Why TESOL Needs a Theology of Place


Brad Baurain will be presenting “A Theology of Place” at CELT Seoul 2016.  He has been involved in CELT conference planning from its beginnings over 10 years ago.

How did you become involved in Christian English language teaching?

I was a senior at Wheaton College, majoring in English and philosophy, when one of my professors invited me to a recruiting event with a Christian TESOL organization. I resonated with their vision for service and witness through excellent teaching, and ended up working with them in China and Vietnam for eleven years.

Teaching with a Christian organization sparked and developed my interest in integrating professionalism and ministry, an interest that grew as I read more and began participating in conferences, including the first Christians in ELT event in Long Beach, California, in 2004. It meant a lot to me to find out that people like Tom Scovel and Kitty Purgason were out there in my field.

What are you doing now professionally?

Last summer, I transitioned from teaching at Briercrest College in Caronport, Saskatchewan—which has an excellent BA TESOL program—to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Moody also has an excellent BA TESOL program, but I was brought in by the seminary to get something started at the graduate level. The first iteration of that, a TESOL emphasis within an MA in Intercultural and Urban Studies, launches this fall. So in addition to teaching, I’ve been working this year on program and curriculum development, as well as cooperating and collaborating with marketing, the library, the registrar’s office, and other key areas involved in starting something new. I view this as a tremendous opportunity and privilege.

 About your upcoming CELT Conference presentation, what is a “theology of place”?

Too often we like to talk in abstract terms about “time” and “space,” or to look only for generalizations or formulas that apply widely. Specific “places” are seen as random or unimportant or distractingly localized, especially in our global, mobile world. Yet to emphasize the abstract or the general is to discount or strip away context, relationships, and history.

The growing sub-field of “theology of place” is thus a Christian attempt to recover “place” as a significant, local, particular phenomenon. The specific places we live and minister have unique cultural, social, and historical dimensions that matter tremendously. That is, places become meaningful because of what happens there—the experiences we have, the words we say, the activities in which we engage, and most importantly of all, the interactions between God and people that take place there. To truly and effectively live and minister in a place, we must be attentively tuned in to and engaged in all of this.

Why is a “theology of place” needed in TESOL?

First, because TESOL pushes us in the other direction. The profession liberally uses the rhetoric of globalization—no surprise, then, that many of its learning spaces are for-profit businesses and many of its practitioners are what we call “backpacker teachers.” But despite the generic language we tend to use—in which “Ts” implement tasks and “Ss” comply—teaching and learning are not factory enterprises. They take shape in and depend upon specific relationships occurring in specific places. If we think or act otherwise, we disrespect all that teaching and learning endeavors can be.

This leads into a second reason—as Christians, we want teaching and learning endeavors to be all they can be. Learning is something God created us to do. Yet if we follow the TESOL mainstream, we can tend to treat teaching as basically contextless, a matter of acquiring the right “tools” that work everywhere. Teachers and students, lesson plans and activities, classroom management and assessment—it all becomes interchangeable parts. Ministry opportunities become methods and formulas, as if where doesn’t matter. But where does matter, and affects how and why.

What is a biblical example of this concept?

There are many biblical examples affirming that “place” matters, from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem. These places are not incidental but essential to what happens there. To take just one example, the Tabernacle. While God is omnipresent, He chose to symbolically localize His presence in this specific place during a specific period in Israel’s history. He gave specific instructions for its construction, handling, and transportation; gifted specific individuals with the artistic talents necessary to craft it; and commissioned a select group (priests and Levites) to be in charge of it. Throughout the Exodus and beyond, a shared spiritual history thus grew up in and around this place.

One consequent conclusion is that while we can meet God anywhere, it does matter not only how and why but also where we meet Him. The builders of the great cathedrals knew this, in ways that perhaps we today do not. In the same way, it matters where we teach and learn.

How might a “theology of place” affect our practices as TESOL professionals?

If we start from the assumption that “place” matters to us as Christian TESOL professionals, it would help to better ground and enrich our uses of language, practices of teaching, and relationships with students. For example, becoming more intentional about “place” would shape our language and cultural learning.

At the level of the classroom, what if we treated our classroom, its physical space, as a place where a shared history is built, relationships are deepened, and God is at work? We would set up chairs and desks with more (but not less) than “maximum communicative efficiency” in mind. We would put up posters and decorate with more (but not less) than the “affective filter” in mind. We would arrange pairs and groups for reasons more (but not less) than classroom management goals. We would plan lessons and curricula for reasons more (but not less) than pedagogical. The classroom itself could become, like the Tabernacle, a place that bears witness.

I think many other implications are possible as well, which I feel I’m just beginning to explore. I look forward to interacting with CELT Conference participants in Seoul about this topic!


On faculty at Moody Theological Seminary and Graduate School in Chicago, Bradley Baurain has taught for more than 20 years in the United States, Canada, China, and Vietnam. He is the author of Religious Faith and Teacher Knowledge in English Language Teaching, has co-edited two other books, and has also published articles in journals including ELT Journal, TESOL Journal, and the Journal of Language, Identity, and Education. His scholarly interests include teacher development, narrative inquiry, and literature in language education.  bbaurain@gmail.com, https://moody.academia.edu/BradleyBaurain


You can still register for CELT Seoul 2016.  Click on the link below:



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