Last summer, I served as a short-term missionary in Utrera, Spain, for six weeks. During this time, I lived with a missionary, taught English and participated in a local Spanish church. God taught me many things during my time teaching in Spain. Here are five key lessons I would pass on to someone else considering teaching overseas for a short period of time.
1. Seize the Opportunity to Share Christ
Teaching English might not be the first thing you think of when you consider ministry opportunities overseas, but teaching English can help you build those relationships with locals, giving you a chance to share Christ.
Most of my time in Utrera was spent in a unique tutoring position alongside Nicolás*, a local Spaniard who teaches English classes from his home. We practiced English with one to three students at a time, so we would just ask them questions about themselves and talk about what they were interested in. Through these conversations, Nicolás gave me a clear example of how a teacher can share Christ.
Nicolás continually directed conversations to spiritual topics, opening up opportunities to share about his faith and Jesus. His students knew what he believed, and he built meaningful relationships with them. When one student found out she didn’t get the scholarships she needed, he was able to provide true encouragement.
He was a great example to me of how teaching is a ministry. Teaching English is Nicolás’s job, and he incorporates what he does with what he believes.
2. Relationships are the Means and the End
If you teach overseas, the relationships you make are your best opportunities to live out your faith and share what you believe. Many people won’t believe the gospel the first time they hear it, but as your relationships grows and you continue to share Christ, they may come to the truth of who he is.
One example of this is my relationship with Isabela* and Sofia* — two of the students I taught. They are both around my age, which made it easy for us to get along. We first connected in the classroom. Then, we had opportunity to spend time together outside of class on two occasions. That’s when we became real friends. We told jokes, they taught me some Spanish, I helped them practice their English and we had a great time. In the end, I had the opportunity to share the gospel with Isabela before going home.
3. Go Outside Your Comfort Zone
Going outside your comfort zone can be hard, but I learned it’s ultimately what happens the entire time you are overseas. If you serve as a missionary, embrace this, and look for ways to be pushed even further outside your comfort zone, because that is where you will have to rely on God in ways you haven’t before.
It was outside my comfort zone to fly by myself to another part of the world. It was outside my comfort zone to know zero Spanish but spend a whole morning in a Spanish-speaking church. It was outside my comfort zone to spend time with people on my own who knew little English while knowing no Spanish myself.
I had an opportunity while in Spain to go out with one of my students and his friends for an evening. I was intimidated at the thought of going with a bunch of people I didn’t know, especially since I didn’t speak the language, but I ended up having a great time. I learned a lot about the people and culture of Spain, and I built on my relationship with that student in a big way. We were much closer after spending time with each other outside of class.
4. Learn the Language and the Culture
I found that it is very important to try to learn the culture and language of the country you are serving because when you do that, it communicates to every local that you care enough to relate to them in their language and culture. They know it is not what you would regularly do, so to see you try — though you may not always succeed — shows you care about them and where they are from.
This is something I actually didn’t do very well on my mission trip. I was planning on taking some Spanish classes to pick up as much of the language as I could. But when I got to Utrera, I felt so overwhelmed by my lack of Spanish and the small amount of time I was going to be there that I skipped the classes, feeling it was a hopeless cause.
I regret this. I would have been better off learning as much as I could rather than just throwing up my hands in despair. It would have been another way to show the Spanish people I met that I cared about them, their language and their culture.
5. Be Open to Growth
If you go into a cross-cultural experience with any preconceived notions or a closed mind, you might miss out on the awesome ways God wants to help you grow. Being overseas is not always easy and is often very hard, but if you enter into these difficult situations with the attitude that God is going to mature you through the difficulties, he will.
God refined me in so many ways during my time overseas. He taught me through the church, traveling alone, teaching English, relationships with students and so much more. I prayed before I left that God would push me outside my comfort zone and teach me about himself, missions, the world and how much he cares for all of it.
I would go back in a heartbeat and will never regret spending the summer in Spain.
* names changed