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.
“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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