Teaching English: A Tentmaker for Today

By Paul Miles

We use the word, tentmaking, to refer to work that missionaries do in addition to their ministry for financial purposes. We get this term from Acts 18, where we see that Paul was a tentmaker by trade. But for Paul, tentmaking was more than a side-job for money. Tentmaking was a strategic for growing his ministry for at least three reasons: it was versatile, in high demand, and of interest to growing professionals. I have been living in Ukraine for a few years now, and I think I have discovered that today perhaps one of the best jobs that can be compared to first-century tentmaking is English teaching. Let's see how they compare.

Tentmaking was in high demand
Now, the word, tentmaker, in Greek is skenopoios, which comes from skene (covered place) and poieo (to make). This word, skene, is often translated tent, and often brings to mind camping out under some canvas alongside a trail, but it has more uses than just that. In the Septuagint (an early Greek translation of the Old Testament), we see that a skene would regularly be used in vineyards (Isaiah 1:8), for cattle (Genesis 33:17), and didn't have to be made of canvas, but could be made out of sturdy wood (Nehemiah 8:15). A skene could be a house, a barn, a kiosk, or just about anything. In fact, Aeschylus even wrote about using a wheeled skene in war. There was always somebody that needed one, so it wasn't a hard market to tap into.

Tentmaking was versatile
I know some college students that work in the summers and winters at a multi-million dollar activated carbon plant. The 'activatedcarbonmaking' business is not a versatile industry. It's a great job, especially between semesters, but one can't just set up a carbon plant in his backyard if he runs out of money. Tentmaking, on the other hand, is work that Paul could set up anywhere. If Paul happened to be on the road and realized he was running low on money, he could find the materials he needed and put together a tent to sale. No factories. No boss. No scheduled hours. No yearlong contract with a mandatory two week notification. Paul just needed his skills and some wood, cloth, maybe a tire, and some basic tools that he could find anywhere.

Tentmaking was of interest to growing professionals
If a grape farmer was going to expand his business, he bought a skene from Paul. If a cowboy's herd was growing, he would talk to Paul the skenemaker. If a centurion was preparing for a campaign and needed a mobile skene, he would place an order with Paul. As a tentmaker, Paul had opportunities to meet all sorts of successful people, the kind of people that are good to know if you want to plant a church and hand it over to the locals.

Today, the tentmaking industry is different. Tents are made in Chinese factories, used for hiking, and sold to Boy Scouts or to that one weird guy in church that's a little too fond of the outdoors. There is, however, another industry today with the same advantages as first century tentmaking: English teaching. Let's see how the ESL industry compares to tentmaking.

ESL is in high demand
I chose to move to Ukraine, because it has much potential for starting ministries. There's a great little Bible college in Kiev, and I figured I could move here and get a feel for what the needs and opportunities were. To pay the bills, I had to find a job. As a native-speaking English teacher, it wasn't difficult to find work in some of the English schools around the city. English is the lingua franca of the world and people are paying the big bucks to learn it from Americans. So long as English is the international language of business, the demand for ESL teachers is only going to grow. In fact, I've met several teachers who have moved here simply because it is so much easier to find work in Ukraine as an English teacher than it is to find a job in the US in their fields of specialization. Who would have thought 30 years ago that people would move from the United States to the former Soviet Union for a better economy? But, that's the world we live in.

ESL is versatile
There are English schools all over the place, but the ESL industry is not limited to where schools are. English teachers often teach private lessons off campus and even find businesses that want English teachers. I have several friends who have taught English all over Asia, Europe, South America, and the Middle East. I have some missionary friends who, as English teachers, were able to get into countries that would have otherwise restricted Christians from entering. I even have some Christian friends who are basically on a missions journey around the world and have stopped in Kiev for however long to teach English and serve in local churches as they save up enough money to continue to their next destination.

ESL is of interest to growing professionals
ESL students tend to be enthusiastic people who are interested in seeing the world and are open-minded to discussing different points of view. They're the perfect audience for discussing the Gospel! They tend to be young professionals who are energetic and would love to spend extra time with foreigners in their time off, which is ideal if you're trying to build a Christian community. My students come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Engineers, bankers, musicians, artists, managers, and lots of university-level students studying every major imaginable. In a world where "it's not what you know but whom you know," English schools can be some of the best places to meet people. If you've just finished college and now you're asking yourself, "Well now what?" or you want to serve the Lord overseas, but don't know where to get the funds or even where to go, or if you're just a grammar-Nazi who wants to travel the world preaching the difference between who and whom, then the English as a Second Language industry just might be for you!