When we think of tentmaking missions, we think of bi-vocational men and women, who transplant themselves from the comfort of their home country and way of life to an alien land and culture in order to make Christ known. But wait! They don’t go alone. Many bring their children, who share the challenge of making the new language and culture their own too. They are the “Third Culture Kids.”
Who are TCKS?
TCKs spend a good part of their developmental years overseas. At home, their parents bring them up celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas. At school, they learn about the local holidays. They are shaped by both their passport and host cultures, but understandably do not fully identify with either. Hence the label “Third Culture Kids” .
TCKs are a tribe to themselves. They tend to form deep friendships with each other and share about universal life experiences such as passions, hobbies, family and relationships rather than connect with the latest popular TV shows or sport teams.
Growing up internationally, TCKs have a broader, richer perspective on the world, on peoples, ways of life, and an appreciation for those who are differ- ent. They learn at a young age not to see things in black-and-white. They develop observation skills to adapt to new settings, pick up on socio-cultural nuances, and see different sides to any given situation. They more readily embrace diversity.
Many TCKs have a spirit of adventure, independence, flexibility, resilience, and understanding of “the other” that equip them to thrive in a variety of settings and relationships throughout life. Their linguistic skills and cross-cultural competencies prepare them for the 21st century global society. But more importantly, many have an amazing spiritual inheritance—the faith of their parents and the testament of God’s faithfulness to His servants.
But TCKs face many challenges too. If crossing cultures is stressful for adults physically, mentally, emotionally and socially, how much more for kids, who need routine, familiarity and structure?
When TCKs move, they leave behind everything that has been their world—their house, school, friends, church community, relatives, and more. Kids lack the ability to put their upheaval into perspective, or the self-awareness and emotional vocabulary to communicate how they feel.
While TCKs are good at blending in socially, taking their cues on dress, speech, food, and do’s and don’ts from their surroundings, some have a hard time with their identity and sense of belonging. “Where do you call home?” is a tough question for them. The feeling that they do not ever fit in or belong anywhere can result in an unresolved sadness, a sense of loss, the insecurity of an outsider.
TCKs also struggle with transience in their social life, people coming and going all the time. It hurts to make friends and then say goodbye again and again. To cope, some hold back and develop an independent outer shell while being lonely inside.
TCKs’ ability to see things from multiple perspectives can make them arrogant and impatient with those who cannot, creating relational distance from others. Arrogance can be insecurity incognito, resulting in alienation, the very opposite of the connection and understanding that they yearn for.
Finally, though not exhaustively, TCKs share in the stress, pressures, restrictions and perils of the mission field. Like pastors’ kids, they feel expectations from others to behave well as a good testimony, which then makes it harder for them to discover who they really are and become their true selves.
Reason to hold back?
Little wonder that some of us balk at the missionary call, thinking “God may be calling us, but is it fair to our kids? Has God called them too?” When we focus on the comfort and security of our children and the family’s future, we become risk adverse and prone to forsake God’s call. Conversely, understanding TCK challenges highlights the importance of family health and family support in the missionary’s pursuit of his calling and in the sending church and agency’s missionary care.
Care for the missionary includes care for their family. We must care for TCKs—to help them adjust and flourish as they join their parents in following the Lord. Here is a TCK story that testifies to God’s faithfulness and care for a tentmaking family. Meet Sally.
Sally’s family had a rough start in China. The job that helped them make the big move vanished unexpectedly. Her dad, an engineer, ended up teaching English. Two years later, the kids’ college funds and most of their family savings disappeared in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. For a while, Sally’s mom suffered panic attacks. But what Sally remembered was her parents’ love for each other, for them, and for God. She witnessed her parents’ faith as they were being transformed. Here is the translation of the testimony Sally wrote in Chinese in the spring of 2013, when she was 13.
Hello, I’m Sally
Six years ago in 2007, our family came to China. I was seven years old at the time. I didn’t want to leave America and all my friends. I didn’t understand why we had to come and live in China.
I went to a local school for two years. It was hard. I’ve never experienced so much pressure in my life. But I’m grateful for now I can speak two languages.
After two years of local school, my parents decided to homeschool me and my brother. We love it. We love being taught at home by Mom.
At first, Mom wasn’t patient like she is now. She didn't’ know how to teach us. Her relationship with God was also not as good as it is now. But God has changed her a lot. Today I see a new Mom, a good Mom, a Mom who loves us very, very much.
So I want to change too and be a new person.
Mom is my hero. She is my spiritual role model. She is loving me and my brother more and more. I can feel God’s unconditional love through her.
Dad is my spiritual model too. He gave me a Bible with a blue cover. Blue is my favorite color. He gave my brother a Bible with lots of pictures. My brother loves pictures. Because of our Dad’s love, we read the Bibles he gave us everyday.
One Sunday last year, my Heavenly Father told me not to waste my life. I must serve Him. So I started serving little kids. I also tried to know Him more. For the first time, I realized that a Christian is not just someone who goes to church and does good deeds. A follower of Jesus must trust Him, love Him and have a good relationship with Him. We are doing this together as a family, and our lives have changed. God is a great God!
I want to share a poem that I wrote with you:
Because of His love, we can love others. Because of His love, we can know Him. Because of His love, He brought us to China. Because of His love, I can stand here today. Because of His love, I have a new life.
Because of His love, we can love our family. Love has made me a happy child!
To live a life following Jesus is an amazing thing!
5 Years Later… A Tough Battle
This is an abridged version of Sally’s testimony at their sending church, summer 2017. She was 17.
Looking back on my early years in public school, I remember one day I was crying as I lay by the door of the school building with Mom comforting me. I also remember taking a family photo out of my pencil case during class, my eyes tearing as I looked for safety in having my family close by.
Then I remember my PE coach, who jokingly asked me, “How come you are so fat, huh? Why?” I can hear his tone of voice to this day. But I have good memories too: running faster than the boys, leading morning exercises, and meeting my first best friend.
Later in our homeschool co-op, I met other TCKs. I developed independent study skills because Mom was too busy helping my brother. I discovered that I had a curious mind and I loved to learn. I made three close friends, my only friends then. But they all left within a year, and I was all alone again. I remember crying out to God for a friend. That was when I experienced God in the deepest, realest way. He became my friend. I was in constant conversation with Him. I was no longer alone. I could not have survived without Him.
In China, people come and go. We moved a lot too—5 times in 10 years. I don’t look at the number of apartments we lived in. I look at the number of times God provided for our family: housing, jobs, visas... He cuts close at times. But He is never late, and we have never lacked anything.
After I turned 13, I wanted desperately to lose weight. Day in and day out, the PE teacher’s words rang in my ears.
I hated my body. I hated myself. I even wanted to kill myself. My self hatred opened the door for Satan’s lies to control me. It was a tough spiritual battle. Mom had to call on the name of Jesus to free me from spiritual oppression. When waves of depression came over me, I tried to fight my negative thoughts with prayer. I would try to speak truth to myself: “God is in control. He loves me and has a great plan for me. He can make me strong, and He will save my life.” Indeed, God saved me multiple times.
I also struggle with how I’m different from others. In China, I look Chinese, but I’m different. Making friends with local people is difficult. When I’m in the U.S., although I speak English, I don’t fit in either even among Asian Americans because I know noth- ing of the pop culture they talk about. I don’t speak their language. I really don’t belong anywhere. I’m like someone looking into a crowd from the outside, unable to participate in whatever they are doing.
That’s what being a TCK feels like. To answer the question where I am from is complicated. I question who I am, where home is, and why I am different. I dislike feeling different and feeling alone.
But at the same time, I have come to love China. It is my home. I love Chinese food. I speak Chinese. I love learning about Chinese history and culture. I want to see life through the eyes of the local people. I will always love our city in China. It’s my home.
God called me to serve when I was twelve. I want to inspire people by passionately living for Jesus. It’s hard when I’m struggling and feeling distant from God, but it's a privilege to serve Him. I serve others by praying for them. Prayer is an awesome way to show compassion and care for people. I pray for a miracle in everyone’s life because we all need a miracle, and only God can perform miracles.
Growing up a TCK in China has made me different from others. But I would not exchange it for anything. I’m glad our family moved to China. I’m thankful my parents listened to God’s call and obeyed His will. I’m thankful for their amazing job raising my brother and me, and setting a godly example for us. My China experience would not be the same without them always by our side.
God has also revealed Himself to me in precious ways during my darkest moments when I needed a friend. He did it through my parents’ love for me, by His never being late in answering our prayers, and by saving my very life. God has a big plan for me and everything I have experienced will not go to waste. The pain I endure inspires me to care for others. I have faith in life and hope for tomorrow. With God in my story, I have a story worth telling.
Cherish TCKS, Entrust them to God
When Sally started high school, she and her brother enrolled in a Christian-run bilingual school, tuition-free, because their parents worked there. Sally discovered her love for theater and played the leading role in the annual school musical. She auditioned into a city-wide high school choir that represented their city in a prestigious international competition. Sally served kids, led worship, and even preached a message on Youth Sunday that moved others to tears.
“It takes a village to raise a kid,” Sally’s mom mused. “We are indebted to our GLS friends, who’ve been there for us, and for the GLS psychologist getting Sally to see a teens’ therapist. It helped her a lot. Counsel- ing gave her tools and weapons to fight her battle.”
Sally had wanted to major in music. But she thinks differently now. She wants to become a counselor. In her college essay, she wrote:
“People matter, and they feel they matter when we listen to them...The more you listen, the more they will trust you and open up, leading you to a deeper understanding of that person… My therapist showed me how listening encourages breakthrough for the struggling individual and inspired me to become a better listener… Everyone desires to be heard, understood, and accepted, so why don’t we help each other out by becoming better listeners? I hope to see better listeners, who will change this suffering world conversation by conversation, one person at a time. The best way to get people in on my vision is to be that listener.”
Going through pain at a young age, Sally is like a jar of perfume, broken in order to bless many,” her mother said. “God never let go of her. It’s a miracle that her journey through pain is revealing her life purpose.”
We all cherish our children and want to protect them from pain. But the best thing parents can do as stewards is to entrust them to God, the Giver of this most precious gift. Trials and troubles in life are inevitable, whether they grow up in the relative affluence of suburban America or in the less predictable environment of the mission field. Regardless, children’s strength of character and happiness have more to do with the security of a loving home than a certain type of neighborhood. What matters is that kids see their parents modeling a life of authentic faith, choosing to follow and obey God no matter what. Faith, like affection, is caught, not taught. Having faith in a faithful God is the best protection and preparation for life that we can give our children.
WE HAVE A STORY TO TELL
At the 2019 spring retreat, when GLS tentmakers from different cities got together, Sally gave her testimony. Then five counseling professionals in the network laid hands on Sally to pray for her as she waited to hear from the colleges she had applied to. It was a special moment as we had watched Sally grow up in our midst. Months later, news came that she received full 4-year tuition scholarships from all four Christian colleges. Everyone rejoiced, feeling incredibly thankful to God and proud of Sally.
Five years ago, a conversation took place with Sally’s father, when he was stressing over the cost of a college education in the U.S. Since then, Sally’s family has been challenged in their faith in numerous ways. But even when Sally was in a dark place that affected the entire family, they continued to serve. Short-term missionary service remains a part of their family vacations. Indeed, God honors those who serve Him, beyond their imagination (John 12:26).
GLS is a big family with over 30 children. Not all of them will receive 4-year full scholarships when they head for college. But we are grateful for many family stories that bring honor to God in many different ways.