Gil and I met at 21 years old, married at 23, and were living in Tanzania by 24. We had been married all of nine months before we moved overseas. We had gotten to know each other as co-leaders of a cross-cultural ministry in California, and our desire to be missionaries was one of the main factors that brought us together. Our mission organization had vetted us, interviewed us, and sent us to two weeks of training. I had spent half of my childhood as an MK, and both of us had spent several years in ministry during college. As far as we were concerned, we were ready.
That didn’t keep us from crashing and burning. We were too outspoken about our culturally-insensitive opinions and therefore offended local friends. We over-committed ourselves to ministries that kept us apart from each other too much of the time, which strained our relationship. We naively expected too much change too quickly in new believers’ lives, which led to disappointment and disillusionment. After two years, we were depressed and demoralized.
Many times over the past twenty years, we’ve seen many new missionaries arrive on the field who were older and more experienced than we were, and they didn’t seem to struggle nearly as much as we did. I’ve asked myself, “Should we have waited until we were older?” Would another couple of years of married life in the States have spared us from heartache? Would more maturity have kept us from making so many naive mistakes? Would we have known how to set better boundaries?
Of course, there is no “perfect” age to move overseas for the first time, and there are certainly pros and cons to relocating at each stage of life. But if you are young, pursuing missions, and asking yourself, “Should I wait until I am older?” or if you are a parent or a church leader of someone who is asking that question, here are my thoughts.
Consider the advantages:
Our energy and passion gave us perseverance. I remember the first time I went roller skating when I was eight. I must have fallen a few dozen times, but I just kept getting right back up again. These days? I think just one fall would send me to the sidelines for good. There’s a God-given quality of youthful idealism that keeps us going when things get tough. Yes, Gil and I fell hard. Our most difficult years in Tanzania were definitely those first two years. If I had experienced them at an older age, I might have given up. But our youth gave us perseverance, and taught us and toughened us for the years ahead.
We were more willing to be adventurous, try new things, and put up with hard conditions. Twelve-hour bus trip? No problem. All-night youth lock-in that included 30 hours of fasting? Sure! Back then we thrived on new experiences, crazy outings, and busy schedules. We didn’t have kids and had the freedom to follow every opportunity. Those first two years, my schedule involved getting up at 4:45 every morning and coming home 12 hours later. These days, I get tired just thinking about the stuff we did in those younger years. But now that I’m older, I love having young people on my team for their willingness and ability to do whatever needs to get done.
We built our family while we were already living overseas. It can be tough for women with young children to start their experience overseas as a stay-at-home-mom. Learning language and getting into the culture is a challenge with kids at home. And as an MK educator, I’ve seen the agony of parents relocating their children overseas. Gil and I were able to avoid that by building our family after we had already adapted to life in Tanzania, and I had several years to settle into life and be in ministry full time before I needed to devote more time to my family.
Minimize the disadvantages:
Prepare, prepare, prepare. Get a degree in an area that God can use to open doors for foreign visas–or at least pave the way for relationships. Get some Bible training–either at a college or through rigorous discipleship. Take a Perspectives course. Read books. Learn to manage your finances, cook, and communicate well verbally and in writing. And most importantly–serve. Serve in your local church and serve in your community. All of this can happen even in high school–so start now!
Don’t go without a mentor, and be humble enough to listen and change. This should be standard advice for any cross-cultural worker, but the younger you are, the more important it is. This doesn’t mean that everyone older than you is more right than you. This doesn’t mean that you won’t have any ideas to contribute–because I hope you do! But remember that experience usually builds wisdom. Slow down, listen, be a learner. Change takes time. Be patient.
Be open to staying at least five years. Here’s where things get radical. In an era where two weeks is the standard commitment to missions, a year or two sounds positively eternal. Anything longer than that sounds crazy. For us, the first two years were like boot camp, so it would have been a shame to get through it and not stay longer. The longer we stayed, our impact increased exponentially. Life got easier and our mistakes were fewer. What started as an experience became life. Most mission fields desperately need long-term workers. Why can’t that be you?