Mission as Learning Together

Learning together on the journey

Last week I read a column by Omid Safi on On Being – a thoughtful radio program which also has a blog, columns and podcasts focused on civil conversations, the complexity of human life, and wisdom and moral imagination.  I am always challenged and uplifted by what I read or hear from the people at On Being.

Omid Safi’s post last week was titled “The Art of Learning Side-by-Side” and he tells a lovely story about a mentor and his apprentice.  I encourage you to read it here:  https://onbeing.org/blog/omid-safi-the-art-of-learning-side-by-side/

Safi articulates the human desire for learning as something that we want to do in community.  We want to trust in those who will walk with us on the journey of life.  We want partners on the journey rather than an authority figure who tells us what to do on our own.

In my conversations with young adults who participated in short-term mission trips with their church youth groups, they all talked about experiencing a situation in which they could make a friend who they wanted to be like, someone who had faith that they could see, someone who could walk the journey of life with them.

Learning together in community

Larry Duggins describes the longing for this kind of connection in his book Together: Community as a Means of Grace:  “Our Creator lives in a constant state of life-giving community, thriving through an inseparable bond between Father, Son and Spirit.  Our Creator made us in the Creator’s image, so we, ourselves, long for the same kind of community with each other and the Creator.  Through learning to love each other in community, we live into our nature as the reflection of the image of God, fulfilling the desire of God, which draws us closer to God.”  We learn to love each other not alone and willing it to be so, but by learning together, on the journey of life.

Mission trips provide a unique opportunity for people to experience learning side-by-side what it means to know God’s grace more deeply, and what it looks like to love our neighbors.  If the mission trips are to places where people know the same language as we speak, learning side-by-side means that we don’t judge their cultural differences.  This isn’t easy in the U.S., where we are brought up to cheer for our hometown team and disparage the other guys – just listen to the trash talk around major sports events, how easy it can be to dismiss people from another place.  I grew up thinking stereotypical things about people in Oklahoma and Louisiana, until I met some and became friends with them.  I’m still not a fan of gumbo, but I know that I have much to learn from my friends in Louisiana even as I go to help with mission projects.

Language learning as community building

If mission trips are to places where people do not speak our language, it is critical for us who travel to learn the language before we go.  If we are to truly embrace community and to learn together on the journey, then we must be ready to listen carefully to our hosts.  Our preparation must include language learning before the trip, just as much as we include vaccinations, passport updates, and supply lists for packing.  Learning together and building community together means that we learn and teach, we give and take.

Help us to help each other

According to Dr. Todd Johnson of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, Spanish has been the “leading language of church membership in the world” since 1980.  If we are to truly help each other, then our mission trips must be conducted knowing we learn as much from our hosts as they do from us.  In this sense our mission trips are done with an attitude of humility – if we travel to a place where people worship in Spanish, then we learn Spanish before we go, so that we can truly learn side-by-side.

John Wesley emphasized the importance of mutuality in the Christian life.  He wrote these verses for Methodist small groups, so they would remember the importance of learning together on the journey:

“Help us to help each other, Lord, each other’s cross to bear;  Let each his friendly aid afford, and feel his brother’s care.  Help us to build each other up, our little stock improve; increase our faith, confirm our hope, and perfect us in love.”

Rev. Larry Duggins’ book is available from the Missional Wisdom Foundation bookstore:  https://www.missionalwisdom.com/bookstore/  Quote taken from page 25; John Wesley’s prayer quoted on page 26

Dr. Todd Johnson’s work is cited in a report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life:   http://www.pewforum.org/files/2005/05/051805-global-christianity.pdf

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