Permission. The word kept coming up as I interacted with MKs and their parents during a recent trip overseas. In a subculture saturated with expectations and obligations, it seemed a restorative term.
The following six permissions are crucial to raising a generation of MKs unhobbled by the demands of adults who may not know what it is to be young and living cross-culturally in ministry, still unformed and learning.
Permission To Be Kids
It’s no secret that missionaries’ children, much like pastors’ kids, feel held to higher standards than their peers. In the fishbowl of ministry, there is unrelenting pressure to behave well. Be good. Be polite. Be friendly. Have a positive attitude and never—ever—complain.
The broad expectation that they be better behaved, smarter and more mature than other children their age—or at least that they convincingly project these traits—can become a debilitating pressure.
And if there’s one thing MKs do well, it’s try to live up to unrealistic expectations.
When I was visiting with a missionary family a few weeks ago, I asked an 11-year old boy why his family had moved to Romania. He told me that he was there to “introduce people to Jesus.” Perhaps the most meaningful words I heard on that three-week trip were his mother’s when she said, “No, honey, mom and dad are here to introduce people to Jesus. Your job is to be a kid.”
What a simply-worded, freedom-giving statement! Her son, a relatively new MK, heard from his mother’s mouth that it’s okay for him to just be young. So he can talk back or stomp his foot or hate zucchini or complain or lie and expect consequences—but without the disproportionate shame too often levied on MKs who are just being kids in the world of ministry.
Children will fail. They’ll do stupid things, they’ll forget instructions and they’ll disobey rules. It goes without saying that MK or non-MK, they need to know that mistakes and bad behavior are not unforgivable flaws.
In the ministry world, though, failure can take on more ominous overtones.
- “We need to set an example for the unbelievers watching us.”
- “God wants us to be a light in the darkness.”
- “You represent God in your middle school.”
The exhortations seem benign, but they add a deeper condemnation to inevitable stumbles.
Demanding unreasonable exceptionality of MKs because their family represents God sets them up for the worst kind of failure: one in which their imperfection hurts their family’s work and tarnishes God’s image.
So it isn’t just a bad grade. It isn’t just getting cut from the soccer team. It isn’t just posting something inappropriate on Facebook. It isn’t just stealing change off the teacher’s desk or telling a lie about a friend.
It brings shame on themselves, on their families and on God. If we’re not careful with our words, we heap a spiritual burden on six-year olds whose lives are already complicated by cross-cultural living, frequent transitions and successive losses. The liberating balm of “permission to fail” for young people who are often overly self-blaming cannot be overstated.
It’s no secret that the heaviest burden many MKs bear is the number of goodbyes they’re forced to say in their early years. The mission field is a transient place where someone is always leaving. The repeated departures create an expectation of loss that colors both their entry into new relationships and the nature of the friendships they form.
The world’s unspoken expectation of courage and resilience in the face of so much loss puts pressure on grieving MKs to get over it fast, to find comfort in their faith and to forge ahead without handicap. Little emphasis is put on the grieving process and little space is given to allow it to evolve.
Adding to the issue is the unwillingness of many adults in ministry to model healthy grieving for the younger generation.
Until missionary parents and the missionary community as a whole give permission to missionaries’ children to express and work through their grief—as ugly as it may get—we will continue to see hearts hardened toward God (on whom many blame their losses) and adult MKs still crippled by their losses in later seasons of their lives.
MKs know they’re a package deal. God called their parents. He funded their ministry. They made it overseas and are doing good work. How dare they question a Calling? How dare they resist another move or resent another change of schools?
Of all the MKs I’ve worked with in over twenty years, those who have felt no permission to voice a disagreement or question their parents’ choice are the ones whose resentment has been most bitter.
How easy it is for adults with a clear vision and driving passion to carve a path toward the Calling they perceive. And how destructive it can be when the children in their care don’t feel the same impulse, but measure the Call in toxic increments of Change.
Before announcing a new direction or an uprooting, parents of MKs might consider gently introducing the topic—with conversation and common seeking. With compassion and attention. With their hearts trained on their children while their spirits are tuned to God. Missionaries may be surprised, from this stance, to find his heart on their kids too…and his Call extending to their role as parents as well as to his work.
With permission to dissent, children will feel the freedom to voice their feelings, allowing the family to proceed perhaps more slowly, but with each member engaged in discerning what God is asking of them. It’s open, it’s healthy and it’s ultimately God-honoring.
Not all MKs are saved. Not all MKs believe that God is real. Not all MKs view their parents’ faith in a positive light. I didn’t encounter Jesus—truly encounter Jesus—until I’d been a missionary for a couple of years. Yet presumptions about the faith of MKs abound both in their sending churches and among their family members. Of course she’s saved. Of course he’s on fire for God! They’re MKs!
So the young person whose life is steeped in Christianity feels guilty for doubting. Guilty for the shreds of unbelief that daren’t be expressed lest they bring shame (that word again) on the family and their work.
I’ve seen MKs try to process their lack of faith being tisk’ed into silence. Or voicing their doubts and being preached into submission. Or hinting at uncertainty and being reproached into repentance.
Faith is not an inherited conviction. God is not a transferable commodity. Yet the pressure on MKs to not only believe, but be exemplary in their faith is rampant. What unfair pressure on souls whose perception of God has been complicated by a ministry-saturated worldview.
Permission to doubt is more than mere processing-space—it’s the gift of honest grappling toward eternal outcomes. Parents need to extend it. Communities need to extend it. Churches need to extend it. Adults and peers need to celebrate it as part of God’s working in the MK’s life.
Permission to doubt is crucial to an authentic faith.
The message comes from within and without the missionary community: “The best, most significant and God-pleasing life you can live is one devoted to his service.”
But it’s a lie.
The best, most significant and God-pleasing life is one in which relationship with him is central. Not work for him or sacrifice to him. Relationship with him.
In the missionary world, we narrowly define significance as working for God. Well-intentioned believers reemphasize the message: “Your parents are doing the most important work.” Churches further accentuate it by highlighting missionary families and rewarding their effort with attention, prestige and donations.
So the MK who wants to become a dancer feels like a sell-out. She’s seen the need, after all, and all she wants to do is dance? Shameful. All he wants to be is an electrician? Sad. All she sees herself doing is teaching? So unworthy of the MK-upbringing that shaped her.
I’ve known guilt-ridden adult MKs who can’t reconcile the career they love with the definition of significance that distorts their perspective. Successful businessmen providing for the dozens of families they employ who feel they’ve missed the boat. Artists revealing God’s creativity and beauty to a cynical world who feel disloyal to the Call that galvanized their parents. Stay-at-home dads modeling God’s heart to their children who fear their lives are not significant enough.
Significance is not what we do, it’s who we are because of our relationship with Christ. It’s the light we shine by our mere presence wherever we toil—not the task we do there. It’s the expression of God’s spirit in us that requires no words. It’s a dancer’s sublimation of the horrors of this world. The craftman’s honesty and the excellence of his work. The teacher’s heart as she nourishes young souls.
There is deep significance in choosing to exercise the talents God has given us and in radiating him in the process. Too often, permission to find one’s intimate significance and excel at it is poorly stated or withheld by well-intentioned missionary parents.
Because so many of the expectations delineated above are unspoken, their antidote will have to be clearly articulated and frequently repeated. My encouragement to missionary parents desiring to remove the pressure from their still-developing children is fourfold. From their earliest age onward:
- Foster open communication with your kids.
- Use simple, unambiguous words to free them from unreasonable expectations.
- Exercise grace and mercy.
- Model in your adulthood what you preach into their childhood.
Dare to open conversations that may take years to finish. It’s a healthy place to start for both the missionary and the MK.
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