In my experience, Christian parents are the greatest hurdle most missionaries face.
When we think of letting kindred go or forsaking family for the gospel, we typically think of how this demand applies to us personally. Our thoughts center on our own commitments. But what about those affected who never asked for such a burden? There’s a hidden cost to those who release their children to the Lord’s global service. It’s one reason so many pastors live within 90 miles of their mother-in-law. The blessings of a godly family are wonderful. Help with kids. Trusted voices to speak into their lives. Aunts and uncles who love unconditionally. But for some, these blessings will be left behind for a call to serve far from home.
Christian parents want their kids to love the Lord, to not be ensnared in sin, and to live godly and humble lives. As children get older and education and career choices are made, their life trajectory begins to be set. A lawyer maybe. Or a pastor. Or a farmer. Or a developer. Christian parents rejoice when their children get married to someone godly, and then they anticipate grandchildren. When the first pregnancy is announced, there’s rejoicing. The newly minted grandparents begin thinking of all the ways to invest into the new little life.
But then an unplanned announcement. Your child wants to go practice animal husbandry in Chad to reach a nomadic people group. Or work at a hospital in Djibouti. Or train pastors in smog-filled China. And they’re taking your grandchildren with them. You will see them every three years during furlough, which means no birthdays, no graduations, no holidays. You have questions about their safety, their ability to help if you get sick, and the educational opportunities for your grandchildren you worked so hard to provide for your own children. Are you ready?
When Hudson Taylor began bypassing local churches and recruiting college students, the people who gave him the most problems were the parents of the college students joining him. Who could blame them? Their children were likely to die within two years of departure. Many parents want whatever the Lord has for their children—as long as it’s on their own terms.
David and Karin Livingston have been part of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis for 30 years, where David has served in a variety of pastoral roles. They’re also parents and grandparents. Their daughter, son-in-law, and four grandchildren live in Southeast Asia. I caught up with them to ask how they processed sending their daughter to live on the other side of the world.
When and how did your daughter and son-in-law tell you about their intentions to serve overseas? Did they include you in their decision or inform you?
We were aware, even during their courtship days together in college, that God was leading them toward overseas ministry. Our daughter was the president of Student Mission Fellowship her senior year at Wheaton. So she and Eric never made a secret of the direction their lives would take.
What kind of questions did you have for them?
We asked a lot of questions. How physically safe was the location? Given their vision of business as mission, how economically feasible was their business plan? How would they educate the children when they become school-aged? We generally felt proud and encouraged, though the relational sacrifice of them and the grandkids being a world away proved a great struggle at parting, as well as seasonally during holidays.
Do you ever worry that your children aren’t safe or that your grandchildren are missing out on the many opportunities available in the States?
No. Our children have done an excellent job of creating a loving, safe, stimulating cross-cultural life that ought to be the envy of parents who raise kids in the limits of the West’s majority-white culture.
How were you involved as they raised money to go?
We donated money ourselves, and we encouraged our friends to listen to their presentation. Neither Karin’s nor my extended family are believers, so we didn’t involve them in the fundraising dimensions of the call to missions.
Did you grieve their departure?
As mentioned above, it was difficult to give them away for the first time. They had our only grandchild at the time, and Karin had been instrumental in rearing him the entire year before they left.
What advice would you give Christian parents and grandparents when their child approaches them about serving overseas?
Listen and ask open-ended questions that get your kids talking about their vision and the preparations they’ve made to act on their desires. Do some self-study about the language and culture of their intended destination. Remember your children don’t belong to you, but to the Lord who gave them to you to raise.
Remember your children don’t belong to you, but to the Lord who gave them to you to raise.
How do you build relationships with your grandchildren when they’re so far away?
We’ve gone for visits to their location about every other year (seven or eight times), and we house the family when they’re on home assignment. We Skype on at least a monthly basis with their parents and make sure to see and talk to each of them on those occasions. Karin is excellent at remembering their birthdays with cards and gifts.
When they’ve come back on furlough, what have you done to help them and to connect relationally?
Karin does the banking for them when they’re overseas. We’ve recently purchased an old van (200,000 miles) for them to use when they’re home. They stay in our home when in the Twin Cities. We host their monthly Barnabas Team and help them prepare and send their annual support-raising letter. We individually “date” each of our children by doing regular outings to interesting local sites (Minnehaha Falls, Children’s Science Museum, and so on) as well as extended excursions (North Shore, Black Hills, lake cabins).
How can Christian parents and grandparents go from reluctant observers to participants in their child’s work?
Pray for God to make you an encourager and a believer in your children’s vision. Study the Bible’s vision for missions. Read a missionary biography. Ask your children’s sending agency to inform you however they can about your children’s destination, perhaps even giving you a representative to talk with or visit.
My friend Nate Winters, who lives in Pennsylvania, recently gave his daughter away in marriage to an Aussie, knowing it entailed her moving to Australia. In that moment, he remembered an earlier vow when he’d dedicated his daughter Anna to God. He told me later, “That day I told the Lord I would care for Anna, but I knew one day I’d release her to him. That day had come. Not only was she to be married, but she also would be moving far away. I remembered what I had promised the Lord, and I let her go.”