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First Job for Your Short-Term Mission Work: Learn

I have an unhealthy attachment to maps.

I gain a great sense of security in being able to plot out the route I’ll be taking and then to follow along as we move down the carefully selected roads, through the pre-determined towns, arriving at the estimated time of arrival.

But my short-term global experiences over the years have played havoc with that deep-seated tendency.

On a recent trip to serve alongside Canadian Baptist Ministries’ (CBM‘) partners in Lebanon, I was describing this attachment to maps.

CBM field staff Elie Haddad just laughed, saying, “That’s not exactly how it works here. We just don’t tend to use maps like that.”

The blank look on my face prompted him to explain that the combination of topography, politics, construction and traffic nightmares means you follow from one landmark to another.

You adapt and change routes as you see what’s happening around you. Along the road, you may decide a different destination would be a better choice. You know where you’re going by what you see along the way.

I’ve had the privilege of being part of many short-term mission experiences over the years, spending time in 14 different countries where CBM has worked.

In my conversation about Lebanese travel planning, I spotted a metaphor for lessons I’d been learning through those experiences over the years.

As a North American person, raised on beautifully drawn atlases with time estimates in the back of the book, I may want my life and work and ministry experiences to mirror that predictability. I want new cultures to follow the rules I’ve come to expect.

But what if the best way to experience the world is more of the Lebanese way?

What if I could navigate culture and these short-term mission experiences by moving from landmark to landmark, adapting and finding new and better destinations all along the way?

Several key landmarks have become apparent to me, helping to navigate culture and finding the way to meaningful ministry and new friendships with global partners.

Before ever undertaking a cross-cultural experience, realize all that you don’t know and do some intentional study about the people group or country or circumstances where you’re headed.

While I may not be able to hold a foolproof map in my hand, I can learn about the basics of politics, foods, customs, weather, major location and basic language of the place.

The goal of learning ahead of time is not to think that I understand on any substantial level, but to prepare what I’ll learn along the way.

The goal is to know enough so I might have some categories for interpreting what I’ll experience.

If we begin with an attitude of preparation and learning, throughout the experience we need to continue as a learner, first and foremost.

Many who head to a short-term mission experience, and many who are supporting those who go, ask with great urgency the question, “So what are you going to do on this trip?”

Our tendency is to think we must first do something for others. More often, the first task of a short-term mission participant is to be a learner.

Find out all you can about the partners you’re meeting. Seek to understand the challenges and opportunities of Christians in that place. Wonder about all you’re seeing. Be a learner first.

Then be an encourager, cheerleading for the ministry you see. Then be a servant, taking cues about what you can contribute from the partners and new friends you make.

And then, maybe then, you can bring some expertise to the situation, something you can uniquely contribute.

The idea of bringing expertise points to one of the road hazards that’s often encountered on a short-term experience: the tendency we have to bring what we believe others need from us without asking first.

Too often we pre-package North American solutions or approaches and subsequently we undermine work being done by local leaders and mission partners.

If our goal is primarily to “do,” there’s a danger that we’ll do the wrong things. Perhaps your experience will have a significant “doing” component, but you must be a learner first.

We all tend to be so immersed in our own cultures that when someone holds other values, we first see their approach as “wrong.”

Speaker and author David Livermore urges that we fight that tendency by asking ourselves the question, “I wonder what could be behind that?”

In seeking to adapt to culture, most people hit “the Wall,” encountering at least a moment of feeling overwhelmed by all the effort, the hard things witnessed, and all that is new and different.

Some shut down emotionally, downplay the significance of the experience or become angry with team members. That landmark calls for talking it through with others, praying it through with God, understanding what is burdening us.

The Wall is a sign that the short-term experience is doing its work in us, and most often, that God is doing His work in us.

When we push through the challenges and remain open to God’s work in me and in those around me, the possibilities are remarkable.

A day or so after Elie taught me about his approach to navigating, he pulled up in front of a tiny bookstore and returned with a small map for me, downloaded by the store owner.

“Better?” he asked. Now we both laughed at my issues. But before we started driving, he asked, “So where are we now?”

I looked out the window. I saw the shop that roasted the pistachios where we’d stopped before, the interesting roundabout with the fountain and sculpture I’d commented on the day before, and a police checkpoint.

And I spoke the name of the community where we were.

I brought the map home as a souvenir, but I needed it much less. Someone had helped me learn to navigate by the landmarks.

Brian Craig is director of leadership development for the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec. A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of Mosaic – a publication of Canadian Baptist Ministries. It is reprinted with the permission of Mosaic and CBM.