[Based on the chapter I was asked to write for an upcoming collaborative book: Pipeline – Engaging the Church in Missionary Mobilization. Follow me on Facebook for release and purchase information.]
Julianne is a Missionaries’ Kid from Italy.
Growing up on the Old Continent, she trained for ten years as a classical dancer, eventually earning scholarships to elite academies across Europe. Poised on the brink of adulthood, with ballet companies vying to recruit her, she began to feel guilty about dancing for a living.
After all, she’d been raised by parents whose passion was church planting.
She’d been prayed over by pastors and congregations who referred in hushed voices to the sacrifices the whole family had made to serve overseas, lauding them for the sacred calling that set them apart from “ordinary” believers. And she understood the crucial role of ministry in reaching the world for Christ.
Though she was uniquely gifted and qualified for the dancing contracts being offered to her, Julianne opted not to accept them. She applied to a Bible College instead, studied theology, and returned to Europe to plant churches in Italy. She knew the language and the culture, after all.
And it was the family trade—noble work God was pleased with.
After three years in the messy missionary trenches, Julianne had nothing left to give. Depleted from forcing herself to participate in a ministry for which she was neither gifted nor truly passionate, she returned to her passport culture defeated and disillusioned.
She’d chosen a narrow definition of significance over gifting, as so many MKs do, and her misguided quest had ended in personal and spiritual burnout.
Julianne’s is not a unique story. The pressure on MKs to become missionaries is undeniable. It comes at them from so many directions that it’s hard, as they grow up, to envision a future in which they do something other than traditional ministry.
Their parents, for obvious reasons, usually see missionary work as the most important career they could possibly have chosen. The Church celebrates missionaries as superior players in the battle for global souls. The Christian world as a whole elevates missions as the most significant calling a person can receive.
Is it any wonder that so many MKs, like Julianne, feel that there are no career options as validating and meaningful as ministry?
Don’t get me wrong. There are countless MKs who have returned to the field for all the right reasons. Because of their upbringing, they can apply linguistic aptitude, cultural fluidity and ministry know-how to the task. They can be valuable members of the missionary world when it is truly what God has called them to do.
That’s where it gets a bit murky. How do MKs differentiate between wanting to “go home” (back to a place and job that are familiar to them) and a genuine divine urge to use their God-given abilities in a context for which they are uniquely equipped?
The good news is that those same voices that unwittingly promote the false “MKs must become missionaries” narrative can change their messaging.
Missionary parents, older MKs, relatives, mentors, teachers, pastors… We all can play a part in defusing the pressure and helping MKs to make life decisions grounded in a better understanding of themselves, God, and the complicated distinction between Calling and Craving.
There are four crucial facets to consider:
Help MKs to redefine significance:
If you’ve been paying attention to popular faith-based articles, you’ve heard multiple voices, in recent months, encouraging churches to celebrate all work as God’s work. Their writers question why pastors devote ten minutes in a service to missionaries presenting their work, but seldom yield the stage to teachers, lawyers, tradesmen and Uber drivers. They ask why we’re so quick to praise those engaged in ministry while overlooking those who shine God’s light in factories, boardrooms and nail salons.
The Bible itself is so much broader in its understanding of the important roles of human beings in God’s Kingdom. In his insightful book, Futureville, Skye Jethani makes the case that every individual is created to influence the world for good. He finds in Genesis three major categories for which each of us was uniquely designed:
To cultivate beauty
To cultivate order
To cultivate abundance
Each contribution is specifically willed and designed by the Creator himself.
So when someone like Julianne, who was divinely equipped to cultivate beauty through dance, chooses traditional church planting as a career, she is working outside the realm of her God-given gifting, a state that can be harmful and not sustainable over long periods of time.
The same would be true of a counselor-at-heart attempting a career in chemical engineering or a business-minded woman pressured into caring for children in a daycare.
Too many MKs are gathering from the unspoken pressure of the Christian world that traditional ministry is the only means to a truly significant life and that joining a mission in order to share the Gospel is a higher calling than any other.
This actually runs contrary to current trends, which recognize that the most effective way of sharing Jesus with others is for him to be visible in us wherever we are—in the way we engage with our work, our colleagues, our neighbors, strangers and society at large.
In giving in to the expectation that they become missionaries, some MKs might extinguish their potential to draw people to their Savior simply by reflecting his heart in the sphere for which they were divinely designed.
There is nothing more beautiful or influential than a cashier, a police officer, a doctor or a chef who radiate Christ. They are just as important to God’s influence on culture as the missionaries churches send to foreign fields every year. We need to help MKs to understand that truth.
Help MKs to self-evaluate:
While we’re reframing the meaning of significance, we can also help MKs to identify the strengths and talents we see in them. Churches rightfully validate spiritual traits like faith, honesty, selflessness and helpfulness.
It would be wonderful if they were equally eager to affirm creativity, problem-solving, inquisitiveness, enterprise and mechanical ability, in order to steer all young people (not just MKs) toward a career that reflects their God-given skill set.
We need to adapt our conversations too. When MKs visit friends, family and Christian fellowships, the primary questions they hear are about their family’s work and the country in which they live. If we have a genuine relationship with them, it may be helpful to expand the subject matter, to ask them about what they enjoy and to engage them on those topics.
When we know what makes MKs tick, we’ll be able to offer guiding influence along their journey. We might introduce them to adults working in a field that’s of interest to them. If they’re musicians, we might invite them to play with a local orchestra. If they’re contemplating a career in the sciences, we might engage them in activities (museum visits, contests) that will expand their abilities and knowledge.
By honoring their passions, we validate their worth—we tell the MK that her fascination with primitive art is noble, that his interest in the future of 3-D printing is there for a reason.
We connect the curiosity that fuels them with the God who created them.
Help MKs to distinguish craving from calling:
I’ve mentioned it before: just like Dorothy wanted to go back to Kansas in The Wizard of Oz, it is natural for MKs to crave a return to the foreign country and culture they call home. Having grown up between worlds, they love multiple places and those places will continue to hold a piece of their hearts long after they’ve left them.
As you can imagine, this can be a confusing factor when it comes to identifying the urge they have to engage in foreign missions as adults. Is the chief motivation a desire to go home? Is it God whispering to them that this might be a good use of their gifts and skills? Or is it a combination of both?
Rather than returning home being the motivation for missionary endeavor, I’d advocate that we rather consider it the “cherry on top.”
Not the reason for our commitment to global ministry, but the joyous added bonus we receive if that’s indeed what God has for us.
Don’t get me wrong: wanting to go home is good and healthy. I would never advocate that we dismiss that urge. That said, removing it at least for a time from the rational, skills-based and prayer-infused decision-making process might eliminate the feel-good factor from an already complicated choice.
Help them to grow in their faith:
The notion that MKs are spiritual superstars is not only misguided—it’s harmful. My own upbringing in a Christian home, steeped in Christian ministry, did not seal my faith. By the time I was twenty, I had serious doubts as to whether God existed at all and even graver doubts about the authenticity of the believers I knew.
Though growing up in missions instills a deep, abiding love for God in a large number of MKs, for some it has the opposite effect.
That’s one of the reasons I’m so careful to refer to MKs as “Missionaries’ Kids,” not “Missionary Kids.” It’s a small but important distinction. As children, they are not missionaries—their parents are. They may participate in the work their moms and dads do, but it’s their parents who sensed the call to missionary work, who chose their foreign or local field, who found an organization to send them and recruited an army of donors to support them. Not the children.
The unspoken expectation, when we refer to MKs as Missionary Kids, is that they are doing the work. More dangerously, it might also communicate to them that they should have the same deep, committed passion for Christ as their parents do. That’s simply unreasonable.
Churches and the community of believers can help. Our best first step is to stop assuming. Just because MKs may know more answers to Sunday School questions does not necessarily indicate a thriving faith. Just because they can quote John 3:15 in four languages does not mean they have a personal relationship with Jesus.
Engaging MKs in a spiritual way, without pressuring them to be more knowledgeable and invested than others, is crucial to offering them a safe place to grow in their faith.
We need to invite them into our programs in the same way we’d invite anyone else, drawing them in gradually and authentically, so they build up the confidence to be vulnerable and honest.
In some cases, we may need to help them find spiritual clarity, as so many MKs have developed a distorted view of God because they grew up in a family that “worked for him.” (See this other book by Skye Jethani.)
Others might have suffered trauma or neglect on the field and might view him as the inflictor of that pain, because he called the family, he demanded everything of them and, in the worst cases, didn’t seem to step in to prevent the harm they endured. (See my 3rd novel.)
Some Missionaries’ Kids, rather than being peer leaders in churches, might need to be given the space to process the hard part of their lives with trusted adults who understand that despite all their experiences and knowledge, they’re still just kids trying to figure out their relationship with God.
Only when they’ve found stability in their faith will they be able to clearly contemplate pursuing a life in traditional ministry.
If the church is to help MKs to navigate crucial crossroads in their lives, we must first be fully engaged in fostering in them a realistic definition of significance, an honest assessment of themselves, a guiding understanding of Calling vs. Craving and a genuine faith that will inform their decision-making.
None of this is possible without relationship.
Truly knowing MKs will require that we refocus our attention from their parents to them—that we invest in building trust, that we ask meaningful questions, cultivate their interests and walk alongside them in the process of discernment.
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