If you’re familiar with the Adult MK Survey I ran last year, you’ve read some of the disquieting comments posted by those who have rejected God. The reasons they give for their abandonment of faith are diverse: dysfunctional families, trauma on the field, irrational expectations, unanswered questions, anger, grief, apathy…
The common thread in their narratives is simple: a distorted view of God and faith, unintentionally communicated by the people who influence them and the experiences that shape them.
By no means am I implying that, by virtue of growing up in ministry, MKs are abandoning their faith in droves! Rather, this article aims to identify the distortions we may unintentionally be applying to faith—which can lead to a distorted image of God—and suggest ways we can more accurately portray him.
Though I refer specifically to parents in this post, it’s the responsibility of all of us—mentors, teachers, friends, relatives and parents—to portray a healthy, relevant and beneficial faith. We must define it accurately, live it authentically and express it attractively, pointing out the peace, purpose and fulfillment that come from hard obedience.
Only then will it become something that invites willing exploration.
DISTORTIONS AND SUGGESTIONS
Making of God a job
Mom and Dad tell people about God. They distribute resources about God. They translate materials, travel to remote places, plant churches and help in health crises because they work for God. They raise support, write newsletters, report to churches about what they do for God.
God becomes a taxing to-do list rather than the center of a soul-saving and life-giving relationship.
SUGGESTION: Let your children witness your relationship with God.
Without relationship, your “job” is spiritually sterile. But if your children see you finding peace and purpose in your faith, if they know that your service is joyful and motivated by love for the One who sent you… If they see you basking in his presence and certain of his realness, despite the hardships of ministry life, they may be drawn to the God you know. (Jethani’s excellent book, With, further explores this topic: click HERE.)
Making of God an excuse
Often without realizing it, parents communicate that it’s because of God’s demands (ie. their “job”) that they can’t attend a child’s graduation, won’t spend money on a family vacations and invest more on “saving” strangers than on loving their own families. They might skip a recital because they’re prepping for a sermon or frequently be away from home because there are still unreached people groups needing to find Jesus.
They may not intend to use God as an excuse for perceived negligence, but that’s what it sounds like to their children.
Note: There will of course be times in any profession when missing out on family events or leaving home for a while will be inevitable. It’s when the absences and distractions become the norm that they can be damaging to a child’s perception of God.
God becomes the reason mom and dad seem unreachable, rather than the creator and enhancer of family relationships.
SUGGESTION: Show your children that God cares about them by demonstrating His heart for them.
Regularly depriving them of your presence and attention for the sake of others communicates that God cares less about them than about the unsaved. The Bible is clear about the responsibility invested in parents, but the urgency of saving the lost or working toward deadlines can seem to eclipse this primary Calling.
The priority of children in the lives of busy missionary parents is something that needs to be demonstrated both in word and in deed—spoken clearly and proven regularly. It may be helpful to determine what a child’s love language is and to make it a point to communicate his/her importance in that way. (More on love languages HERE.)
Making of God an image to protect
“Never show frustration. Never complain. Pray beautifully—especially in public. Be the first to volunteer. Drive old cars and wear Goodwill clothes. Post nothing but self-sacrificial photos on social media and please, say nothing that could remotely be interpreted as ungodly by anyone on this planet or elsewhere. Because…you know…what you do tarnishes God’s image.”
If we don’t make God look good, we’re failures.
By communicating to children that their human flaws diminish God, we are making him a fickle and fallible figure rather than emphasizing his unalterable love, unconditional devotion and benevolent expectations—the kind that will draw us deeper into a fulfilling and galvanizing relationship with him and with others.
God becomes someone whose reputation we must protect. His command to demonstrate the fruits of the spirit becomes more about preserving his image than about the spiritual, emotional and existential benefits of living in relationship with him.
SUGGESTION: Model honesty and authenticity in the image you display in public, particularly during those crucial “furlough” or Home Assignment visits.
Share the good and the hard with people who care, in the presence of your children. Admit to your flaws and demonstrate how to manage them. Express the rough you harbor so children understand that God does not demand hypocrisy from them. He is pleased with authenticity, not threatened by it.
Making of God an Insensitive Tyrant
“You will not feel sad when what God asks is hard. You will not feel angry when you experience injustice. You will not question his marching orders when they seem too demanding. You will not doubt his existence when life seems to contradict it. You will toe the line, regurgitate the theology, ignore your brokenness and ‘stuff’ your grief. There’s no place for them in missionary life.”
God becomes a compassionless dictator more interested in controlling what you do than in caring for you as you negotiate life’s hurdles.
SUGGESTION: Be courageous in your weakness.
Show fear, express sadness, display anger, admit to confusion. Let your children see you confronting God with your pain and seeking him for comfort and strength. As they witness your journey, they’ll learn about dependence and trust, about being a frail human loved and sustained by an unimaginable God, and they’ll be more likely to seek him when their own emotions waver.
Making of God a Lobotomizing Dictator
It’s as if there’s an unspoken commandment: “You will not apply your own thoughts and analysis to anything related to religion.” This exhortation seems to be motivated by fear that scrutiny and doubt will lead to rejection. Or that they will become a communicable contagion. So we discourage young believers from questioning the loudest voices speaking for Christianity. We wince when they get engaged in the social, political and humanitarian movements the church either ignores or distorts.
The shrill threats disguised as righteousness confuse them. The hate-filled diatribes masquerading as spiritual authority anger them. When compassion for their fellow man (sometimes fueled by media manipulation, sometimes not) comes into conflict with the apparently inhumane position of The Church, young people feel forced to choose between the two.
God becomes a polarizing figure who seems more intent on circling his church’s wagons than on entering into the broken neediness of the world.
SUGGESTION: Dare to wade into complex conversations.
Your children’s global, political and social concerns likely aren’t the same as yours—but they’re evaluating God by the Christian response to them. Beginning with you, they need to see believers fully engaging their minds (theology, philosophy, psychology, logic and compassion) in assessing and addressing the issues most important to them.
Remembering that much of what they witness of the Christian response to the world’s needs will come through news sources that are outrage-driven, it is critical for them to hear their parents (and other significant Christians) condemning the made-for-media voices that incorrectly express God’s character.
They’ll need those same parents who have demonstrated the beauty of authentic faith to explore a godly response to the unrest and cataclysms inherent to this world.
What does God really want from His Church in the face of humanitarian crises? How would he want us to help ebola-stricken regions and the floods of refugees begging for hospitality? How would Jesus treat transsexuals demanding recognition and atheists raging against Christmas festivities?
Our answers to these questions will either expand or explode young believers’ relationship to faith.
What they need (and this is not limited to MKs) is to see mature Christians who don’t just repeat traditional mantras, but are confident enough in their relationship with God to contradict mainstream assertions that fly in the face of Jesus’ teaching.They need spiritual elders who can engage in political and social debates in a way that is influential and illustrative of God’s heart. They need mothers and fathers, mentors and teachers whose demonstrated relationship with Jesus informs their perspective and imbues their thoughts and actions with intelligent authority.
[A good place to begin conversation with young believers might be listening to podcasts like Phil Vischer’s together (click HERE). It’s a weekly show in which social issues, popular movies and apologetics are discussed from a unique perspective, often humorously, in a casual forum—a great discussion starter for audiences of all ages.]
There is no magic pill for inoculating children against a rejection of their faith. All we can do—whether it be as mentors, teachers or parents—is display authentic, vulnerable and life-enhancing faith to them, valuing their questions, guiding their exploration and being a safe place for them to express their frustration. (Related post: Six Permissions MKs Need. Click HERE.)
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Excellent and VERY relevant! (Thanks for pointing out that last point is valuable even for non-MKs, too!)
Very good, Michele! Being real is important. Of course, people and circumstance will let us down. But if we can see it’s real, we can keep the faith.
Another major point I would add is attempting to maintain a consistent religious community. As MKs we bounce around so many churches those forced relationships become artificial. I mean it’s basically unheard of for a strong Christian to not belong to a church, to be visiting 30+ different ones every year.
As a M.K. I was blessed to have a tender heart for the gospel and in understanding my parents work. However I’m not unscathed by having Missionary parents missing out life events or the criticism of friends thinking I was abandoned. One of my brothers told me God gave us families so that we would know how to relate to others. It’s true, our flaws don’t diminish God or show His fallibility.
Great topic to write on. I would also add the point about finding a solid stable home church, because that can be life-changing to an MK who has moved so many times and visited hundreds of churches in their lifetime and needs that stability and to see God outside of the mission field. Of course God is the same everywhere, but you definitely explain very well in what different and harmful ways he is often portrayed.
We had a home church in Downey California. My grandparents started attending there, and my folks and their siblings attended there. There was a lady at that church that prayed for me every day of my life. My parents had a daily devotion and all of us kids were part of the work, and we knew that it was God’s work. We prayed together and saw miracles happen. I can not doubt the existence or the love of God. He is sovereign, so I don’t get to tell Him what to do or how to do it. My advice is not needed. His plans run for generations, My job is to trust that He knows what He is doing, and know that I am not in charge.
Be the real deal. Genuine faith means you are the same at home as you are in public. My parents were the real deal — nothing flashy. They live now as they lived when I was little. They just have authentic relationships.
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