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  • Bradley Bell

Missionary, Choose the Posture of a Learner

Imagine you’re sitting in a coffee shop reading your Bible. Each time you take a sip of your coffee, you notice a stranger staring at you. After a while he approaches you and does the unimaginable: he sits down across from you, makes eye contact, and begins talking. How many social cues has he already ignored?! But there’s no time to huff over that—he’s still talking. You focus on what he’s saying, but it doesn’t quite make sense. Maybe it’s the strange accent. But forget trying to identify it—now he’s waiting for you to respond.


This is awkward.


Let’s say that was the beginning of a long, belabored conversation, and what you eventually discovered was that this person is a foreign missionary. He and his family have uprooted their lives and moved to your neighborhood to make disciples and plant churches—that is, American disciples and churches. That in itself is a lot to take in. But he’s looking for more than a new friend. Now that he knows you’re already a follower of Jesus, he wants you to join in his work. He’s recruiting you. Whoa, buddy. How about learning a little more English first? And maybe some coffee shop etiquette, too.


Ok, silly scenario ended. Most likely, it won't ever happen to you (although, with the US being the number one country for receiving missionaries, I suppose it could someday). The point of that exercise was to get you to consider a single question: if you were sought out as a national partner to a foreign missionary, how would you expect to be treated? What would excite you? Annoy you? What would make you want to say, “I’m in,” or, instead, “No thanks”?


If you were sought out as a national partner to a foreign missionary, how would you expect to be treated?


Though we all would likely respond differently, I think it’s safe to say that most of us would want (even if subconsciously) some level of respect. If nothing else, we’d want acknowledgment of our indigenous expertise in the English language and our grasp of American culture. That’s just affirming basic human dignity. We might not be able to advise in all the details of planting a church, but we would know enough to say, “Hey, bro—don’t start by being a creeper in a coffee shop.”


The Posture of an Expert


Now imagine you are the knuckleheaded missionary in this scenario. Do the hard, empathetic work of seeing yourself as a foreigner through the eyes of your indigenous friends. How easily we take the role of the expert! And how graciously they still call us friends.


If we are ever to move beyond the posture of an expert, we first must acknowledge some painful truths.


If we are ever to move beyond the posture of an expert, we first must acknowledge some painful truths. Western missionaries are particularly prone to a number of hidden assumptions about ourselves. Some of them go like this:


We have superior knowledge. Hi, I’m the know-it-all. I am omniscient.


We have unlimited capacity. Hi, I’m the do-it-all. I am omnipresent.


We have ultimate authority. Hi, I’m the lead-it-all. I am omnipotent.


Of course, we would never affirm or verbalize such heresy. But the thing about hidden assumptions is that they’re just that—hidden. When we belittle or brood or overburden, even just within our hearts, it’s like the scene where sweet old Bilbo Baggins momentarily flushes demonic, and we realize the monster really is in there.


When I was a missionary, these assumptions often surfaced in the form of “us-versus-them” language. In my lack of cultural understanding as a foreigner, I resorted to making broad generalizations. And in my uglier moments, I stopped believing the best about others and assumed the worst instead. This is the natural flow of ethnocentrism, that is, using the customs of your own culture as the standards for another culture. We’re all naturally ethnocentristic, but as Duane Elmer writes in Cross-Cultural Servanthood, “Unchecked ethnocentrism turns human beings into objects to be manipulated.” Let us beware!


Don’t be an expert; be a learner instead.


The Posture of a Learner


So, what should we do instead? How can we avoid being blindly self-centered and paternalistic? Well, ironically, an expert would assume he already knows all the ways to avoid that, so don’t be an expert; be a learner instead. This, my friends, is truly counter-cultural. Consider the words of American novelist Marilynne Robinson:


How inclined Americans are to find their way to some sheltering consensus that will tell them what to wear, what to eat, what to read, how to vote, what to think. There is nothing new in this observation [except for] the mass of things they leave unconsidered, neglected, and unknown. (From What Are We Doing Here? Essays)


What she’s pointing out is our inclination toward being generally uninterested. This lack of interest explains why we’re usually not even aware of our cultural preferences until we step outside them. Thus a surprising mark of an effective missionary—and one that does not come naturally—is simply this: curiosity. Curiosity is a deep desire to learn. And when it becomes a daily (and lifelong) posture, it is a gift to our cross-cultural friends and partners.


Even more than a gift, it is an expression of the One who lives in you. Consider the cross-cultural path Jesus took. We know that “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8), but this is only part of the great doctrine of kenosis, the mystery of Jesus’s “self-emptying.” Prior to this statement, Paul writes that Jesus “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:7). Long before the cross, his Incarnation rendered him a baby, then a boy, then an adolescent. Multiple places in the Scriptures confound us with the reality that he wasn’t born a know-it-all, but that he grew (Isa 53:2; Luke 2:52; Heb 5:8), and that growth required curiosity.


The One who lives in you—the omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent One—chooses the posture of a learner.


He already knows you, but he is still genuinely interested in you.


There are no surprises left to him, but he still draws you out with delight.


You are comparatively boring in your mortality, yet he shares his infinite nature with you.


And because of him, your capacity for being a learner is actually far greater than your capacity for being an expert.


So, give your cross-cultural friends and partners this humble Christ-in-you gift. Be curious. Choose the posture of a learner.


(And when you inevitably fail at times to keep that posture, take on its close humble relative: the posture of a repenter. But that’s a coffee shop conversation for another time . . .)



This article was originally featured at The Upstream Collective.

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