I thought I was here to meet people’s physical needs. Jesus showed me I’m here to meet spiritual needs too.

by Joseph

“What’s the point in helping people materially if there’s no change spiritually?” Our intern had been observing our work in a north Indian slum for a month or so. His question put words to something that had been bubbling in my subconscious mind for some time.

For the past few years I’ve been very busy helping my neighbours. My primary role is in literacy. My Indian colleagues and I have been able to assist several hundred children to become literate in Hindi, their mother tongue. This enables them to participate in schooling much more effectively – as they say, you need to learn to read before you can read to learn. We also started helping many people access government services – things like bank accounts, pensions, and gas connections. The government has many schemes for the poor, but those who are genuinely destitute are often unable to access their rights due to a combination of lack of knowledge, complex bureaucracy, and corruption.

Then Covid hit. Crematoriums and cemeteries were overwhelmed: the pandemic killed an estimated five million in India. Covid saw our education and development work take a back seat so we could respond to a more pressing need – food. Many of my neighbours live a hand-to-mouth existence, and the strict lockdowns meant cutting from three meals a day to two, then one, and, for some families, none. We were able to raise money from friends and colleagues in the West to distribute 30 tonnes of dry food (rice, flour, lentils, etc.) to 3,000 families during the worst of the lockdowns. It was a huge effort, but it helped many people get through.

During the last few years, we’ve seen an enormous number of people helped materially. However, our intern’s critique had some validity: we had brought much needed short-term help, but not longer-term or deeper change. I could point to hundreds of kids who had become literate and thousands who had benefited from our relief programs. But I could count on one hand the examples of significant attitudinal, social, and spiritual transformation – changes in the way people think about themselves, others, and God.

Such changes are less tangible, less controllable, less measurable. They are much harder to foster. My task-focused personality finds it easier to run a project than sit down and have a deep conversation.

Reflecting further, I realised that I’d been under a naïve impression that since ‘actions speak louder than words,’ I didn’t need to use words at all. I further realised that I had been reacting against a watered-down Christianity which ignores the hundreds of passages about God’s heart for the poor and economic justice. I think about verses like Matthew 25:40 (“Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”) and Luke 18:22 (“Go, sell all your possessions, and give to the poor. Then come, follow me.”) and how we fail to follow them. But God loves us as wholes – body and soul, individual and community, humanity and creation. In reacting against one narrow reading of the gospels which emphasises words over deeds and spiritual over material, I was perhaps imposing my own bias.

This year, after returning from a break in Australia, my family and I started inviting close friends for conversation over a meal. I had already followed Jesus quite literally in feeding thousands (Matthew 14:13-21); now it was time to adopt Jesus’ model of dinnertime fellowship. I don’t know any tax collectors, prostitutes, or Pharisees. Instead, our evening guests are ricksha wallahs (tricycle pullers), mochis (cobblers), and widows.

Our friends love coming out for dinner and often dress up in their finest clothes. Our one-room house, which Western guests struggle to adjust to, is like a palace compared to the dingy, flimsy shacks our neighbours call home. Mum (I grew up here as a TCK and moved back after my university years) makes the dinner, cooking up treats to add to the sense of celebration. We are often astonished by the amount of food our scrawny friends put away. They have learnt since an early age to tuck in when free food is available, as lean times are likely not far away.

After dinner, I ask my parents to share a little as to why they made the decision, some 27 years ago, to leave potentially lucrative careers in Australia to live and work in a slum. They talk about a turning point: the invitation from Jesus to forsake the pursuit of wealth for the sake of something greater. Our friends often recognise this idea, having heard similar exhortations in the Quran or in the Hindu scriptures. We agree with them that every major faith has similar injunctions to serve others, though few adherents actually do it. This leads to nods of agreement.

I sometimes tell a contextualised rendition of the parable of the prodigal son. It’s a powerful story to illustrate our understanding of God not as a distant, angry ruler (a common view in Islam and Hinduism), but instead as a caring father who is very ready to receive us ‘home’ should we be willing to turn around and come to Him.

The story is even more remarkable in this honour-based culture where the younger son’s insolence to his father is a crime beyond forgiveness. I asked one twelve-year-old kid to put himself in the story and imagine what his father would do if he had wasted all that money and then came back home. Prateek replied honestly, “He’d beat me with his belt.” Prateek’s dad looked sheepish but didn’t deny that it was indeed what he would do. In this context, our heavenly Father’s forgiveness is all the more remarkable.

Talking about faith with my Muslim and Hindu friends takes me out of my comfort zone. It is easier to give bread than to talk about the Bread of Life. Sometimes, though, it’s important to use words as well as deeds, to prioritise relationships not just tasks.

It’s hard to think about how to help address people’s spiritual needs in a context of overwhelming material need. As James writes, spirituality is empty without social action: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” Yet over a meal, in the context of a lasting friendship, there is space for spiritual discussion even with those facing the direst circumstances.

I’m not expecting to ‘convert’ anyone, but I hope I’m able to show some of Jesus’ love for my neighbours just as I also experience Christ in and through them. Sitting on the floor with our friends, I feel I am living the words of Jesus: “When you host a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind; and you will be blessed.”

~~~~~~~~~~

Joseph (a pseudonym) was born and brought up in India by his Australian parents. He is part of Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor, and he lives incarnationally in an urban poor community while volunteering for a local literacy NGO. In his spare time, you’ll find him on the soccer field or engrossed in a book.

 

When Your TCK is Bullied

Praying for Answers

There was a time which seemed to last forever, a time when my kids got bullied.

I wish I could say that, because of my spiritual and emotional maturity and love for our host country’s people, I had a good attitude about this. But I didn’t. Instead, when my kids were hit with pebbles and sticks and had their ice creams thrown in the dirt and were told to go back to America, I wished mean things upon other people’s children. Like acne. Or sinkholes.

Thankfully, we were still learning the language at the time.

My children confided in me. They looked to me for answers I only wished I had. How could I help them? I tried talking to parents, and to the kids themselves, but it didn’t help. Thus began more than a year of research and problem-solving, in which I feared I’d wear out both Google and God, and pretty much everyone else I knew, in my quest for a solution. Perhaps you are facing a similar situation. If so, I want to share six strategies that worked well for us.

1. Give it to God

It can be difficult to know whether a given case of bullying is something that will burn our kids or refine them; crush them or make them stronger. I’ve found that, like in many parenting challenges, I have to bring this kind of issue before God and lay it at His feet, praying for wisdom and guidance. It’s possible that removing your kids from a bullying situation will be the best option. Or God might direct you to stay and work through it. Trust Him, and trust your instincts as a parent.

2. Teach Confidence

According to nearly every article I read on the Internet, bullies want an easy target. Someone who won’t fight back, who will give a good reaction—whining, crying, cowering, tattling. Bullies love this because makes them feel powerful, when, perhaps, they feel powerless in other areas of life. This is sad and disturbing, yet it is true in our sinful world.

I decided to focus on teaching and modeling confidence. We worked on standing straight, chin up; looking around; having a relaxed, pleasant expression. We worked on reacting to unkindness in a calm, amused manner or cheerfully ignoring insults. A fellow TCK mom and good friend of mine also recommended encouraging my kids to focus on people who do like them, and spending time and energy on those people and activities that bring joy.

I was recently with a group of expat teens who were asked to share their biggest struggle in their host country. Several mentioned not knowing the local language. It takes time and effort, but solid language skills can give a huge boost to confidence. If you’re looking for help in this area, you can check out my earlier article, 3 Ways to Help Your TCK with Language Learning. 

3. Stay Curious

I know how frustrating it is when your child asks you to explain someone’s behavior, and your only answer is, “Um, yeah, I have no idea.” It hurts our parental pride not to have tidy, sitcom-succinct answers. But press into that discomfort. You may find an opportunity to better understand your host culture.

Find a friend—a local mom, a thoughtful teenager, a language helper—someone you can talk to. Questions might include: Is this normal behavior? Is it seen as a problem here? What do people in your culture normally do about this issue? Why do you think it is happening? 

Involve your child in this cultural research. Approach it like a puzzle. By staying curious, you model how to approach the other cultural mysteries your child will face in his or her life. We learned that in our host country, hitting is seen as a problem-solving option for both children and adults. It’s a part of life. This helped us to see and understand the difference between frustrated, childish whacking and targeted hitting that is meant to intimidate.

4. Make Great Memories

Being bullied takes large withdrawals out of several banks, including the Bank of Self-Esteem and the Bank of Love for the Host Culture. You, as a parent, can help balance this by making deposits.

For the Bank of Self-Esteem, we arranged special times both as a family and for one-on-one dates with Mom or Dad. This gave us a chance to learn more about what each child loves and to give them opportunities to develop their talents and dive into their interests. Consider helping your kids find ways to serve your family such as cooking a meal or fixing bike tires. This will naturally increase self-esteem and put bullying in perspective.

For the Bank of Love for the Host Culture, we sought out other people and families and purposely spent time with those we all got along with. To help your child find new people to hang out with, you could help them join an art or sports club, or learn skills that are unique to your country. One TCK I know learned to play bagpipe when she lived in Scotland; another taught English classes in her Cambodian community; a third learned to tie a sari in India. Look beyond just peers — younger kids and elderly people are also great places to find positive relationships.

5. Be Creative

As I observed the neighbor kids interacting one afternoon, I had an epiphany. These kids were bored! And the more bored they felt, the more they pecked at each other. They needed something to do.

Now, gross motor stills are not my gift from Jesus. I spent most of my elementary PE classes feeling really, really confused. But I swallowed my pride, gathered some of the rocks the neighbor kids had been throwing at each other, and started a relay race. Surprisingly, the bullying nearly disappeared for several weeks. (And I had a childhood dream fulfilled when the kids rang our doorbell and asked me to play!)

Rock relay races may not be applicable in your circumstances, but the problem-solving principle might be. Maybe someone has a habit of putting others down to boost their self-image. Would a one-on-one playdate without group pressure help them feel less threatened? Maybe everyone else knows how to play soccer and your kids love basketball. Could they ask one of the friendlier kids to coach them? Pinpointing the reason for the bullying is the first step in equipping your child and/or other kids to redirect behavior and energy in more positive ways.

6. Practice Forgiveness

Six months after I started this journey with my kids, I got an email from a “mother in Israel,” an elderly woman who prays for us and our mission. She’d read a kids’ article I’d written about the bullying and advised my children to forgive their enemies. I read the letter, then looked around self-consciously. Did she know about the acne and sinkholes? And, more importantly, how did I forget about forgiveness?

I had taught my kids to be diplomatic, to act confident, to walk away, to be helpful to the neighbors, to love themselves as children of God despite their flaws, to know the bullying wasn’t their fault, to be willing to grow. . . . But I’d never mentioned forgiveness.

We began to pray for our enemies. It was hard. Hard for them and for their mama bear. I began a months-long dive into Jesus’ sermon on the mount, the sermon where this famous advice is given. Suddenly, it seemed, the entire sermon was about bullies and bullying and what we’re supposed to do about it all. 

I learned that Jesus wants us to see all people as just that: people. It’s easy to objectify someone who hurts us. Praying for our enemies, forgiving them, and even trying to love them leads us to see them as people. 

And maybe that’s why it’s so hard to forgive. Because by forgiving, we realize that our bullies are just as in need of grace and help as we are.

Why We Stayed

I’ll be honest. At the beginning of our bullying journey, I was ready to pack up my cubs and move. After all, our landlord even confessed to our helper that his family moved out because of rude neighbors!

I submitted these plans to God… strictly as a formality. I mean, I assumed God had read all the same articles on bullying and depression and anxiety that I had. He would surely give us the green light and send us to a more emotionally functional neighborhood. But, long story short, God said no. I very clearly sensed Him telling me to wait. I second-guessed myself daily, and talked to God often, ready to rescue my kids from this trial at a moment’s notice.

But as I waited, something unexpected happened. I saw my children grow and mature. I saw them start living their faith. They began to lean on it and to depend on it. I watched them come to Jesus because they didn’t want to forgive, and I saw Jesus help them do the impossible. That is hard heart work. And in the end, this growing relationship with God was more valuable than the comfort of always being loved by everyone.

If you’d like to hear more about our journey, I’ve written about it on my newsletter, Whatsoever Things. I’d love to see you there.

How to Make Yourself at Home in the World

by Carol Ghattas

As a young twenty-three-year-old, I had so many preconceived notions about how life in cross-cultural service should look. I left for my first two-year assignment with newly coiffed, permed hair, a pressed linen blouse, modest skirt, and two hard (and heavy) Samsonite suitcases. Why I thought I would easily fit in upon arrival to my West African destination is hard to conceive.

I think my first meeting with reality came the day I pulled a load of laundry from my French washing machine. My beautiful linen blouse was now more of a tie-dyed, shrunken piece of fabric. Within the first couple of months, a trip to the local hairdresser left me with lice and no curls. No quick call to Mom for laundry and other advice in those days. I was on my own and missing home.

I made many mistakes during those first two years, but I learned a lot about myself and how God viewed my desire to serve him in missions. Thankfully, I was able to take some of those lessons with me when I later traveled with my husband to serve in the Middle East and North Africa. My desire by this time in my life was to settle. After all, I was newly married, thinking of children, and wanting to make a home. Again, God had other plans, and though he blessed us with two sons, we ended up moving to six different countries over the next twenty years—not all of them on our schedule.

The longer we served, the more the Lord taught me about how to find home wherever we were, including during furloughs and a final return to the States. If you’ve struggled to be at home in your place of service or are looking toward service and want to be better prepared, here are five ideas that could help.

1. Know yourself.
Recognize your natural giftings, personality traits, and even weaknesses. Ask questions about how each of these will be affected by the stresses of cross-cultural service. Be sure of your spiritual foundation in Christ. When we are outside of our comfort zone, Satan loves to throw darts at our vulnerability and shake our faith. What can you do now to prepare for inevitable attacks?

2. Remember that you do not serve in isolation.
We all need others in service. That’s the foundational nature of the Body of Christ, and it carries through to any ministry in which we serve. Take the time to recognize and acknowledge your need for people, from your family, home fellowship, and larger Christian community, in support of, not just your ministry, but you. Be willing to let them hold you accountable and help you through times of struggle.

3. Get to know your people group.
Not only will stronger relationships with your home support groups help to mitigate your longing for home, but coming alongside the people you serve and with whom you serve will also build a greater sense of home in your new land.

4. Establish boundaries.
Understanding yourself and building these relationships will do wonders for helping to stave off the homesickness that can so easily distract us in service. These are the foundations in finding home, but there are also some boundaries we need to have as part of these relationships.

When we have misguided ideas about contextualization, we can sometimes lose balance in our life. We can also find ourselves growing bitter about where we live and the people we serve when we fail to set limits in relationships and keep a healthy distance. It’s not easy, and I’m not a great example by any means, but I have learned from past mistakes.

Nothing can suck the joy out of service more than sheer exhaustion because we don’t allow for personal space in our relationships. Once the joy fades, the longing for home increases and many will leave the field.

5. Schedule time for maintenance.
Just as home appliances require regular maintenance and repair, being at home wherever we serve means we have to maintain our spiritual, mental, and physical health. How are you doing spiritually? How’s your walk with the Lord? Have you talked to him about what you’re feeling? I encourage you to start with him and make sure you’re keeping your slate clean and remaining spiritually disciplined.

Life is full of changes, and the same goes for Christian service. Our feelings about home can shift when children start school or go off for college. Aging parents, sudden illness, or a forced evacuation can set off the homesickness bug for your native country and sometimes for your previous place of service. By God’s grace, we can learn to handle such changes and continue to be at rest right where we are.

When your world is shaken, and Jesus seems to have disappeared—wait. Wait and ask the Holy Spirit to come and fill your home-shaped heart with his peace and contentment, no matter the circumstances. Jesus is the one who keeps us centered with whatever life throws our way. May you find your home in him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

With thirty-plus years in missions, Carol Ghattas has made her home in over six countries and among a wide variety of peoples. She’s also had to rediscover what home looks like after returning from the field to her native land. A writer and speaker on missions, Islam, and other topics, Carol maintains an active blog site, lifeinexile.net. Her newest book, Not in Kansas Anymore: Finding Home in Cross-Cultural Service, is now available through online book distributors in e-book and paperback format.

Jesus, Take the Phone

My phone wouldn’t send a text message. It wouldn’t make a call. It wouldn’t even let me get online. And it had the audacity to continue not working even after I used the fail-safe method that cures all technology: turning my phone on and off again.

So I put my cell phone aside for the night. I’d already scrolled past 100 updates from 100 of my least favorite acquaintances. I guess I could go to bed an hour early, and it wouldn’t hurt too much. I figured the malady would surely be resolved by the morning– just another technological blip to annoy me.

Panic set in when my phone still wasn’t working the next day. Panic turned to anger after one online chat representative transferred me to another who kept telling me I needed to call the customer service line. How many times could I remind them that I didn’t have a working phone?

My shoulders were up by my ears, my jaw was clenched, and a barrage of ungrateful thoughts was running through my head . . . all aimed at the hapless employee who was absolutely not at fault for my non-working phone but had become an easy target for my frustration. I found myself apologizing, backpedaling, and stopping myself from treating this flesh-and-blood person as if she were as she appeared to me at that moment – three blinking dots on my computer screen.

The rest of the saga included borrowing a phone, 33 minutes on hold, four transfers, and two dropped calls. In the end, the phone company said they would send me a replacement part, which would take three business days to arrive. And today was Friday.

How would I survive?

I lost count of how many times I mindlessly picked up my phone and opened my email tab. When did life get so boring? Even though I had plenty to do, I was itching for my next fix. I needed a photo of a friend from junior high whom I haven’t seen in person for over 20 years. I was desperate to know what her lunch looked like! And surely I was missing out on all of the salient political points and religious insights being shared across all of my social media platforms. I felt so out of the loop! There was a whole world going on online, and I had been cut out of it. I felt like a 13-year-old who got uninvited to the sleepover.

These kinds of delays, breakdowns, and miscommunications were a normal part of my life when I lived overseas. I anticipated and accepted them as part of our crazy missional journey. I could even bring some curiosity into those experiences, wondering what they would reveal to me about the culture. But since returning to the U.S., my frustration fuse has shrunk. I want everything to work perfectly the first time, and I’m much less patient with my fellow Americans than I was with my Tanzanian friends because I’m always in a rush.

Case in point: within my first week of being home, I was using Google Maps, and an alert came across the screen letting me know that a better route was available. It could save me a whole three minutes! I literally laughed out loud at the ridiculous notion that getting there three minutes faster would matter. But it only took a few months before I was caught up once again in our go, go, go culture and happily accepting spare minutes anywhere I could find them.

Right before we returned to the U.S., God had started nudging me to cultivate silence in my life. So over the last 2 years, I’ve learned about meditation and contemplative prayer and found great solace in spending 10 minutes each morning soaking in God’s presence. But my recent phone-induced panic showed me that God now wanted to work on how I was filling the rest of my 23 hours and 50 minutes. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, the notifications on my phone and all of the apps and information it offered were filling my brain with far too much noise.

Technology is only part of this. Living on mission in any country can get real noisy real fast. There are always more demands for our attention and more problems to be solved than time to solve them. Like the insistent beeping of my phone, my desire to meet the endless needs of a hurting world around me can quickly wear me out and exhaust me if I’m not continually returning to God’s presence.

God has challenged me to give an honest accounting of how I spend my time. I’ve realized that whenever I had a free second, I was unconsciously reaching for my phone to fill the gap. It was easier to spend a few moments distracted by other people’s lives or witty memes than to reconnect with God’s presence or go to heaven in prayer or take a moment to say thank you. I had been enjoying my 10 minutes of quiet but not allowing the fruit of that time to spill over into the rest of my day.

So I asked for God’s forgiveness. I uninstalled some apps, put screen time limits on my phone, and asked for the Holy Spirit to intervene and turn my attention back to God when technology or anything else tries to steal it away. It’s a process of learning and unlearning. I’m hoping for progress and releasing any demands for perfection.

And I’m praying – Jesus, take the phone.


 

 

My Love/Hate Relationship with Living on Support

Lois was only a few weeks away from death when I visited her in a nursing home. Lois was a widow, and she supported our ministry in Tanzania at $200 a month as a widow. By the time I could visit her, she had developed cancer. I told her how grateful we were that she supported our family so generously for so many years. 

“It’s my pleasure,” she told me, her eyes bright with the energy her body lacked. “You know, I discussed this with my kids. They agreed that they didn’t need a big inheritance. They are okay with me giving away my money to missionaries.” I sat there dumbfounded, tears in my eyes.  

In Tanzania, we attended a church where we were often the only non-Africans present. One Sunday, the preacher spoke passionately about God’s call to cross-cultural missions. Afterward, an African woman I had never met approached me. She smiled and said, “Thank you for serving as missionaries!” She handed me an envelope containing about $75 – a considerable amount for many Tanzanians. My eyes gaped. My mouth gaped. I’m sure I looked like a codfish. All I could think was, She probably needs this more than I do. Yet I knew it would insult her to refuse, so I sputtered out my thanks and hugged her.

Our mission organization keeps a database of every donation we’ve received since we first moved overseas in 2001. Sometimes I look at the cumulative totals our donors have given us, some going back 20 years. They could have gone on a nice vacation with that money, I think to myself. Maybe an Alaskan cruise. That family could have remodeled their kitchen or bought a car with these donations. And in one case, They could have bought another house with that money. Not kidding. A whole house. 

When we knew we would relocate from Tanzania to the States in 2020, my husband and I started a job search. We cast our net far and wide, looking at schools, churches, and non-profits. There was one thing, however, that I was adamant about: whatever we decided to do next, I did not want to be in a support-raising position. No siree. I had been there, done that. No matter how cool an opportunity sounded, if it required raising support, I was out. I’d lived on support for 18 years. It was time to move on. 

But I have this wonderful friend, Alyssa, who has this habit of drilling into my soul. So when I told her my intention of finding a regular, non-support-raising job, she was not satisfied. “Why not?” she insisted. “What if God shows you the perfect job that is a perfect fit for you, but you have to live on support? Would you still say no?”

It’s so irritating when Alyssa is right. A couple of months later, God dropped that exact scenario into my lap, and I was forced to reckon with my resistance to living on support. What was my problem? God had always provided abundantly for us through the generosity of others. I loved the relationships I had formed with supporters. So why did I hate it so much?

I thought of Lois, and the woman with the envelope at church, and the people who could have bought a house with their donations. I realized I hated how their generosity made me feel so….humbled.

When you are trained in support-raising methods, they tell you that “the ask” will be hard. It’s challenging to look someone in the eye and ask if they will sacrificially donate money so that you can fulfill your calling. But you know what they don’t tell you? That asking may be hard, but receiving is even harder. 

After all, I’m a good, hard-working American with some hefty bootstraps. I don’t want to be dependent on anyone. I don’t want anyone to sacrifice on my behalf. I’d rather earn my keep. 

And therein lies my problem. Living on support feels like grace, and I don’t like grace. 

Those words fly out of my brain and through my fingers, and I instantly feel foolish. Considering that grace is the heart of Christianity, you could say this attitude is a problem for someone following Christ. 

The Creator of the universe lowered Himself to become dependent on mortals, so who do I think I am that I should refuse to depend on others? Is this not the Lord’s earth, and everything in it? Is it not God who provides for my needs, even when I try to provide for myself?

Daily I must release my independence. I cannot be self-reliant, and when God provides through others, I must lower my pride and receive it. I am not in control; I cannot spend my money as though I deserve it, and I am reminded that I am only a steward of God’s resources. Ironically, living on support teaches me how I should be living as a Christian. 

I surrendered and said yes to the perfect job that was a perfect fit, even though it meant I had to rely on support. I am ground to the dust in gratitude for the three churches and 76 households who faithfully continue to financially support me. But Jesus spent a lot of time in the dust, so I love the opportunity to identify with Him. 

Photo by Andre Taissin on Unsplash

What is a “fruitful” ministry?

What comes to mind when I ask you, “What does a fruitful ministry look like?” Or “What makes an outreach event or discipleship relationship fruitful?”

I’m guessing that you didn’t struggle to answer those questions. Of course, your answer may contain nuance and offer context, but my point is that we all have pictures of what fruitfulness looks like.

In my former organization we held annual meetings, which were often a highlight of the year. Getting to be with my friends in person was a highlight and I loved hearing reports of what was going on around my country of service and other countries in the region.

But I also felt tension.

Undoubtably, someone would share a report of how they fit 1,352 people in their living rooming and had robust Bible studies every week. Okay, maybe the number was closer to 13, but when my “great testimony” involved one or two who were showing spiritual interest, I didn’t feel very fruitful.

And maybe where you live, the mortality rate for young children is high. Or someone coming out of drug addiction goes back into it, does that mean we are less fruitful?

Not necessarily. However, much of the tension you and I feel can be tied back to the question “What does fruitfulness look like?”

I recently released a book, Becoming More Fruitful in Cross-Cultural Work, that explores this idea of fruitfulness.

Everyone, whether individuals or organizations, has metrics of what success looks like. But over time, those metrics can become the primary way we evaluate our fruitfulness. Much like the Galatians, cross-cultural workers can inadvertently turn our metrics into a modern version of “the law” and be enslaved by it. As I studied Galatians, it dawned on me that Paul could as easily have written his letter to the Galatians as a “Letter to the Great Commission Worker.”

The Galatians had access to freedom in Christ and yet, they kept returning to the comforts and familiarity of the law. It’s understandable because the law was familiar. It was known. It was easier to track and measure. And the law wasn’t “bad,” it was incomplete.

If Paul had written to us, he would have become exasperated with us too. Too often we have substituted our own “law” and live under the bondage of ministry metrics—or what we wish a ministry context could be.

Now, I’m not anti-metrics. We need to have goals and reasons for being on the field, doing what we’re doing. However, we—both individuals and organizations—can easily slip into a modern-day version of the law à la metrics. But if our metrics, location (where we are allowed to be), and what we are allowed to do become the primary definition of “a fruitful ministry,” like the Galatians, we stay enslaved to something that never could provide freedom and life.

I wondered, “Did God call you to the field to set others free in Christ while you stay trapped in an unintended form of ministry bondage?” What if collectively we moved our metrics down a peg and allowed walking with the Spirit to be the true measure of fruitfulness? 

Over and over as I researched and wrote this book my mind was blown. For one thing, the fruit of the Spirit is not like the gifts of the Spirit. You and I don’t get all the gifts, we get some of them. But the fruit? We can have all nine all the time. All nine all the time. I have another question for you:

How much in your life do you experience:

Love,
Joy,
Peace, 
Patience, 
Kindness, 
Goodness, 
Gentleness, 
Faithfulness, and 
Self-Control?

If your answer isn’t “24/7 Baby!” then this book is for you. In it you’ll find that God has upward fruit (toward him), outward fruit (toward others), and inward fruit (toward yourself) for you. When God talks about fruitfulness, He has true, holistic, all-of-your-life fruitfulness for you.

Guess where grapes, the metaphor that Paul uses, produces fruit? In rocky soil. In other words, in the messy realities of your life on the field. So, fruitfulness isn’t just for the early morning “Tea and Jesus” time. It’s also for public transportation, annoying teammates, and doors that won’t open.

Because these concepts are to be discussed and wrestled with in community, Global Trellis is hosting a four-week book club in October to discuss Becoming More Fruitful. You (and people you work with) can join here and participate or receive the recorded meetings.

Redefining fruitfulness is both simple and hard. So instead of all of us reading the book and saying, “Yes, that’s the kind of life I want to live” and then moving on without much really changing, we’ll discuss the book for four weeks, allowing new roots to take hold.

We’ll discuss:

  • The fruit of the Spirit and the idea of metrics
  • The upwardly oriented fruit: love, joy, and peace
  • The outwardly oriented fruit: patience, kindness, and goodness
  • The inwardly oriented fruit: gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control

My hope is that this book will enable you and your organization to further experience the freedom and growth that God has for each one of us, even in the midst of ebbs and flows of what we’re able to do.

Becoming More Fruitful is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback. Check it out here.

A version of this post first appeared here.

Don’t Just Missionary On

Onward, Christian soldiers.

Soldier on, Christians.

These don’t mean the same thing, at least not to me.

Paul uses the word soldier to describe someone faithfully acting in obedience to God when he exhorts Timothy, “Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3 NIV). It’s a good thing to be Christian soldier.

But when we use soldier as a verb, such as in soldier on, it can take on a different meaning. Around the early 1900s, to soldier on the job was introduced, meaning, oddly enough, to act as if you’re working hard while only putting in minimal effort. And then the mid 1900s gave us the shorter to soldier on, which means to keep going in the face of difficulty or trouble.

In this latter sense, soldiering on, too, is a good thing. But that’s not how the phrase often comes across today. When I hear “soldiering on,” I think of a joyless trudge, just putting one foot in front of the other without resting, without taking time for reflection, without asking questions, without sharing heartfelt emotions, without asking for help or relief or sympathy or grace.

That’s how the best soldiers do it, right?

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

Do you ever feel that you’re only “missionarying on”—where your service overseas is a joyless trudge, just putting one foot in front of the other without resting, without taking time for reflection, without asking questions, without sharing heartfelt emotions, without asking for help or sympathy or grace?

Please don’t get me wrong: Suffering is part of the equation. Persevering when things are hard, really hard, is often necessary. And sometimes we simply must put our heads down and do the work that must be done. But if being a missionary feels only like a slog through thick mud, day after day after day, loaded down, with no relief in sight or hoped for, then something needs to change.

If that’s the case for you, tell some someones how you feel—someone who will listen without judgment, someone who knows you well, someone who is on your side, someone who understands, someone whom you trust, someone who can make a difference.

Don’t settle for trudging.

Don’t be content to let your “have to” devour your “get to.”

Don’t assume that carrying an overly heavy burden is all there is and all there ever will be.

Onward, Christian missionaries.

But please, please don’t just missionary on.

[photo: “boot,” by eltpics, used under a Creative Commons license]

Fighting My Inner Cynic

 

We were hosting another vision trip for bright-eyed twenty-somethings, and I found myself trying desperately to stifle another eyeroll. A recent college grad was explaining his plans to move to Afghanistan and eventually completely revamp the entire education system. 

“Oh, would you try to do that before or after your closest friends are kidnapped and killed?” 

“How innovative of you! I bet none of the countries that have poured billions of dollars into the country have ever tried such a thing! It’s a good thing that you’re here and can show them how it’s done.”

These are things I was tempted to say, but by the grace of God and the knowledge that I could unleash my eyerolls later, I kept my thoughts to myself.

If you have been on the field for more than a few years, perhaps you are familiar with the cynicism that so easily creeps into the consciousness of the field worker. It’s the uneasiness we feel when new co-workers arrive, but their excitement and fervor feel more like ignorance than vibrant ambition to us.

It’s seeing new teammates talk about the great spiritual conversation they had with a friend but privately thinking that it will not ever really go any further than that. After all, you have had many similar conversations.

There’s no denying how jaded we can become after experiencing countless disappointments and atrocities. Like tire tracks on a dried-up dirt road, my mind had created expectations for disappointment, for nothing to actually turn out well, and for people I love to eventually leave the field. 

What had happened to me? I came to the field with so much excitement and hope. But the difficulties and disappointments had taken such a toll that I could not even respond with a kind word to our young friend’s enthusiasm. Granted, his ideas were lacking historical awareness, but my attitude towards any lofty plan or vision was one of sheer cynicism rather than tempered optimism. 

For most of us, our expectations have been forged by the fact that life on the field can be brutal. Endless goodbyes, evacuations, and friends who had been murdered had all taken a heavy toll on my own ability to retain any sense of optimism. While I had dealt with the trauma of the painful events, I had not acknowledged the fact that my mind had been trained to expect the absolute worst. And I wanted everyone else to expect the worst, too.

I would really love to tell you that I had some special encounter with Jesus or a few breakthrough sessions of therapy that completely turned around my critical attitude. I wish I could report that I now listen to people’s well-meaning aspirations and feel the urge to empower them rather than poke holes in their dreams. But that would not be entirely true.

Not long after feeling convicted about what a downer I had become, a friend and fellow worker came to stay with us. She also happened to be a mental health professional, and she too was feeling the cynicism sneak in when spending time with new arrivals. Together, we prayed for a renewed spirit of joy and compassion when met with the tender naiveté of our friends. 

She asked me what I was like when I first landed in Afghanistan, and I confessed that I secretly thought that I was going to be like Mother Teresa. She shared her own misguided expectations of being in perfect, harmonious friendships with all of her teammates and local friends. We both laughed until we cried as we remembered our hopes that had been blown to smithereens by the ruthless realities of life on the field. We, too, had once been the newbies with preposterous ideas. The only difference was that we did not have the audacity to actually voice them out loud upon our arrival. 

This little moment of clarity did help me to approach short-term visitors and field hopefuls with more tenderness and grace. My friend encouraged me to share my stories with them in a way that was personal rather than didactic. Our stories of heartbreak, disappointment, and times of despair are both true and relevant. 

Rather than telling someone to adjust their expectations, a story gives listeners the option of taking in new information and assimilating it into their own perspective. The difficulty, of course, is that many stories are painful to retell. It is far easier to say, “Trust me, you are about to have your heart ripped from your chest and repeatedly stomped,” than to tell the stories of friends’ tragic deaths. It is more expedient to let newly arrived ladies know that it’s only a matter of time before they are sexually assaulted on the street than to share with them personal experiences of violation. But lasting relationships and trust are not built on ease and expedience. 

When I am really honest with myself, I have to admit that I want people to believe what I say simply because I have experience they do not have. This is unreasonable, pretentious, and ultimately says a lot more about my pride than anyone’s naivete. 

Jesus could have quite easily told his listeners, “Trust me . . . I’m actually God and I know everything.” Instead, he approached the crowds and his disciples with relatable stories and agricultural metaphors. He explained hidden realities with the familiarity of the mundane. Despite his intimate knowledge of each person he encountered, he still took the time to ask questions. “Who do you say I am?” “Where is your husband?” “Where have they all gone?” “Are you going to leave, too?” The compassionate curiosity of Jesus exposes my pride and impatience. 

The freshness of new field workers also tends to highlight how much my faith has changed. Sure, my expectations have been weathered by hardship, but my belief that God is truly a salvager of the perverse, atrocious, and devastating has taken some blows. I want to believe that the wreckage I see is not the end of the story, because my hope is still in the all-powerful God who has promised to make all things new. But asking God for the improbable now requires a painfully honest examination of my heart, because the temptation is to expect disappointment rather than relinquishing the actual fear of failure and disappointment to Him. 

When new co-workers arrive with a head full of dreams and hearts full of hope, their excitement and joy have the potential to ignite new ideas, bring fresh perspective, and remind us to expect beautiful gifts from the Father. The Spirit of God has birthed dreams in their hearts and a fire in their bones, and it may look entirely different than anything I have ever imagined.

That new field worker will eventually be a seasoned one. The hardship and heartache will eventually take up residence, and they will need the refreshing and reassurance that we have also needed. 

As we welcome new arrivals, may we choose to bless their dreams and listen to their hopes with tenderness. May we hold space for them when the disappointments feel crushing, and may we find fellowship together in both joy and heartache. 

Is Christ Still Worth It?

In 2007, worker friends of mine were martyred in a country in Central Asia. I was in my mid-twenties, single, and praying for direction for the desires the Lord had given me for his kingdom. I was so shaken by their deaths. I remember how, shortly after it happened, I was swimming furiously in the gym pool, praying to the Lord, ”Who will take their place? Please, send me.”

I couldn’t make it to the memorial in the US, but a pastor friend shared with me the eulogy he had given. One line has had a profound effect on me. After talking about all the challenges these worker friends faced, and their many adversaries, he said something like, “You may hear about all this opposition and all the difficulties they faced, and their lives may not sound appealing to you. But the truth is, their lives did not appeal to them either. They loved Christ more than they loved their own lives.

~~~~~~~

I remember when we were first getting ready to go overseas. My husband and I had the opportunity to share at a church together. I was passionate, convinced that Christ is worthy and that he is worth our sacrifice. I was so glad we were finally (at age 33 and 32) on our way to serve Christ in the Middle East for the rest of our lives. 

The first three years were exciting. We had a lot of adrenaline, and we were planted in really good spiritual communities. During that time we joined a team to help plant a church. We felt like we were finally living our dream life. Then the Lord called us to another ministry in another country. 

The last four years, since arriving in this country, we have faced many difficulties: significant health problems, a brutal treatment to catalyze physical healing, an excruciating language learning season, deep loneliness, unresolved trauma flaring up with intense symptoms and a need for additional counseling/therapy. A tragedy a year ago left us reeling, and we are still processing the shock of it. Our efforts in relationship building haven’t borne the fruit we hoped; right now the path doesn’t seem very clear. The ground at times feels shaky underneath our feet. What can we stand on? At times we feel like the wind in our sails is just…..gone. 

We have been overseas for seven years now. According to a friend, who is also a clinical counselor and who has done a lot of research about mental health in workers, we are right at the burnout period. And frankly, we feel it. Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot I love about our life here. I love where we live. I love the beauty around me. I am so thankful for the expat community we have started to get to know. Our kids are doing really well at school. But I don’t love how lost we feel right now, how very little we have to go on for ministry. We have dreams for the work here but struggle to find our place in it. 

We shared some of this with our church this past summer, asking for prayer. I wondered how they might hear what we shared. Did our lives sound as unappealing as the ones from my friends? We were definitely not sharing the glamorous, attractive stories that you sometimes hear from workers when they come home. We were not doing the best job at recruiting, if you ask me.

A question swirled in my head: What would motivate any of our friends at church not only to keep praying for us, but to maybe one day also go overseas? Is Christ still worth it?

Is Christ worth years and years of language learning? Is he worth the death of who we are in English for what we can be in another language? Is he worth our praise when we have more questions than clear answers from him?  When the ground doesn’t feel firm, and our confidence feels shaken, is he worth it? 

The thing is, Christ hasn’t changed. He is still the one who holds all things together (Colossians 1:17). He is still the one who knows the end from the beginning, whose footprints sometimes are unseen as he leads through the sea (Psalm 77:19). He is still the one who creates the visible out of the invisible (Hebrews 11:3). He is still the one whose arm brings salvation (Isaiah 59:17).

Christ is still the one who stoops low even as he has all authority on earth (Matthew 28:18-20). He is the one who gives himself to us so completely, so joyfully, so powerfully, so lovingly. The one who is our life — our only life!

This verse in a new song by CityAlight and Sandra McCracken captures why we can still love Christ even when we don’t love our lives: 

On the road that You walked
With the weight of the cross
All my pain and my sorrow You held
So to You I shall hold
You redeem every loss
For my Lord, You have given Yourself

Bless the Lord, for He gives me Himself
Bless the Lord, for He gives me Himself
And if I should remain in the valley today
Bless the Lord, for He gives me Himself

Yes, friend, in the valley the risen Christ is still worthy and worth it, because there we get Him – all of Him – forever.

Missionary Job Description: Feel Awkward

An Introvert Moves to India

Shortly before we launched as missionaries to India, I was gifted a book. The title was something like Home at Last.

This book disturbed me.

In it, the (obviously extroverted) author writes we will be with people all the time in Heaven/The Earth Made New, and won’t that be wonderful?! After this statement, the author moves on to other beautiful theological musings and descriptions of Home. I skipped these and read again the people-all-the-time thing.

Oh no, I quietly panicked. I don’t want to be with people all the time. What if I’m not cut out for Heaven?! 

Then we moved to India, where your arms seem to touch the arms of others nearly all the time, at least on the bus and sometimes even at your house. My neighbors, worried I would feel lonely or homesick, made sure never to leave me alone. 

The good part of this is that I was also never hungry. And Indian food is some of the best I’ve ever tasted.

The difficult part is that sometimes I wanted everyone to take their curries and chapattis and palak panir and go visit someone else.

I actually like being around people. And I want lots of people to be in Heaven. But I need time to think about the meaning of life, you know? Otherwise, I feel like I stop understanding the world and my place in it. I lose track, becoming internally displaced. Sometimes I need a minute to think about Everything. 

I’ve heard that’s called being an introvert.

Several times that first year, I locked my main door from the outside and sneaked back into my house from a side door, so people would think I was not at home.

Ahhh. Alone at Last.

Then my extroverted husband would bounce home like Tigger and wonder why I was locking out all the unreached people we had come to minister to. And I would wonder why I wasn’t more like him. And I would think to myself, “I can do this. I can be more like Joshua. I just need time to think about how to do that…”

Thinking, by myself, was my safe place. Language learning, making cultural mistakes, and being observed made me want to run and hide.

But when I went home and had my quiet moments, I found something in myself I hadn’t expected. The reason I was hiding was not always to analyze. Sometimes I hid for the sake of hiding.

Sometimes I hid because I was afraid.

That’s Awkward.

A friend of mine once said that the main job description of a missionary is to feel awkward. 

You feel awkward in your host country. Then you go home and feel awkward, too.

I like knowing all the rules, especially social ones, and I like to go to sleep at night knowing that I didn’t offend anyone, and that I said what I meant to say, and was understood and didn’t talk too much or too little, and that nobody around me was ignored or suffered hurt feelings because of things I said or other people said. If I can’t sleep, I make a list of people I might have offended and pray over it and give it to God and sometimes follow up the next day.

Enter India. Instead of my neatly organized, slightly neurotic list-making, that first year I went to bed at night thinking about how to leave someone’s house.

I often visited a friend, and after a couple of hours would try to leave. She would ask me to stay longer. I would sit. A while later, I would try to leave again. She would ask me to stay longer. I would sit. After playing this up-down game for some time, I could tell my friend actually wanted me to leave. I wanted to leave, too. But she kept telling me to sit and stay, and I kept sitting and staying. 

So, instead of analyzing the minute nuances of human interaction, I wondered how in the world people go home in India.

One awkward moment was tolerable. The problem was, I knew the awkwardness was going to be repeated multiple times daily. I was going to feel awkward. Often. And make other people feel awkward. And not be able to say anything to make it better, because all I could say was, “Nice to meet you, I have a brother who is older than me and a sister who is younger than me, do you want to drink chai?”

Honestly, it’s only because of my extroverted and goal-oriented husband that I kept going out the door. He would laugh with me over my faux pas, and they would become funny instead of tragic. Then he would remind me that making mistakes doesn’t kill you and that I have something to give the world. Something beyond just avoiding mistakes.

He would remind me that it’s worth the risk because maybe someone I felt awkward around might love Jesus someday. My shame might bring God glory.

Joshua and I argued a lot that first year, as he learned to be more introverted and I learned to be more extroverted. But I still thank him for his constant encouragement to exit our house. Because some of my favorite memories of my life are of my first year in India. They’re much more interesting than the memories I made just sitting and thinking. Funnier, too.

A Special Gift

But my introversion wasn’t all a stumbling block. It turned out to be a gift, too. I realized it was a gift after the 37th time that my friend Sai told me not to say danyavad

I had lost sleep over this. Why in the world couldn’t I say thank you? What was wrong with being polite? What was I supposed to say instead?

It took multiple discussions (with people) and late-night analysis sessions (by myself) to finally understand why North Indians don’t say thank you to family members and close friends. The answer revealed something hidden deep within the culture, something that would help me understand why it’s so difficult for a Hindu to pick up their cross and follow Jesus. (I tell that entire story in my book, Hidden Song of the Himalayas.)

Using Your Gift

Introverts, don’t let your gift hold you back. I know some days it seems more prudent to wait until you speak the language or understand the culture before you really invest in others. But the only way to get to that place is through the forest of awkward not knowing. It’s like when you’re learning to drive, and you really want to slow down because everything is happening so fast, but sometimes it’s safer just to keep going. 

Introverts, appreciate how God made you. Use your gift to do the uncomfortable work of cultural analysis that will make you a true insider. Let it be difficult. Let it hurt. Let it be awkward. It’s worth the cost.

At the same time, it’s okay to take a break. Just know that when you come away with Jesus on a mountain because you’re overwhelmed by the crowds, if they follow you there, He will provide. He will provide with what little you have, even if it’s just a few loaves of bread and a handful of tiny fish. Because He has compassion for you, and for the crowds, too.

While the awkward moments never completely subsided, I learned to decipher certain subtle linguistic and social cues in India. I learned to understand my friends, their language, and their unique perspectives. After seven years in India, I could finally picture myself in the Earth Made New, surrounded by people, arms touching as we stood together under the tree whose leaves are “for the healing of the nations.”

Ahhh. Home at Last!

Getting my friends home is God’s story to write. My part is to pick up my cross and walk out my door.

Will you join me?

Some Seeds Die

When I was growing up, my family often sang prayers before mealtime. Our repertoire included “God is good and God is great,” “Hands, hands, hands,” and “I owe the Lord a morning song.” Another family favorite was the “Johnny Appleseed” song. Perhaps your family also sang this song. Based on the historic figure John Chapman, the legend of Johnny Appleseed has made its way into Disney movies, folklore, and prayer-songs[1].

The second verse of this song has not been sitting well with me for years. We sing:

“And every seed I sow, will grow into a tree.
And someday there will be apples there,
For everyone in the world to share.
The Lord’s been good to me.”

While I appreciate the encouraging, hopeful words, in recent years I have found that they grate at my soul. Is it ok to teach our children lies or half-truths, even in the context of a children’s song? Not every seed will grow. Jesus was clear about that. But this song gives us a nicer, cleaner, easier way to teach our children that seeds grow. We do learning activities with our children, and we assume that the seeds we plant in the little pots on our porch will grow.

But often they don’t.

I have learned this over the past decade of ministering in a slum community. Quite literally, many seeds do not grow. There is a grassy field only a stone’s throw from our house. We would love to plant small trees there, or flowers, or vegetables. But the roaming sheep and goats immediately devour anything edible. We recently tried transplanting a fairly good-sized tree from a pot to this field. Within an hour the goats had devoured all the leaves and left it a bare stick. Our six-year-old son cried as he watched our plant get eaten.

Even the pots on our porch often fail to produce the plants we were expecting to grow. Whether it is the neighboring chickens that wander onto our porch to eat the new seedlings or a curious child who decides to pick at the pots, new seeds often have no chance to grow. We did a gardening activity with thirty of our elementary school students recently: planting spinach, chili peppers, and kangkong. We faithfully watered the thirty little pots. Hopeful sprouts sprang up. But now a month later, two small pots are all that remain.

Sadly, ministering in hard settings often yields similar results as our gardening efforts in the slum. Have you been in your location for years but not seen anyone come to know Jesus? Do you know the heartbreak and despair of sowing for years but not seeing any fruit? Have you poured yourself into the work and not seen what you had hoped to see? Or perhaps the pain and disappointment is related to your team? Have people you trusted and mentored not produced the fruit you were hoping for?

These past few months have felt like a season of pruning for me. Teammates have left. We had to send an intern home suddenly because of a breach of trust. And multiple students that we had poured into have stopped coming to lessons. Sometimes the heartbreak feels too much to bear.

So I have started singing a new version of the Johnny Appleseed song with my children:

“And every seed I sow will grow into a tree.
But that is not true, ‘cause some seeds die.
And then I’ll sit on the ground and cry:
‘The Lord’s still good to me. Even when the seeds die.’”

This feels more in line with Scripture. Some seeds die. Three quarters of the seeds, in fact, if Jesus’s parable of the soils is mathematical. Some seeds fall on the path and are eaten by birds. Other seeds fall on rocky soil and cannot grow. Some seeds begin to grow but are choked by the worries and riches of this world. Only a quarter of the seeds fall on good soil. (See Matthew 13 for more details.)

Wherever you are, wherever you are sowing seeds, may you be encouraged today. Not with an “everything will be ok” or “every seed will grow” lie. But may you be encouraged to lament the areas in your life and ministry that are disappointing. May you know today that God sees, God hears, and God cares.

And may we be able to join our voice with the voice of the prophet Habakkuk and proclaim:

“Though the fig tree does not blossom and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19a)


[1] As I wrote this article and googled the song, I discovered that it was actually created by Disney in 1948, originally titled “The Lord is Good to Me.” However, the words that I grew up singing are different than the original.

New data shows how missionary kids can suffer. Here’s what parents can do about it.

TCK Training’s research into the experiences of globally mobile Third Culture Kids included some hard truths, especially when it comes to the experiences of missionary kids. Missionary Kids are experiencing abuse and neglect at higher rates than American children. Dramatically higher, in some cases.

Now that we know this, what do we do? The bottom line is: we need to talk to our kids. We need to understand their perspective and how our lives can appear to them. We need to provide clear assurance to them that they are and will continue to be loved, listened to, protected, and cared for.

Abuse
Let’s start with the ‘good’ news. While 28% of Americans experienced physical abuse from an adult member of their household before the age of 18, only 16% of missionary kids in the TCK Training survey reported the same. 16% is more missionary kids being hurt in their homes than we want to see, of course, but it’s still a positive sign. 

Now for the bad news. 11% of Americans experienced emotional abuse from an adult member of their household before the age of 18. Among missionary kids, that number was 40%. That’s 2 out of every 5 missionary kids. Nearly four times the rate seen in the American public. 

The rate of sexual abuse (from an adult or child at least five years older, experienced before the age of 18) was a little higher among missionary kids than among Americans – 24% vs 21%. In addition, 26% of missionary kids experienced child-to-child sexual abuse, and 28% experienced grooming behaviour. 

Neglect
When we move on to talking about neglect, the news gets worse. 10% of the American public reported experiencing physical neglect as children. In the TCK sector, Missionary Kids were the most likely to report physical neglect, at 14%. This means that as children, 14% of missionary kids worried they would not have enough to eat, or would not have clean clothes to wear, or would not have a parent able to take them to the doctor if they needed to go.

This doesn’t mean 14% of missionary kids went without food, clothing, or medical attention. It means that for 14% of missionary kids, this was a significant worry during their childhood. 

11% of Americans reported experiencing emotional neglect as children. More than three times this number of missionary kids, 37%, reported experiencing emotional neglect as children. That’s more than 1 in 3 missionary kids who as children felt they were not loved, special or important, or that their family was not close and supportive.

Again, this does not mean a third of missionary kids are unloved, but that a third of missionary kids are not sure of this – they do not feel loved, do not feel special, do not feel important, do not feel that their family is close and supportive. 

Now what?
The goal of this research is not to scare people away from mission work, or life overseas in general. It does, however, bust the myth that the mission world is a safe bubble in which children are protected from all kinds of potential harm.

Even when your own children are untouched by abuse and neglect themselves, it’s highly likely their friends are affected. These things are happening in our communities, all around the world. This much is clear as I speak with child protection officers and TCK caregivers in various mission organisations in (and from) various countries. Many have even suggested to me that TCK Training’s research likely paints a better picture than reality, given their own experiences on the field. 

Now that we know, what do we do? 

1. Talk to our kids. These things are happening, and we can no longer pretend they aren’t. We need to talk to our kids about what abuse is, what neglect is, and how to recognise this in their interactions with others. This will enable them to recognise unsafe behaviour directed toward them and also help them identify friends in trouble.

Discussions about safe/unsafe touch, private parts, bodily autonomy, the difference between secrets and surprises, and listening to our internal sense of safety and discomfort is essential — even with very young children. This is especially true when we are living in a culture with different ideas of what is acceptable than we ourselves might have. 

We need to teach children that they are allowed to say no, they are allowed to feel safe, and they do not have to obey every adult at all times. Then we need to back them up. We need to let them say no to hugs/kisses when they are uncomfortable. We need to allow them privacy in the home. We need to give them permission to set boundaries — even if this creates some tension or embarrassment in our community. To do otherwise sets them up to potentially accept abuse down the line. 

2. Understand their perspective. We also need to listen to our kids. Once we’ve taught them that they have a right to feel safe, we need them to tell us when they feel uncomfortable about a person or situation — especially if this happens when we are not present.

For this communication to happen, they need to know that we will listen and believe them when they tell us, and that we will take action. That means we will not put them in that position again but will discuss what will make the situation safe/comfortable for them — or find an alternative.

Often this will mean discussing self-advocacy, how to ask for what they want/need, or to say no/set boundaries. Sometimes it will mean being present — not leaving them alone at a certain friend’s house or extracurricular activity, whether in the short term or long term. It might extend to finding a different form of transport to school, or even changing schools. 

The other important part of listening is understanding how they view their life and world. Things that seem safe to you may not seem safe to them. Anything that frightens them or creates anxiety in them is worth taking time to explain and create plans for. No question or fear is wrong or stupid or a waste of time. Listening to what is on your child’s heart, validating their emotions, and assuring them you have a plan to take care of the things that worry them is vital. And it brings us to our third and final point of advice.

3. Provide clear assurance. Neglect is, according to the Adverse Childhood Experiences questionnaire, more about the child’s perception of physical and emotional security than about the actual provision of food and love. The child’s worry and anxiety about physical provision can be as big a burden as actual lack of physical provision. That is, carrying the mental/emotional burden of not knowing whether there will be enough food each day/week has a deep impact on a child — even if dinner is on the table each night. 

Missionary Kids reported experiencing Physical Neglect at a higher rate than American children. Anecdotally, we believe that in most cases this is due more to carrying the burden of worry than to not having enough.

Many missionary kids are part of the support raising process, ensuring the family will have enough money to return to their host country and stay there. They take on a sense of burden to provide for the family, often without knowing whether or not there is actually enough (especially when younger).

In some cases, missionary kids know exactly how little money there is – or believe the family is in more financial trouble than they are. This can happen when children are included in requests for prayer/support, or the family prays together for their financial needs to be met. Parents often believe that when God provides, this will strengthen their children’s faith. Instead, many children remain in a state of long-term anxiety, unsure their daily needs can/will be met. 

It is vital that missionary parents clearly communicate that they will provide for the family’s needs and that the children do not need to worry. Children need to know there will be food on the table, and they never need to worry about that. 

37% of missionary kids lacked assurance they were loved, special, and important. It is crucial for all missionary parents to clearly communicate this, in words and deeds. Give each child one-on-one time, for conversation and for play. Listen to what is important to them.

If God entrusts you with the irreplaceable ministry of raising up a precious child, do not let that child believe the ministry of child-rearing, of modeling the protecting and faithful love of God, is less important to you than any job — even the work of spreading the gospel. 


A Life Overseas is committed to supporting global families in every way we can. Understanding abuse, its prevention, and caring well for the abused is part of that. If you would like to read more, the following articles are a good place to start:


Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash