Tradecraft is the set of skills one acquires though experience in a particular trade. Seasoned businessmen know how to properly vet new leadership. Exceptional communicators are aware of their tone, gestures, volume, and cadence because they know that delivery is as important as content. Good authors don’t forget pay attention to the details that make their stories believable. The master carpenter learns to measure with stock rather than a tape. A chef learns not to “measure” at all. Spies quickly learn to handle valuable information carefully in hostile environments. For the pros, these “little tricks” become force of habit. When your livelihood depends on results, you develop good tradecraft.

Missionaries are rarely taught tradecraft. They learn about people groups and theology and such, but rarely does arrive on the field mean the kind of old-pro-to-idealistic-newbie kind of real-world training a person needs to be effective in cross-cultural ministry. The result is a huge learning curve and lots of ruined missionaries.

If I were going to make a missionary tradecraft handbook (and maybe I will one of these days), it would include:

  • How to have a long and meaningful conversation in an unfamiliar environment with someone you’ve just met.
  • How to learn language. Most missionaries only learn how speak a language. Good tradecraft would include mastery of the art of language learning.
  • On-the-spot profiling. When the police do it, profiling is bad. When missionaries do it, they’re able to communicate more appropriately with their audience by contextualizing their behavior, speech, and social posture. This skill also helps missionaries avoid bad situations, neighborhoods, and scams. When everything is strange to you, it’s really hard to distinguish between different and bad.
  • Efficient and effective online communication. Believe it or not, many missionaries still spend hours printing monthly newsletters and stuffing envelopes. In the good ol’ days, this was good tradecraft. Today, it’s time-consuming, slow, and counter-productive.
  • How to share the gospel. Talk to any old-timer on the mission field and he’ll demonstrate his preferred way to “present the gospel.” Through experience, insight, and personal interactions, he’s developed a way to talk about Jesus that he’s comfortable with and is sure to make sense to whoever it is he’s talking to. He practices this “presentation” on a regular basis.
  • Filters for “good” information and “not as good” information.
  • A “Spider-sense” for evil. Missionaries live in spiritually dangerous places. The ones who survive are keenly in tune with the supernatural world around them, and have a well-developed sense for when the enemy is present and active. He positions himself for obedience- to stand, watch, and pray, or to run.
  • Someone you can trust. Through crises, doubt, discouragement, boredom, sin, success, and celebration, it’s good tradecraft to have a trustworthy friend.

4 thoughts on “Tradecraft

  1. Cool idea mate, I second some of the ideas here. Being a missionary takes something that I have often felt to be intuition but just might be gifting. A handbook on how to hone the craft would be invaluable.

  2. Can’t agree enough with this. We have a short term team coming from the States this Fall, and I’ve just finished an 8-page synopsis of what they should know while here (how to act, what NOT to say, etc.)–and this is just for a week-long stay.

    I’m not with a mission agency myself, but I’ve been absolutely shocked how many missionaries were sent by various agencies and denominations to my field with what seemed to be no cursory education on the history or cultural practices of the locals. Because another language is not required, it almost appeared that the agencies didn’t devote much (or any) time to appropriate preparations as you described. Unfortunately, almost all of them have left either before their term was up or before the perfunctory 18 months that most American missionaries leave by.

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