Some years ago, my family had the opportunity to visit an elderly woman who was the child of missionaries. She had grown up in an India that no longer exists—under British control, before partition, where she raised a black panther cub until it was bigger than she was and her mother made her give it to a zoo.
But the most surprising thing came as she told us about being dropped off at boarding school. “It was the saddest day of my life,” she said. “I have buried a beloved husband, but the day that my father left me at school was the saddest day of my life.”
Hearing that made me realize I didn’t really understand missionary kids (MKs)—or, as they are often called, “third-culture kids.” I was familiar with missions, hosted missionary families, and corresponded with MKs, but this woman’s honesty showed a hidden reality. To better understand missionary kids and how to love them well, I asked five MKs about their experiences. Here are five things they want you to know.
1. Missionary kids are under pressure.
Sometimes pressures come with a new language and culture or from seeing parents under stress. Pressure can be physical hardship. “Sickness, danger, and having to do things I was afraid of on a regular basis in Haiti made me acutely aware that God uses our suffering for good,” said Emma.
Sadly, pressure can also come from supporters. “Being asked if I had lots of Haitian friends made me feel as though I was not doing a good enough job as a missionary kid,” Emma continued. Caleb observed that people often make assumptions about MKs: “I wish people would understand MKs as humans and as newcomers, people who need to be welcomed, who are proud of where they come from, who have probably been hurt and who also desperately need Jesus.”
2. Missionary kids love their host countries and grieve when they leave.
The missionary kids I talked with emphasized their love for their host cultures. Adventures in another place can be incredibly beautiful. “Some people get to hear missionary stories,” Joshua wrote. “As an MK, I got to LIVE them!” Languages, food, natural surroundings, and the global church are some things MKs love about their passport countries.
But deep love for a place has its cost. “Coming back to the U.S. was incredibly hard,” is a common sentiment. When children land back in their culture of origin, they’ve lost something precious. “I wish people understood how important growing up in a different country is to an MK’s identity,” said Betsy, who was born and raised in the Philippines. “It will always be part of who they are. When people understand this, it means so much.” Understanding what MKs have lost helps us understand them.
3. Missionary kids feel ‘different.’
When children land back in the culture of origin, they have lost something precious.
Feeling out of place is universal for missionary kids. “Even sometimes now, I wish that I looked Asian,” Betsy said. Joshua wrote, “In Estonia, I was the foreigner. . . . In the USA my cousins called me ‘the European.’” Things like different tastes in entertainment, clothes, and food can be disorienting. America can feel shallow and lonely.
For Adrian, “Cultural dislocation and desire to ‘fit in’ led to a very strong people-pleasing temptation.” He said Scripture passages about “a need for a rooted, gospel identity (Gal. 2:20), were very meaningful.” Caleb wrote that loneliness made him “depend a great deal on Jesus—as the friend who never leaves.” Being OK with differences and pointing again to our welcoming Savior is part of loving MKs.
4. Missionary kids need time to adjust.
Perhaps this is especially true for relationships. Missionary kids have often been burned relationally: people want things from them but aren’t always interested in them. They tend to be very close with their siblings. “I trust very few people as much as I trust my siblings,” said Emma. Adrian agrees: “We have a very strong bond of shared experience outside of the US.” Joshua said it’s helpful for people to have “an interest and respect to learn more, when that person is ready to share. And not to push if they don’t want to share.” Love is freely given; trust is earned. “Be patient with MKs such that you are OK with them suddenly bursting into tears,” asked Adrian.
5. Missionary kids need support on the field—and on furlough.
Coming “home” isn’t always restful. “Furloughs were hard,” Betsy said. Emma wrote, “The one thing I would change is to have a dedicated rest period at the beginning of the furlough.” Caleb wished “for more of a genuine welcome at churches and more thought-out support in transition.” Some people are providing this: “One supporting church took it upon themselves to bless us kids with some special experiences,” said Joshua.
But support is an ongoing need: growing up as an MK has long-term effects, so the support should match that reality. “A great thing to do is remind adult MKs who are no longer on the field that they haven’t been forgotten and that they are still being prayed for,” Emma points out. These are tangible ways to love.
Learn from Missionary Kids
MKs have a wealth of gifts and experiences to bring to the church. “Being an MK gave me a unique view of the world and all the people God has placed in it,” said Emma. “God gave me a heart for ministering to all kinds of people, especially those on the outside or who don’t fit in.” Adrian emphasized that he gained “an ability to quickly connect with strangers.” Being adaptable, a team player, and hospitable were also high on the list of skills.
Growing up as a MK has long-term effects.
But the spiritual lessons are the richest. “Now I can also help anyone, by also pointing them to the One who has the answers and help we need,” said Joshua. Caleb noted the clarity that distance gave: “By being immersed in other cultural contexts, I was better able to realize and see my own. . . . In ministry, inevitably we fasten cultural expression and interpretations to our gospel message.” He added that being an MK gave him “a great awareness of the brokenness in the world and of the reality of the cosmic battle of Christ’s kingdom.”
Church, let’s recognize and utilize these hard-won gifts. And let’s seek to know MKs, so that we might love them well.