ArticleMissionary Life

How to Raise Spiritually Healthy, Joyful Missionary Kids

Missionary children don’t always have easy lives, but God provides the means for families on the field to count trials as joy.
Many people think twice about becoming missionaries because they worry about what it would be like for their kids.

“Will my children fall behind academically or socially? Will they be prepared for college in the U.S.? Will they resent moving to another country? Will they be safe and healthy?”

These are all legitimate concerns for parents since they have been charged by God with taking care of their children. Every missionary with kids must weigh these concerns. My parents considered these factors when they took me to the mission field, and my wife and I considered them when we took our kids to Togo as well.

So, what is it really like to be a missionary kid (“MK”)? It’s almost impossible to describe because every MK experience is unique.

The Blessings of MK Life

Both my wife and I grew up as MKs, but we had very different experiences. She was only five years old when her family moved to Grenada. My parents became missionaries as a second career; my other siblings had moved out of the home, and I was 12 the first time I went to Togo. My wife lived most of her life outside of the States, but I only lived in Togo for a few years. She lived in English-speaking countries, and I had to learn French. I finished high school in the States, but she went straight to college from the mission field.

Despite the differences in our upbringings, my wife and I have much in common as MKs. We both enjoy learning about geography and other cultures. We both have a knack for foreign foods. We’ve both spent too much time on airplanes and at terminals. And most of all, we both treasured our experiences as MKs, such that we wanted to serve the Lord as missionaries ourselves.

I believe I am better person—spiritually, mentally, and even academically—for having been raised as an MK. But for many MKs, recognizing and rejoicing in these blessings is a challenge.

Counting it Joy

No matter how challenging your family’s situation is, Scripture commands us to rejoice. “Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4 CSB).

Of course, that’s easier said than done. How can we count cross-cultural challenges as joy?

I was the typical American Christian kid—church on Sundays and AWANA on Wednesday nights. All that changed when my oldest sister came back from a medical missions trip to a country that I had never heard of: Togo. My parents eventually decided to become missionaries to Togo, and I was coming along for the ride. My father would later serve as the director of the ABWE mission hospital in Tsiko, and while I didn’t know much about Africa at the time, I knew that I didn’t like hospitals, snakes, or spiders.

I was about 10 years old when my parents first told me that we were going to live in Africa. The first thought that came to my young mind was that I would contract a horrible tropical disease—like the ones you see in pictures of orphans in humanitarian aid commercials. I was not “counting it all joy.” I was apprehensive, but I kept my fears to myself.

I took my first short-term trip when I was 12. We lived in Lomé, Togo for about a year. The first thing I remember of Togo was the blast of heat and humidity that hit my face as I stepped out of the plane and into the pitch-black night. I also remember the kindness and wisdom of the missionary who picked us up from the airport and guided us through of first year in the country, Tim Matchett.

From the perspective of a 12-year-old who was comfortable in the U.S., Togo was annoying—the heat, the humidity, the disgusting medicine to avoid malaria, everyone speaking in foreign languages, no cable TV, and the neighbor’s chickens that lived right outside my bedroom window that would awake me every day at 6 a.m.… you catch my drift. (Like a typical city kid, I had assumed roosters only crow once in the morning at sunrise. I was naïve—they crow all morning long.)

We returned to the States and began preparations to return to Togo long-term. That’s when we heard that our friend and senior missionary, Tim Matchett, was killed in a car-jacking in Lomé. While our short time in Lomé had allayed most of my fears about life in Africa, Tim’s murder gave them new depth.

When I was 14, we spent 3 months studying French in France. I spent 4 hours every morning in a grueling small-group French class, and I worked on the rest of my homeschool subjects alone in the afternoon. When we arrived in Togo, there were few MKs my age in the country. My parents, partially concerned about my academics and socialization, later sent me to live with my oldest sister in the Tennessee, where I finished my last 2 years of high school.

Why do I share these things? In this brief résumé, I have intentionally put the worst spin on what happened and left out most of the positive experiences. The truth is that despite all the things I mentioned, I deeply enjoyed my MK upbringing, and wouldn’t have traded it for anything. By God’s grace, I was enabled to count the challenges as joy.

During my brief time as an MK in Togo and language school in France, I had some of the most formative and enjoyable experiences in my life. I had a zip-line in my backyard, planned my own school schedule, enjoyed fresh topical fruit, toured a battleship converted into a floating hospital, drove a motorcycle, experienced African wildlife up close, learned a foreign language, saw great works of art in Paris, visited medieval and renaissance castles, explored a Roman aqueduct and colosseum​, and walked along the battlefields of the Normandy beaches—all before my 16th birthday.

More importantly, I grew tremendously in my faith during those years. The first time I read the Bible completely through in a year was in Togo. I saw up close the Christian faith lived out by my parents, the other missionaries, and Togolese believers. I learned what it meant to be spiritually disciplined before I could express it in words. And I saw how believers, especially my parents, had joy in the middle of trials.

The Model of Missionary Parents

Before we consider how faithful missionary parents model to their children what it means to count their trials as joy, it’s important to establish that joy is not a mere feeling you get after having done something significant. Endorphins are not the same thing as the joy James commends. True, biblical joy involves an entire worldview in which we see our trials from God’s perspective.

How can missionary parents model counting their trials as joy?

1. Attitude. If mom and dad are constantly griping and complaining, the children will adopt a negative outlook on their missionary upbringing. Parents must exhibit awareness of the fact that, while we cannot always choose our circumstances, we can control our attitudes and responses.

The joy of parents gives MKs confidence to serve God in any situation with thanksgiving. Having been both an MK in Africa and a sergeant in the U.S. Army, no matter how bad things get, I can always say, “I’ve seen worse.” Likewise, parents should lead missionary families in saying, when difficulty strikes, “This could definitely be worse.” God has brought us through so much so far—surely bring us through whatever else comes to pass. Who can separate us from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:35-39)?

2. Humility. Humility means knowing your place in relation to God. This includes being gracious and forgiving towards others, even when you are hot, thirsty, offended, uncomfortable, and have no Wi-Fi. When you stay humble, your perceived inconveniences and offenses bother you less, while your contentment and thankfulness increase.

Complaining and bitterness are infectious on the mission field. At the same time, joy and humility are as equally infectious. They spread from person to person unnoticed. If missionaries are joyful and humble, there is good possibility that MKs will grow in these attitudes as well.

3. Staying in the Word of God. I can’t think of anything more spiritually refreshing than a passage of Scripture with a cup of coffee first thing in the morning. But without regular immersion in God’s Word, one cannot persevere in the joy and humility needed in raising families on the field. Dedication to Scripture keeps missionaries and their children grounded in the biblical truths necessary to remain joyful in trials. Along with the spiritual disciplines of prayer and fellowship, commitment to Bible reading spiritually fortifies both missionary parents and children alike.

Every mission field holds unique challenges for both missionaries parents and their children. Parents’ concerns for their children are real and should not dismissed, but God graciously provides the means for us to endure trials and serve him with joy.

About the Author

Andrew Paul Ward is an ABWE missionary to Togo, West Africa, sent from Grace Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN. Andrew is the husband of Mary, father to Emmanuel, Cyrus, and Alethia. He holds a B.S. from Bob Jones University, an M.Div. from Temple Baptist Seminary, and an Ed.D. from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Support Andrew’s ministry.

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