“Studying sociology or social work can help you understand the dynamics of persons and society.”
Studying sociology or social work is a good choice. It will help you understand where people are coming from and some of why they think and behave as they do. Understanding the dynamics of people and society is an excellent preparation for life in general, and in preparing you to serve the Lord, particularly in an urban setting. I would also encourage you to take a course in cultural anthropology. These studies will help you understand more about the customs people have and how individuals relate to one another.
To make your studies more meaningful, I would encourage you to be researching at the same time a specific non-North American context, perhaps a place where you might like to serve the Lord. This would give your studies more relevance. In addition, I would suggest that you develop some friendships with individuals from a different heritage, such as African, Asian, Native, or Latin Americans. It would be great to attend an African-American church for a year or more, to learn from its rich heritage of faith. This will also disburden you of any illusions about there being one single American Christian culture, and will give you experiences in cross-cultural communication, specific to matters of faith.
In addition to your studies, I would encourage you to get involved with a campus Christian group (if there is one on your campus) or a student or young adult fellowship at your church. There you can learn how to study the Bible with others, share the gospel with those who don’t know Jesus, and how to help new Christians grow in grace and in the knowledge of Christ.
I would also suggest that you explore opportunities to work with children and the deaf, to see how you enjoy these experiences. I suspect that you’ll find yourself drawn more to one than the other. Many places offer short courses on teaching English as a second language (TESOL). It would help you to have this training whether you go overseas or not, especially with the growing number of immigrants and non-English speakers in North America (assuming you live in North America!)
You might want to go on a summer mission experience, either domestically or abroad. These years of your life are your opportunity to see what is going on, try new experiences and see what your heart responds to. Pray that the Lord would guide you to situations that will open future doors for you.
If you decide to serve as a missionary, you’ll also need Bible training for at least a year or two and maybe more, depending on what you decide to do.
Answer from Jack Voelkel, missionary-in-residence with the Urbana Student Mission Convention; originally published on the Urbana website. Previously Jack served thirty years with Latin America Mission in Peru and Columbia. Find other answers and articles from Jack and others on the Urbana blog.
“Consider community development or children in crisis.”
There are many possibilities for using social work overseas. In some cases you may be able to help a community develop a program. You may be able to assist a local or regional government in dealing with one group such as the physically handicapped, hearing impaired, blind, etc.
Another area of real possibility is working with children in crisis. WEC has some options. There are many ways to serve, from working with an established orphanage, to helping develop a program through a local church or local government. A few places may have salaried positions, although in most cases you will work on a volunteer basis (which probably means raising your own support).
Answer from David, Director of Mobilization with WEC International. David has been a missionary for twenty-five years, first as a field worker in West Africa and now at WEC USA headquarters.
“I see many opportunities for those with social-work experience and skills.”
Counseling and social work skills are a huge asset in working overseas in many situations. Especially in community-based cultures (which represents a large portion of the unreached) combining quality social work with church-planting and other ministries is a great way to demonstrate the Kingdom while it’s preached. We’re currently serving in Cambodia, and I can tell you that a gospel-minded social worker could keep very busy here.
Many countries hope to see social workers come from within their population. Most likely you would be involved in helping to develop local social workers or “lay” social workers made up of local Christians.
Another good thought is not only to study social work, but to get some real-world experience in the job before coming to another country.
Answer from Jesse in Cambodia, who has served with World Orphans for four years.