Are Missionary’s Children Missionaries?

Missionary’s Children

Rachel Jones works and writes in East Africa. Her next book, Stronger than Death : How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa, releases in October (Plough).

In 1793, Dorothy Carey, pregnant with her fourth child, refused to accompany her husband, William, to India. He took their eldest son and boarded the ship without her. Evangelism over family! At the last minute, with one day to spare, friends convinced Dorothy to go. She hastily packed and boarded the boat. She subsequently lost one of her children (after losing two in England) and, eventually, her mind.

In later generations, children as young as five were left in England or the United States while their parents served as missionaries abroad. Evangelism over family! For their education, for their protection, for the success of the mission.

This history lingers in the subconsciousness of many Christians. One of the first questions today’s missionaries are asked when they announce their intention to move abroad is “Are you bringing the children?”

When the person asking contemplates the question, they retract it sheepishly. Of course the children are going. To Paris, Nairobi, Beijing, Beirut, La Paz.

Once there, missionary parents face a relatively new question, one that few actively address before leaving their passport country but one that comes laden with unspoken expectations. What is the role of the family in kingdom ministry?

It’s Complicated

The question is complicated. A thorough answer requires consideration of physical context; type of missionary work; expectations of organizations and sending churches; the ages, personalities, and faith of the children; the personal conviction of parents; and more.

The question is problematic. After all, are the children of surgeons involved in surgery? Are teachers’ kids expected to help plan lessons or grade exams? Does family play a role in trading stocks and bonds on Wall Street? There is an expectation, unique to ministry, that family will be intentionally involved in the missionary parent’s career. Today, supporters further expect to be able to follow all the details of the family’s “adventure” on social media.

The question is also necessary. Mission work directly affects family life. A missionary career is all-encompassing. There’s a physical move, maybe across the planet. All family members face culture shock. Schooling options shift. Relationships with relatives or friends change. Most other careers don’t inherently impact the language one’s children will speak or whether one’s family needs yellow fever vaccinations.

I asked missionaries if they viewed their family as involved in their kingdom ministry. Responses fell loosely into three categories:

Yes, absolutely.

No way.

Well … kind of?

Almost every response added something to the effect of “It’s complicated.”

Early Idealism

Jane, who served in East Asia, told me, “When we went overseas with our first child, I had grand visions of ministering to people as a family. It was exciting. We assumed that a thriving ministry meant having people in our home a lot. But this started to take a toll on our family.”

Rachael Litchfield, who has served in Thailand and Cambodia, explained, “When we took our children to Southeast Asia, I imagined they would be totally at home with loads of local friends, speak the language fluently, and be integral to our family making an impact for the kingdom. In reality they, like us, had experiences both good and bad, went through ongoing culture stress, and grieved losses, especially in their transient relationships.”

Jane and Rachael are not alone. Many of the missionaries with whom I spoke shared a similar grand vision, initially. Children are integrated into local schools or, because of a flexible homeschooling schedule, participate in outreach and service activities alongside their parents. The whole family is fluent, culturally competent, and delights in talking about Jesus. They form natural communities around children’s sporting or musical events, with neighbors, and with the families of the parents’ coworkers or ministry contacts. Their home is always open and a place of safety and connection. They are a missionary family, with a corporate vision of being a blessing among the nations, in word and deed. It is a beautiful ideal.

Sometimes, this is actually what happens.

Amy was 13 when her parents and five sisters moved to Kenya, where her father worked as a missionary doctor. “From the beginning, my parents said they wanted us to be part of the ministry at the hospital. We went to the pediatric ward once a week, played with the kids, and sang songs. In high school, we helped with community health outreach and organized the hospital storage closets,” she explained. This influenced her heart for service and education and directed her future studies. “I’m very thankful for it,” Amy said. “My parents taught by example and helped me to learn a perspective that went beyond my own nose.”

Incorporating the whole family in ministry normalizes what might seem radical and allows children to serve. Andie, working in Turkey, told me, “We encourage our kids to find ways to serve. Greet a visitor, sweep a floor, clean up a spill, work the projector. I don’t think of it as having to do with our ministry specifically. These are things I would encourage any new believer to do. Find a way to serve, even if it’s refilling the toilet paper.”

Craig Greenfield and his wife, Nay, have raised their kids in Vancouver and Cambodia. Craig, author of Subversive Jesus, told me, “Where people [tend to] go wrong is divorcing ministry from lifestyle. Ministry becomes something outside the home. The home is dedicated to family. With that dichotomy, it’s difficult and even unnatural to involve kids. But when you live an intentional lifestyle following Jesus, it’s difficult not to include your kids.” In Canada, the Greenfields welcomed homeless friends and people struggling with addiction or prostitution. “They interacted with our children when they were in our home and sitting around our dinner table. Those interactions were some of the most healing times for our neighbors and friends.”

Travis and Lydia, who serve in Kenya, shared how magnetic their children are. “My sons join me to visit a beloved Muslim friend to study the Bible and Qur’an,” Lydia said. “She spoils them as if they were her own grandchildren and they adore her snacks and tea. Week by week, they learn both about Islam and about their own faith in our ongoing discussions.” Including their kids in ministry also gives Travis and Lydia a chance to disciple their children and friends at the same time. “In discipleship, the demonstration of a normal and healthy family—hugging children, appreciating spouses, and so on—is the best way to teach family life,” they said.

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Source: Christianity Today