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English language teaching as Christian mission


Julie Bender (far right) shares a meal with former students (left to right) Ruby, Amy, Fay and Stacey.

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December 12, 2008
-Deborah Froese with Phil Bender

CHONGQING, China — “Why should a church mission agency be supporting English teaching?” That question is a familiar one to Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers whose job it is to teach English in various locations around the world, including Philip and Julie Bender. The Benders, Mennonite Church Canada Witness/Mennonite Mission network workers who teach English to students and teachers at Chongqing Medical University in China through Mennonite Partners in China (MPC), offered a four-point response in a recent prayer letter.

  1. Teaching English is one of the few ways to credibly and legally work in China with a Christian organization. In China, Christians are not permitted to engage in traditional evangelism, Bible teaching and church planting, but they can answer questions of faith addressed to them. Bender attributes the prohibition on proselytizing to Communist ideology, but he acknowledges that it also has historic roots in the 19th century legacy of Western economic and military imperialism in China.
  2. Doing good work and giving others what they need provides witness to Christ. Philip Bender referred to Matt: 7, where Jesus speaks of good trees being known by their fruit and his followers by their deeds. Chinese universities have invited MPC to provide English teachers, who through their professionalism, diligence, concern for students and cooperation with Chinese colleagues, give positive witness to Christ. Chinese church leaders have also affirmed that placing Christian English teachers in university settings is one of the best ways to serve the church in China.
  3. Building relationships contributes to God’s reconciling work in the world. As Christian English teachers develop friendships with people of their host culture and demonstrate a servant attitude through studying the language and culture, they break down barriers and allow God’s reconciling love to flow.
  4. The New Testament affirms and validates the indirect, humble “mission strategies” of seed and leaven. Overt proclamation and nurture is not the only way to do mission, the Benders wrote. In areas where traditional mission work is not an option, the power of humble, indirect witness to Christ becomes evident. Jesus likens God’s kingdom to seeds growing silently and leaven working invisibly (Lk. 13:18ff). Peter, addressing believers in an alien culture (like China), speaks of the provocative power of good deeds and Christian character in pointing onlookers to Christ (1 Pet. 3:13ff).

In addition, the Benders point out that most of their students have never been to a church and realistically, might never attend. “It is sobering to realize that, through our deeds and occasional words, our teaching and our friendships, we are Christ to them.”