by David Langford
10 suggestions to gain the most benefits from your visit to the field.
Even in an out-of-the-way corner of northeastern Zaire we receive visitors from home several times a year. Sometimes mission executives, sometimes pastors or interested Christians. They come for a variety of reasons: to get up-to-date on what’s happening on the front lines; to get a general understanding of missions; to visit friends and family.
I’ve often asked myself, What do they hope to gain from their visit? After seeing how long they stayed, whom they talked to, and what they asked, I still wondered the same thing after they left.
A missions executive once asked me before he came how he could get more from his visit. Since then I’ve added to the suggestions I gave him. While these ideas focus primarily on preparation for the visitor, they can also help missionaries to prepare more adequately for the visit. Missionaries and nationals alike will be able to gain more and give more if they take the time to prepare. Considering the cost of such visits, it’s well worth the effort.
Following are 10 suggestions to gain the most benefits from your visit to the field.
1. Clarify your objectives. It’s not enough to say you’re going to get an update on what’s happening, or to learn something about missions. What do you want to learn? Do you want to discover strategies God is blessing? To make friends with certain nationals? To discover where and why some missionaries are hurting? To find solutions to certain problems? What problems? To survey personnel needs? There are many reasons to visit the field, but clarifying your objectives is crucial to pre-trip planning and to make sure you will reach them.
For example, if you intend to gain understanding about what the church or mission is doing to meet needs in a certain place, you have to plan more than a series of quick visits to many different places. You must include in-depth conversations with missionaries and nationals.
If your objective is to find out how and why some missionaries are hurting, you will need to plan ample time for both group and individual discussions with missionaries.
Before arriving you need to be clear on whether your focus will be primarily on missionaries, or the national church, or the unchurched, or some combination of all of them. This will determine your schedule.
2. Identify the key people to see. If you have some clear objectives, you can identify the key resource people. Ask the people you already know in the country to give you a list of the five most important, people for you to talk to about what you want to learn. Ask the same of national leaders. It’s essential to know resource people through both missionaries and nationals, because they may have different ideas about who the key people are.
Through such inquiries you can begin to identify strategic people before you leave. Once you start talking with them, ask, "Who else would you recommend I talk to about this?" Allow time to expand your resource group on location.
3. Take enough time. Most visitors are extremely busy and have only a week or two, perhaps three, for their visits. They want to see as much as they can in as short a time as possible. However, if you are not careful, you will sacrifice a true grasp of the situation for a superficial exposure. This goes back to your objectives. To gain adequate understanding, you will need to take more time at fewer places. Perhaps you can negotiate a compromise between depth and spread of exposure.
4. Ask penetrating questions. (For this section I’ve adapted the ideas in The Ethnographic Interview, by anthropologist James Spradley (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979, pp. 78-91). You’ll go with a list of questions, but hold yours until later. You will learn more by discovering how your resource people see things, their grid for seeing their world, their questions and answers to those questions. In other words, try to be inductive at first rather than deductive, and that way you’ll get the insider’s perspective.
Spradley suggests starting with a "grand tour" question, not something like "How are things going?" or "How do you see the work of Christ in your country?" Expand your question and let the person know you want a detailed response. For example, "You’ve been involved in theological education in your country now for 15 years. I know little about what’s been done in your country in this area of ministry. In fact, I believe even our system of theological education is very different from yours. Could you start from zero and explain to me how theological education got started in your country? What are its different forms? What are its objectives? What are the things you are struggling with? Where would you like theological education to be in 10 years?"
Such a long question will elicit a long, descriptive response. Let your source expand at length without much interruption from you. You want as much raw data as you can get. Take brief notes, especially on things you don’t understand, or would like to probe later.
After hearing the complete response, you can back up. Probe for specific examples. Try to understand key terms. A question about a typical day in the life of a pastor can be followed by, "What did you do yesterday, from morning till evening?"
Most times such discussion will be complicated by the need for translation, but the results are worth the added effort. By the way, selecting the right translator is critical. You don’t want your interviewee to feel inhibited by your choice of translator.
5. Keep your feet on the ground. Trying to see as many people and places as possible in a limited time, you will be tempted to fly from place to place. But this can give you a very distorted view of the field. Do all you can to insure at least some ground travel, even if it means muddy, ratted roads, so you can feel and experience what the missionaries and nationals do.
6. Determine what your personal contribution will be. You may have a clear idea of what you want to gain from your visit, but what do you want to give? You need to identify what you can contribute to both missionaries and nationals. This will depend on your gifts and experience.
For some, it will be teaching, for others fixing up things, for others counseling. Pastors from the West can enrich national pastors and churches by exposing them to their experience and churches.
I remember one visitor who was a musician with extensive experience fine-tuning church choral groups for radio broadcasting. He attended the practice sessions of two local choral groups and commended them for certain qualities and offered some suggestions. The main point is that planning to contribute will produce more benefit than just hoping it will happen.
7. Be a participant-observer. Anthropologists learn more by participating in the local culture than by just ob-serving it. Find out what is going on, and then try to it in. Attend a political rally, an ordination service, a village court, or whatever is happening. Like a good photographer, catch the as it happens.
One of the benefits of is that it permits you to verify correct what you have been told in interviews. Most people report the ideal, but if you participate you can see the realities and correct or modify what you have told.
8. Encourage the national church. In Zaire people are not eager to have visitors take their pictures, but they will cooperate if you offer to them a copy. In the same way, nationals don’t get excited about being observed by visitors, unless they can see ‘ some benefits for themselves.
Add to this the fact that many people on the field are extremely poor. We .have to consider how to share some of our abundance with our brothers and sisters in ways that will make strong and independent.
The churches are not necessarily for huge donations, but generosity speaks loudly. One visitor noticed that a choral group needed a guitar and he sent one when he got home. Needless to say, he is well remembered.
9. Give constructive feedback. On the field, missionaries joke about the outside experts who come with instant solutions. But there is another side. Often, because they are experts and because they are outsiders, they can see things that have eluded insiders for decades. As you visit and you will gain some insights. Don’t be afraid to share them sensitively. This can encourage and help both missionaries and nationals.
10. Get the most out of what you have learned. After investing time and money, how can you get the greatest returns? This will depend on your objectives and your influence. Sometimes a visitor can communicate field realities to those back home more clearly than a missionary can.
Other returns will include stimulating prayer, writing articles, and improving your own ministry because of what you have seen.
Visits to the field by mission executives, pastors, and friends have great potential for good both for the visitors and for those visited. The benefits can be greatly enhanced if the visitors have clear objectives and plans. These 10 suggestions will help you to plan your visit more carefully. If you follow them, the missionaries and the nationals will appreciate the blessing of your coming.
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