Rarely do children wake up and say, “I want to move across the world and leave my home and friends so my family can tell people about Jesus.” Parents hear the call of God to serve overseas, and in obedience, they transition their families to new places. Children may feel a plethora of emotions about moving away. They may feel both excited and anxious; they may experience happiness and sadness simultaneously. The longer they are on the field, they may feel conflicting emotions about returning “home.” Churches who are intentionally relational have the potential to make positive impacts on children overseas.
On the field, especially in the beginning, everything is superficial, so touchpoints from home can make love real and tangible for kids.
Most churches today do a great job of celebrating and commissioning missionaries to go. We commit to pray for them and send them on their way. Unfortunately, too often the support stops there. Being on the mission field can be lonely for adults, and even more so for children. Cross-cultural workers and third-culture kids often feel like they don’t belong anywhere. Children leave behind family, friends, and everything familiar to start on this new journey. They meet new kids who often look or talk differently than them. At a time of development when fitting in and belonging is important, they tend to feel the opposite.
On the field, especially in the beginning, everything is superficial, so touchpoints from home can make love real and tangible for kids. We want children to know they are loved and they matter. There are some practical ways “home” churches can show love and support to children on the field. After questioning several missionary families, I compiled the following ideas for loving third-culture kids (TCKs) well.
Prayer – This seems obvious, but many churches get so busy with their own programming that praying for TCKs may be forgotten. Encourage church-wide prayer for TCKs. Have children write out their prayers for TCKs and send them via mail or email to encourage the kids on the field. Schedule special prayer emphasis times within your children’s ministry.
Books – One global worker shared with me about two books that were helpful for his children during the transitional period. The first is It Will Be okay: Trusting God through Fear and Change, and the second is Swirly. Churches could provide copies for families as gifts before they leave for the field or in a care package shortly after their departure. Depending on where they are serving, they may not have access to children’s books in English. You can send age-appropriate books for the different holidays as well.
Mail – Kids of all ages love to get mail. You can send them cards from home or packages. This is a tangible way to let children know they are not forgotten. When sending care packages, check with parents to see what the best items are to send. Remember, there may be times when sending money for parents to purchase something for the child in country as a gift from you may be appropriate as well.
Phone Calls and Video Calls – Younger children may not be able to carry on a conversation, but they love when loved ones read to them. Consider virtually reading a book or playing a game with littles. When talking to older kids, avoid asking them what they miss from home. Instead ask them about their lives—best and worst about their week, where they live, something new they've tried, challenges they may face, or what they are feeling. Doing so helps connect you with their current lives and not just the past.
Birthdays and Holidays – Celebrate birthdays and holidays with them. While you can send gifts, you can also send videos of various people singing to them.
Cultural Events – Encourage children from the sending church to research the culture and place where the missionaries are serving. This fosters curiosity and connection. Plan nights when you wear traditional clothes and eat regional meals.
Virtual Group Meetings – Technology can be used to allow children overseas to join a Sunday School class (or other church event) virtually. This can be scheduled occasionally with parents as a fun way for kids to reconnect. Even if the children can’t stay for the entire lesson (younger children’s attention spans may not last through long meetings), they can say hello to their friends and see their faces. If children stay connected to friends from home, it makes furloughs much easier.
Shared Journals – A fun way to stay connected with kids is to mail a shared journal back and forth. This can be done the old-fashioned way (snail mail) or via email. The point is to write back often and share with each other.
Visit – When appropriate, plan trips to visit mission families on the field. Take time to engage the children. Play with them. Ask questions about their lives. Spend time experiencing life in their culture with them.
"As a child, it was kind of scary to be so well-known by people who were strangers to me."
One TCK shared with me how awkward it was to visit their parents’ home church. “For my parents, it was like being welcomed home, but for us kids, it was like being thrown off into the deep end full of strangers who recognized you. As a child, it was kind of scary to be so well-known by people who were strangers to me. I felt pressure to immediately like and trust these people that I simply didn’t know and had no experience with outside of visiting for a Sunday service.” By being intentional to build relationships with children while they are on the field, they too will feel more “at home” when stateside.
Proverbs 3:27 says, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.” May we be purposeful in loving and supporting our sent ones, including our sent children.
Dr. Natalie Ford teaches at Truett McConnell University and is a licensed professional counselor. She is an award-winning author with two of her books: Seeking Answers, Finding Peace: Loving and Losing Someone with Mental Illness, and Grace-Based Counseling: An Effective New Biblical Model. She has served overseas in a variety of capacities and is passionate about global work and member care. You can learn more about Dr. Ford at her website, www.drfordwrites.com.