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The Role of Children within Evangelical Missions

I think of children primarily as collateral damage in the Evangelical missions model. When we read about how Christ commissioned his disciples, sending them out two by two, there is no mention of sending out whole families and dragging their children along. Undoubtedly Christian families played a major role in the spread of the Gospel through living their faith as an example within their communities. But the extensive missionary journeys we read about in the Gospels were done by men, alone at time, but mostly in pairs.

Regardless of your views and beliefs on the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, I think they understood this principle and applied it in a way that is mostly missing from Evangelical missions. Orthodox Christians created monasticism and some of the greatest early Church Fathers were monastics or learned from such practitioners. Catholics have sent out single men and single women as missionaries for hundreds of years. I’m aware of many incredible works they have done, and other destructive ones. This is not an argument for or against Orthodox/Catholic missionary work, but a call to learn from the positives in their model. Single missionaries do not have responsibilities to a spouse or children and are free to spend all of their time and energies on their ministry. One cannot help but think of the Apostle Paul’s teaching on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 in which he discusses at length how those who remain single have a greater ability to focus on spiritual things, while those who are married and have families are forced to focus on them.

In Evangelical missions, it appears missionaries are to have their cake and eat it too. Married missionaries with children are admonished to serve without allowing their families to become distractions to their work of saving souls. Raising children when one is trying to learn a new language, culture, develop relationships for proselytizing, and prepare for church planting is just too distracting. If you are in a remote setting, children will not be properly socialized to succeed in a life back in the home country, or to even prepare there to become a missionary. Mission agencies including NTM/Ethnos 360 previously required missionaries to send their children to the agency-run boarding schools where they would “presumably” be educated and out of their parents’ way. Some missionaries gladly made this “sacrifice” of dumping their children off at remote boarding schools to be raised and educated by other missionaries, and those who struggled with it were admonished that it was necessary to serve the Lord and to consider all the souls who would go to hell if they did not leave their children behind and focus on their missionary work. Regardless of the rationalizing, the fact remains that thousands of children worldwide were abandoned by missionary parents to live in boarding schools with virtually no accountability as to how the children were educated, disciplined, fed, housed, and raised. In many of these agencies, children would see their parents a few times a year.

An excellent article was written about this very problem, following the investigation into rampant abuse of missionary children at the NTM boarding school in Senegal Africa. This poignant quote summarizes the belief:

"The children were viewed as a hindrance to the work of God." NTM leaders believed couples could achieve more without the distraction of children and encouraged parents to leave their children behind for the sake of other souls. According to the report, "Parents were often reminded that if God sacrificed His only Son, missionaries should be willing and prepared to do the same. ~ Fear at Fanda

Children are robbed of childhood and prevented from fully developing. In this model of missiology, children are given the responsibility and burden of adults without having the chance to grow-up and develop in a healthy manner. Rather, they are treated as small adults of whom perfection is expected, complete understanding and sacrifice of their own desires for the “ministry” and forgoing any type of stable and nurturing home life. I realize that many children who are not MK’s are raised in abusive home situations. My reason for drawing attention to this is that the reason for denying a healthy childhood to MKs is based on a missiology and religious dogma that glorifies abandonment of one’s family to serve God. For example: Luke 14:26

If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.

The result of this doctrine and practice is that children are raised without any self-worth, outside their ability to please God by obeying Him and being a sacrifice. Many of my friends, and myself included, didn’t have a clue what a healthy, supportive family life looked like, much less experience it. I believe that much of my own trauma and that of my fellow MK’s stems from being raised believing we didn’t have worth, didn’t have a say in family life and decisions, and basically were hindrances to our parents work, meant to be controlled and cloned into little versions of our parents and other adult missionaries.

As seen by my experience and that of my fellow MK’s, a group mentality of parenting was promoted. Rather than parents trying to make the best decisions for their families, they were directed by the mission to put them in boarding school. In my case, to not allow me to live with a missionary in Chame, and to which dorm they would assign me to live despite mal-treatment. One of the most egregious abuses the emanated from this teaching was that any adult could discipline any child for a real or perceived “sin,” at any time. In many of the cases I have investigated, MKs were disciplined by adult missionaries without informing the children’s parents of any details and assuming they would support the decision and discipline conducted by all other adults within the mission. The pain and sense of betrayal these individuals experienced is heart-breaking.

Some former missionaries have had difficult discussions with their now adult children about the trauma this caused in their children's lives. Others still maintain that sending children to boarding school was a necessary sacrifice. My hope in this article is to explain the lifelong consequences this decision can have on a family, regardless if they fully understand/stood it when joining a missions agency. As a parent in the US, I'm well aware that I make parenting mistakes...often. Those who've met my children will know that they will mince no words in expressing my failures to me now, and even more when they are older. I write this critique to challenge the standard ideas regarding children in Evangelical missions, not to claim that non-missionary families have figured out perfect parenting. I DO cling to the fact that my children know I prioritize them, support their interests, and seek their input in daily life decisions and family life. After all, that's what parenting is all about...raising children who are secure in being loved and supported, and equipped to become responsible adults.

My personal belief is that individuals desiring to be missionaries should be committed to serving as singles, and not expect their fellow Christians to finance their whole family, particularly when nationals can serve in the same places for a fraction of the cost, without uprooting entire families. More importantly, having children is a life-long commitment. Choosing a life and career path that demands abandoning them is not a healthy or moral decision.

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