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?
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:
Well ... kind of?
Almost every response added something to the effect of “It’s complicated.”
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.
Today’s social media interactions—the dopamine hit of likes and comments and the stream of opinions—can pressure missionary families to curate that ideal, uncomplicated image of family life in ways not experienced in previous generations. But families ministering together rarely look like that ideal image.
Yes, children can be magnetic, but in some settings, foreign kids also attract unwanted attention and even aggressive touching of their hair or skin. One mother said, about bringing her boys to urban areas, “The kids there were so tough—hair-pulling and name-calling.” Parents must also be alert to realities of sexual harassment and assault, issues rampant around the world today but even more commonplace in cultures where women are regularly victimized. These difficult topics are not often discussed in pre-field orientations. Several parents expressed feeling unprepared for and surprised by these realities.
Even when not abusive, the attention can be exhausting, especially when it invades home life. Abigail (a pseudonym) said her girls grow weary of needing to change from shorts into long skirts when Muslim friends visit their home. “But at the same time, they enjoy the interactions, so we try to strike a complicated balance,” she explained.
While parents often assume their home will be a place of ministry, for many it can start to become a place of stress for their kids. Jane, who was initially excited about the possibilities of family and ministry, explained that as her daughter learned more of the language, “our outgoing daughter became withdrawn. She understood not only the praise heaped on her but the criticism as well.” Jane’s husband also struggled and, instead of their home serving as a place of ministry, she says, “I ended up doing a lot of ministry out by myself.”
Missionaries also can’t assume their children will share their beliefs as they age. In the era of social media, it is naïve for parents to think their children will be isolated from secular or other religious worldviews, even if they live in a rural location, are homeschooled, or are surrounded by Christian ministry. Jonathan and Elizabeth Trotter, missionaries in Southeast Asia and authors of Serving Well, addressed this. Elizabeth said, “We must give our children the choice to believe, just like our Father has given us the choice to believe. I cannot believe for them, but I can pray. I can model a faith that isn’t afraid to ask questions, and I can be unafraid of their questions.” Jonathan added, “Forcing missionary kids into a faith that is not yet their own risks alienation and anger. I would rather my kids be honest questioners than dishonest hypocrites.”
Nor can missionaries assume their children will want to talk about Jesus, even if they do love him. Jonathan said, “Children of missionaries didn’t sign up to be missionaries, and the idea that our kids should be little evangelists for Jesus isn’t fair. It might look sweet early on, and supporters will eat it up, but it’s dangerous and too often damaging. Our kids didn’t go to seminary or prepare vocationally. They haven’t wrestled through the deep questions of calling. They’re just kids, and we should let them grow and develop as such.”
Even when kids want to be involved in ministry with their parents, the culture in which they live can be prohibitive. Becky (a pseudonym), described to me her desire to have been more a part of her parents’ work in a strict Islamic area. “I wanted to be more involved but was held back by fear—fear of the unknown and of my inability to communicate. There were also limitations because of my gender. I was limited in relationships with boys my age. Many girls my age were either married or expected to be soon. Being part of my parents’ ministry wasn’t what I was called to do in that point of my life, but being a member of my missionary family gives me responsibility to at least be partially involved. The extent of that was to pray and set a good example of how a Christian family relates.”
A Different Reality
Teenagers facing cross-cultural struggles, dangerous locations, harassment, foreign language learning, social media, security concerns—it all fits under the umbrella of “normal” in modern missionary family life. But it is not what many missionaries initially anticipate. This gap between an ideal and the reality can come as a shock. Most parents I spoke with expressed surprise, disappointment, even disillusionment, about the role their family actually played in their ministry.
If parents are unable to adjust or abandon that ideal, if they face pressure from a sending organization or home church, if parents feel judged for the decisions they make (boarding school, homeschool, leaving the field, moving to a new location to avoid harassment, and so on), they struggle. Some start to question their family, their call, sometimes even their own faith. If we are trusting God, why is this so hard? What is the point of living here, away from grandparents and Target and English, just so I can change diapers or argue with my teenager?
In Southeast Asia, Rachael enrolled her children as the only foreign kids in a national school. “They never became confident in the language. We all struggled with how they were singled out and with the totally unfamiliar approach to education and discipline.” When they relocated to a new country, they made a different educational choice: “When we moved to an international school setting, they began to thrive. Allowing them to be who they were and not placing my idealistic views of missionary life onto them, including using them to prop up my shaky self-image, freed us to simply be family.”
Jane told me, “For a long time, I felt guilt—but I’ve realized a ministry that sacrificed my marriage or kids was not what God wanted.”
Most of the people I spoke with expressed gratitude that, among missions organizations, there is a recent growing focus on healthy families. Organizations like the Navigators and AIM now offer counseling services, address special education needs for issues from ADHD to stuttering to dyslexia, and provide spiritual support over Skype. Some plan special conferences and retreats specifically for families or offer online parenting classes. “Our organization, Serge, sees us as a family unit, seeking to ensure that we are all well cared for and understanding that if the kids aren’t doing well, we won’t be able to continue,” Rachel McLaughlin, an ob-gyn in Burundi, said. One of the primary ways Serge does this is by encouraging missionaries “to preach the gospel not only to our host culture but to ourselves and our families every day.”
Go and Bless
As I heard from all around the globe—Hawaii to China, Kenya to Colombia—the picture of families involved in ministry together often moved from idealistic to painful to joyful and complicated, and finally, to life lived authentically, empowered by the Holy Spirit, alongside coworkers, neighbors, and friends. Not despite but in the struggles of family life, many missionaries developed a more nuanced form of authentic ministry—living out the gospel in the context of their own family’s needs, brokenness, difficulties, and limits.
Family life abroad is complex and individual. This leaves little room for pride or judgment and a lot of room for learning. Rather than conforming to a façade of the perfect ambassador for Christ, missionary families live out the truth of grace, forgiveness, and redemption.
Theirs is a proclamation that those who mourn are blessed—as are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, who hunger and thirst, who are poor in spirit. These are not descriptions of the perfectly integrated cross-cultural family. But missionary families say these are accurate descriptions of a blessed and honest life—one lived in the pain of broken relationships and a sinful world, of natural disaster and disease, and with a God who is present in the trial and who offers restoration and redemption.
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).
This article is part of CT’s special issue on how women are rethinking global gospel proclamation. Download a free pdf of the issue at moreCT.com/YourMissionField.