Hearing the Hearts of Missionary Kids

Some time ago Kara Garrison told me how difficult it had been for her four “missionary kids,” upon returning from Thailand, to integrate into church as practiced in the U.S. In a Zoom interview last week, I asked her to describe their difficult transition. This blog is based on that interview. (Click here for video of interview.)

Where are you living now?

Click on arrow for video interview with Kara Garrison.

My husband and I are living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Our three daughters and one son are grown and living in various parts of this area of the country.

How many years did you spend in Thailand—and how old were your children at first?

Twelve years in Thailand itself. Our son was six. Our youngest daughter eight. Our second daughter had her tenth birthday the day we arrived in Thailand. And our oldest daughter was twelve.

How did your family experience shared church in Thailand—strengthening, building up, encouraging one another?

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In Chang Mai we first attended traditional churches led by Westerners. But in time we decided those churches were too much like the American church. While there, we wanted a different dynamic. So we started investigating house churches. Over the years, numbers ranged from 3 to 16 families. Especially positive for our kids were the opportunities to discuss Scripture. To be able to talk it over with adults other than their parents. To be able to voice concerns or disbelief and have other adults speaking to them. All that made for a way to build trust between individuals and community. A shared meal each time was especially important.

In the years we did church in the morning and started with breakfast, the young boys loved the bacon! When we asked the kids, “What is an important part of house church, in your opinion?” bacon always ended up on the list. So it wasn't all for spiritual reasons that the kids enjoyed it. It was also for social reasons, the ability to be considered a vital part of the church community. And it was also for emotional reasons. The kids just felt valued in the group.

What was one of the key values about fellowship around a meal?

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Meals provided a natural opportunity for life discussions to occur. You could be processing something that's already been discussed in the teaching. Or you might be processing things happening in life, in the kids’ school community. Because the families were so integrated, you could see your friends’ children inside or outside the church setting. You had things in common to talk to them about. If you saw them on the street, you had already developed this relationship inside the house church.

A meal around a table is very non-hierarchical, isn't it?

Absolutely! Sometimes you were sitting on the floor, sometimes you were sitting multi-generationally, sometimes the kids went off and it was divided generationally. It didn't seem to matter. It didn’t have to be this way or that. It was always different depending on whose house it was at—and it was very non-threatening.

Upon her return to the U.S., your oldest daughter, now 28, had a very difficult time. Could you describe it?

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It was hard for her to integrate into “formal” church, because she had so valued the interaction. She said, “What is this? What is this where one person gives a lecture, and the rest of us just listen? Who’s listening to the rest of us? And how do we get to discuss?” So it was extremely upsetting for her to accept that this was the new normal. She did not like the new normal.

Has the transition continued to influence her?

Yes it has. And after our return to the States, my husband and I followed up on several of our children's friends. We found that her response is not unique. Missionary kids, now young adults, living in other cities across the United States who grew up overseas are experiencing similar issues. They still want to be followers of Jesus, but they are very uncomfortable in this formal type of church community. They feel it's disingenuous.

What elements in your Thailand church gatherings are not typically present in the U.S.?

One of the things that strikes me personally is the lack of opportunity while you're at church to really fellowship with each other. I find this frustrating: you attend a Sunday school class and after class you're looking around for people you want to connect with. But there's this rush to get out, because another group is getting ready to meet in that same location—and because you need to quickly get to the service. So it doesn't really lend itself to developing community and relationships. Especially, I think, it's a problem in cities where people live so far away from the church building. That's the one time they're going to have the opportunity to be community with each other. That's the gathering place, and yet there is not a good opportunity to really fellowship with each other. You're there to listen to somebody else, not to each other. The informal interactions that are a natural part of House Church are missing.

The time crunch is also present in the larger meeting, isn’t it?

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It’s not just the formal part of the service that's timed. We we travel to many different churches, where you have two minutes to greet someone next to you. That's just an empty exercise in my opinion. It’s not very genuine to greet somebody, especially for the very first time, in two minutes or less, and really welcome them and ask questions. And then, when the service is over, people are scooting out. And so there’s not really a paradigm where people are gathering to interact with each other informally.

Your son once wrote a letter describing what he missed about church in Thailand. What did he say?

He was in about fourth grade when we came back to the United States. An English assignment let him write on anything he wanted. It came out more like a letter that explained why he missed and loved house church, how he felt valued there. He felt like he was a member of everybody's family—even used the phrase, “it feels like family.”

What about you—what do you miss?

With friends who have also returned to the U.S., we often discuss the drawbacks of integrating into the American church. We all feel the loss of community. Our friends at church are just “friends at church.” Many of those we knew before our time in Thailand are still in Tulsa. So for us, we were better able than many to re-establish those long-term relationships than other missionaries. But there is still definitely a difference. It is a lot more work to stay connected with your friends here due to schedules, physical distance, and weather. We do stay connected with certain family friends, just between us and their families, but it's hard as a group to stay connected.

What elements from church meetings in Thailand do you think should be incorporated into gatherings in the U.S.?

I think old things need to be recovered—things covered over that should be uncovered. For example, church potlucks and more fellowshipping before and after the church meeting. The very things people say they're craving—community and fellowship—are not being valued, because of concern that people won't stay for the very thing they say they want. That, to me, seems pretty conflicting.

An Asparagus Parable for Shared Church

As a farm boy, I had no inkling that watching my Dad work would one day help me understand the biblical role of pastors and church leaders.

                George Peabody Asparagus Farm (around 1956)

                George Peabody Asparagus Farm (around 1956)

Our farm had asparagus—23 acres of it. At 5 a.m., from mid-April until roughly the Fourth of July, we began cutting. (No, you do not “pick” asparagus; you pick peaches and other fruit that grows on trees.) The “we” included a crew of 12-15 teenagers Dad had hired to work each morning until time for school.

The Parable Stated

Cutting asparagus does not take a college degree. But it does require some training. New to the crew? Then Dad will help you internalize what five inches looks like. A stalk must reach that minimum height before it passes muster for market. Dad will also equip you to use the asparagus knife—a 12-inch steel rod with a wooden handle on one end and what looks like a slant-nosed putty knife on the other. To make the cut, grasp an asparagus stalk with one hand, aim the blade at an unseen point two inches beneath it under the soil, then push the knife until you can lift the stalk. Once you have handful, lay the stalks crosswise in a row flagged with stakes so the pick-up team can box them.

Dad, of course, had studied more about asparagus than any of us. And he could cut those stalks like a pro. If one of us began slacking off, chattering with a coworker, he would set an example by coming alongside the foot-dragger and cutting in the same row. But Dad spent most of his time coaching cutters and sharpening our knives. In other words, he saw his job as training us to do the work and making sure we had the right tools to do it. Years afterward, I’ve heard former crew members say, “I learned to work by cutting asparagus for George Peabody.”

The Parable Applied

But what does Dad's way with his asparagus crew say about the biblical role of church leaders? As Paul explains it, their responsibility is to “prepare God’s people to serve. If they do, the body of Christ will be built up” (Eph.  4:12, NIrV). The Holy Spirit has given a gift or gifts to each member of Christ’s body. Leaders in the church, like Dad in the asparagus field, should refrain from doing most of the work themselves. Rather, they are to fit out Christ-followers in the use of their gifts, to sharpen their tools, and to equip them for doing the bulk of the work.

Please bear with me while I paint a ludicrous word-picture. Suppose my Dad had built, off to one edge of the asparagus field, a set of wooden bleachers. As the high-schoolers show up at sunrise, he hands them files and asks each one to sharpen a knife for him. That done, he points the crew to the stands and invites them to take their seats. Then, with his supply of sharp knives, he starts down first one row then another, harvesting that day’s asparagus crop himself. Of course, he does an expert job—cutting just the right stalks, discarding the culls, and placing each handful neatly in the pick-up rows.

What makes this picture so absurd? With Dad trying to do the work himself, most of the day’s harvest will go to seed and be lost. (On a hot day, asparagus stalks can grow by many inches and become cow food.) With 23 acres of asparagus to cut, even a highly competent cutter like Dad would wear himself out and never finish the task. His best investment of time and effort: to make certain each one in the many-membered crew is ready and able to take on his and her share of the work.

Play the Game or Coach the Players?

Let E. Stanley Jones (changing the analogy from asparagus to sports) relate this to the church. “The laity, on the whole, have been in the stands as spectators, and the clergy have been on the field playing the game. . .. That setup must be changed. The laity must come out of the stands as spectators and take the field as players; and the clergymen must come off the field as players and take the sidelines as coaches of a team” (from The Reconstruction of the Church—On What Pattern?).

Jones wrote those words nearly 50 years ago. But even today, in far too many churches, the pastor and a few musicians still do most of the heavy lifting when we gather. Who “emcees” the Sunday meeting? Who reads Scripture aloud? Who offers the “pastoral prayer”? Who does almost all the preaching? Who always oversees the Lord’s Table? Who baptizes? Who dedicates babies? Who pronounces the benediction? Who chooses the songs?

Placing much of this work in the hands of the so-called “laity” does not diminish or downgrade the work of pastors. Rather, it makes their work more productive, as they multiply their influence through others they have coached and equipped. Sian and Stuart Murray Williams call for “multivoiced” (in contrast to “monovoiced”) church. They write: “In healthy multivoiced churches neither the leaders nor the community are disempowered” (from The Power of All: Building a Multivoiced Church).

But Are We Willing to Change?

Moving toward shared or multivoiced church, though, will require—on the part of both congregations and pastors—a Spirit-empowered willingness to change. Those long comfortable in the bleachers watching someone else perform must find the resolve to get up and stir their gifts into action. Pastors, after perhaps years of being in near-total control during Sunday meetings, will need to trust the Holy Spirit to work through others who are gifted and prepared.

With a bit of imagination and a resolve to provide the needed coaching and tools, pastors and church leaders can find ways to empower those in the congregation to: preside over Sunday gatherings, pray publicly, tell how God is working in their scattered-church lives, share in the preaching and teaching, baptize, lead during the Lord’s Supper, and more.

Paul describes all this so well: “As each part [of Christ’s body] does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love” (Eph. 4:16, NLT). When each part is enabled to do its work for the rest of the body, we will discover how to connect our faith with our voices. If in our gathering together we do not learn how to voice a witness to each other, how can we expect in our scattering to voice a witness to the world?