I was sitting in a living room with a young man, his parents and another mentoring couple, when I realized the parent-child dynamic is strong and complex, even in adulthood. This young man was feeling called to serve cross-culturally, and there were tears, confusion and confessions.
How do you follow God in your calling and honor your parents, even if they are not on board?
As a missions mobilizer, I was curious and anxious as I thought about the strong emotional pull for potential missionaries to be both true to God and respectful and loving to their parents. I set out to discover what both sides are feeling during that initial conversation on the subject.
I created two web-based surveys. One for missionaries and the other for parents of missionaries. The responses came from all age groups, including people who were single, married with no children and married with children.
Surprisingly, nearly 40 percent of those who responded to the survey felt called to missions between the ages of 10 and 13. Over 50 percent of the parents of missionaries who responded also said their child was called between these ages.
When missionaries reflected on the emotions they perceived in their parents during their first conversation, equal numbers reported feelings of pride and of fear. Other responses were sadness, criticism, denial, discouragement and anger. One respondent said, “[My parents] expressed pride outwardly towards others, but had difficulty in the intimate conversations behind closed doors.”
These are strong emotions. They are further complicated if the parents of the missionaries are not Christians, which requires different guidance than what is offered below. But if both parties are seeking God, you are more likely to navigate these challenging and complex feelings well. So, here are four ways missionaries and their parents can honor each other as they pursue God’s calling.
Affirm Each Other
Missionaries, respect your parents’ feelings, and help them through the process. They will grieve the loss of sharing everyday life with you. That multiplies if grandchildren are involved.
They may react in negative ways with words or actions that hurt. Ask God to give you the grace to “set an example … in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12, NIV). Affirming what they are feeling will display your maturity, both emotional and spiritual, and allow God to work in their hearts.
Parents, affirm your child (no matter the age)! Give them the love and support you have spent your life pouring into them and surrender them to God. They need to know that you believe in them. Give them the room to respond completely to God.
Missionaries, pick an appropriate time to discuss your calling with your parents. Don’t drop the bomb at a family dinner or in a large group of people.
In some ways, it is easier to be the sent one than the one sending. The ‘sent one’ is living out the missionary calling that God has given them. Your parent will be living out the calling they have been handed, not necessarily one they asked for.
Your parents may also react differently from each other. Loving, respectful communication will be the key to blessing and acceptance. “The unfolding of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:130, NIV).
Parents, listen to your children and pray before speaking, as Nehemiah did. “The king said to me, ‘What is it you want?’ Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king” (Nehemiah 2:4-5). Nehemiah wanted to respond to the king appropriately, so he prayed that God would give him the right words. Ask the Lord to do the same for you. Then, tell your children you would like to have time to process, and set up another time to talk about it again in the near future.
Pray individually. Pray for each other. Pray together. The enemy would love nothing more than to see this calling destroy relationships. Instead of taking initial responses personally, take some time to pray, and then come back and talk some more.
Missionaries, allow your parents to be involved in your going process and the new life you will be living. Discover information together on where you are going, the people group you will be serving and introduce them to others who will be joining you or who live in-country.
Parents, help your missionaries prepare by helping with support letters and fundraisers, watching the kids and packing when it is time to go. Work through feelings of sadness by advocating for your missionary and participating in their call to share the gospel to the nations. Love your kids enough to help them fulfill this calling, even if it doesn’t match the dream you envisioned for them.
Ultimately, it’s possible for both missionaries and their parents to honor each other in this process, even if they don’t reach full agreement. Speak the truth in love, and realize that this is part of the discipleship process for you both.