Friday, March 1, 2013

Becoming a Learner

Our oldest child is turning five this Sunday.  It's hard to believe, and, as I've been anticipating this milestone lately, I've been thinking about how when he was a newborn, I was pretty sure I'd have this whole mothering thing pretty well figured out after five years.  Not so!  His birthday also reminds me of our upcoming anniversary of five years of living on the mission field (he was 3 months old when we moved to Costa Rica).  And, again, I find myself surprised, remembering that as a new missionary, I would have thought I'd be speaking the language better and be adapted more completely to the culture after five years.  I still have so very much to learn!  As I struggled through some of these thoughts lately, God encouraged me by reminding me of a lesson He has been teaching me throughout our time living here.  He reminded me that by becoming a lifelong learner, I open myself to building relationships and becoming an insider in this foreign culture we have made our home.

We arrive in our host countries and we are outsiders.  We have so many dreams and ideas of how God will use us, of how He will bless the people we have come to serve.  We probably come hoping to teach and to lead.  I have learned that if we approach those roles while remaining outsiders, the relationships won't be as deep or effective, and we may come across as if we think ourselves superior.  But, what if we approach these relationships as learners?  I strongly believe that becoming a learner within our host countries moves us towards being an insider.  It shows that we value the culture and that we desire to assimilate and adapt, to understand it and to live as part of it rather than staying in the outskirts.  People love to teach, to share their knowledge, and to be the expert on a topic.  When we allow ourselves to learn from other people, we show a humility and hunger for others' knowledge that opens many doors to stronger relationships.  Because of this, I think I have a stronger desire now to be a learner than I did when we arrived five years ago.

What are a few ways we can become learners as we serve as missionaries in another culture?
  • language - Our efforts to speak the heart language of the people we are reaching out to speaks volumes.  Finding local friends who would be willing to practice with you and correct your mistakes is such a great way not only to improve your language skills, but to have an open door to an ongoing personal relationship with them. 
  • cooking - This is fun!  When we first moved here, I didn't have a clue how to cook traditional tico (Costa Rican) food.  I asked a neighbor if she would be willing to give me weekly cooking lessons.  We started with basics like seasoned black beans and rice, tortillas and empanadas, and then moved to more specific dishes.  Not only was I learning some really valuable lessons on cooking economically using the most common ingredients here, but I was building a relationship with this sweet neighbor.  In exchange for her cooking lessons, we did an hour of English conversation together every week.  Now, when I try a new dish that I don't know how to prepare, I ask a friend if she could teach me how to make it.  My Costa Rican friends love teaching me their traditional recipes!
  • daily life - Do you need someone to tell you the best place to buy something?  Do you need help figuring out how to fix a problem in your house or how to choose the best fresh produce at the market?  It might be easier to ask an experienced missionary, but what opportunities might arise from asking a local friend or neighbor instead?  You could even ask them to come along with you and teach you as you shop in a new place or navigate a medical issue at the hospital.  Asking for help opens doors to relationships.
  • new skills - This is something that I have been thinking about lately.  I would love to learn how to sew better.  My next door neighbor is a really good seamstress.  Why not ask her to teach me to sew?  I would want to pay her or exchange the lessons for something else (maybe English classes?).  She is someone who has recently been on my heart a lot.  Maybe this would be a way to open a door to deeper friendship.  Maybe you could find someone who could teach you an instrument or painting or...? 
There are so many more ways that we can remain a constant learner in our host culture.  I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on being a lifelong learner as a missionary!

What other ideas do you have for ways that you could build relationships in your host country by becoming a learner? In what ways are you currently a learner?  Has becoming a learner opened up relationships that you would not have otherwise had? 


  1. This is an excellent article, Sarah, and holds a lot of wisdom!

  2. I love this, Sarah! I've been living in the Middle East 13 years, and I still have a lot to learn. So often we view ourselves as the "teachers." Also newly arrived workers often look to other cross-cultural workers instead of to the nationals, especially for the daily life things you mention. Great advice here.

    1. Thanks, Olive! As a former teacher, I have found that even in the teaching role, being a learner is very effective in building relationships and your students' confidence. Thank you for your encouragement!

  3. I find myself constantly learning--a new way to do something I've "always done" some other way, a new approach to ministry to this or that group because the old way didn't work well, some of the local handicrafts, typical music style for here, and like you said, cooking and language. I find I learn more about English the more I learn other languages, which is always fun. ;)

    1. Yes! I definitely agree with how good it is to be a constant learner as you evaluate and rethink your approaches to ministry. Thanks for that reminder!