Role of Missionary Kids in the Local Emerging Church

by David Hines

MKs’ personalities, values, and experiences reflect the values of the emerging Church. MKs, in fact, are in a unique position to contribute to the local church and shape its vision.

As missionary kids (MKs) return from the field, they face the struggles of reentry. Be it in school, the workplace, or the church, it takes time to adjust to life back “home”. Some MKs return with no doubt that they will reenter the field as missionaries. Others, like me, have no plans to return full time. Both groups face the same crisis: Where do we fit into our local church?

Both groups may be less likely to invest in and take ownership of a local congregation—one is focused on returning to the field; the other may experience reverse culture shock which hinders them from making meaningful connections in a local congregation. Thankfully, there is another group: those who have gotten plugged into the local church and have invested in it. MKs (and Third Culture Kids) bring with them a unique and invaluable set of experiences, personality traits, and skills to contribute to the local church, particularly when it comes to the trend of the emerging Church.

A myriad of terms can describe the trend of the emerging Church: “missional”, “organic”, and “postmodern”, for instance. For our purposes, I am content with Eddie Gibbs’ description: “Emerging churches are missional communities arising from within postmodern culture and consisting of followers of Jesus who are seeking to be faithful in their place and time” (Gibbs and Bolger 2005, 28).

MKs’ personalities, values, and experiences reflect the values of the emerging Church. MKs, in fact, are in a unique position to contribute to the local church and shape its vision. Let’s look at three key elements of the emerging Church and consider how MKs might champion those in their local church.

Value #1: The Missio Dei & the Missional Church
The missio Dei, or “mission of God,” is perhaps the principal element of the emerging Church. A return to the core teachings of Jesus has led to a renewed sense of importance and urgency with regard to the Great Commission. Evangelism becomes a way of life, rather than an event (Gibbs and Bolger 2005, 75). The missional Church “draws attention to the essential nature and vocation of the Church as God’s called and sent people. It sees the Church primarily as the instrument of God’s mission” (Gibbs 2000, 51).

Many MKs have been acutely aware of the missional nature of their parent’s work for as long as they can remember. As children, they knew that everything about their circumstances was a result of their parent’s response to “the call.” On the field, the job of being a missionary doesn’t stop; there’s no 9-to-5. MKs likely remember dinners interrupted by pop-in visitations, spiritual inquiries, or some church member’s uncle’s family emergency. They observed the urgency of the mission. Additionally, they saw the mission lived out at the local level, while also having an appreciation for the big picture of missions.

Gibbs identifies key transformations that the Church needs to undergo in order to adjust to the rapidly changing cultural context. Of one transformation, “from marketing-driven to mission-oriented,” he says,

Unfortunately, most pastors and church leaders have had no missiological training. Consequently, they resort to marketing strategies in place of missionary insights in their attempts to reach out to a population that is becoming increasingly distanced from the church. (2000, 36)

I do not mean to suggest that by simply being an MK one is inherently more effective at missional outreach than trained pastors; however, they do have unique training that many pastors likely do not have. By serving on boards and vision committees, MKs can make a significant positive contribution with regard to the missional nature of the church.

While MKs may have a clear and present understanding of the missio Dei, they may not be so quick to consider it in the context of the Western Church. Growing up, I viewed my host culture as the mission field and North America as “mostly Christian.” I assumed that just about everyone was Christian. In light of Gibbs’ admonition to adopt a missional stance in the North American Church, we will see that this is an area where MKs can greatly contribute.

However, it requires one important step: MKs need to take all their perceptions about the field (why they were there, the need for Jesus in the lives of those around you, the cultural differences) and apply those to the Western context. The message of the cross is just as foreign to most Western cultures as it is in other parts of the world.

Value #2: Postmodernism & Cross-cultural Ministry
The missional approach of the emerging Church forces the contrast between the culture of Christ and the culture of the world. Additionally, as a result of postmodernism, cross-cultural elements are even more prevalent. Globalization and immigration have led to an increasingly pluralistic society with increased ethnic diversity and differing worldviews (Guder 1998, 42). Younger generations have embraced postmodern values, favoring experience over the knowledge valued by their modern parents. The combination of value placed on experience and the faster moving, shrinking world have given rise to a sense of urgency.

MKs have learned to relate to, adapt to, fit in to, and live in different cultures. Initially developed as a survival tool, this chameleon-like nature can prove valuable in church leadership. MKs bring with them a different view of their Western culture. With this perspective, they can help the church relate to the changing culture that surrounds it.

Adaptability, however, is not the only benefit of these cross-cultural experiences. MKs have been forced to reconcile in their minds the differences between their cultures. Some suggest that after the adjustment of reentry, the MKs will end up with a more balanced view of both cultures, while retaining the benefits of each.

This forced reconciliation of cultures gives the MKs a discerning mind when it comes to sifting the elements of a culture. Anthropologist Charles Kraft described culture as “corrupt, but convertible” and as such, the Church must “ascertain which cultural elements are impure and reject them, while retaining elements that agree with the teachings of Christ” (Whitesel 2007, 61). When churches recognize that they are attempting to reach a completely different (and perhaps incompatible) culture, MKs can offer invaluable experiences and perspective.

According to one website, “The missional church will see themselves as representatives of Jesus and will do nothing to dishonor his name” (FriendofMissional 2010). Members of the emerging Church recognize that they are ambassadors to their community and the culture around them. One MK shared that as a child he and his siblings were quite aware that their actions reflected on their parents, both in their host culture and while on furlough. So too do members of the emerging Church represent Christ in a hostile culture.

The increased value placed on experience and being focused on the present in postmodern culture should resonate with MKs. Postmodern Christians do not want to merely hear about the plight of starving children in Africa; they want to get involved. This opens the door for MKs to share what they have seen God do and can give them a platform to influence fellow leaders.

The sense of urgency of a postmodern culture is a trait MKs share. Due to the mobile and transitory nature of their lifestyle, MKs have a strong sense of “the importance of now” (Pollock 1999, 100). This makes them more likely to take the initiative in meeting new people, recognizing that such an opportunity might not be there tomorrow.

Value #3: Relationships & Community
The emerging Church is frequently described as a community. It is not merely a group of individuals who show up on Sunday morning to listen to scripture, only to go back to their secular lives. The emerging Church builds relationships, and from these relationships grows a tightly-knit community that is accountable, missional, and quite the opposite of a consumer Christianity.

Gibbs explains it this way, “The depth of relationships determines the quality of the church gathering” (Gibbs and Bolger 2005, 106). The highly mobile life of an MK tends to lead them to develop a large number of relationships. More applicable for the emerging Church, however, is that MKs tend to develop deeper relationships more quickly. They tend to skip small talk in favor of deeper connections.

This ability stems from several factors. First, MKs have had a lifetime of practice meeting people and sharing conversations with them. Second, MKs have many experiences from which to pull and knowledge of various religions, worldviews, and cultural backgrounds to fuel conversations. Finally, they have a sense of urgency, as we discussed earlier. In general, MKs will prefer to quickly move past small talk to that which they consider meaningful, despite the transient nature of the relationships (Pollock 1999, 131).

MKs will likely have had unique experiences in a variety of communities, be it with fellow missionaries and expatriots on the field, in boarding school, or in a new church plant in an unchurched neighborhood (or people group). More importantly is the missional nature of those communities. When I was 10, my parents started a church plant in a neighborhood on the edge of town. I witnessed door-to-door visits and service projects lead to small group Bible studies and then to a house church, and eventually a new building. My parents worked their way into that community with a mission. They reached out to meet the needs of the people and got them involved in leadership.

Many MKs have examples like this from their own lives. They have seen their parents model missional living in full surrender and obedience to God. They have seen lives changed as a result of the Holy Spirit, and those lives invested back into the church for the cause of Christ. Not only have they been aware of the missio Dei all their lives, but they have seen it lived out and produce God-sized results. Through their experiences, developed characteristics, and observations, they have been uniquely equipped to contribute to the missio Dei.

Some MKs will return to the field, but those who don’t need to get involved in the local church. The culture around them is every bit in need of the life-changing message of Christ as the cultures in which they grew up. The local church needs MKs to get involved, serve, build relationships, help guide vision, and further the cause of Christ.


FriendofMissional. 2010. “What Is the Missional Church?” Accessed May 17, 2012, from

Gibbs, Eddie. 2000. Church Next: Quantum Changes in How We Do Ministry. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Gibbs, Eddie and Ryan K. Bolger. 2005. Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Publishing Group.

Guder, Darrell L. 1998. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm.. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Pollock, David C. and Ruth E.Van Reken. 2001. Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up among Worlds. London, U.K.: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Whitesel, Bob. 2007. Preparing for Change Reaction: How to Introduce Change in Your Church. Indianapolis, Ind.: Wesleyan Publishing House.


David Hines
grew up on the mission field in Honduras and Costa Rica. He is a volunteer at Brookhaven Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana, and is pursuing an MA in Ministerial Leadership from Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University.

EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 298-303. Copyright  © 2013 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


Related Articles

Upcoming Events