Missionary kids are often referred to as “little missionaries.” The term makes me cringe and here’s why:
1.We need to let kids be kids. Missionary kids are often held on a pedestal. They are presented to the world on the stages of churches and in monthly newsletters. They know that their job is to look and act the part of the good missionary kid so that people support their parent’s ministry. There is immense pressure on missionary parents to have perfect kids and immense pressure on the kids to play that role. We need to give them permission to just be kids. Yes, let’s encourage them to share the gospel, but let’s not make sharing the gospel part of the requirement of playing the “perfect missionary kid” role.
2. Sharing the gospel should be more than an occupation. We learned in Sunday School before we could walk that we need to “preach the gospel to all of creation” (Mark 16:15) and I absolutely believe that this is true. However, missionary kids are at risk for seeing Christianity as an occupation. When you refer to them as “little missionaries” or ask, “Are you going to be a missionary when you grow up, too?” it is kind of like calling the lawyer’s kids, “little lawyers” and asking, “Are you going to be a lawyer when you grow up?” Sharing the gospel can be done in the jungles of South America or as a bus driver in California or any other occupation anywhere else.
I was (and still am) often asked if I am going to be a missionary like my parents. For a long time, this question made me stutter and break out in a sweat because I felt like if I said “no,” I would be seen as less Christian. When I did answer, “no,” I felt obligated to go on to explain all of the ways I was involved in ministry here in the US and add on that maybe one day I would be a missionary overseas if God called me to that.
God may call some missionary kids to live as missionaries overseas when they grow up, but He may also call them to a different occupation and neither option should affect their validity or confidence in sharing the gospel.
3. Allow autonomy. Allow missionary kids to choose to follow Jesus Christ for themselves. It is hard as parents to give our children autonomy in this area, and especially so when you are missionaries and have so many eyes watching you and your children. But, when children feel like Christianity is a requirement, they are more prone to rejecting it, especially in teenage years. This is particularly true for missionary kids and other kids whose parents work in ministry. If children grow up being pigeonholed into the “little missionary” role, they are likely to resent that role and unfortunately may resent the Christian label that comes with it. We absolutely should “train up our children in the way they should go”(Proverbs 22:6) and instill Christian values and beliefs, but we need to be careful to not make Christianity a requirement rather than a choice. Our hope and prayer as parents is that our children will choose to follow the Lord and desire to share the gospel; not to do either out of obligation.
4. No one should be a “little” missionary. God has given us all the ability to share the gospel no matter what age we are. Sometimes children can minister even more effectively than adults can. The term “little missionary” can come across as a bit demeaning and condescending. While I’m sure no one means it that way, it can sound like they are telling the child that they are not old enough to qualify as a “real” missionary. No one, even children, like to feel like they’re not taken seriously and we want to be very careful that we don’t imply that, especially in the context of sharing the gospel.
Calling them “little missionaries” is a quick way to close the door on conversation, so here is better way to get to know missionary kids:
If you genuinely want to know what the child wants to be when they grow up, ask them. Don’t imply that “missionary” is the correct answer.
If you want to know if they have been able to share the gospel with anyone, ask them. They may have some amazing stories!
If you want to know about their relationship with Jesus Christ, ask them.
Take them seriously, ask questions, don’t assume, and please don’t call them “little missionaries.”