Half a century ago a three-year-old boy said goodbye to his grandparents, relatives, and friends and boarded a ship with his three brothers for a two and a half week journey across the ocean, entering for the first time a land where no one understood a thing he said. His dad, thirty (fresh out of college—post military service in Japan), had been burdened by God to come back to Japan to serve. With two sisters soon added to the family, the six children grew up homeschooling under the guidance of their teacher mother (in a day when “homeschooling” wasn’t even a word and when most missionaries sent their kids to boarding school for their education…with infrequently positive results for the family or the spiritual maturity of the child).
Growing up on the mission field with his brothers and sisters, the boy soon learned to recognize two distinct patterns in parenting among fellow missionaries. (1) Apologetic parents who felt God was calling them to the field but felt sorry for the sacrifices their children were asked to make, and who endeavored to protect their children from the demands of the ministry. (2) Involved parents who felt much more could be accomplished if everyone worked together, and who invited their children to have an active role in serving along with their parents in the ministry.
This child was thankfully among the second category. He was brought up with regular family devotions and prayer, an understanding of the privilege of ministry, and with the joy of serving with his parents and siblings in such activities as literature preparation and distribution, making signs, setting up tents, moving chairs, running projectors for evangelistic services, announcing services on loudspeakers attached to the family van, helping to host special services in rented community meeting places, and even teaching Sunday school, leading singing, assisting in church camps, translating, preaching, and leading the youth ministry. By the time the boy went off to college at 17 years of age he had already acknowledged and joyfully submitted to the call of God to return to Japan as a missionary (after a brief break for training, marriage, and visiting churches).
But he also had the opportunity to see the children from the first category–the result of apologetic parenting. Three of his friends became pregnant as teens after returning to the states. Several were involved in drugs. One was almost paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. Some literally went off the deep end and could never quite blend into the culture of either their country of birth or their parents’ country of ministry. Few learned the language of the country in which they grew up, and even fewer had any desire to return.
The boy was, of course, me; and now with my own family of six kids (and with our four grandchildren on the field) we have served for the past 25 years near one of the cities where God called my parents to serve all those years ago. We LOVE serving God as a family. Three of our children are back in Japan with us, one is preparing to return to Japan as a missionary after graduation, and one longs to return to Japan with her husband if Japan is where God eventually leads once again.
Watching for three generations these two types of families and the results of their ministry choices here in Japan, there are seven simple observations that I believe can be made that tend to help facilitate both meaningful productivity on the field for the children of missionaries as well as a certain joy (as opposed to bitterness with parents) in serving God within the context of a foreign culture.
The children of wise missionary parents tend to know by the actions of their parents that no matter what is happening in the ministry, the needs of the children are an immediate priority to the parents. Parents who spend time talking with, playing with, and just hanging out with their children usually produce children who are confident of the love of their parents and seem to raise the most well adjusted and grateful children in the ministry.
Involved parents model a sense of urgency before their children so that they are aware from a very young age of the love for and burden of the parents for the people to whom God has called them to serve.
While sacrifice is a necessary part of serving God on any field, joyful sacrifice needs to be evident in the lives of missionary parents if their children are to appreciate rather than be disgruntled with the decision of their parents to uproot them to a foreign country.
Well adjusted children seem to be aware from a very early age of the many benefits of being the child of a foreigner living overseas and of the joy and importance of sharing the gospel with those who are lost (as opposed to hearing a litany of negative expectations from sacrificing parents).
Children who are given the opportunity to serve wherever they might find themselves useful usually appreciate the chance to help their parents in the ministry–as opposed to being bored with no friends and nothing to do while their parents are busy “serving God” and neglecting them.
Well equipped children tend to understand that the multicultural experience enables them to be better adjusted in any situation or culture and to adapt to more challenging situations in life than their peers who have never lived outside of their homeland.
The most effective and productive children of missionary families tend to know that they are not just a tag-alongs to the ministry of their parents, but are a vital and integral part of the ministry with the parents. Children who are given the chance to serve often excel at doing what they are trusted with the opportunity to achieve.
Multigenerational ministry does not happen by accident or by parental design. It happens most often when the needs of the culture and the joy of the ministry are communicated effectively to the children who then learn to appreciate and desire to help in the calling of their parents.
Missionaries never need feel the need to apologize to their children for the sacrifices we are asking them to make by being with us on the field while we fulfill God’s calling for our lives. We should feel the pride and joy of serving God as a family and raising children who love God and desire to serve Him as well.
“Remember this! The Lord is our God. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. Never forget these commands that I am giving you today. Teach them to your children. Repeat them when you are at home and when you are away, when you are resting and when you are working. Tie them on your arms and wear them on your foreheads as a reminder. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.” — Deut. 6:4-9