Skills Not Taught in Bible School
By Marti Wade
G.K. Chesterton was famously asked what book he’d want with him if stranded on a deserted island. Everyone may have expected the outspoken Christian to say, “The Bible,” but he answered, “Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.”
Maybe you’ve experienced this tension: a head and heart full of Bible knowledge to sustain you, a story to tell to the nations (and a strategy for doing it), but a sad lack of practical skills you didn’t know you’d need when God led you to serve in a culture far from home. Knowing your way around a spreadsheet, a Greek lexicon, or the New York subway system may not so quickly apply in your journey to the nations.
Or on the other hand, you may have discovered that what you learned growing up on the farm, from your scout leader or grandparent, or in that shop or home economics class has served you well.
So how does one get those practical skills?
The days of “jungle camp” and other in-depth, hands-on pre-field training experiences may have passed for many. But a lot of young missionaries get a taste of what they’re in for on a short-term (or medium-length) mission trip. They may also be able to count on a solid orientation when they arrive on the field, and/or a mentor to walk with them as questions and conundrums arise.
A local friend or host family may be a big help. They know the ropes and can take care of the newcomer. They will also soon see that the rookie doesn’t know how to use the stove or the toilet, greet people, or flag down a taxi.
Can We Help?
What does this sad gap in daily life skills mean for us as mission mobilizers? As we seek to inspire and equip Christians for God’s global purposes, what practical skills may they already have that we can affirm? What experiences can we encourage them to seek out now to be better prepared for months and years to come?
Three Things People Need to Know
Here are three items on my list. Can you help me flesh out the list with added items or your own hard-won experience? I’ll include your input in What World Travelers Should Know Before They Go, Part 2.
1. How to Feed Themselves
Those who starve do not get far. A season in Central Asia helped me learn my way around a tea service, how to handle bread (which is considered sacred), and methods for eating gracefully with my right hand rather than utensils. Stick around very long, though, and you need to know more.
The best way to learn to make the “national dish,” whatever it may be, is from a local. In some places, hiring a cook (or an all-around house helper who can cook) makes perfect sense. But someone who only knows how to microwave processed foods with instructions in English on the box might wish they’d learned to make meals from scratch before leaving home.
Action Step: Mobilizer, take that would-be missionary under your wing. Get them a copy of More With Less or The Expat Cookbook. Give them some assignments or invite them over to make some dishes together. If possible, send them off knowing how to cook a few things that remind them of home using local ingredients.
2. How to Get Around
It’s not wise to drive in another country without enough language and cultural fluency to navigate a traffic stop or accident. And many a mission worker never feels up to the many challenges of driving a car in another land. Fair enough. Using public transportation offers its own hurdles but is a good place to start.
And what about a motorbike? A Pew study from a few years back claimed 87% of households in Thailand have at least one scooter or motorcycle, followed by 85% in Vietnam, 85% in Indonesia, and 83% in Malaysia. (See Countries with Highest Motorbike Usage.) Interesting, huh?
The recent book Global Christianity points out that there are 10,000 missionaries in those four countries! I bet a lot of them have stories about their moped mishaps. They could probably sit around the campfire for a long time telling those tales and talking about how glad they are they survived so long.
Action Step: Got a friend heading somewhere motorbikes rule the road? Help them get off to a safer start. A friend told me she took a two-day motorcycle endorsement course before she left the U.S. to serve in Southeast Asia. “My parents were the ones who thought of it and paid for me to take the class before I went,” she says. “Best going-away present they could have given me!”
And that leads to…
3. How to Do Basic Repairs
“I know someone who met Don Richardson many years ago,” adds my friend. “He was in awe of this missionary giant and asked him what he wished he’d known before going to the field, expecting something brilliant and deep about missiology or the character of God. Don’s answer was, ‘I wish I had learned to repair small engines!’”
While many modern life skills may be less relevant in some contexts, a basic ability to use tools and make repairs comes in handy worldwide. Basic plumbing and electrical know-how may also be essential in places where people still fix things rather than throwing them out.
This is not my strong suit. Any mechanical skills I had in the decades I was single have gotten rusty since I married a man who knows what he’s doing. But you may be different. You may know things, things you can teach your mission-minded pal who may not have grown up with such knowledge. Give it some thought.
Action Step: Why not encourage your friend going into missions to contact folks in the field and ask what would be helpful to learn before they go? Maybe they could head to a local college that offers community classes. Or you could design a course together using free YouTube videos, online articles, or _______ for Dummies books.
What Else Does a World Traveler Need to Know?
I raised the question on Facebook. A savvy colleague jumped in to add the following:
“Cutting hair, driving a manual transmission car, speaking softly, packing efficiently, how to avoid getting pick-pocketed and other basic personal security tips, journaling, basic first aid, staying nutritionally healthy, basic internet security.”
Wow. I am pretty sure he could have continued for quite a while in that vein. What would you add? My two bits: how to build a fire that won’t go out and how to hand wash and mend clothing—skills I’ve seen short-termers struggle with.
The point is not to become omnicompetent so you never embarrass yourself, depend on others, or experience frustration in another culture. That’s not even possible. Nor should we encourage people to set their sights on avoiding all inconveniences or living just like they did in their home country. The fact is that every expatriate will have to adapt, shelving old skills for a season and dusting off or developing new ones.
The point is this: Let’s not send people to the field handicapped by a lack of practical skills “everyone knows” in the place they go, skills they may currently lack but could get a head start on before leaving home.
On a final note, this may also be a sneaky way to involve more people in your mission mobilization efforts. Tap folks in your church or community who may not realize they have something to give on the mission front. Teaching a missionary to bake bread, ride a motorcycle, or change a tire could be just as valuable as getting themselves a passport or writing a check to a mission agency.
Got a story from your own experience or a word of wisdom for those mobilizing and mentoring tomorrow’s missionaries? Send it my way, and we’ll fold it into Part 2.