When a man decides to go to the mission field, his wife may have little to say about it. But for sure, his children have no voice or vote—they go. It is not a problem for young children; they simply go where mama and daddy go. Children seven or nine years old may be concerned that they cannot take all their toys, but it is probably not a disturbing event. However, for preteens or teens it is an altogether different story. They are facing a big struggle. Being teenagers is hard enough in a place where they know the language and culture perfectly. In a strange new place where they cannot speak the language and have no idea how to act, it can be traumatic and terrifying.
A family on deputation going to South America was in a distant state when their teenage son disappeared one evening. They did not know if he was kidnapped or if he ran away. The latter was the case. He decided he was not going to the mission field. The family did go to the field but stayed only a year or less. A family that graduated from BBTI many years ago planned to go to a first world European country. One of the sons told his parents that he would kill himself if they took him out of the country; they, of couirse, stayed home.
Consider these portions from a journal entry of an extraordinary fourteen-year-old girl facing a new life in a third world country on the other side of the world.
“Dad signed the last paper, and the farm is now in the hands of someone else. It will never more be my refuge, my shelter, my home. Home as I have known it will never be the same. Tears begin to stream down my face as I relive the many happy years I spent on the farm. Faces, places, and happenings start to flash through my mind. I remember spending wintry evenings with a fire crackling merrily in the wood stove and a kerosene lantern shining softly above me [their house had no electricity or running water], snuggled in the lap of an older sibling, listening to Dad or Mom read a book about the Anabaptists or about a missionary. I remember the happy hours gathered around the kitchen table playing games and just enjoying each other. I remember… I remember… I remember… I remember the many special memories that my family made on the farm. Fun, scary, hilarious, and sad memories race through my mind. I see the farm from stem to stern. I see where I spent fourteen years of my life. I begin to wonder, was it worth giving them up? I see my dog that I gave up, my special treasures, my life. Was it worth giving up? Was it worth leaving behind friends, family, and the only home I have ever known? Was it worth leaving it all to go to a place I have never seen, to a people I have never met, to a language I have never heard, and to a culture I have never understood? Was it worth leaving close friends to become the stranger and the newcomer? It will be worth it all. These temporal things such as our farm, will someday be gone, but the eternal things that we have done for Christ will last forever. Pictures of natives in [we dare not name the country] begin to play on the screen of my mind. I envision the souls that will get saved, the Bible that will get translated, and the glory that God will get. Now it doesn’t seem so hard to give up everything. In my mind I begin to replace the hardships and sacrifices with eternal rewards in Heaven. So, to me, it is worth giving up my friends, my treasures, and all this world can offer to fulfill the Great Commission and help reconcile the world to God. As I dry my tears and close my journal, I ask myself this question: Was it really worth it to give up the farm? My answer is yes!”
Does this mean that a family with teenage children should opt out of foreign field service? Absolutely not. But there are things that would help prepare young people for the field. First, parents should raise children to love and serve God as the above quoted girl was. Then, the churches, especially the sending church, should recognize the teens as missionaries in their own right. Churches should encourage and reward them in every way possible. Missionary dads usually get the recognition and love offerings. Give some accolades and gifts to the missionary mom, children, and teens. Generously finance survey trips to the field so that older children can accompany their parents. This is a good way to help relieve teens’ fear of the unknown, and they will probably learn that the place is not all that bad. God may even give them a great love for the people and a desire to return.
Consider also that teens would benefit greatly from pre-field preparation in linguistics and in language and culture learning. It is a big mistake for any missionary to go without adequate preparation, and teens will encounter the same difficulties in language and culture adjustment as their parents. Over the years, several teens have taken some or all of the Advanced Missionary Training courses at BBTI along with their parents. (Their homeschooling may have been somewhat curtailed or even postponed. In other cases, however, the teens took BBTI classes in the morning and worked to complete their high school course in the afternoon.) Young people that do this go to the field with confidence and skills that help them learn and adapt more quickly. They look at the new culture and language as a challenge, a very achievable goal, instead of a dreaded ordeal. One ten-year-old boy took the phonetics course with his parents. Once on the field, he quickly learned a difficult tonal language that he is comfortable speaking twenty years later.
The worldwide adolescent population is over forty percent. In some countries it is much higher. Young missionaries have more potential to reach those young people than their parents. If young people arrive on the field with a positive attitude and learn the language, they can be a great asset to the Lord. Their few years on the field can be a happy and fruitful time, and they may even return as adults to continue their missionary work.