In my previous post, I discussed the importance of citizenship of heaven as biblical theology which brings hope and encouragement to TCKs. The knowledge that their hearts will one day rest in the comfort of a single home brings great peace. There is also great joy in knowing that this single home crosses the earthly boundaries they feel restricted by – that heaven will be a place of inclusion, where difference does not mean separation.
This was one of two findings from my research. The other was more of a surprise to me – that TCKs’ understanding of earthly citizenship provides an important springboard to helping them understand what it means to be a Christian.
Christians are expatriates on earth
Throughout the New Testament there are calls for Christians to live as those whose allegiance is first and foremost to the kingdom of heaven. (Philippians 3:20, 1 Peter 2:11, Hebrews 11:13-16). We are strangers and sojourners in this world. Two Greek words often used in this context (paroikos and parepidēmos) have a meaning similar to the modern use of “expatriate” – those who are living long term in a place they do not completely belong to.
Those of us who live (or have lived) outside our passport countries can easily layer our earthly experiences onto this spiritual reality. We know what it feels like to live in a place we cannot truly call ‘home’. We live according to the laws and customs of the place in which we sojourn, while maintaining a different identity altogether.
The experience of TCKs, however, is an even closer parallel to the Christian’s spiritual reality. TCKs grow up far from the place to which they are legally connected. They know where ‘home’ is, but they grow up building emotional connections somewhere else. Is that not our spiritual situation? We are citizens of heaven, a place in which we have not lived, a place that often feels so far away. We aim to live out Kingdom values, though we are steeped in the values of this world. TCKs’ understandings of citizenship, therefore, have a lot to speak to the spiritual lives of Christians.
TCKs and Citizenship
The TCKs I interviewed did not feel a sense of belonging simply through shared characteristics – like ethnicity, nationality, work, or church. Belonging, they said, required integration. They needed a sense of shared purpose, working toward a common goal.
“It’s always a two-way thing, to feel like you belong. You can’t just be there and feel like you’re contributing but no one really accepts you, or feel like everyone accepts you but you’re not actually building anything while you’re there.” – Min
This idea of belonging as a two-way street bled through into their understanding of citizenship. While they recognised the legal aspect of citizenship (holding a passport) they also felt strongly that real citizenship meant personal involvement: shared values, understanding of culture/language, acceptance by locals, and contribution to the community. Yet these TCKs also know that no amount of felt belonging can grant one a passport. Legal standing is, to a very large extent, outside the individual’s control.
“You can quite easily be a citizen of a country without knowing any kind of cultural norms or history or the language even. . .citizenship, legally speaking, comes just like that with paperwork, but in terms of actual action it takes time, it takes years to really feel like you have become a citizen of that place. . .If you don’t have the piece of paper to prove it then you’re not a citizen of the place. Regardless to how much that person knows about that place or how much they are familiar with the place.” – Kaito
Citizenship and Soteriology
During interviews every TCK used ideas from their description of earthly citizenship to illustrate what they believed heavenly citizenship was. The conversation invariably turned to what makes someone a citizen of heaven – what does it mean to be included in the people of God? In other words, what does it mean to be saved? Suddenly their two categories of citizenship took on a new light, as they map to theology of justification and sanctification.
- I am a citizen because the ruling authority declares it so – justification.
- I respond to my citizenship by learning to act according to the culture – sanctification.
I am a citizen because a government accepts me. Citizenship is granted to me by that authority, a decision which is out of my hands. I can apply to become a citizen, but the country must choose to accept me. That declaration makes me a citizen, but there should be more. I should respond to that reality, connecting personally and engaging in the community, by learning language, understanding culture, and contributing to society.
I am a citizen of heaven because God accepts me, declaring me righteous on the basis of Jesus’ completed work, not on the basis of anything I’ve done. That declaration makes me a citizen of heaven, but there should also be a response from me. I need to learn the culture of this Kingdom, learn to live that way, and engage with the community I am now a part of.
Discipling TCKs as citizens of heaven
Earthly citizenship comes with both rights and responsibilities; so does heavenly citizenship. TCKs’ understanding of the former can enlighten their understanding of the latter.
I often hear a works-mentality from Christian TCKs – that they need to be good enough, need to learn more, need to work out what to do to earn their place among God’s people. TCKs’ understanding of earthly citizenship provides an open door to explain justification and assurance of salvation – they can be granted the passport, even if they don’t feel they belong, and don’t always act like they belong.
On the other hand, TCKs’ intuitive sense that there is more to citizenship than a piece of paper translates across to their faith: being justified and accepted by God makes me a citizen of heaven, but now I must choose to identify with this King and His Kingdom.
“We should live like citizens of heaven here on earth… For me it means to have a different mindset, a different set of values… You live here how you live when you are a citizen in heaven. You care for other people, you think that every human is equal, you respect each other.” – Yannick
The call to live as citizens of heaven, to live with that cultural mindset, is a challenge today just as it was when Jesus preached the counter-cultural values of the kingdom of heaven. Citizenship is an image that resonates for immigrants and expatriates and especially TCKs. New Testament writers used this imagery precisely because it connects with so many earthly experiences. We can do the same, and in the process speak both comfort and challenge to TCKs and others who live cross-cultural lives.
Tanya Crossman spent most of her childhood as a local in Australia and most of her adulthood as an expat in China (with stops in the U.S. and Cambodia). Along the way she unexpectedly turned into an expert on millennial TCKs, wrote a book, and starting travelling the world to speak on her favourite topic: why TCKs are awesome and how to serve them well. After completing an MDiv in Australia, she recently got married (to a TCK) and moved back to Beijing. Now she’s enjoying rediscovering everything she loves about China! She can be found online far too often, usually on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and occasionally at her website.