These kids are confronted with special opportunities and unique problems. The first step to helping them is understanding the world through their eyes.
The issue of taking children to a foreign mission field and raising them overseas has long been a matter of debate. Grandparents wonder, “Will they be safe? How will they be educated? Will they have proper medical care?”
The local church asks, “How can we support a family with so many children? Why do they have so many children? How can they do the work they are called to do and care for their children?”
Even the mission community has struggled with these concerns.
Considering all these questions, how can the local church, as well as family and friends, provide the financial, emotional, and spiritual support missionary families need in order to thrive?
Let’s consider three aspects: (1) What is the historical framework? (2) What is so unique about today’s missionary kid (MK)? (3) How can the church respond to their needs?
Historically missionaries and missionary couples went to the field with the expectation of spending their entire lives there. Travel was arduous and expensive. The missionary couple bore and raised their children on the field and rarely returned to the United States. The children would be sent back for college, but frequently the parents remained. Furloughs were few and far between. Missionary families might receive “care packages” from the women’s groups of the local churches, but little other communication. When families did return, the parents were placed on a pedestal by the local church and the children were viewed as somewhat of an oddity with their strange mannerisms and out-of-style clothing.
Many mission organizations required missionaries to send their children to boarding school by age 6—for the education and socialization, and to free the parents to preach the gospel. There was a sense that separation from one’s children was just one of the sacrifices missionaries were called to make.
In the last several decades the practice of Christian missions has begun to change. More people are going on mission trips lasting a few weeks to a year or longer. Travel improvements allow missionaries to return to the States to visit family and supporters more frequently. More mature families with older children are choosing to go to the mission field. Other families are returning when their children reach adolescence, with parents sometimes opting to return to the field when kids are “out of the nest.” In addition to boarding schools and national schools, home school curriculum and online education options are available.
Characteristics of MKs
Each missionary kid is unique. Some wear their MK badges proudly and enjoy sharing their lifestyle. Others prefer not to be labeled as MKs and behave like chameleons, fitting into every situation or circumstance and being little noticed by others.
Yet they always have a vague discomfort or a sense of not belonging. They don’t belong to their home culture (the United States) and they don’t belong to the “host” culture (the mission field). Many refer to them as “third culture kids.” They develop their own culture—a unique blend of cultures that includes a sense of “rootlessness” and cycles of transitions and losses. They may have been born and raised on the mission field, but may have lived in the States for 6 to 12 months every 3 to 4 years.
Life goes on for their friends who live in the States and those who live on the mission field. When the MKs return, they’ve lost a sense of continuity. Or they may have been in middle school or junior high when their parents moved across country to prepare for their mission service. They may have then gone to Canada or France to learn the national language of the African country where they will be serving. Finally they end up in an African village learning yet another language. The questions “where are you from?” or “where is your home?” always bring a hesitant response.
On the mission field, the MKs generally appear different, but in the States they become “hidden immigrants.” They look like everyone else, but they don’t think like everyone else. What everyone else knows as culturally acceptable behavior is foreign to the MK. They may not know (or even care) about the latest fads and fashions, TV shows, movies, or music.
The skills and behaviors that were important in their host culture are not important here. Thought processes and value systems are different, and they are always a little “out of step.” They may be able to traverse international airports and customs, but not be able to navigate the local Wal-Mart or easily use the soda dispenser at a local restaurant. They may be well versed in world events and politics, speak several languages, and view American teen culture as shallow and egocentric, while secretly yearning to be like their peers.
They are confused and overwhelmed by the fast pace of American culture and the number of choices—such as pizza toppings and styles of crust. The abundance and waste seem sinful.
MKs may be more comfortable with adult conversations and less comfortable with their peers. They don’t understand typical American sarcasm and shallow relationships and seek deeper, more authentic ones.
They may view the American church as too oriented toward entertainment, too ethnocentric, and underconcerned with the lost, starving, and dying in Third World countries.
The Church’s Response
The church is uniquely suited to meet the needs of the missionary family. In fact, the church and the missionary family have a symbiotic relationship: neither can exist without the other.
Prayer is the most important thing missionary families need from the local church. A missionary woman recently told women in her supporting church, “What I need most are five women who will intercede daily in prayer for me, my family, and the country where I am serving.”
Pay close attention to the monthly newsletters, but look a little deeper and inquire about prayer concerns related to the children and parents (and not just their ministry). Recognize that missionary families struggle with the same personal, relational, and child-behavior problems as every other family. In fact, Satan is seeking to devour faithful families on the mission field.
Find out what each family member would like to receive as part of a care package. Set up Skype calls with families overseas and consider visiting them just to pray and provide encouragement. Insist that they take an annual vacation and rest.
Find ways to meet the family’s needs when they are on furlough in the States. Provide a reentry retreat for the whole family. See that they have suitable housing and transportation. Be sure they have fashionable clothing and take the time to explain things rather than assuming they should know.
Remember that their style of worship may have been quite different and the MKs may not have participated in a youth group or know what is expected of them. If there are college-age MKs whose parents are overseas, invite them for weekends and holidays and be their “home away from home.” Listen, really listen, with genuine interest—and not just superficial politeness—to the stories of the parents and children.
A missionary family’s life is neither always glamorous nor always abhorrent—but often it is someplace in between. The travel may be exciting or it may grow old; the scenery may be exotic or drab; and life may be very hard—with tumultuous political situations, fuel and food shortages, inconsistent or nonexistent electricity, and deplorable living conditions—or the family may have many of the modern conveniences. Each family’s situation is different.
Refrain from criticizing their lifestyle, educational choices, and children’s behavior. Encourage your children to interact with their children. Their family is just like your family—but God’s calling on their lives is different.
Welcome them into your home. Get to really know them and appreciate their differences. Partner with them in their ministry and your family will be truly blessed.
A good resource about this topic is the book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken (Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009).
Lana West, coordinator of child safety services with Pioneer Bible Translators, lives in Jacksonville, Illinois.