwide, I was in for a surprise: many of our teachers from English-speaking countries were believers in Christ. The words they taught us led to the Word. The Word took on flesh, and dwelt among us. The English-speaking Jesus, not democracy, turned out to be our salvation.

Who Needs Esperanto?

"In the '70s, no one thought of going to teach English in Central and Eastern Europe or Russia or China," says Alan Seaman, associate professor of the TESOL [Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages] program at Wheaton College. Today, these are the regions with the most need for teachers. It's so obvious it's a cliché: An increasing number of people worldwide need English to travel, conduct international business, educate themselves, and find jobs.

Article continues below

English is what Esperanto, a language created by Dr. Ludwig Zamenhof, was meant to be. Born in the eastern part of Poland that at the time had been seized by Russia, Zamenhof hoped that the universal language would assuage the ethnic tensions among the Russians, Poles, Jews, and Germans. Today the beautiful, Latin-based Esperanto (meaning "one who hopes") has 100,000 speakers worldwide. But English is the global language. It's the mother tongue of about 377 million people. Statistics on the elusive number of speakers of English as a second and foreign language range between 400 million and 1.1 billion.

Teaching English may well be the 21st century's most promising way to take the gospel to the world. It's the globalized world's equivalent of a cup of water for the thirsty. Teaching English "allows the ministers of incarnation to become part of the culture in a way that makes sense for a foreigner," Seaman says. Start an evangelical church in Poland, and no one will come. Start an English school, and you'll make many friends.

The native English teachers who pack Bibles along with their textbooks as they travel to foreign countries are part of a movement that has grown and matured in the last 30 years. (This article covers Christians teaching English on foreign soil, but a large group of English teachers minister to refugees, immigrants, and even the deaf here in North America.)

Thousands of English-speaking Christians have taught English worldwide. Over 65 North American agencies have sent them abroad. At least ten Christian and tens of secular colleges and universities offer degrees in TESOL and/or English as a Second Language (esl). Among them are Biola, Wheaton in Illinois, Columbia in South Carolina, Azusa Pacific, Oral Roberts, and Regent in Virginia.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

In spite of its academic strength, the Christian TESOL field has not examined one crucial area in much detail: itself. It's not that its experts—many of whom are well respected in secular academia—aren't doing research. They are, but almost no one studies Christian TESOL. Scholars are torn: They would like to know what works and what doesn't. But they also want to protect the work (and, in some cases, the lives) of the Christians who teach English abroad—something disclosure would jeopardize.

One of the scarce resources is the Handbook for Christian EFL [English as a Foreign Language] Teachers by Lonna J. Dickerson and Dianne F. Dow (Berry, 1997). It says that "more than 65" Christian groups in the United States and Canada have teaching openings. More than 20 said they anticipated needing 100 or more teachers in the subsequent two years.

Article continues below

But there are gaps: Countless numbers of teachers are sent by congregations and many set out on their own. An undisclosed number of respondents asked not to be listed because it could endanger work in countries officially closed to the gospel.

I'm not surprised. Articles like "The Stealth Crusade" in the May/June issue of Mother Jones condemn evangelistic efforts. Its writer described Rick Love, international director of Frontiers, telling a class of missionaries that he became an English instructor just so he could proselytize among Sudanese Muslims. He then reportedly encouraged his students to find similar pretexts.

Love, who has a master's degree in TESOL, told me that Frontiers tentmakers are not cagey. They are "well-trained to fill the jobs they hold" and "joyfully identify themselves as followers of Jesus Christ," he said. After all, he allowed the journalist into his classroom.

Another indicator of the Christian presence in the field comes from TESOL—this time, this versatile acronym stands for the name of the umbrella organization of teachers of English to speakers of other languages. Its Christian Educators caucus is the biggest TESOL caucus, with membership around 300. That's about 150 more than the second-largest caucus. But my sources made it clear that hundreds, and very likely thousands, of English teachers don't belong to TESOL.

The Christian TESOL behemoths—groups with the greatest number of teaching opportunities—are:

  • English Language Institute/ China, which sent 500 English teachers this summer and around 400 for school-year-long teaching stints.

  • Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board, which has over 500 people teaching English around the world.

  • Education Services International, which has between 150 and 200 English teachers in its year-long program and 100 in its summer program.

Brushing Teeth Together

My conversational English teacher came to Poland with one of the tens of smaller agencies, the Iowa-based group called International Messengers (IM). The bluntly named Evangelistic English Language Camps are its forte.

"We bring plumbers, carpenters, grandmothers, and dairy farmers—those kinds of people—to teach English," says Darwin Anderson, IM's director of European ministry and team trainer. "In 15 hours of training, we make them into English teachers." Eight-member teams conduct an average of 32 six-to-ten day camps every year.

Article continues below

Besides teaching grammar and vocabulary during English classes, IM's strategy for these camps is to engage the students' hearts. The daily conversational English and Bible reading times—with topics such as relationships, death, good works, Jesus' uniqueness, abortion—bring students' passions and convictions to the surface. Eastern Europeans relish these debates, and as a result some get curious about God.

The need to express firm convictions is a key incentive in language learning. "If you need to communicate something you deeply care about, you'll find a dictionary, you'll find the way," says Anderson.

In this setting, at least 10 of my friends became Christians. At the eight camps that I attended, I witnessed about 50 conversions. Each camp yields between two and seven converts. Between 20 and 25 express the desire to be involved in a Bible study. All are followed up by local churches and IM staff.

"Team members and students residing together is perfect for mixing nonbelievers and believers," says IM's president Robert Rasmusson, who founded the group in 1984. "You get people out of their elements, get away; you have to brush your teeth together; you eat meals together," adds Anderson. "You spend 17 hours a day together and relationships develop very quickly."

All this has been so effective that the group was asked to train organizations such as the English Language Institute/ China and the Evangelical Free Church of America.

Classroom Evangelism

But critics such as Mother Jones and San Francisco State's Scovel ask if it's ethical to use English to evangelize people.

Don Snow, author of the groundbreaking book every aspiring English teacher should read, English Teaching as Christian Mission: An Applied Theology (Herald, 2001), says that "while most Christian English teachers are quite responsible, there are always some who view their teaching work as no more than a necessary expedient so that they can engage in their real evangelistic work. When such people do not take their teaching work seriously, their credibility tends to be undermined."

Certain groups take pride that English teaching is just the means to an evangelistic end. An example of such thinking is found in the name of Christian Outreach International's program: "Teach to Reach," for which "no experience is necessary," according to the company's website. "The sole purpose of our. … schools is to create an environment that encourages relationships with the goal of winning our students to the Lord," the group explains. A missionary with a group that sends English teachers to Asia, which he only wished to identify by its initials, MUP, told me that his organization sees teaching English purely as evangelists' ticket into closed countries.

Article continues below

This used to be Mary Wong's mindset. She went to the Urbana missions conference in 1979 because she felt the call to evangelize the Chinese people. She wanted to get to China "any way I could, and if that meant being an English teacher, I would do that. I was guilty then of what I'm trying now to help people not to do." Now director of the field-based TESOL program at Azusa Pacific University, she tells English teachers that their best witness is professionalism.

"A teacher can do the most by being diligent, by preparing lessons, by listening to what the students' needs are," she says. "It's a whole different mindset if you think, 'It doesn't matter what I do in the English class. I can't wait till I get to my Bible study to see how many kids I can convert, so I can write this in my support newsletter!' "

She encourages her students to openly tell their supervisors, "I am a Christian, but I will not evangelize in the classroom because I believe it's unethical."

One reason for this is that "some students might make a decision for Christ to please the teacher," Wong says. "That way, they get more attention."

But not all TESOL experts advise against direct evangelism in the classroom. Earl W. Stevick, described by Scovel as "the Moses of the field," is an evangelical who taught foreign language acquisition to diplomats and other government officials. His works, a number of key books on language learning and teaching, are admired by secular and Christian experts alike.

"Teaching English is walking on holy ground," said the 79-year-old polyglot, in a voice slowed by Parkinson's. It is with this reverence that English teachers can, "depending on context," evangelize in classrooms.

That's what Becky Hardiman does. The lively director of the Banton Language School in Warsaw does mention the Bible occasionally when she's teaching, but she doesn't use it as a textbook. She brings it up "if it's in context with the lesson." Another evangelistic occasion is the students' journals. They are a safe place where the students bring up matters of faith, inviting Hardiman's response.

Article continues below

Learning to Swim from a Fish

The debate about credentials is much more incendiary than the one about evangelism. In Dickerson and Dow's survey, only 10 of 38 respondent organizations required a degree or certificate in TESOL and 14 required only "some course work in TESOL" of their career teachers. Six said they didn't require any educational degree or teaching experience in any area.

Of 43 agencies providing short-term opportunities for English teachers, 13 required no degree or teaching experience in any area. In addition, my sources speculate that the groups not responding to the survey are likely to be more lax.

Many foreign schools, especially those in impoverished areas, don't require much of their English teachers beyond a native accent (in all its regional shades). But, Wong and Scovel ask, How good a witness is an unqualified teacher?

Annette Strikwerda, a Canadian with a degree in business administration, taught English at Tianjin University of Technology for a year. She candidly told me that when she went to China, she "had no idea how to teach English" and no training, "which wasn't smart." Plus (another bad move) she set out as an independent.

When she arrived in China, the school lowered the agreed-upon salary, increased her hours (she ended up teaching three times the regular hours of other teachers), and put her up in an apartment that had no kitchen and only three beds and two chairs for furniture. The first few months were difficult not only for Strikwerda, but probably for her students, too.

"I didn't know how to teach effectively at all," Strikwerda says. Fortunately, she obtained a crash course in TESOL (and textbooks) from some of the experienced 100 or so English teachers in the city of Tianjin (population 10 million). "By the second semester, I had more confidence and could see the students improving."

Lack of qualifications isn't a problem only among Christians. This past summer the Russian government denied visas to dozens of Peace Corps English teachers. The reason? Because "the representatives of the Peace Corps who gave English language lessons to secondary school students had no teaching experience," said Nikolai Dimitriey, a Russian education ministry official. "Not all native speakers are good teachers."

Scovel explains, "You don't learn swimming from a fish. Fish do it naturally. They don't even realize that they're swimming. But ask a fish, How do you do it? Do you use your dorsal fins to steer and your pectoral fins for propulsion, or vice versa? A fish doesn't know that."

Article continues below

Native speakers who aren't teachers may provide models of how the language sounds, Scovel says, but they tend to have little conscious idea of how to look at their language objectively. For example: They have a propensity to teach people to overpronounce. They'll say, "Don't say tuh-mah-ruh (tomorrow), say too-mah-row," Scovel says. In English, the stressed syllable takes the full pronunciation, but unstressed syllables don't. So by teaching an overly pronounced too-mah-ruh, you're teaching against the rules of English, which diminishes the students' intelligibility, he says.

The missionary with MUP, which sends unqualified English speakers to Asia, disagrees. He says that unqualified native speakers from North America are "definitely more effective" than qualified Asian English teachers. "You wouldn't believe the accent of those who don't know English firsthand," he says.

As for credentials, he says, many teachers with MUP lack them because many schools in Asia don't require any. Most schools are happy with just a bachelor's degree or a native accent. "Why not take advantage of it?" the missionary asks.

I asked Anderson if IM ever heard complaints from students who felt cheated by the heavy emphasis on the Bible. "Only guys who follow girls' perfume to the camp," he says. "They don't read the brochures." Anderson admits that some Eastern European staff ask for teachers with master's degrees. But, he says, since IM is trying to energize American congregations, the group needs to use average American churchgoers. "If you want grammar, go to another camp," he says. "We advertise our camps as conversational English camps. You want conversation, you come to our camp."

Most critics say such openness is key to missionaries' integrity. "Love does cover a multitude of professional flaws," says Snow. "A good-spirited team of nonprofessionals often provides a solid witness. … along with plenty of useful language practice"—as long as the short-termers don't pretend to be language-teaching experts and are open to the Spirit's leading in ways different from direct evangelism.

Good Work, Well Done

One of the finest models of preparedness is Education Services International (ESI). Ninety percent of teacher candidates come to ESI with no credentials. "That's why we do five weeks of training," said Corey Hanson, the group's director of teacher training. "We have seminars in the morning, and at night you practice teaching immigrants in local churches." This way, even practice provides a needed service. The training involves teaching English, cross-cultural communication, language learning, and conflict resolution.

Article continues below

ESI's training and overseas teaching experience are part of a joint two-year master's program with Azusa Pacific University. The students have an apu semester and ESI's training under their belts before they set out overseas.

How prepared should short-termers be? Wheaton College's Alan Seaman has this general rule: "If you're planning to go teach for a year or two, a master's is overkill. But a good month-long program—the Cambridge course, for example—is not unrealistic."

As someone who owes my English to amateurs, I understand both sides in the credentials debate. I agree with Dorothy Sayers that "the only Christian work is good work, well done."

But I also must admit that credentials didn't matter to me when I was studying English in Poland. I was thrilled with my teachers' native American English accents. The conversational English I practiced with unqualified American tutors—some were grammatically correct, but some said "I says" instead of "I say"—taught me fluency like no grammar class could. Yet, the grammar class helped me filter out mistakes like "I says." The best of both worlds made me a decent English speaker.

The Ugly Americans

Native English teachers have to live with one more tension.

Since they are natives of English-speaking Western countries, "they are inevitably also representatives of the West," says Snow. As such, they tend to work in countries in which people have "ambivalent or even resentful feelings toward the dominant role played by Great Britain and the U.S." If these teachers lack flexibility, and imply to students that Western ways of learning are better, they only perpetuate the negative stereotype of the rude, insensitive, and ignorant American.

A subtle social sin that perpetuates the legacy of imperialism is teaching only those who can afford it. Since the students worldwide tend to come from affluent families, "we might be widening the gap between the rich and the poor," Wong says. It's the latter who most need the empowerment that comes with English.

Aware of this, ELIC's Camp China makes a conscious effort to go to impoverished western China, and Warsaw's Banton Language School subsidizes students in need and its students raise money for people in Third World countries.

Some English teachers defy the "ugly American" stereotype by learning the language of the host culture. It's a disarming way to show respect.

Article continues below

All Things to All People

During his recent sabbatical, Seaman studied his students' language, Mandarin. Also, even though he was the one training the Chinese teachers, he studied their philosophy and methods of teaching. "You don't go in as a prophet; you go in as a servant," he told me.

Seaman employed a Chinese teaching style. "I like to start with my students' strengths. They're very good at preparing for class, memorizing material, and taking tests. Rather than saying that that's antithetical to becoming communicative in a language, I try to put that to good use."

In her dissertation, Wong described an American English teacher's effort to bridge the rift between Chinese and American teachers of English. "They had different buildings, different salaries, different textbooks," says Wong. "Sometimes they don't even talk to each other."

The teacher organized weekly meetings between the two groups. The Americans, all of whom were studying Chinese, asked the Chinese teachers' input on the textbooks. They started observing each other's classrooms and giving each other feedback. The experiment had an unexpected result: Several of the Chinese teachers became Christians and started praying together with the Americans for their students.

What these American teachers did best illustrates Don Snow's understanding of the mission of teaching English. He sees evangelism as only one of its several facets. Teaching English is not just about reconciling people to God. It's also about reconciling people to people. It's about witnessing through language learning, ministry to the needs of students and the disadvantaged, peacemaking, and building intercultural understanding between churches and countries.

Scovel and Stevick, though not teaching English abroad themselves, have done all this here in secular academia. Scovel doesn't "seize classroom opportunities to say, 'By the way, as a Christian, this is my definition of a noun.' " But he's never been too shy to raise "questions of ultimate concern." He tries to push for discussions of spiritual values at TESOL meetings. This year at the TESOL convention, he spoke on the etymology of the Judeo-Christian word spirit.

Stevick, who believes in occasional contextual evangelism, also hasn't shied away from bringing up Christian faith where the Spirit and circumstances allow.

In his Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways (1980), he added a deliberately Christian touch in a chapter on Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor. Where other writers refer to evolution, Stevick uses the phrase the created order. At the 1999 TESOL convention, he devoted 4 of his 15 minutes on a panel to "fairly explicit Christian witness."

Article continues below

He could afford it. Because of Scovel and Stevick's professionalism, this country's top linguists "will listen to anything they have to say," Wong says.

There is a lesson in that for all of us, no matter our vocation.

Just as there might be a lesson in this: A Polish girl meets Jesus between "tru" and "through." Eventually, though she's still feeling her way through the language, she becomes a journalist in the U.S.—partly because of English lessons she took from an American missionary who wasn't an English teacher.

Agnieszka Tennant is an associate editor of Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

More tips and articles in TESOL are available at the site of The Christian Educators in TESOL Caucus (CETC).

Also, see the sites of International Messengers, Christian Outreach International, English Language Institute/China, and Education Services International.

Recommended books or those mentioned above include:

Handbook for Christian EFL Teachers by Lonna J. Dickerson and Dianne F. Dow
Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways by Earl W. Stevick
English and the Discourses of Colonialism by Alastair Pennycook
English Teaching as Christian Mission: An Applied Theology by Donald B. Snow
The Gift of a Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning by David Smith and Barbara M. Carvill
Learning New Languages: A Guide to Second Language Acquistion by Thomas Scovel, et al.
Linguistic Imperialism by Robert Phillipson
Memory, Meaning, and Method: Some Psychological Perspectives on Language Learning by Earl W. Stevick
More than a Native Speaker: An Introduction for Volunteers Teaching English Abroad by Donald B. Snow

In "The Stealth Crusade," Mother Jones writer Barry Yeoman reports that "Christian missionaries are being trained to go undercover in the Muslim world and win converts for Jesus. Their stated goal: to wipe out Islam."

An Inside CT article from 2001 on writer Agnieszka Tennant revealed how she first learned English from MTV and then the Bible. Tennant's other articles for Christianity Today include:

The Good News About Generations X & YWatch out, promiscuity! Out of the way, relativism! A wave of young Americans just wants that oldtime religion. An interview with the author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy. (August 2, 2002)
Article continues below
The Auschwitz CrossWe must come to the cross with desperation, not political agendas. (May 10, 2002)
Nuptial AgreementsTwo models of marriage claim biblical warrant and vie for evangelicals' allegiance. Advocates of both claim good results. But do we have to choose? (March 15, 2002)
Adam and Eve in the 21st CenturyWhen it comes to gender roles, CT readers oscillate between complementarian and egalitarian ideas. ? (March 15, 2002)
Possessed or Obsessed?Many Christians say they are in need of deliverance but some may be giving demons more than their due. (August 24, 2001)
Seahorses, Egalitarians, and Traditional Sex-Role ReversalA dispatch from the Christians for Biblical Equality conference (July 11, 2001)
The Ten Commandments Become FleshA Polish director prods European and American audiences to consider God's timeless standards. (Feb. 14, 2001)

Tennant also interviewed Lech Walesa for the September/October issue of Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.