by Greg Mathias
My family is above average. No, we are not a family of amazing athletes, and we are not going to solve all the world’s humanitarian crises; but we are a family of six, which puts us above the average size of an American family. If you were to meet me, my wife Page, any of our four daughters, our dog, or our cat, you may think we are similar to any other family in your neighborhood. Our home needs some repairs, our girls squabble, and we cannot seem to return library books on time. So how are we different?
In 2003, Page and I, along with our 18 month-old daughter, moved to the Middle East as IMB church planters. While we did our due diligence praying, studying, and preparing to move overseas and start this new venture, we were not prepared for the lifelong impact it would have on us. Church planting changed our family in significant ways, and the following lessons are some that continue to shape us.
Lessons from the field
1. Ministry is a whole family endeavor.
There are times when ministering in any context, especially with your family, can be difficult if not overwhelming. However, from the beginning we made a commitment to minister as a family and not separate our home life from ministry life. From day one, we wanted to communicate to our girls that this is our family’s ministry, not just mom’s or dad’s. Any type of ministry, even church planting, is a family endeavor. To be clear, there may be seasons of life that require more or less involvement from certain family members.
2. Flexibility in family life.
Since ministry is more about people than schedules or comfort, we built flexibility into our family routines. In our specific context, that meant going to the park at 10:00 pm at night if that’s what other families were doing, which was, in fact, a regular occurrence due to the extreme desert heat where we lived. Now, we were sensitive to our children’s needs, but we wanted to be able to minister in a variety of seasons which required flexibility in our daily, weekly, and monthly family routines.
3. Parenting out of trust and not fear.
From the early days of our marriage, we determined to make it a priority to trust God. That might seem trivial, but sometimes when it comes to our family, it can be hard to fully entrust them to God. Even now, having two daughters in high school, one in middle school, and the other one in elementary school, our trust muscle is stretched on a regular basis. Living overseas as church planters, we continuously asked the Lord to help us not shrink back from engagement in our community just because it involved trusting Him with our girls in difficult or uncertain places.
**A word of caution here about family life and ministry. No matter how ‘bought in’ your children are to your ministry, no matter how good of a kid you have, they definitely will not understand all of the sacrifices that ministry requires. However, they should never have to understand a lack of care and love within the home due to ministry busyness. Make sure to spend time as a family enjoying each other, celebrating milestones, discussing real life, and constantly communicating why you are ministering as a family.
4. An unwavering commitment to prayer and a family life focused on evangelism.
The dinner table is central in our home. It is our hub for family meals as well as a hub for all kinds of conversation. Page and I talk openly about people we are sharing with and gospel conversations we’ve had with neighbors. We have our girls share prayer requests for their friends, and we challenge them to share their faith regularly and encourage those friends that are believers.
Beyond the dinner table, we spend time in our neighborhood and community. We know that we have to be around lost people in order to impact them with the Gospel. In all of this we pray. Our family prays for little things, big things, and future things. We want our family to see that prayer changes hearts and opens doors.
5. Curiosity about other cultures.
We want our daughters to be exposed to different cultures, places, and peoples. Now, some of this is simply for fun, but beyond that we build expectations for our children to take part in an overseas mission trip once they turn 12. We hope that other simple things like engaging our servers at ethnic restaurants or inviting internationals and missionaries into our home will encourage our girls to go live and minister among the nations one day. We want to provide our family with a missional lens through which to see the world.
6. A posture of listening and learning.
We lived as minorities in a majority culture for a number of years. While there, we had to learn the basics of a new lifestyle, a new language, and a new culture. All of these things instilled in us an understanding of the need to constantly be listening and learning. Page and I have tried to teach our family to ask questions and listen to peoples’ stories so that they might connect with others and ultimately, have opportunities to build bridges to the Gospel.
STILL MUCH to learn
Sometimes when we tell people that we lived overseas as church planters they think we must have deep wells of wisdom or that we have mastered the art of marriage, family life, and ministry. Honestly, though , we often feel just the opposite. We still have so much to learn. The impact of our time overseas continues to this day as we continue trying to live in light of these lessons.
Finally, I hope you will see that the things God drove deeply into our family DNA are no different than what He wants for you and your family. Our time living cross-culturally allowed us an extended season to begin learning these family lessons, but you do not necessarily need to spend years somewhere else as church planters to learn what we have. No matter where you live or what stage of family life you currently find yourself in, God desires to use your family to impact your neighbors and the nations for Christ, too.
Feature image by IMB.