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living 3-d

The Amazing Lives of Missionary Kids

by Neil Gililland

Read more about Free Will Baptist International Missions.

July 4, 1987, was hot. Africa hot.

Clothing clung to our damp bodies. Sticky took on new meaning as my wife and I eased onto the sun-warmed seats of our car. We traveled along the lagoon to the stately, white hotel adorned with limp American flags hanging in the windless African sun. My wife and I joined a number of American expatriates for the annual Fourth of July party sponsored by the American Embassy in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.

Despite the mounds of free food and gifts provided by the embassy, I didn’t feel festive. I couldn’t blame the heat and humidity for the empty feeling. You see, with the Fourth we also “celebrated” our last full day on the African continent. My heart ached with sorrow. The preceding days of goodbyes had created a hollow inside. A hollow the taste of grilled hot dogs could not fill.

The little West African nation had become my home, and I loved her. Her sights, smells, and sounds were woven into the fabric of my daily life. My fellow missionaries had become my family. I knew I would miss those dear families more than I could possibly describe. Yet, I knew the Father was calling me to leave for ministry elsewhere.

People often ask me about missionary families. Are they different from families in the U.S.? The simple answer is yes.

Many factors differentiate missionary families from the typical North American family. Pollock and VanReken, in their landmark book, The Third Culture Kid Experience: Growing Up Among Worlds, address two overriding realities for missionary families. The first—missionaries raise their children in a genuinely cross-cultural world. The second reality is they, as a family, live in a highly mobile world.

Cross-cultural Depth

Missionary families live daily in genuine cross-cultural worlds. They tend to have a wider worldview. Pollock and VanReken suggest that children of missionaries (MKs) have a 3-D worldview. They’ve tasted the delights of Brazilian cuisine, felt the chill of Hokkaido, and pushed through the masses in Tokyo. MKs have smelled African open-air markets and breathed the dusty air of the Sahara winds. They have strolled along the Champs Elysées in Paris and stood in the castle rooms of Spain. Missionary kids have walked beside, hugged, encouraged, wept and laughed with the people of other nations. Most of all, they have shared the gospel with those who had little chance to hear the news of Christ.

Missionary families often have a larger God-view as well. Marching with bravado into the Evil One’s strongholds, they’ve seen the Father work in extraordinary ways. They speak more than one language. They have learned the art of wrapping their tongues around words that sound strange to the mono-cultured ear. They simply feel comfortable in more than one culture. But this exacts a price.

The Split Dimension

These kids say goodbye to friends, to familiar sights and sounds about every four years to return for stateside assignment. After only a year, they turn around and leave again for their host culture. Each time, they experience a degree of loss. For some it is a loss of identity. Frequently, divided loyalties occur. I have spoken with many missionaries and their children who find it increasingly difficult to feel comfortable in the U.S., yet realize they are not an intimate member of their host culture.

One MK put it this way: “When I am in France, I am 60% French and 40% American. But, when I am in America, it is the opposite.” Another MK declared, “When the U.S. plays in the World Cup, and so does my country, I never know who to cheer for.” I am not sure any missionary family can totally avoid the sense of loss when they transition between two or more cultures often.

While many North American families are highly mobile, I find the frequency of moves and intensity of cultural change sharpens the sense of loss for missionary families. I have lived in five different regions in the U.S. Each displayed cultural variations. Yet the intensity of those differences was not nearly as severe as a cross-cultural move.

July 4, 1987, was hot. At the end of the day, I wiped mustard and ketchup from the corners of my mouth with my star-spangled napkin and said goodbye to a country, a people, and a family. Almost two decades later, my heart still aches hollow.

  1. Pray for them…by name.

  2. Listen to them. Let them tell their story.

  3. Stay connected while they are on the field with notes, cards, letters, e-mails, gifts, and phone calls.

  4. Fund their way to church camp.

  5. Spend time with them.

  6. Connect them with a spiritual mentor in the church.

  7. Don’t ask them to say something in their language.

  8. Host a special welcoming party.

  9. Research their host country so you can ask intelligent questions.

  10. Try to understand, when they don’t understand our culture.


  • Sunday Pray MKs will experience a personal relationship with Christ and put Him first in their lives.

  • Monday Pray for family unity. Pray parents will make children a vital part of their ministry. Pray parents will balance ministry and family.

  • Tuesday MKs often have few Christian peers. Pray they will develop and maintain high biblical standards. Ask God to help them resist temptation. When they sin, pray they will yield to the convicting power of the Holy Spirit and repent.

  • Wednesday Pray MKs will appreciate their new culture, be enriched by their experiences, and be able to communicate effectively. Ask God to minimize the sense of “not belonging.”

  • Thursday Pray for physical safety and health. Ask God to give peace during disasters or crisis. Pray for adequate medical care.

  • Friday Pray educational needs of the MK will not be hindered by the constant travel between countries. Ask God to give parents wisdom regarding educational options. Pray for protection from psychological, physical, and sexual abuse.

  • Saturday Pray God will provide MKs with supportive extended family, church family, and friends. Ask God to help MKs understand American culture.







©2005 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists