A Christian leader was once asked by a ruler of one of the Arab gulf states what his government should do in order to help expats stay longer in his country. The answer this Christian leader gave was threefold: churches, schools, and hospitals. If this infrastructure were in place, the leader explained, expats would be able to remain in that country for the long-term.
What is true of expats in general is also true of missionaries. We like to romanticize missionaries as rugged frontier types who have the secret spiritual gift of being able to function as a healthy church with their lone family or small team, who treat all their medical needs with a dog-eared copy of Where There Is No Doctor, and who can homeschool their kids on the back of a camel – all while learning language and planting churches. But missionaries are mostly ordinary people with ordinary needs. They need healthy churches, decent medical care, and schooling options that will work for their kids. The lack of this kind of infrastructure is a major factor in missionary attrition, one reason why people can’t stay on the field long enough to reach the remaining unengaged people groups.
Infrastructure isn’t everything, but neither is it nothing. As has been said among those who study combat, amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics. Even the best soldiers on the front lines will ultimately have to retreat if the supply and logistics system backing them up fails.
In this post, I want to highlight the vital missions infrastructure of workable schooling options for missionary kids. During our time on the field we’ve seen over and over again how deeply impacted families are when they can’t figure out good enough education options for their offspring – and the twin problem of their kids struggling to have a healthy peer group, or any peer group at all. Many of these families end up leaving the field, or relocating to other countries where there is a MK school. They were able to work through the elementary years with a year-at-a-time cocktail approach of homeschool, internet school, local government school, and maybe a local private school. But the junior high and high school years start exposing some very concerning dynamics among their kids. Academically, they’re falling seriously behind, or they’re struggling and depressed because they have so few friends their own age. Suddenly it becomes clear that the options that worked out for younger kids are no longer workable for teens. This often occurs just as the parents are really hitting their stride in language, culture, and ministry.
Why not just send kids to boarding schools, the classic missionary response to the education problem? Well, without discussing the pros and cons of this option, there seems to be a clear shift where missionary families are simply less and less willing to go this route. At the boarding school where I attended – not as a dorm kid myself, since my mom was a teacher so we lived near the school – my class was the last one to have kids arrive in the dorms as young as 1st grade. We noticed in the 2000s that classes were getting smaller, largely because families were choosing to keep their kids at home longer. I don’t sense this trend turning around any time soon. What may have been expected of earlier generations – sending the kids to a boarding school – is among younger generations of parents becoming at least undesirable, and for others, even unthinkable. Some will continue to pursue this option, but it will likely be a shrinking minority. I say this with much love for the school that I attended, and with great respect for all the families that have sacrificed to make this option work.
Is homeschooling not the obvious answer then? Not necessarily. While homeschooling continues to grow in popularity and accessibility, there is one wildcard factor involved that can sink this otherwise good option – the wiring of the child themself. I loved the years we were homeschooled while growing up, but had siblings that struggled with it. It’s the same with my own kids. We are coming to understand that at least one of our kiddos is flat out incompatible with the homeschooling environment, despite the valiant efforts of her mother, herself a gifted teacher. No matter what homeschool advocates claim, not everyone can homeschool, and homeschool may not be a good fit for every child.
Local schools might be great for language acquisition and making friends, but the academics can mean hours of remedial work once school is over, which still may not prove to be enough. School online brings better academics, but can isolate the child or leave them with only a digital group of peers.
Missionaries might be some of the most adaptable people on the planet, yet in spite of this the dual goal of a good enough education and healthy group of peers for teens continues to be a very thorny and elusive thing. So what should be done so that missionary families can have better options for their kids’ education and remain on the field longer? I would contend that sending churches and agencies need to help start dozens of new small or mid-sized Christian international schools. These schools should be placed in strategic cities or towns where there is still access to unreached or unengaged people groups. Priority should be placed upon high school grades, and then middle school, as the ages most difficult for homeshchool and most in need of strong peer friendships.
What if there are not that many missionary families in the area? Well, to quote a classic baseball movie, “if you build it they will come.” The presence of a trustworthy school will automatically draw other missionary families to that area. One of the cities we used to live in just got a new school, one that’s beginning as a robust co-op for elementary students that plans to become a full blown school in coming years. They were worried they might not have enough interested families. As it turned out, all of their available spots were snatched up right away. There are many families out there that would happily move to an unreached city, if only the schooling piece made sense. Find me a global city with good schooling options for MKs and TCKs, and I will show you a city with dramatically-improved longevity among the missionaries – and a ton of missionaries who have relocated there. For any colleagues reading this in Central Asia, one or two of these specific cities should immediately come to mind.
But it takes a whole lot of investment to start a school! Yes, it does. As the son of a MK teacher, I grew up with an inside view of how hard it was just to keep a school staffed and running, never mind the trouble of starting one from scratch. But we must wrestle with the tremendous costs of not having this kind of infrastructure more available for missionaries serving in hard places. Given the rate of turnover and attrition, it may in the end prove to be less costly to go big from the beginning and just start a school. And there is always the option of ramping up, starting with sending homeschool teachers, transitioning to launching a co-op, and finally launching a full-blown school.
Along with the cost, the potential reward also needs to be kept in mind. Let’s say long-term missionaries – who currently average around ten years on the field with some orgs – are able to double their years on the field, returning to the home country after twenty years instead. Think of the impact these second decade veterans could make in the lives of the locals and their colleagues, think of the wisdom and experience that they would bring to the table. Our region of Central Asia has very few who have made it to their second decade. Often, this is due to the fact that the first decade concludes with kids struggling in their teenage years. But if we can serve these families through starting schools, we just may be able to double missionary longevity in strategic areas. What an outcome.
The key is for gifted Christians with a passion for education to understand the great need and to embrace this kind of vision. And then for sending churches and agencies to fully back their risky goal. Previous generations of missionaries started schools like it was as easy as keeping tequila plants alive (which is shockingly easy, even for bad gardeners like myself). It almost seems second nature to them when you read about how often Christians and missionaries invested in starting educational institutions in the 1800s. Perhaps our contemporary fears of mission drift and “colonial” missions have kept us from investing in the very supply lines the mission truly needs.
Years ago I heard Tim Keller make a similar point about cities and schools when discussing how Catholic and Jewish communities had been able to thrive in American cities when evangelicals largely hadn’t. He also pointed to infrastructure, noting that Jewish and Catholic families with children have stayed in the cities when there have been schools, community centers, and hospitals accessible to their distinct community. If the infrastructure is lacking and it’s been hard for evangelical families to remain in American cities, how much more so when it comes to the cities and towns where the world’s hardest to reach people groups live? This will require some serious vision, investment, and commitment.
Christians and churches who are passionate about education may never have considered the vital role they could play in reaching the world’s unreached people groups. Their experience, their connections, even their classroom management skills, these are as valuable as gold, and could be the crucial piece that allows missionaries to remain on the field – and new peoples and tribes to have the chance to follow Jesus. We should challenge them to use these precious gifts for the sake of the nations.
If we want to reach the unreached, we’ve got to start more schools. To keep the front lines strong, we’ve got to strengthen our supply lines.