by Karen Wrobbel
Today’s missionary candidates bring new family expectations to cross-cultural missions. The question we must ask, though, is whether their expectations are biblical or simply cultural.
"We’re considering missions," they told me. A young couple with two elementary school-age children, they said they were thinking about going to France. They said, "In France, you see, we won’t have to send our children away to boarding school. We would never do that." They never went.
Another couple interested in overseas service had made some inquiries with a well-known board. "I’d really like to do it," said the young seminarian, "but they’d require my wife to work, and we feel she needs to be at home with our children." He went into the pastorate.
Missionaries and missionary candidates reflect our larger society. They are products of their culture. Generally, they acknowledge that and are prepared to adjust and adapt for cross-cultural ministry.
However, one place where they do not always recognize their own cultural grid is in family relationships. Recent years have seen changes in North American family patterns. As society has changed, the evangelical community has changed. There’s a greater emphasis on family and family issues.
Consequently, today’s missionary candidates bring new family expectations to cross-cultural missions. The question we must ask, though, is whether their expectations are biblical or simply cultural.
ROLE OF THE WORK AND THE FAMILY
Traditionally, evangelicals have emphasized the cost and sacrifice of missions. Jesus said, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters, —yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple" (Lk. 14:26). An extreme application of this verse led to "sacrificing the family on the altar of the ministry," or concluding that when one does God’s work, God will take care of the family. This extreme view has rightly been condemned.
However, today as evangelical churches put greater emphasis on good families, prospective missionaries make their families a priority. Again, the problem arises from extreme applications of a worthy goal. As the pendulum has swung in the other direction, perhaps in some cases it has gone too far. Out of the laudable concern that the missionary family not be "sacrificed on the altar of the work" has come what Ray Chester has called "family idolatry."
Mission boards see this extreme reflected in their candidates, Because of the growing mood in the States that the family be the greatest priority, candidates may approach missions with a philosophy of God first, family second, and ministry third.
But life cannot be so easily compartmentalized. Some days "family" requires extra time and attention and "the work" get a bare minimum. Other days the demands of the ministry cut in on family time at home. Robert Campbell, director of training for Greater Europe Mission, says, "It is artificial to list priorities even in this country."
The apostle Paul told the Corinthian believers, "Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31). We are commanded to make disciples; husbands are to love their wives; fathers are to train their children—all to the glory of God.
I am not suggesting that we return to the days of sacrificing family for ministry. Research shows that there can be long-term negative effects when missionary parents put their work ahead of their children. The point is that all believers, including missionaries, need to balance their multiple demands. For those who place such high values on their families, that balance is not always apparent. "To do God’s work at the expense of the family can lead to disaster for the children. To place such an emphasis on the family that no sacrifice to accomplish God’s work is acceptable can lead to a life of spiritual barrenness."
THE ROLE OF THE WIFE
Another family issue is the wife’s role in missions. A missionary who attended the Urbana ’87 student missionary convention noted that one question frequently asked by students related to the mission’s expectations of the missionary wife. Because of renewed emphasis in some quarters in the States that the wife’s responsibilities primarily are in the home, prospective missionaries come with the expectation that on the mission field only the husband will be in the ministry.
Mission boards do not necessarily buy that. For example, Wycliffe Bible Translators requires wives to be involved in the work. Paul Nelson, of Wycliffe’s Children’s Education Department, admits that their policy is a stumbling block to some potential workers.
Other agencies take a different approach, appointing both the husband and the wife as missionaries, but without specific work assignments for the wife. For example, The Evangelical Alliance Mission’s policy states, "The wife must give priority to the care of the home and children, but she must not lose sight of the potential for a wider spiritual ministry." In another mission, "the husband is assigned to a ministry, and the wife searches" to discover her ministry role.
Our renewed emphasis on the home also affects missionary wives who want to do more in mission work. The wife who sees herself called by God to be a missionary as well as a wife and mother, and who desires to combine these roles, sometimes gets pressure from other missionaries as well as supporters to limit herself to her home. No matter what she does, she faces possible criticism.
A third area of changing evangelical family perspectives relates to the education of missionary children.
Home schooling. The home schooling movement has significantly influenced missionary candidates. James Dobson has said, "Home schooling is the wave of the future. In addition to the advantages, it provides an alternative to a humanistic public school or an expensive (or nonexistent) Christian school."
Missionaries have taught their children at home for years, but candidates now come with a total philosophy about home schooling. Jim Smotherman, assistant superintendent for children’s education at Wycliffe, says, "Many young couples are making specific demands about their desire to do home schooling in a missions context."
One of the gurus of home schooling is Raymond Moore, who with his wife Dorothy, wrote Home Grown Kids, Moore writes, "History has never uncovered a better educational system than the warm one-on-one response of a concerned parent to his child." Stressing the importance of the family, he writes: "No schoolroom can match the simplicity and power of the home in providing three-dimensional, first-hand education. The school, not the home, is the substitute, and its highest function is to complement the family. The family is still the social base, and must be, if our society is to survive."
Home schooling, with its stress on the foundational role of the home, offers missionary parents a way to maintain the primacy of the family. But some missionaries are not even willing to consider that some other educational options might serve them and their children better.
Those committed to home schooling sometimes make the practice a theological issue. They imply that since home schooling is the only way, those who do not do it are falling short of God’s best. That creates enormous tensions in a missions setting.
For good relations among the missions family, flexibility must replace dogmatism on this issue. Prospective missionaries should give serious heed to the experiences of veteran missionaries, who have discovered that the reasons for home schooling in North America may not be valid overseas.
For example, another leader in the home schooling movement, John Holt, lists six reasons why parents do home schooling, including the desire to avoid government interference; the desire for more time to be with their children and to protect them mentally, physically, and spiritually; and the desire to avoid what they consider to be incompetent public schools. While some of these reasons might apply in certain missions settings, generalizations about schooling in the United States cannot be applied across-the-board overseas.
Boarding school. Candidates also question the boarding school option. "There is almost universal resistance to boarding school, even among single missionaries," says Wycliffe’s Nelson. One reason for this is the influence of pro-family leaders like Dobson, who writes:
I’ve dealt with the children of missionaries, many of whom have become bitter and resentful of the sacrifices they were required to make. They were deprived of a secure home at a critical stage in their development and experienced deep emotional wounds in the process. Consequently, adolescent rebellion was common among these angry young people who resented their parents and the God who sent them abroad. Based on these observations, it is my firm conviction that the family unit of missionaries should remain intact, if at all possible. I cannot overemphasize the importance of parental support and love during the formative years of life.
Of course, young children need the comfort and security of their parents. Mission executives know this and they have changed their policies. For example, the Africa Inland Mission used to put children in boarding school by second grade, but now children often remain with their parents until fifth or sixth grade. Black Forest Academy in West Germany does not offer boarding until seventh grade. Other schools, while offering boarding for elementary grades, discourage it for younger children.
Candidates need not block out the boarding option totally. Failure to consider the possibility of boarding school in some circumstances creates serious problems. Again, not knowing field conditions, candidates are ill-prepared to adopt inflexible positions.
Ed Danielson, a clinical psychologist and former superintendent of Faith Academy, the Philippines, says that the children who struggle the most with boarding school are the ones whose parents told them that they would never be sent to one. "The child feels deceived, and his entire system of values which he has acquired from his parents will doubtless be altered under the circumstances."
There are no easy solutions Smotherman concludes: "Cross-cultural mission activity, especially overseas, is a difficult endeavor. Those engaged in missions… must be flexible in lifestyle, and also in the matter of caring for and educating their own children."
IMPLICATION FOR MISSIONS
Clearly, missionary candidates have new perspectives on family issues. Their perspectives grow out of teaching designed for North America. Mission organizations and mission educators must help prospective missionaries contextualize their perspectives on family to the missions setting.
Mission boards and mission educators need to be resources for the candidate, and the prospective candidate, in working through the applications of family issues on the mission field. Rather than being perceived as the problem ("They might make me put my kids in boarding school"), they should be seen as steps to solutions.
Contextualization of family issues begins with mission educators in colleges and seminaries. Students can be encouraged to examine the issues and to keep open minds before adopting hard-line positions prior to going to the field. They can examine work and family priorities—”and the role of missionary wives—”in the light of Scripture and then learn how missionaries have balanced these priorities and roles satisfactorily. Students can learn how to test their opinions against Scripture and society and the demands of missionary work. Various educational options can be looked at objectively in the classroom.
During the pre-field process, mission boards can provide many resources for family guidance. Opportunities to dialogue with experienced missionaries give candidates a chance to find out what things are really like on the field. They can weigh their family expectations in the light of wiser heads. They can discuss educational options with missionaries who have done different things themselves. Missionary wives who have wrestled with their roles can help new missionaries put their apprehensions to rest. Of course, if such dialogue is to be fruitful, it must not be directed or forced to "convert" the candidate to preconceived norms.
It’s wise to consider sending pre-field missionaries to family seminars. Such programs could cover education and role issues, coping with stress, the effects of moving on children, and family communication, for example. Mission agencies need to consider the significant benefits of providing more resources to help families make the adjustment to life overseas as families.
On the field, missionary families need help, too. Fewer resources are available to help sort out problems and tensions. Conferences and counseling can open the way to discussions about practical matters. If this is done in caring, nonthreatening ways, many hidden sore points can be brought to the surface.
One missionary wife told me that her first year on the field was the worst year of her entire life. Her pre-field role expectations clashed sharply with the on-field realities. She illustrates the need wives have for help in finding their niche on the field. Often, husbands are the key to the satisfactory solution of this problem. They can learn how to affirm their wives in the responsibilities in the home and in the ministry.
Among the resources mission agencies could provide are books and tapes. Regular information from the home office should include reviews of appropriate resources. Field directors should have these items in their libraries. If the mission has a magazine, timely, practical "helps" should be published there.
The current evangelical emphasis on family priorities is important and valuable for church families and society as a whole. It’s too late for mission agencies to try to fit today’s candidates into yesterday’s molds. Rather, they and the colleges and seminaries must focus on giving the proper missionary and cross-cultural perspectives on family issues. In time, as field leaders give more attention to tools for quality family life on the field, candidates will not so easily see the recruiting agencies as the enemies of family life, but as the friends and encouragers of it.
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