Ah, the post-dinner breakdown while dining out with toddlers. The rice spread across the floor like manna. Open cups spilled on table and floor, and my unrestrained boys completely circus-worthy. We were in a restaurant in Southeast Asia where my husband was trying to speak words of wisdom to local believers. I did what any restaurant-savvy mama would do, especially knowing how important this moment was. I, with a few other moms, exited.
In our wake, serious plans were made to reach a city for Christ. We three mothers, with language and cultural barriers, made friends next to an aquarium using explanatory gestures. And my children, loving on those other kids and just being (exuberant and) ordinary, played an extraordinary role in international missions just by being there.
“My children . . . played an extraordinary role in international missions just by being there.”
Even in such chaotic moments, I’ve learned that going together on mission is a full-family affair, where everything from feeding a baby to sharing a toy to speaking about Jesus is all part of preaching the gospel. After experiencing these family mission trips in action, here are some suggestions for your next trip.
Go with a Plan: Overall and Daily
The jet-lagged cries of my one-year-old son our first morning in China was a wake-up call to the most important part of our day: a plan. By the time we had attempted some semblance of a Bible story time over coffee, we knew a schedule was vital for our overall itinerary to the rhythm of our days.
We planned out our missions-focused activities, described to our kids what to expect during the day and what we expected from them. We also built in buffer times for naps, swimming, or playtime. Even Jesus needed times for rest, prayer, and reflection in the midst of ministry and you and your children will too.
Give Your Children Doable Mission Tasks
The roles our children play on the mission field are the gospel in a nutshell—smiling, greeting, and playing. There are also nuggets of ministry tasks they can practice alongside you such as prayer walking down a city street or cleaning toys at an orphanage.
Sometimes our children can’t participate in certain aspects of ministry, and our family schedule diverges. I once took the boys to play at a park while my husband taught a class. We then joined back up for dinner with his students, letting them play peek-a-boo with our boys while we talked about the true love of Jesus. It was a team effort, together and apart.
Talk to Your Children and Demonstrate as You Go
I found my five-year-old sitting like one of the golden Buddha statues he was staring at when we visited a temple in northern Thailand last summer. Dropping down beside him, I prayed over what his little eyes could see, what his heart could understand. While there was a time for silence as he watched the praying, the incense offerings, and the orange-robed monks strolling by, there was also a time for me to speak, to make sense of this strange world of missions as we processed together.
Deuteronomy 11:19 says, “You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (ESV). That goes for strolling the aisles of Target or through an international city marketplace.
Respect the Culture
We have a saying in our house when anyone is critiquing mama’s cooking: “It’s not my favorite.” Not, “I hate it” or “that’s weird.” And only after you’ve paused with ample time to savor the flavors can you comment. When our family encounters a culture that is not our own, I often think how relevant this line we say at mealtime is. It is not hurtful. It is honest. And it takes discipline to respond appropriately.
It’s what I want for my family as they do international missions. They need to use their senses to appreciate the beauty and differences of a new culture. It’s honest to say they may not understand, like, or believe what they see, hear, or taste. As parents, we hope to give them a vocabulary to say things are “not their favorite” while still appreciating God’s world and people through a biblical lens.
Remember Things Will Go Awry
It’s a lesson I forget: not being surprised when those children act like children, especially when they are traveling and facing culture shock. Things will go wrong with your kids: a temper tantrum at dinner, snubbing new people when they’ve had enough, and interrupting your time to share the gospel. We’ve experienced it all. If you can step away for a moment to regroup or to build in extra downtime that day when these “overdone” signals come, you can get back to the mission task with your most valuable asset.
“Going on a family mission trip overseas is sometimes messy and challenging. Yet, that is when the gospel sometimes comes through.”
Although these moments are stressful and might signal a need for a ministry adjustment, sometimes they are opportunities for teaching moments for you or your children. And sometimes the Holy Spirit uses these detours as Holy Spirit moments that were not part of your plan.
Go in Faith
“Go” was the operative word when we took our three-year-old, just potty-trained son to China. During a six-hour train ride, when Hudson uttered those two letters, we hustled him down the line to the “potty car”—really an empty shell with a hole. Once we’d dodged land mines, mastered the squatting over a swaying target, and managed to sanitize every inch of him, my husband and I felt like we’d reached a new level of mission-trip parenting.
Going on a family mission trip overseas is sometimes messy and challenging. Yet, that is when the gospel sometimes comes through—God’s light in the midst of our imperfect, mustard-seed efforts of faith and obedience to go.
Debriefing as You Go
A day on the mission field is full of wonder, hard work, and emotions for everyone. Rather than wait to assess when you’ve returned with jet lag, hold a brief debrief each night as a family and ask about the day’s adventures—what everyone saw, felt, and experienced. Address confusion and learn from the experiences while planning for the days to come.
Be honest with your kids about your own answers, share ministry setbacks that need more prayer, and celebrate the obvious working of God through circumstances or changed lives. When you return, you can repeat the process to build an overarching story about what God did through your family and in the nations and what he’s taught you for future trips.