Dear missionary parents,

It’s after a particularly sobering Skype conversation with an adult MK I’ll call Laura that I sit down to write to you (with her permission). She’s twenty-six. She has a great job in the medical field. She’s in a stable relationship. She gives back by working at a local soup kitchen. She’s well-spoken, insightful and witty—everything you’d expect her to be, having grown up multi-culturally, steeped in the values of a family devoted to serving.

But she doesn’t have God.

She doesn’t have God because she finds him neither appealing nor necessary.

She laughed when I asked her to explain that. The problem, she said, isn’t a dearth of information. God has saturated her life from earliest memory. Even her bedroom wallpaper, before her family headed overseas, was a collage of Bible characters.

Laura knows all the stories, but as she grew up observing the missionary world, the character of God became confusing to her.

On a good day, God was “the guy” who gave her parents their assignment—tasks to complete and contacts to establish. Jesus was the name her parents tried to slip into conversations with the butcher and the carpet salesman—the same name they uttered in perfunctory, pre-meal prayers that seemed more habit than gratitude. Scriptures were those surreptitious email-enders that dangled after the sign-off on their “official” communication.
On not-so-good days, God’s persona could morph into something more ominous.

God the dictator—he made her family move six times in seven years.

God the miser—they prayed and prayed for better income, and still support flagged.

God the taskmaster—rest was slothful. He despised leisure and immobility.

God the abuser—her father had to seek medical help for work-related exhaustion twice. Twice.

God the divider—if it wasn’t religious, it wasn’t tolerated. Whether is was entertainment, friendships or aspirations, everything in Laura and her two sisters’ lives had to be God-focused.

If it wasn’t, there would be no participation for them. God’s grip over their lives had caused what Laura calls ‘religious loneliness.’ She said the words with sadness in her voice.

What Laura had learned about God, she’d learned from observing her parents. And what they’d perhaps unwittingly taught her was to despise the One they served. He was either a footnote to the family’s ministry or a tyrant. All disinterest or demand.

I tried to keep my voice neutral as I asked Laura a series of questions. Her answers were shrugs, head shakes and pursed lips.

  • Did you see your parents finding comfort and peace in God?
  • Did you see your parents resting in his love and provision?
  • Did you witness your parents wanting to spend time with him?
  • Did they ever articulate or demonstrate an intimate, fueling relationship with him—beyond the toll of tasks and obligations?

No. On all counts, no. I’ve had the same conversation with other MKs. Laura’s response is sadly too common.
Church prayer
“But…they’re missionaries!” the idealist might say. Yes—this is one of the dangers of picking God as a career choice.

Missionary parents, your relationship with Jesus informs your children’s faith.

Not the work you do or the sacrifices you make. Not your public prayers, your sermons or your courage as you endure the desert-lands.

Your children learn who God is from the way you abide with him.

As discussed in the article linked here, God’s primary call on our lives is not that we do for him, but rather that we live with him. Getting that wrong—and it’s a huge but delicate distinction—can have disastrous repercussions for those impressionable souls who learn about God by observing our faith. Dictator, miser, taskmaster, abuser, divider… These are nearly sacrilegious characteristics conveyed by missionaries whose lives for God overshadow their relationship with him.
Show your children who God is.

Let them see his heart for them by resting—truly resting—in his heart for you. Demonstrate vulnerability so they can see him calm, restore and inspire you. Show them that he wants you to pause and refresh by doing exactly that—by stopping long enough to renew your strength.

Display his love by being fulfilled and satisfied in your relationship with him, though tasks await and trials always lurk. Reveal his compassion for children and his attention to their needs by considering the impact of your ministry on your own.

Missionary parents, your children are watching. I know you’re weary. I know your spirit bows under the weight of your responsibilities and burdens. I know life in ministry can be exhausting in every—imaginable—way. But that God you’re either casually referencing or frantically serving? You define him with every choice you make. For the sake of Laura and others like her, let your love for God, your enjoyment of his presence and your dependence on his heart shine more brightly than the list of obligations that metronomes your days.

Treasure him above all else. Bask in his goodness. Recuperate in his fullness. Rely on his grace. Let your children hunger for what they see in you—the comfort and fulfillment of living in relationship with a mighty, loving God.

Don’t miss this companion piece: Top Ten Practices for Parenting MKs.

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  1. This is just excellent and food for thought for my own relationship.

  2. The missionary parents’ relationship with their KID informs their kids faith.

  3. John, I’d hope their faith (God’s love for children, Jesus’ frequent references to their importance) would inform their parenting, which will in turn inform their children’s perception of God. I think I addressed your very real concern here: There’s too much neglect happening in the name of God on the mission field.

  4. Wow! Wow! WOW! This is good for everyone who claims to serve God, missionary or not. Guilty of this myself…both having been raised this way, and raising my own children this way. Searching now to define what is my relationship with God and how does it play out in my life. Thanks for these words.

  5. Good Article Michele. And many of us who have not given up on God have sorted through all the examples and teachings to find what is true for us. I think many missionaries started with the right motive and lost it along the way. They found themselves out of options they couldn’t make a living outside the Christian community. They could only be supported if they continued. In this situation they became very legalistic in following what was expected. Many have rejected their children because their children like the story you tell have no need for God. Some can not even accept their children have left the evangelical/fundamental world for more main line denominations. I personally fight to hang on to God and often lose my grip, fortunately I have found in his unconditional love for me he never lets go. I have this same faith that God has not left go of many of these MKs but will in some way win them back with his love not the judgment we were brought up with. Thank you

  6. I just read your article. I think you are spot on with your comments. My wife of 35 years is an mk and I have walked with her for these many years, along with many professional counselors. She is the oldest of 4. We have attended church regularly but are currently drifting away from the church and professional christians for many of the same reasons you mentioned in your article. She left home at 6 to attend boarding school and was really not welcome home after that. Her dad treats her as a intrusive friend rather than a daughter and feels he did the best thing for her, even though the denomination has formally apologized, for what that is worth. So she did not see her parents living for Jesus, since she was not home with them. Only visited briefly. Her view of Jesus is someone who took her away from her family and made her an orphan. And frankly, this has really affected my faith, as her husband, as well. thank you for the article. Quite interesting.

  7. This article was good for me. I grew up in a legalistic family and clung to God to make it through, but after a series of illnesses and abuse, I had to let go of God in order to heal. That phrase seems counter intuitive in some way. Please know I am in no way trying to offend. I appreciate how God is delineated into categories of how this woman experienced Him, and think I may approach my struggles to define how I feel about God in a very similar way. So thank you to you or to the 26 yr. old!
    I continue to try and work out my faith, but it continues to be a slow and tedious process. I am unsure if I am not denying my faith entirely because of the fear of going to hell, or if it is because there is some truth in it? I continue to seek and search and rest in the fact that I am trying.

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