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We Spent Our Best Years Overseas. And They Were Hard.

We Spent Our Best Years Overseas. And They Were Hard.

I’ll never forget the agonized look on my mother-in-law’s face when we said goodbye. Her years and life experience told her what we didn’t yet know: Our move across the ocean would bring pain. Lots of it. We were heading overseas with her first newborn grandbaby, feeling like we were mere babies ourselves.

She knew there would be trials and hardships—and that we would endure them all 5,000 miles from home, family, and all things familiar. But we were propelled by optimism, God’s calling, and an eager willingness to preach Christ among the unreached. Thus began our journey as cross-cultural church planters, first in Asia, later in Europe.

On the eve of that baby’s sixteenth birthday, I’m looking back and can testify to two seemingly opposing truths: they were our best years, but they were hard years.

I’ve written before about the joys of raising children as cross-cultural church planters. It’s true, if presented with a buffet of options for how to raise my kids again, I’d pick just that. In fact, I spend much of my days encouraging families to consider taking that plunge, and counseling and encouraging from afar those who already have. But the reality is, as numerous as the blessings are, so too are the causes for questioning and heartache.

The church—both those who go and those who send—must acknowledge the hardships that cross-cultural workers face. And we must stand ready to help those who go as they walk through various valleys.

Difficulties for Families Serving Cross-Culturally

Here’s a (by no means exhaustive) sampling of some of the afflictions:

  • Traversing two or more cultures can prevent children from having a strong sense of identity and belonging. Also, the endless goodbyes with other expat families or with locals when the church planting family relocates can lead to loneliness and unprocessed grief.

  • Being immersed in a highly secular setting can have a greater influence on a child than their parents’ Christian influence. Kids might be exposed too early—and too often—to the realities of violence, poverty, sex trafficking, corruption, drugs and alcohol, and other dark, worldly trappings.

  • Physical health may suffer, as access to good healthcare may be nonexistent or far away. Everything from a middle-of-the-night fever to scoliosis can morph into a major, life-altering crisis.

  • Kids raised outside of their home countries don’t get to know their cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or the neighborhoods their parents grew up in. They face significant gaps in knowing about their home culture’s norms (going “home” sure doesn’t feel like it) and everyone misses out on the support of extended family in the formative years.

  • Education is a constant concern. Learning in two languages is tough, not to mention dealing with special needs, keeping up with home country requirements, and navigating classmates’ and teachers’ expectations in a foreign country.

  • While everyone says, “Kids are so resilient,” the truth is they probably just don’t have the words to express the grief they feel in living through upheaval and uncertainty. Chances are their emotions are stuffed and saved for later. Many cross-cultural kids experience a season of processing trauma as young adults.

Heavy Burdens

Parents who are cross-cultural church planters must regularly ask if their situation inflicts undue physical, spiritual, or emotional harm on their children. How much is too much? What’s simply part of the cost (Luke 14:28)? And how heavy must the burden be for a parent to determine that it’s time to return home?

Cross-cultural workers weigh the answers to these questions constantly—they wonder if God is calling them to persist in trusting him by staying, or trust in him by going. Simply put, there’s no easy way to measure the burdens and determine when the scale is tipped. Every family has a different capacity and calling. Every context has a different set of circumstances. Every local church, every church-planting team—and even every child—has a different threshold.

So how in the world can cross-cultural church-planting parents know when it’s time to go (or stay)? How can we discern God’s calling on us as parents when our children face hard things overseas? In short, we need wisdom from above. Thankfully, God promises to give us just that when we ask (James 1:5). And it comes primarily through his Word, his Spirit, and his people.

Seek Wisdom

It’s a mystery—and certainly a unique process for everyone—but our heavenly Father communicates to us through the synthesis of his Word, his Spirit, and his people. These three means of grace complement one another and confirm God’s calling on our lives and his leadership in our decisions.

Though often weary and overburdened, church planters must stay nourished by the words breathed out by God—they are there so that we might not be lacking anything (2 Tim. 3:16). Answers and wisdom for specific families and children may be sought out in the pages of the Bible. The Word is alive and active and can help us discern our motives in going or staying (Heb. 4:12).

Answers will likely come as the Spirit moves in our own consciences. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would be our helper, teacher, and peace giver (John 14:26, 27). The Holy Spirit will lead us as we lead our children.

And the message delivered through God’s Word and pressed upon us by God’s Spirit will be confirmed by God’s people. It’s imperative that we gather with our siblings in Christ so that we might be strengthened by accountability (Gal. 6:1–5) as we build one another up (1 Thess. 5:11). Often other Christians can see things in us and our families that we cannot see in ourselves. Input from teammates, team leaders, and other Christians is invaluable for the family living and serving cross-culturally.

All Things for Good

Cross-cultural church-planting parents can lean on wisdom received through these three supernatural resources as they discern God’s leading for their children. And we can lean confidently, knowing that God is sovereign. We need not be paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. We may boldly go—or stay—knowing that God is on his throne and he works all things (even perceived mistakes or misunderstandings) for our good (Rom. 8:28). God’s plans, even for church plants in unreached places—and for families serving therein—cannot be thwarted (Isa. 14:27).

Yes, the burdens of the family serving cross-culturally can be many. The pain that my mother-in-law expressed was ultimately realized ten years later when she languished and died from ALS. Due to immigration laws preventing our adopted daughter from entering the United States, we could only watch and weep from across the world. God’s Word, Spirit, and people upheld us in our grief.

As we’ve experienced ourselves and with so many others, in addition to the joy, the years of cross-cultural church planting can be challenging. But God promises to be our ever-present help in times of trouble (Ps. 46:1). The Lord will help you and me and every church planter in every nation, as we seek to serve him, grow his church, and minister to our children.

He is near. He is there in his Word, his Spirit, and his people. Church planter, pursue these three humble means of grace as if your life and the life of your children depend on it. Because they do.

Author’s Note: This article was first published here at The Gospel Coalition.

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