To Reach the Unreached, Start More Schools

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.

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

A Proverb On Proximity and Affections

The one before the eyes is the one upon the heart.

Local Oral Tradition

This Central Asian proverb speaks to the effect proximity and distance have upon our affections. We have a similar saying in English, though it focuses on the inverse of this idea – “Out of sight, out of mind.” As humans, we seem to be hard-wired to prioritize the relationships that are immediately in front of us, and we struggle to maintain those relationships that are long-distance. We quickly give resources to the needs that we are faced with, and have trouble feeling the weight of those needs that we don’t ourselves physically interact with.

A wise person will therefore do what they can to to be reminded of those important people and needs in ways their eyes can see and body can sense. This is particularly important for those who have grown up with a lot of transition and goodbyes, as missionary kids have. The temptation after a move is to cut off contact completely and to only focus on those relationships right in front of us. This is because continued contact reminds us of the distance and the change, and therefore the loss. But the seemingly easy way is not really the healthy way here. MKs and others like us need to learn to be present friends, even from a distance. I still have a long way to go on this front.

This is also why daily spiritual disciplines and corporate worship are also so crucial. We do not physically interact with Jesus in the ways his first disciples did. Instead, we interact with him by spirit, through faith, in the realm of the unseen. Our affections for him will fade and we will largely forget him if we do not have ways in which we are reminded regularly of his friendship for us. Hence Bible study which engages our eyes and hands, prayer which engages our lips and ears, and tangible reminders like the Lord’s Supper that engage our taste buds. In fact, Christians should be known as those whose deepest love is for the one not before our eyes, the one we can’t yet see and touch.

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and full of glory.” – 1st Peter 1:8

Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

A Tale of Two Pythons

If you happen to be growing up in a place like Melanesia, then you want to have a mother as adventurous as mine. My mom allowed us to have all kinds of unique pets over the years, and enjoyed them right along with us. In addition to seasons with dogs and cats, we also at times cared for snakes, tree frogs, owls, parrots, tree kangaroos, rabbits, lizards, turtles, praying mantises, and a baby bat. I would bring my pets proudly to school for show and tell, where they would wow my classmates and inevitably manage to relieve themselves on the classroom floor. Only one pet (a tree kangaroo) ever bit a classmate. Poor guy’s parents made him get a rabies shot. Do tree kangaroos even get rabies? Anyway, I digress.

When I was in junior high we purchased* our first emerald tree python from a local who was selling him on the street of the small government town nearby our missionary compound. These snakes are beautiful creatures, sporting bright yellow scales when they are young, which fade to a bright emerald green as they mature. They are small to medium constrictor snakes that like to eat birds and small mammals when they are in the wild. While newspaper flashbacks to the mid-twentieth century regularly included reports of giant pythons dropping out of the trees to attack an unsuspecting villager, we never saw any get to that size – with the exception of one terrifying carcass I saw at the river where we regularly swam. But the pythons that we owned were still adolescents, so only about a meter long, with a body diameter about the size of the hole made by a finger and thumb making the OK sign.

The first snake was as friendly and gentle as you could hope for. He never tried to bite us, and he enjoyed coiling up on my oldest brother’s laptop or on our shoulders, nestling in to get access to body heat. I have no idea what happened to him earlier in his serpentine life to give him such a pleasant disposition, but he was great, a true pal. Unfortunately, he managed to escape one day. An enterprising local caught him nearby our property and tried to resell him to us, in spite of our insistance that we were the rightful owners. But finders-keepers prevailed and we decided on principle not to buy him back. This was probably the wrong decision.

Some time later we saw another similar-sized python for sale for a good price. Fresh off such a positive experience with our first snake, we decided to get him. Unfortunately, while the first snake was a kindly soul, the second python proved to be very mean and aggressive. I remember staring through the glass terrarium walls with my brothers as the angry thing repeatedly lunged at the glass, trying to bite our faces. He would even snap at us when we attempted to feed him. Whatever we had named him in the beginning, we began to call him Demon Snake. Needless to say, Demon Snake did not get any snuggle time on our shoulders. He did, however, also manage to escape.

In the end, this was probably the best outcome for all parties. Like many pets taken from the jungle after a certain age, our second snake was wild and unlikely to get accustomed to relationships with humans. He needed his freedom where he could live out his grumpy ways in peace. But it seemed he didn’t desire complete independence from humans. One day my mom walked out onto our downstairs patio area where we had clotheslines hung under the roof for when it rained. Above the lines on the wooden rafters lounged the python, snoozing and looking fatter than usual.

Our former pet had managed to find himself a pretty good living situation. The rafters from the patio disappeared into a gap in between the upper and lower floors – a gap that apparently made for nice snake lodging, and one where big rats also lived. It seemed that he had learned to spend his days hunting the scratching rodents in between the floors and then lounging on the patio rafters where he could soak up the heat from the corrugated metal roof directly above him. Not a bad gig.

We developed quite the complementary relationship in the end. We let him be, and attracted the rats – presumably just by living normal life and eating delicious food, like fried and salted Asian sweet potatoes. He in turn hunted and ate the ROUS’s* which we had been until that point largely unable to trap or catch. We actually grew quite comfortable seeing him up above our heads taking his naps, and just had to make sure he wasn’t around to create any surprise appearances when we were hosting locals, most of whom were completely petrified of snakes.

We moved on from snakes after this experience, purchasing instead a gorgeous green and red Eclectus parrot who was one of our longer-lasting pets, managing in the end to very effectively confuse passersby with the whistles and unique phrases he had learned in the voice of each member of the family.

I’m not sure what became of the Demon Snake python in the end. We came back to the US for furlough for my eight grade year and never heard of him again. But I am grateful for all those rats he ate. Melanesian rats are no joke. I hope he lived out the remainder of his snake days a happier serpent than he had been, full of rodent, warm from corrugated metal roofing, and free from any more missionary kids hoping to snuggle with him.

*Correction: My mom has informed me that we did not actually buy the first snake. He was given to us as a gift from a colleague who heard that our dad had wanted to get us one before he passed away. This then was a very kind gift of a very kind snake.

*For those who haven’t seen The Princess Bride, ROUS stands for Rodent of Unusual Size, which inhabit the Fire Swamp, as well as the walls of my childhood in Melanesia.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Evidence Our Kids Haven’t Been Living ‘Round These Parts

Growing up overseas is bound to leave a mark on kids’ behaviors, assumptions, and worldviews. Any return trip to the passport country is a fun time to notice how these changes have filtered down into everyday life. I remember as a child being mesmerized by these strange creatures called squirrels and being shocked to learn that pasta was in fact not grown on a farm somewhere. Now as parents, we find ourselves doing our best to help our kids fill in their TCK gaps while also enjoying what they have absorbed as simply “normal.” Here are some recent examples.

  1. “Who keeps throwing their TP in the trash can? You can flush it in this country.” Yes, this is a very practical one. In many countries overseas the plumbing can’t handle toilet paper, so a small trash can is where you stick it instead. Apparently, our kids have been trained well on this front, so it’s taking a while to convince them that it really is OK to send it flushing.
  2. “Dad, are you drinking the tap water in this hotel?” Again, many other countries don’t have tap water that is safe or wise to drink. Hotels in our area of Central Asia usually have signs near the bathroom sink that warn guests in several languages, including bad English, that the water is not for drinking. But yes, with the exception of a few cities whose water infrastructure has recently tanked, we can safely drink the tap water in the US.
  3. “Is our power out?” “No, buddy, the power doesn’t go out in this country.” One way to tell that someone has been in Central Asia for a while is to observe how they don’t even flinch when the electricity goes off. Or to notice how they keep waiting and waiting for it to be cut even in countries where it’s on 24/7.
  4. “Guys, you always have to wear a seat belt here. Or we’ll get in trouble with the police. Or die.” Seat belt and car seat laws and customs are a lot more relaxed in some other parts of the world. Yet every time we return to the US it seems like the age for required booster seats has been raised yet again. This one, though obviously necessary for safety and not being illegal, is a tough one for the kids to adjust to with happy hearts.
  5. “Don’t take candy from random men on the street in this country.” With the possible exception of small towns, we generally have our kids switch their behavior from the Central Asian norm, where it is quite common for sweet older men to give candy to random cute kids in public. And maybe a kiss on the cheek.
  6. “Kids, people here don’t say goodbye that many times. One or two solid goodbyes are enough.” Here our offspring have ingested Central Asian culture, where goodbyes consist of a blast of honorable words. Whether in person or on the phone, it should sound a lot more like, “Goodbye! Bye! God be with you! Bye now! Goodbye! Safe travels! Bye! Farewell! Byyyyeee! … (followed by a goodbye honk of the car horn whenever possible).”
  7. “They have bacon at this restaurant too?!” “Yes, son, bacon is available almost everywhere here… it’s wonderful, isn’t it?” One month in, the kids still haven’t gotten over the ubiquity of pork and bacon in the states. Truthfully, neither has their dad. We assume that sooner or later this will feel normal. For now, we’ll keep savoring the availability of this sweet forbidden meat.

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

Trying to Hug a Parade – a Framework for Goodbyes

The life of a missionary or missionary kid is one of constant goodbyes. Transition to the field, back to the field, to a different field, or off the field means a relentless lifestyle of “we meet to part, and part to meet.” I myself recently counted again and I have moved thirty two times in my life, only counting moves where we lived somewhere for several months or longer. I’m in my mid-thirties.

Then there are the goodbyes caused by everyone else’s transitions – coworkers, friends, partners who themselves leave, and often with very little notice. When others’ transitions are put together with our own, this revolving door of relationships only picks up speed. So many goodbyes begin to add up.

It’s like trying to hug a parade. This was how it was often put at our sending church, describing the cost to those who stayed and continually sent out worker after worker to the mission field. Whether sending or going, goodbyes are costly. And we don’t tend to naturally lean into them. Rather, those of us who have to say the most goodbyes often get very good at strategies to numb ourselves to the natural grief that accompanies every loss of relationship and place. Like Adoniram Judson, we’d rather slip off early in the morning and skip all the emotion and ritual. I know I have done something similar countless times.

After all, why make goodbyes a big deal when you have to navigate them so frequently? Who can handle that kind of emotional investment? Is it even practical? However, as hard as honoring each goodbye might seem, eventually some of us learn that to suppress and ignore them might come at an even greater cost. That cost might spill out in surprising ways, as bodies and souls begin to break down from all of the sadness that has been building and has been shoved under the surface now for years.

Strange as it might seem, it was only a couple months ago that I heard for the first time of a healthy framework for saying goodbye. It came from the book, “Raising a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids,” by Lauren Wells. Along with lots of other tested wisdom for caring well for TCKs, I found Wells’ recommendations in this section of her book both insightful and practical.

She presents this framework in the form of an acronym – RAFT. Now, I love sticky tools like acronyms because it means I’m so much more likely to remember a given framework or set of truths. I’ve still got RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) stuck in my head from my high school sports medicine class – Mr. Hemphill, if you’re out there, good on ya.

RAFT stands for Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewell, and Think Destination. Wells describes Reconciliation as, “Make amends with anyone you may have hurt or been hurt by before moving.” She then reports how many TCKs form a bad habit of skipping this uncomfortable step as it’s just easier to get on that plane and leave. Instead, this kind of proactive reconciliation is a very wise and God-honoring step to take as we plan to leave a place.

The Affirmation step is described as, “Tell the people you love that you love them.” It’s very important that we say thank you and express our love to those we care about before we leave. Again, due to the emotions this stirs up, it’s easier to just leave. But both of these first steps will lead to regret if neglected.

Wells then discusses the step of Farewell, where she encourages TCKs to “say good-bye, not only to people, but to places and things as well. This is especially important for young children.” Wells writes that it’s crucial for healthy grieving that kids know when they are saying their final goodbye to a friend, a favorite place, or a special thing. Evidently, in God’s mysterious wiring of us, our souls hunger for this step of verbal ceremony in order to be able to move on to our next season well.

Think Destination is the final part of the acronym, where Wells encourages us to regularly talk about where we are headed next so that we quickly have things to be excited about, even as we grieve what is being lost. This step can be an application of our trust in God’s steadfast love to us. He has been kind to us thus far, he will be kind to us where we are going next – so let’s dream about how that kindness might be expressed.

Reconciliation. Affirmation. Farewell. Think Destination. I plan on giving the framework a test run the next time we experience a major transition. I think it would bless my kids – and do my heart good as well.

This framework is very simple. Yet how very practical for those who are called to live as sojourners and strangers. How is it that so many of us have embraced ministry lifestyles of costly transition without any practical tools for saying healthy goodbyes? I don’t think I’m the only one who had never heard of a framework for saying goodbyes well. When was the last time you heard a sermon, a podcast, or heard of a book written on saying goodbye well as a Christian? What a strange blind-spot for us to have. Perhaps there is a practical theology of goodbyes out there somewhere. If not, it needs to be written.

To this framework of RAFT I would only add one more step: Resurrection. Speak to one another and remind yourself of the very real hope of the coming new heavens and new earth, where there will be no more goodbyes. Each and every goodbye now is a chance to build our faith and love for that coming world where we will be reconciled with so many of those that we have said goodbye to, and where we will somehow find even the true and better forms of those places and things that we left behind. However much I love the bazaars, cafes, and libraries of this world, I will find in the world to come places that put them all to shame and are in fact their true essence fulfilled. The library as it was always meant to be, as it were. The pang of each goodbye therefore is a reminder that heaven is real and a chance to strengthen the solidity of this hope in the invisible.

We should speak and think of the coming resurrection as we say our countless goodbyes in the here and now. While I haven’t been the best at carrying out the points of RAFT, dwelling on the coming resurrection has been very good medicine for my transition-weary soul. So then, the acronym comes out to be RAFTR, a big clunkier to be sure. But hopefully even more powerful.

Photo by Ashley Light on Unsplash