I am so grateful that you are choosing to spend your precious time with this book. I know there are so many choices out there for your priorities, and I hope you agree that this is something that helps you in your journey of faith.
I wrote Don’t Pack the Kids out of a conviction that our families need to experience mission together. This is true now more than ever, as statistics tell us over three-fourths of our kids will leave the church when they leave home. Why? Part of the reason is their feeling that church is irrelevant to their lives and they can get entertainment and fulfillment elsewhere.
I believe with all my heart that if we taught our kids early that the church is relevant because they are the church, and it is fulfilling because they fill it with their gifts and ministry, we could reverse those statistics.
So, this is about more than missions, although that is so close to my heart and the heart of God. It’s about being Jesus, at any age, together. It’s about transformation for you, your kids, and your world. It’s about short-term missions but a long-term change.
The following excerpt stands as a “manifesto” of why you should consider going with your kids. If you decide you want to know more about the how to do it, visit Amazon.com and find the book in paperback or Kindle version. You can also visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B001KI4P0C.
You will find the table of contents at the end of the chapters.
God bless your journey!
Our almost-twelve-year-old daughter, Becca, rocked the Chinese baby slowly, back and forth, her voice low and soothing. “It’s OK, Amber. You’re OK with me. Such a sweet baby.” She touched the infant’s upper lip, gently but without hesitation. She traced the indentation there, a lip shaped in an odd way she’d never seen before. The deformity had caused this baby’s mother to abandon her at a hospital, but it didn’t offend her new champion. “How could anyone ever leave you? I wouldn’t leave you. I love you, Amber.”
My husband and I had talked about the idea of a short-term mission trip for three years, but it never seemed to feel quite right. Yet as our girls got older, I saw them adapting more and more to our relatively easy life in the suburbs. Most of the kids in their schools look, dress, and think alike. Most live in well-above-average homes. For those willing to pay (and most around here are), every want and need can be found within a fifteen- minute drive. Yes, we went to church every week and learned the evils of sin, but what about the evils of complacency? I feared that our culture of prosperity and instant gratification would slowly numb them into being careless Christians, unaware of and unconcerned with the hurting world beyond their comfortable lives.
Being countercultural shouldn’t be news for Christians. Jesus sent us “into the world” (John 17:18) yet maintained that we were “not of this world” (John 17:16). For 2,000 years, we’ve been trying to puzzle through exactly what that means. Not only what He meant, but how to apply that meaning in every generation.
In the early church, it required refraining from pagan sexual practices and idolatry. It also motivated early Christians to care for the poor, orphaned, widowed, sick, and enslaved with sacrifices their “world” could not understand.
In our age, being “in the world but not of it” has become a cliché. “Not of” translates almost always into a list of things Christians shouldn’t do in order to “prove” they’re Christians. For most of the things on our list of “thou shalt nots,” there is wisdom in not doing them. It’s not a bad list.
The problem with lists is that, when we make one, we think we’ve got the requirements for the test down. We believe we can get an A with God if we just complete the list. That’s what the rich young ruler thought. But God wanted an entirely different view of “in the world but not of it” from this young man.
“Someone came to Jesus with this question: ‘Teacher, what good things must I do to have eternal life?’ Jesus told him, ‘If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ But when the young man heard this, he went sadly away because he had many possessions.” (Matthew 19:16, 21-22)
Jesus offers this advice to the young man—Quit making lists. Quite trying to follow the rules. Actually, try breaking some. Try showing the world that something else entirely has gotten hold of your heart. Try showing them what it’s like to love God more than any thing in this life.
The message didn’t sit well with the young man. If Jesus walked through the suburbs of Chicago where we live, it wouldn’t sit well here either. I’m glad our kids have grown up knowing Christians try to steer away from lifestyles that can harm them. But I don’t want them to grow up believing that living counter to their culture just means avoiding premarital sex and violent video games. I want them to see how their particular culture seeps into every part of their lives. I want them to understand that what their peers believe about the world can affect the central values of their lives, values they don’t even realize they’re forming.
We know how our kids feel about drugs, alcohol, and spending their life savings in Vegas. At least, we know what we’ve taught them. But do we know how they feel about having too much stuff? If they know when enough is enough? Their convictions about confronting racism or championing the discarded? Do we know if they feel entitled to what they want when they want it? Do we comprehend the pressures to be beautiful, athletic, and perfect—and the values these pressures create?
This is the culture we wanted our kids to begin consciously running counter to. Being “not of the world” around here means living values that aren’t all about getting more, buying bigger, overscheduling, and overachieving. I suspect that’s what the world looks like to a lot of people reading this book as well.
Why take our kids on a mission trip? To open their eyes to a world where the values they see around them daily at home appear for what they are—false gods. Meaningless chasing of the wind. To encourage them to live as if something—or someone—else entirely has gotten hold of their hearts.
“It’s time to go back to the hotel, Becca.” I peeked into the nursery doorway and whispered so as not to disturb Amber.
“I don’t want to leave her, Mom.”
“She’s sleeping, sweetheart. You can put her in bed. We’ll be back.”
Becca looked at the sleeping child. “When will she have her surgery?” The orphanage now routinely funded the surgery for cleft palates.
“I don’t know. I don’t know how old they have to be. They say the babies come out of the surgeries with hardly a scar. They’ll make her little mouth beautiful.”
“I don’t want to leave her.”
“Mom?” She set the little girl gently into the crib. “What?”
“She’s already beautiful.”
HEAD AND SHOULDERS
Encouraging my kids to run counter cultural doesn’t stop at the church doors, either. One part of our culture that also disturbed us squatted right there in the church. As our kids sank into compliance with it, too, we knew we needed to show them an alternative.
“And now, dear brothers and sisters, I will write about the special abilities the Holy Spirit gives to each of us. Now there are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but it is the same Holy Spirit who is the source of them all. There are different kinds of service in the church, but it is the same Lord we are serving. There are different ways God works in our lives, but it is the same God who does the work through all of us. A spiritual gift is given to each of us as a means of helping the entire church.” (1 Corinthians 12:1,4-7)
Generally, evangelicals accept and embrace the gifts of the Holy Spirit (though we differ, perhaps, on what they are). In most churches, however, we encourage and train only the gifts of the adults in our body. Children learn early that they have two tasks in the church — be educated and be entertained. Both are passive tasks. They learn that “mom and dad and the pastor” can and will handle all that other stuff while they watch.
But if I don’t encourage my child to discover her gifts and to exercise them, how do I know she will want to exercise them as an adult? How do I know she won’t always expect church to passively entertain her? I’ve not yet read the Scripture that said children had to wait and watch until they’re old enough to “handle” using their gifts. In fact, I’ve read in several passages how God did use children who had been trained to listen and obey. We felt our children needed to experience their faith in action, discovering that they didn’t have to grow up before they could be ministers.
“Some children were brought to Jesus so he could lay his hands on them and pray for them. The disciples told them not to bother him. But Jesus said, ‘Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ And he put his hands on their heads and blessed them before he left.” (Matthew 19:13-15)
Usually, we focus on the bumbling of the disciples in that story. But I am a writer, so I can’t help always asking the question―what happens next? And I really want to hear the end of this particular story.
What do you suppose those children did after experiencing Jesus so intimately? Ran and played at the beach like nothing had happened? Went off and asked mom what was for lunch? OK, some probably did. But my guess is, others couldn’t wait to tell someone about the amazing man they’d met who treated them with respect and acted like they were the most precious treasure on earth to him. I think they spread the news faster than an updated Facebook status. I think they were — ministers.
If we truly believe the Scripture that tells us the Holy Spirit has given gifts to all believers, why can a six-year-old not learn to use those gifts as well as an adult? We thought she could, and should. Yes, at six those gifts aren’t yet clear, but why not begin exploring what they might be? And heck, why not in China?
The Chinese teenager pointed at us, put her hands to her mouth, then let her fingers flow out and down, almost like blowing a kiss. She spoke in quick Mandarin.
“She says, ‘We sang for you, now you sing for us,’” the leader translated. “Teach us an English song.”
Besides working in the orphanage, we had also come to China to help students in area schools practice English. According to the design, as they began to ask questions about us, we could share why we were there and what we believed. But what song could we teach? The girls lined up in a circle around us, expectant.
“I know, I know!” cried Emily, our 10-year-old. “Head and shoulders, knees and toes!” she began singing loudly, vigorously using the accompanying motions. At home, we constantly pester Emily to turn down the volume. Too loud, too fast, too quick to act impulsively. But here . . . the group had needed an energetic song leader. Emily did on impulse what the adults could not figure out how to do. All eyes watched our tall middle child and copied her hand movements, touching their head, shoulders, knees, and toes in time to the words.
We wanted our girls to be ministers now. Couldn’t they do that at home? Yes, but the distractions of daily life pull all of us away from a focus on using our gifts for others. For kids, the whole vague concept of ministering competes poorly with the buzz of here and now. On a mission trip where they know they’re part of the team, they focus. There are no distractions. Their sole purpose for two weeks is being active in ministry, not passive receptacles.
Research tells us that 75 percent of young people in our churches today will leave them when they leave home. Why? Because they increasingly believe that church is irrelevant to their daily lives and out of touch with the culture. In other words. They don’t see the point. And in ever-busier lives, everything we spend our time on has to have a point.
What would happen if, instead, our churches taught kids from the time they could walk that they were ministers? That they were the hands and feet to make the church relevant? That the ends of the earth weren’t as far away or impossible to impact as they thought? I truly believe we could turn those statistics upside down.
Tinkling Chinese laughter mixed with exhausted whoops of older team members as we all finished the song with gusto.
“Head, shoulders, knees, toes,” one girl pointed as she proudly spoke four new English words. “Another?”
“Umm, how about . . . ” Emily launched into Deep and Wide, slowly at first so the girls could learn the words. Two songs. 17 new English words. Singing about Jesus in a communist-run middle school. Led by a 10-year-old. A minister of Christ.
For Christmas the year of the trip, we gave Becca a card from Samaritan’s Purse that read, “A gift was given in honor of Becca to provide loving care for orphans.” I watched her eyes get moist and I knew that, much as she loved the new “Rippin’ Rocket Roller Coaster” set she had opened first, she would have traded it for that card. These orphans are not pictures on a flyer or names pulled off a web site. For our girls, these children on the other side of the planet have faces and names. As one of our most significant goals for the trip, we wanted our children to become world Christians who truly understood the question of the Good Samaritan―who is my neighbor?
Americans suffer from “compassion fatigue” — too many disasters, too many people to help — so too many do nothing at all out of paralysis. We want to help when hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis strike. But the task seems overwhelming for one person and figuring out how to help too complex. Even putting aside disasters and considering the millions in hunger daily — what can one busy person possibly do?
Again we found Becca in the orphanage nursery. She held Grace, the newest arrival. She, too, had a cleft palate and so had been deposited on the orphanage doorstep. For most of its existence, this place has taken in older children orphaned, abandoned, or living with people unable to care for them. But as they gained a reputation for caring for the least of these, babies had begun to appear, left by women who knew someone would care for them behind those walls.
“How could anyone leave a baby?”
“I don’t know, sweetheart. There are so many reasons we can’t understand.”
“They could only have one, and she wasn’t perfect.” Sadness at a reality way beyond her nearly 12 years filled her voice.
“Sometimes,” I nodded. “Or they knew they couldn’t afford the medical care to help her. She’d never be accepted the way she is.”
“Right.” Already, Becca knew this tragic fact of the culture. A defect would brand this child an outcast for life.
“So maybe her mother loved her very much — enough to give her away to someone who could help her.”
“But that’s wrong. Mothers shouldn’t have to leave their little girls.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s why we’re here.”
“But what can we do?”
Pastor Eric Spangler of Mobilization for Free Methodist World Missions, explains why he took his children, ages four to twelve, to India. “We hoped our children would gain a larger perspective of the world and the kingdom of God, as well as a sense for the lives of those who suffer.” What is a world Christian? It is a person whose sense of brotherhood and sisterhood — personal connection — knows no boundaries of color, nationality, or religion. A world Christian doesn’t consider starvation in Africa or religious persecution in Nepal something that happens to “them” rather than to us. She knows every statistic is a human being for whom Christ died. And a world Christian never lets the question of what can one person do stop him or her from doing what one person can.
“What are you doing, Becca?”
“I’m just holding her.”
“If you weren’t here, who would hold this one baby?”
“But I’ll leave.”
“Does it make a difference to her that you are here, now?”
Grace smiled and gurgled as Becca dangled a toy before her eyes. Becca smiled. “I guess so. I guess it matters to her.”
We want world Christian children who just happen to be North American and white. We want kids who feel a personal connection with kids across the globe. Maybe then, a lot of “one persons” who feel helpless can get together to do what one person can’t do.
God promised Abraham that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars. There are approximately seventy sextillion stars in the known universe (that’s seven followed by 22 zeroes). There are no national boundaries, no skin colors, no houses that look better or lawns greener than anyone else’s among the stars. When we look at the stars, they all look pretty much alike to us. That’s the way God wants us to look at his human creations, too. Revelation tells us that John, “Saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a mighty shout, ‘Salvation comes from our God on the throne and from the Lamb.’” (Revelation 7:9-10)
That’s one party I can’t wait to be invited to. A sea of tongues, cultures, and races all united for one purpose — praising God. I ache to see that unity. Until then, I want my kids to understand — the whole world is invited to the party. We should get to know them now.
AND SOME FINAL REASONS
From the first “squatty potty” when we got off the plane to the fish head on a platter, the girls realized — things are different here. Since not going to the bathroom for two weeks was not an option, they had to adapt. Children who at home will argue over who sat in the front seat the day before yesterday can display astounding flexibility in a foreign country.
Let me tell you right now, our kids have a tough time with “adapting.” They do not like change. Witness the recent howlfest of outrage when we suggested going away for Easter weekend. Not because the idea was a bad one, but because, in our girls’ eyes, you just don’t mess with the way Easter is and always has been. Forever and ever amen.
Put the same three girls in a foreign country on a mission. Tell them the language is different, the food is different, the transportation is different, the stores and schools are different, and the bathrooms definitely are different, and their response is . . . “cool.” (Well, except for the bathrooms. Very not cool. But they did adapt.)
“Come, come,” the young merchant lady beckoned Beth, our youngest. “You sit.”
Beth glanced at me and, assured I wouldn’t abandon her at the barrette booth in Red Gate Shopping Market, smiled at the two ladies and sat on their stool. Out came two combs, and the ladies began combing and caressing her waist-length light brown hair.
“You have beautiful hair.”
They ooohed and aaahed alternately as they combed, delighted at this wonder before them, thrilled just to play with hair of a color and texture they had never seen.
This is the child who, at home, gives me approximately 35 seconds to comb her hair, I thought. Beth never sat still that long. She’d also never been so comfortable with strangers. Only six, she appeared to know how happy she could make them just by sitting there.
“So pretty,” the woman said again as Beth stood up to go. She pinned a white flower in my daughter’s hair. “You keep,” she told me, pointing at the floral barrette. She meant it. A fair trade for the enjoyment, in her eyes. I bought another anyway. We walked on through the market, my baby and me, her now-shiny, combed hair swinging at her waist.
Normally shy and fearful, our youngest found herself the center of attention everywhere. Most people had never seen a little pale-skinned girl with long brown hair. Beth just smiled, shrugged, and accepted the crowds of children pressing her with gifts in every classroom we visited. At our first school, they swarmed her so thoroughly I could not get a glimpse of my daughter for at least fifteen minutes. Sure I would find her quivering and near tears afterward, instead I saw her seated on a desk like a princess, gracefully bestowing her smiles and fingertips on everyone.
She accepted the TV crew that pursued her and photographed her through our tour of a former landowner’s mansion. I worried often that Beth’s timid personality would be completely overwhelmed. After all, having a strange woman grab you in Tienanmen Square and place you (not ask, place you) in her family picture can be a bit unnerving for anyone, let alone a little girl who has been known to ask me sixteen times in one morning if I’m sure I’ll remember to pick her up after school. Yet somehow, knowing she was doing something important allowed her to adapt with graciousness and poise I wish I always possessed.
The Easter debacle notwithstanding, learning to adapt on a mission trip gave our kids some of the confidence they need to adapt at home as well. Hard as change at home can be, they know now they’ve faced harder (they hardly blinked at the fish head for dinner). They still might not want to, but they know they can.
All the men in our group gathered around the vintage red convertible in mint condition. Someone would get the privilege of riding with our host in his car to the television station where we were to be honored guests at a live show. Every man in the group wanted to sit in that car. All I could think of was — no seat belts. No roof. Chinese driving. Bad combo. No thanks.
Then our team leader (a serious car aficionado) informed us — the host had offered the privileged ride to the three children of the group. My children. In a speeding, swerving, honking, seatbeltless car with a strange man. God, take me home now, this has got to be that line I cannot cross. But we knew the dilemma. Refusal would be insulting. It would cause our host to feel shamed and would damage our mission there. We would be ugly Americans. Christian ugly Americans.
We let them go, while the rest of us packed into two seatless cabs and I prayed throughout the entire trip. In letting them go, we broke nearly every rule they knew from home. Why? Because to hold on to our culture, our rules, and our expectations would have been to squash his. We couldn’t do that and remain ambassadors for Christ.
China was the first time our older girls had been struck with the stunning realization―not everyone thinks the way we do. And sometimes, when thought patterns and rules of others run so contrary to ours and we run the risk of breaking tenuous fellowship, we’d better learn to bend. In other words―cultural sensitivity.
Not having really seen that many other cultures BC―Before China―the girls naturally believed theirs the gold standard. Now, not only do they understand sensitivity to others’ standards, they recognize that these different cultures are in fact all around them here at home. Just because someone has white skin doesn’t mean her “culture” may not be worlds away from your own. Through the experience of caring more about their mission in China than their “norms,” the girls practiced caring more at home, too.
“Eat your broccoli. There are starving children in China.” No, I’ve never used that phrase, but I certainly remember hearing it as a child. It didn’t have a whole lot of impact on most of us when our parents tried it, did it? Hungry children in a far-off land had little tangible meaning for us.
I’ll never have to use that phrase on my children — they know. They’ve seen them. And the effect of seeing them may not cause them to clean their plates any better than I did 30 years ago (though my kids actually like broccoli), but its ripple effect goes way beyond broccoli.
We hugged Jenny last as we left the orphanage for the last time. Jenny’s quick smile, willingness to hold our hands, and curious eyes had charmed our whole family in China. We unanimously voted that, if we could bring one child home in a suitcase with us, it would be Jenny. Her story made those bright eyes even more amazing. A 42-year-old junk man found Jenny in a sewage ditch. He thought she was about a year old when he found her. He also found and cared for a young boy. They lived in an 8×8-foot cave with no electricity, water, or heat. The man seemed kind, the orphanage officials said, but his mental capacity made it difficult for him to care for Jenny. Her hair was so matted upon arrival it had to all be cut off. In “survival” mode for some time after arriving at the orphanage, Jenny had to slowly learn that there would always be food, and love, to go around.
Teaching kids gratitude for what they have is a great byproduct of a missions trip. But be careful — as a primary motive for going in the first place, it stinks. (See Chapter 4.) If your kids are like ours, they have too much stuff and they want more. Kids (and adults) have a very difficult time distinguishing between wants and needs, as well as resisting the immediate gratification itch. On a missions trip, they will see their definition of “needs” drastically challenged.
In China we met kids living in caves. We saw farmers manually hoeing their fields in the hot sun. We met a boy thrown into a river to die because of his birth defect. We even met a whole orphanage full of kids who were (gasp!) grateful for the chance to go to school. It sent our kids’ well-ordered “everything I want is only a mall away” world into a tailspin.
But when kids encounter the real needs of other people, no one responds more sincerely and more completely. Kids, so generous by nature, begin to put themselves in the supply and demand equations they had always assumed were part of the grown-up world. They realize–I can do without new shoes, McDonald’s, another DVD — in order to allow someone who has less to have more. A missions trip is no magic pill to make our children (or us) permanently grateful for all we have. They will still pine for the right clothes, newest electronics, or take-out food. (After all, so will you.) But they won’t easily forget what they’ll see, and it will influence future choices.
Beyond even the material things, however, our kids soon saw that other more profound differences existed for which they could give thanks. The children in the orphanage we visited were not female Chinese babies, as most people assumed. They were children of all ages with various reasons for being there. Some had been truly orphaned. Some were abandoned because of a birth defect or second marriage. Some lived with grandparents or relatives too elderly and impoverished to care for them. Some were just alone and couldn’t even remember why.
All had one thing in common — no safety net. When they lost a parent who cared for them, they lost everything. I didn’t realize that our kids were even processing this until one of them asked me one day, “Mom, what will happen to us if you and Dad die?”
“You will go to Aunt Cami and Uncle Peter’s.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, everyone in both families knows that. It’s arranged.”
“How would we get there?”
“You’ve got Grandma and Grandpa and all your aunts and uncles. They’ll be here in an instant.”
“Oh. Mom — we’re lucky.”
Still further comes another wonderfully unexpected area of gratitude — gratitude for their faith. The orphans’ stories caused us to wrestle with many a question about man’s inhumanity to man.
Emily raced along the banks of the Yellow River doing what she did best — keeping up with the boys. Their impromptu game of tag complete, one young boy and Em flopped down to enjoy some shade. I focused and shot to capture the smiling pair.
“That’s Henry,” the orphanage owner told us. “His smile is something special to see.”
Henry, we learned, had been passed from relative to relative, never wanted in one place or staying there for too long. His double cleft palate made him a bad omen for his family and the butt of cruel and inhumane teasing from his peers. The last relative to have Henry shuffled off upon him decided the most “merciful” thing to do would be to throw him in the river and leave him to die. Seeing the boy, an elderly woman waded into the river and rescued him. Despite her poverty and near blindness, she raised him as best she could until the orphanage offered to give him a home complete with schooling and adequate food. They also provided the surgery to fix Henry’s smile.
Many of the other kids’ stories had similar themes, if not so horrible in detail. How? our girls wanted to know over and over. How? The seemingly inexplicable behavior of other cultures can lead into the most profitable of all discussions with your kids on a mission trip. How does faith change a person? How does what you believe influence how you act? If there is no God, what difference does it make how we treat one another? If God is only a god to be feared and appeased, where do love and grace fit in? How does Christianity, which proclaims that we are made in the image of God and God would even give his life for us, compare with what you see? What is it really like to live without the hope of Jesus?
In a world where our children are taught that one religion is as good as another, coming face-to-face with the real-life implications of another belief system can shatter that feeble myth.
Everyone’s questions notwithstanding, we boarded the plane that October for an adventure together that I believe changed our children more than it did the adults. Why short-term missions? So many reasons. But still, sometimes, there are reasons not to go.
About the Author
Jill has a BA in English and Education from Washington University in St. Louis and an MDiv in theology from Bethel University, St. Paul. She is an award-winning writer and speaker. Jill has published three books and numerous articles in and speaks in Chicago and surrounding areas.
She serves as an Associate Pastor at Resolution Church in Naperville, Illinois. Jill performs musical theater in her community, serving as a board member, director, and producer for Acorn Community Theater. She coaches the local junior high Battle of the Books team, is Vice President of her library board, and plays counselor, coach, and referee to three daughters.
Contact Jill at:
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter 1—Open Eyes
Chapter 2—Head and Shoulders
Chapter 3—And Some Final Reasons
Chapter 4—Why Not?
Chapter 5— I Got It on the Internet, It Must Be True
Chapter 6— Can’t I Just Hire a Telemarketer?
Chapter 7— Passports, and Shots, and Packing—Oh My!
Chapter 8— Don’t Ever Cross the Chopsticks
Chapter 9—Reality Bites
Chapter 10—Packing Jesus
Chapter 11—You Can’t Go Home Again
Appendix A—Sample Spiritual Gift Inventory
Appendix B—Family Bible Study