Third Culture Missionary Kids: A Life in Monsoonal Reigning Faith Storms

By Tim Brantingham

I have barely started writing this article and I can already feel my name being added to prayer lists across the world by concerned missionary aunts and uncles. I hope I can put them at ease by stating at the onset that this is not a critique of the missionary experience, nor even a look at what it is missionaries do, say, or believe. They do and believe many different things, as do their adult children. This is instead a look at the experience of growing up overseas in missionary homes, and the unique set of challenges missionary Third Culture Kids face while wading through riptides of often deeply conflicting cultural and religious currents. You may still want to add me to the prayer list, but please hear me out first. 

All third culture kids wrestle with different world views, even world views that at times clash.  But most TCKs, who are free to move in and out of cultures easily, experience world views kind of like tourists on a yoga retreat: internalizing views of temples and wet markets from the safety of the hotel juice bar and staying far away from any potential political or religious conflict zones. Missionary kids, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury. They reside in the dangerous border regions: they are the war correspondents of world views, who live much of their young lives in cheap buildings ducking around regular intellectual border skirmishes that pop off all around them. They may be smiling and happy and cheerful on the outside, but you can be pretty confident there is some Complex PTSD in there… somewhere.  

MKs are a subset of TCKs, and on the surface experience many of the same issues: they are open minded bridge-builders; they can live anywhere; they have a hard time defining home; they are restless and struggle with unresolved grief.  

Yet there are some aspects that make their experiences unique.  

1. Mission work does not pay well, and missionary kids grow up in relative poverty when compared to their expatriate friends and colleagues. While other TCKs may be flying around the world on vacation and twice-yearly home leaves, MKs are almost always staying put in the host country. At the same time, depending on the country, a missionary salary can still be a lot better than a local salary. It is not unusual for MKs to experience being both privileged and not privileged at the same time. 

2. When missionary kids compete with The Mission, The Mission usually wins. On the home front, parents are engaged in some very big projects indeed—like the salvation of a people—and so school basketball games and drama performances can seem trivial by comparison. Many missionary kids grow up feeling overlooked: that their needs were never as important as the needs of The Work. 

3. Missionary kids have to be good examples to the world. They are a reflection of God’s work in the culture. Not much room to screw up. No pressure at all.

The result of one, two, and three is that right out of the gate, MKs are a brooding, conflicted, hot-boiled lot; kids with big smiles on their faces who sometimes just want to scream, but who have been taught screaming is not one of God’s spiritual gifts.  Plenty to unpack there, but let’s move on.

What makes missionary kids particularly fascinating is this: more than any other group of expat kids they are usually the most deeply entrenched within the local culture. 85% of MKs spend over 10 years overseas, and 72% of those have lived in only one foreign country (versus moving around a lot).* MKs generally have the least amount of experience interacting with their passport county, speak the local language better than most, and often live within local communities rather than in expat ones. Yes, they are deeply embedded in the local culture, while also deep in a mission culture which echoes strongly of some far-off place: a place they profess but don’t know very well at all.  

My mother grew up in India as an MK, and I had the honor of taking her back to the middle of Madhya Pradesh, to a small mission compound not far from the erotic temples of Khajuraho. We were there to attend the 100-year anniversary celebrations of a Christian mission planted by evangelical-leaning Quakers from Ohio, and my mother was very conflicted about the trip. She loved this place and the people: old playmates were still there. When she spoke Hindi, a kind of liveliness came over her face which was seldom expressed in other contexts. Yet, at the same time, she was sent to boarding school at age 5 because of this mission, and up until age 18, saw her parents only several times a year. She was often uncomfortable about how the Indian people were demeaningly portrayed when some missionaries would raise funds back in the US. And adding to her internal conflict was the fact that this particular mission was not entirely successful.

My grandparents were in India a full 10-years before gaining a single convert, all while my mother was languishing in boarding school.  My mother used to wonder: Was it all worth it?

Of course, my mother’s answer was an emphatic yes; that it was worth it, and that her parents were paragons of virtue who, despite some cultural failings, undertook great sacrifices for a great work, and that her own childhood sacrifices were a part of that work. But she, along with her MK compound cousins also had a clear view of the dark side and had strong opinions as to why the mission was not successful. For one, the compound was an awkward cultural transplant from Ohio; the church itself, from the pews to the hymnals, belonged on the rolling hills of eastern Ohio, and felt very out of place indeed couched in the stupa-laden topography of central India. Second, it was difficult for locals to tell the difference between Ohio missionaries and their British colonial bureaucratic counterparts, who lived in the same kind of houses, wore the same clothing, and went to the same kind of schools. 

But most importantly, and most painful to witness, was that the mission elders were largely unaware of their own cultural limitations: how culturally awkward they sometimes appeared. While they could all speak Hindi to greater or lesser degrees, their language often did not hold enough nuance nor content to tackle deep, difficult issues. Sometimes they mistook connection when there was none and missed connection when it was urgently desired. What seemed like agreement may have been politeness; what looked like mystery may have been perplexity; an interest in faith may have been in interest in something more material—or vice versa.

The point here is that the mission parents, though full of passion and sincerity (and often much loved by the local community nonetheless) could not see their own cultural awkwardness, while their kids, who played on the streets, could.  And that’s the catch of what I’m trying to say: missionary kids see both sides; they live in the cultural/spiritual border regions where the appeals of sometime opposing militias both make sense. 

And missionary kids hold all that awkward conflict inside.  Seeing parents battle local culture and not being able to protect them is hard. Seeing your playmates portrayed as lost, disheveled souls in need of Ohio support and not being able to speak out more honestly for them is also hard.  Missionary kids are characterized by these two loyalties: a love of parents and loyalty to their work; a love of your playmates and loyalty to their streets.  

Both sides want you more or less completely.  

That is not to say good things did not happen at the India mission, as my mother would be the first to point out. Among other things, a school and a hospital still serve the rural poor of Madhya Pradesh to this day. But it was a long, painful journey for many, and the children of missionaries know the costs—the real costs—better than anyone.  My mother certainly did, and approached her own mission work in Taiwan, and her involvement in her own children’s lives, very differently.  

The Complex PTSD of holding tightly to two loyalties can lead to several outcomes when missionary kids become adults. Though secular and religious research site different numbers, a survey of my own MK friends and family find this: about 1/3, like my mother, pick one side and stay as committed members of the faith, many becoming missionaries or religiously affiliated aid workers themselves. About 1/3 hold onto both loyalties and take a syncretistic approach, like the late Houston Smith who was raised a Methodist missionary kid in China and became a famed scholar of inter-religious studies. And about 1/3 pick the host side and drop the faith and the mission culture affiliation all together.  

If MK’s can navigate a safe way through the border regions, shake off the harsher effects of PTSD, and find a voice that is truly theirs, they can emerge as some of the most potent peace makers, faith builders, and cross-cultural bridge architects possible. TCK researcher Ruth Van Reken was an MK, as were the authors Pearl Buck and John Hersey: writers who humanized foreign populations for American readers. Academics such as Huston Smith and the Sinologist David T Roy were MKs, as were diplomats John Service and John Patton Davies Jr, who advised US foreign policy through some difficult geopolitical issues. MK multinational business leaders are too multitudinous to name.

At their best, MKs reach adulthood skilled not only in navigating people, languages and cultures, but ideas, beliefs and conflicts.  The world needs more of them.  

At least, that’s what we preach to ourselves.

* A consensual qualitative investigation into the repatriation experiences of young adult, missionary kids, L. Bikos, et al. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/figure/10.1080/13674670903032637?scroll=top&needAccess=true

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