When I was growing up, occasionally a missionary would visit our congregation and give a presentation about mission work in a foreign land. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in those far away places! When I was 9 or 10 years old I had to write a paragraph for a school assignment about what my life would be like in 20 years. I stated that I wanted to marry a missionary and have 3 or 4 children. Little did I know that there was a young man my age, in another congregation about an hour away, with similar ideas.
Skip forward a few years… That young man and I met and married. We both loved the Lord and wanted to serve Him together. During our wedding ceremony, this passage was read “…whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge…” (Ruth 1:16). I was willing to follow him wherever he decided to go, but in all of our pre-marriage discussions, I do not recall discussing mission work specifically.
After graduation, our work for the next 19 years revolved around domestic missions; however, the thought of foreign mission work continued to germinate in our hearts. Various opportunities arose for George to make short-term trips to foreign mission points. Desiring to broaden our children’s exposure to the church outside of the U.S., he would in turn take one of them with him. In 2005, our family of six made a month-long trip to India. George and I began to have some discussions about “what ifs….” and foreign mission work.
In 2006 our family took a month-long trip to Malawi, where we worked with Ed and Lina Crookshank, another seasoned missionary couple. There was no denying it - those mission seeds planted in our childhood hearts had sprouted! After numerous family discussions (our four children were ages 13 - 17 at the time), we made the decision to move to Africa. Through what we believe to be God’s providence, we chose Tanzania, East Africa, where we arrived April 17th, 2007. We labored there for the next five years.
Are you considering foreign mission work? Thanks to those seasoned missionaries in our lives, as well as our own experiences, we’ve learned some valuable lessons along the way. Here are a few thoughts for your consideration:
- Take Spiritual Inventory. None of us have “arrived” spiritually. We all have growing to do. But there should be some level of spiritual maturity in place BEFORE entering the mission field. Untold damage has been done to the Lord’s church because of sinful behavior on the part of foreign missionaries, including drinking, smoking, bribery, sexual misconduct, immodesty, etc. Wise elderships will do their best to choose spiritually mature people with honorable reputations.
- Marital and Family Stability. The mission field is no place to work out marriage difficulties or to “cure” a troubled teen. If there are family problems, they will only be magnified on the mission field.
- Research. Proper investigation is imperative before you commit to a specific location. If at all possible, do not move your family to a place, sight unseen. That’s not always possible, but with today’s relative ease of travel, it will be money well spent. Short-term campaigns rarely give a complete depiction of people or day-to-day life. Will you be joining other missionaries? What do you know about them? Have you spent time with them? Of course, agreement on doctrinal issues is a must, but differing views, from mission methodology to child training, can inhibit a harmonious working relationship.
- Cover Your Bases. Many details must be addressed when moving to a foreign country - passports, invitation letters, resident permits, travel details, medical coverage, etc. Don’t rely on one person for your information, as this could result in costly consequences. Even missionaries already in the field can inadvertently give misinformation.
- Pace Yourself. The months prior to departure are often exhausting. Frequent road trips, visits to many different and unfamiliar congregations, packing up familiar belongings - these can take a toll on your family. Take time for rest along the way. Your children are going to pick up your “vibes” about how you deal with these stresses, which are relatively minor, compared to the ones you will face once your feet hit foreign soil. Try to keep from running yourselves ragged right before you leave!
- Cook From Scratch. If you don’t already know how, learn now! Many missionary wives have learned the hard way. If you are able to make some delicious meals without boxed or processed ingredients BEFORE you go, the adjustment will come much easier. If there are picky eaters in the family, it’s time to change. Eating is a vital part of socializing with locals and refusal to eat their food will most certainly offend.
- Educate. The more you learn about your destination, the easier your adjustment will be. Learn about its geography and culture. If another language is spoken in your host country, begin to learn the language, and continue learning after your arrival.
- Be Flexible. Life will rarely happen as you expect it to. Your electricity may be cut off at the most inconvenient times, you might run out of water, you will hurry to arrive somewhere on time, only to sit and wait…and wait. Your patience will be tested again and again. Remember: how you react to difficult situations will affect the entire family.
- Adapt. Remember that you are a guest in another country. The locals will have different ways of doing things, including habits that seem rude or disgusting to you. The more you can accept their way (without violating the Scriptures, of course) of doing things and avoid thinking that your ways are superior, the better adjusted your family will be.
- Don’t Be Paranoid. You cannot expect to move into a third world environment and live exactly like the local people. Reasonable precautions must be taken for your health and safety; however, neither can you be paranoid. Germaphobic missionaries are miserable missionaries!
- Keep a Sense of Humor. Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. You may be faced with bugs in your food and in your bed, unwelcomed critters in your house, and gecko droppings in the most unwanted places! You will make cultural faux pas and linguistic blunders. Learn, laugh and live.
- Be Aware. Reverse culture shock is very real. There are many wonderful blessings that come from living in another culture, but it’s important to realize that family members may be impacted in different ways; returning home is not always easy. Also be aware that the foreign missionary “bug” gets in your blood!
- Connect. Stay connected to brethren, even after you leave. Also, most people do not comprehend how much you can miss your “other home”, especially if you lived in a third world environment. Connecting with other missionaries who can relate to your experiences will help.
When was the last time you encouraged a young person to be a missionary? You may never know the impact that a few encouraging words can have on the heart of a child! I am so thankful for the experiences I have had thus far. My life has been made richer because of it. Most importantly, I pray that we have made an eternal impact in the lives of many.
- Practical Principles of World Evangelism by Rod Rutherford (available at www.rodrutherfordbooks.com)
- Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken (Available at Amazon.)