Does Missions Separate Families?


Selah meeting her cousins for the first time.


Tomorrow, my brother-in-law and his family will get on a plane, and fly to Africa. I won’t see them again for three years, except by some emailed photos, or maybe a choppy Skype connection.

I joke that I am going to sabotage their trip to the airport. And part of me really wants to. Because deep down, I really don’t want them to go. I have enjoyed having them and their three sweet girls around the last six months. They were the first to teach her how to have a proper tea party, and make elephant noises, and sing “Let it Go” at the top of their lungs. As they ran barefoot through the grass in the summer, she chased them. As they danced wildly in the living room in the winter, she imitated them. She adores them, as if they were her own big sisters. They take her by the hand, they whisper in her ears, they burst into laughter at her expressions, and pull her in for a second hug. And now, they are going away.

Does missions separate families?

I think the impulse answer is: yes.

They left for Africa three and a half years ago. And in that time, they missed births of new nieces and a nephew. The death of a grandparent. They missed all the Thanksgivings and Christmases and game nights. They missed heartaches and victories. They missed life here, for three years.

And not for an easy life. But for oven-like heat, and dirt, and difficulty. And constant sweating. And risk. Risks of violence and persecution. Risks of disease, and illness. Risks of terrorist groups, and wild animals. Risks of kidnappers, and poor health care when it really matters.

I see these three fearless little girls, whose mom is pregnant with their first little brother, and tremble that he will be born there.

The question inevitably crops up: Why are they doing this?

One night after dinner at our house, as we pulled apart the last remains of the garlic bread, I asked my brother-in-law, “So, how did you…get over all of the fear?” I think he made a few cracks about my fear of Ebola. And then he just looked at me, and said with such simplicity, “I am afraid of some of those of things. I’m actually really afraid of flying. But I’m more afraid of not obeying God.”

But I’m more afraid of not obeying God.

And that’s the difference. I see the risk, the danger, the loss. He sees the reward. The gain. The joy.

He and his wife see hell as a reality. And love as a command. And the gospel as real. And they are doing it. They are living it. They really love Jesus. They really believe He’s coming back. And they really love bringing others into His family.

While we feel like we are losing a brother and a sister, they are actually rescuing lost brothers and sisters and bringing them into the Kingdom of God.

While we will miss their daughters and son, they will be rescuing daughters and sons and bringing them into the family of God.

They leave us in order to rescue others, to bring more into the family, the family of God. The family that will live on forever. And the gates of hell will not prevail against this mission. Because it’s the one Jesus called us to.

Does missions separate families?
Yes. For a time.

But it also expands them. By inviting the lost into a family. Those who had no family, no hope, who were on the outside and separated from God. (See Ephesians 2.)

There may be a few empty seats at our next Thanksgiving dinner. But by those seats being empty, it will mean that other place settings are being made ready for the Wedding Supper of the Lamb. Because lost brothers and sisters who live across the ocean, whose skin is darker than ours, whose language is different than ours, will be invited into God’s family, and will be called for the first time sons and daughters, and will be given a place at His table forever.

One day, we will come together, all of us, those who were far off, and those who were brought near, as one family, with exploding joy.  And there in the presence of Christ, we will see that missions never separated our family at all.

It only ever made it grow.

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  1. WOW! So BEAUTIFULLY written! This struck right at my heart and made me cry, but was exactly the perspective I needed to hear and embrace! I have three brothers…two of which are gone overseas for missions. So our table at holidays is empty a lot and man do I miss them and my sister-in-laws and my nieces and nephews! But I can’t imagine then not following God’s calling either. Thank you for sharing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Leigh,
      Thank you so much for reading. I’m glad you could relate, and I can only imagine what it would be like to have two brothers away. I’m sure you long for the day when the whole “family” can finally be together…at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb. Thanks for sharing your story and your joy.

  2. Rebekah, this blog post and its follow-up obviously touched the hearts of hundreds of missionaries and their families. I too have felt this “separation for a purpose” from both the perspective of the left behind and the one going. As I was growing up in the ’60s, I had an aunt and uncle who were missionaries in Africa. They had five children, some of them born there. When they first went in the ’50s, they went by boat. Communication was as described by an earlier commenter: finely written letters on blue Aerogram paper. No calls, emails, Skype, Facebook, etc. They missed family events, births and deaths. But whenever they returned, we were close. I admired my cousins and their parents. I enjoyed their slide presentations. My family went to the airport to welcome them home and to see them off. And while they were away, we prayed for them. It seemed normal, in my family, to have extended family overseas.

    Once I was grown up, my husband and I were also led to serve the Lord on a mission field. Retired by that time, my aunt and uncle were great examples and encouragements to us. My parents and siblings also were supportive and understanding. (It was harder for my husband’s family.) My MK cousins are still some of our closest extended family, and we stay in touch these days by electronic means. I believe that when family understands the truth of what you wrote, how important it is to obey God’s leading and how precious it is to bring souls into the kingdom, it makes missionary service easier to go and do. Thank you for this articulate post.

    • Sarah,
      Thanks so much for sharing your story. It is amazing that you have been on both sides of the going and the sending! May God bless you and your family’s mission. 🙂

  3. This is so incredibly beautiful, thank you. I have been oceans apart from my family to follow ‘the Call’ and at times questioned the cost but having weighed up His cost to save me, the scales are completely and utterly tipped!

    • Annette,
      Thank you so much. I’m glad you can see the joy in the cost of serving Christ! May God strengthen you as you are oceans away from your family. May you know His nearness and the nearness of other brothers and sisters in the Lord.

  4. What wonderfully written – thanks for this insight. We are missionaries in a country in SouthAsia, and if only my parents and family were able to read and understand English, they would understand….

    • Monique,
      Thank you for reading. I hope your parents will come to a deeper understanding of what you are doing and why, and that God will give them insight into this. Blessings to you and thank you for serving the Lord!

  5. Thanks so much for your blog: Here´s some thoughts I shared in a note on my Facebook page as a result of what you wrote here! The Lord used you to prepare my heart for my trip to the States, and also my return to the missions field! THANK YOU!!

    So here I am sitting on an airplane waiting to take off. The sky over D.C. is a perfect shade of “Empire of Light” over the skyline, and as I muse over many different moments lived the last couple of weeks, tears trickle down my cheeks. About two weeks before my trip to the States, a precious young lady posted an article on her Facebook page. The title “Does missions separate families?” caught my attention and what I read grabbed ahold of my heart (here’s the link if anyone wants a great read:

    Over the past year since our furlough in early 2014, I have struggled like never before with the separation from my U.S based family that serving Christ abroad implies. So many key moments I just seemed to miss out on: volleyball and basketball tournaments. Somehow it felt like my nieces were growing up and a sentence someone once said when my sister was pregnant with my oldest niece was suddenly ringing true, though I had once fought so hard to the contrary: “you’re just going to be a picture in a frame to this baby.” How did this happen I asked myself as I bawled over the finale of Frozen once back in Argentina in early April, touched by the significance of sisterly love, and my little girl Hannah tried to comfort me “”mommy you gonna see Tia Diana again some day.”

    Well, less than a year later here I am on a plane, heading home to BA after 10 precious days with Tia Diana. As I look over the familiar sites of the Dc skyline, the Capitol Dome, Washington Monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials- places I have loved since I was a child, I ask the Lord, is it possible to call two places home at once and feel an equal love for two families? I prayed as we were sitting on the runway from Psalm 86 “Lord give me an UNDIVIDED heart to fear your name.” And somehow in the midst of my tears and musings God has comforted my heart and somehow allowed me to reconcile as faith so often does two seemingly conflicting and contrasting truths. My family in Virginia will always be my family, and home there whether it’s at mom and dad’s or at my sister’s will always be home because it’s with people I love and people who’ve influenced and accompanied me through this journey of life since the start, but there are three little ones and one super special big guy (and Nona too) waiting for me back home in Argentina, and they’re my family and I can’t wait to get home to them too, because God brought them into my life and I want to be with them until I finish this journey. So, how can I reconcile these conflicting truths? Well the peace of God surpasses all understanding, and as I write He ministers peace to my heart even as we fly through choppy skies (literally).

    And I’m reminded once more of that article, “does missions separate families?” The author’s initial conclusion was yes in some ways it does. There are thousands of miles or kilometers however you want to put it that will soon separate one of my heart’s homes from the other, and I will continue to miss basketball and volleyball tournaments unfortunately, BUT missions also enables us to reach out with the truth of the cross of healing and forgiveness through the loving act of sacrifice of Christ on our behalf, and as we sacrifice on His behalf, His love extends to others and those who accept His gift of eternal life by grace expressed through our preaching the Gospel in Argentina and elsewhere only expands our family rather than limiting it.

    So what’s my conclusion and my purpose in making these thoughts public, well maybe they’ll minister to some other missionary and/ or his/her family who is also struggling with the cost we have to pay to serve Christ, but as we sacrifice physical proximity one of the lessons God has taught me at this time is that we don’t have to give up on emotional or relational closeness. We just have to be purposeful, which is what I promised to do way back when I was told I’d only be a picture In a frame. Back then I wrote letters once a month to my newborn niece (back when we didn’t have Facebook or Skype) and emails got downloaded once a day and we had to pay for them per page… Over the years the truth is the busyness of all of our lives was more to blame for our distance than the miles between us, and this year I purposed to do things different, and while I started off well with weekly Skype dates with my sis, busyness once more got the best of us…

    BUT our God is so truly a God of mercy and grace who extends second chances again and again. So He allowed me to come home, and be with my sis at a time of need, after a major surgery, and I got Tia time with Jordan and Bethany, and as a perk I even got to watch one volleyball tournament and though I’ll miss BB’s basketball tournament, I did get to go to practice one night and watch her play, and worshipping together at church on Sunday was a special highlight for me. So God is good and I feel so satisfied, and though I am sad to leave, I am equally as happy to be going home to 5 precious faces waiting for me in Argentina, and I resolve to not be a picture in a frame on either side of the Equator, and to make the most to be present with all my family. Di, I’m looking forward to reestablishing our skype dates and girls I want to continue to have Tia time with you and even have an idea on how I can continue to treat you to Sweet FROGs (how fitting the name Fully Rely On God for Tia tonight). And I know just as God gave us this special time to be physically present He’ll do so again in His perfect timing, but we need to be purposeful to stay close in between airplane trips.

    So if anyone else is wondering about the cost choosing to serve Christ abroad implies. The cost is real, sometimes the price seems higher than others, but there’s no doubt in my mind or heart it’s worth it. I’m reminded of one of my husband’s favorite verses 2 Samuel 24:24: I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” He gave His all for us! Can we do any less in response to His great love? And always in His divine calculations, the profit/ loss ratio can never be fully understood because He rewards in remarkable and unexpected ways. Ephesians 3:20-21. Thank you dear Jesus for this time with family in the States. Thank you dear Lord for my family waiting for me in Argentina, but thank you especially dear Savior that Heaven is the home that will unite both families for all Eternity. I pray you’ll use us on either end of the Americas to bring others into your family.

    For those who haven’t read does missions separate families, I highly recommend it!

    • Laura,
      I am so touched by what you have shared here. Thank you for sharing your experience and love for “both” your families, both here and abroad. And also for sharing the weight of emotion it brings to want to be two places at once, and to advance God’s kingdom here. It sounds like he is using you mightily for His glory, and that you are certainly more than a picture in a frame! It makes me think of Paul in the Bible when he left one of the places, they all wept openly for him. Following God’s call doesn’t strip you of your emotions, but it conforms them to Christ, and it is a beautiful thing to see how you long for your families, and the day you will be united all together in heaven! And it is also beautiful that you are expanding the family of God wherever you are, so there may be even more faces around the Wedding Supper of the Lamb. Thank you for going and doing this! May God bless and strengthen your heart.
      In Christ,

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  7. Hi, Rebekah,

    I loved your article and wanted to know if I had permission to translate it into Spanish. I am the daughter of a missionary and my husband and I are missionaries in Guadalajara, Mexico. We have 7 children and have a church and orphanage. I would like to put this in Spanish as I feel it would be a real blessing to the Spanish world. Mexico is now sending out missionaries to other lands. We have 3 missionary families out of our church. Joy Garlick Murillo

    • Joy,
      You absolutely have permission to translate this to Spanish! I actually have had one person before ask me if they can translate it into Spanish. I wonder if you might be able to contact them, so that you could get it from them. Let me know if that interests you and I will try to get some contact info for you! Also, I checked out your mission site today. Looks like you and your family are doing some amazing things in the lives of those kids. May God bless your ministry!:)

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  9. If God gives you a family I really question that he is asking you to endure the cost of separation. It is incredibly painful especially for Parents and Grandparents who have a healthy close knit relationship. Mission does separate family and it is horrible for those who have to endure it.

    • Unfortunately, your opinion has become an increasingly prevalent one in the American church. And yet, it is not consistent at all with the Word of God. In fact, Jesus himself addressed this exact issue a couple of times. Luke 14:25-33 addresses it most directly. I now serve in Guatemala with my wife and some of our children. I have two daughters who live in the US with two of our grandchildren. Another daughter lives three hours away, serving in a poor community with her new husband. Still another is living in the US with her husband, but will soon be serving somewhere in Guatemala. Finally, I have a daughter who has moved to Uganda where she serves in missions. I often grieve that I cannot be close to so many that I love, and I look forward to the day when we will all be together in eternity. But I would never say to the God who gave His only Son so that we might live that the cost of separation is too great a price to pay for Him. In fact, it is the least that I can do. One day, we long to hear the words, “Well done!” and celebrate together for eternity. Then, it will all be worth it. I would encourage you to allow God to search your heart in the light of Scripture.

      • I served in Central African Republic in the days before SKYPE, email, cell phones and less expensive air travel. We used air mail, sent things home with people who were traveling back, and made the best of it. Was it hard? Sometimes. So much depended on the attitude or parents and grand-parents. I taught in an MK boarding school. Many of the kids adjusted well and have gone on to serve on that field on or another field. The MKS had a reunion and on the questionnaire that was used, they were asked about the hymn that was most special to them. Without knowing the choice of others, numbers of them listed “It WIll Be Worth It All, When We See Jesus!” How reaffirming for parents who followed God’s will and were willing to make the sacrifice to serve Our Great King of Kings and Lord of Lords. When I think about this and going to Heaven, I think about the thrill it will be to meet those from every tribe and nation as well as dear family members already in Heaven. I love my country and have enjoyed teaching its wonderful history. But I sometimes think, the American Dream can be and is an enemy of service for Christ. We want a nice house, a good car, can choose a church often from a long list. I also think of Jim Elliott’s quotation: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” (Hope I got it right!) I am thankful parents who were what I call “open fisted.” They told me and encouraged me to do the Lord’s Will and reminded me that they given me to the Lord before I was born and done so publicly when I was a babe in arms. Even though we all shed tears upon occasion and I missed many occasions, they never put pressure on me. They sent me tapes they made at family events, sent pictures, and wrote wonderful letters. Their giving spirit and expectation for me to do God’s will made what could have been a hard thing easier. They were thrilled to have me home but shared me with many others. They trusted God and prayed He would keep me safe. I have close friends who are open fisted and don’t hold on tightly and others who have pitched fits about children they feared would not end up near them. “I’ll NEVER see my grandchildren; I’ll NEVER be able to influence them” and on it does.
        Thank you for writing as you have. I do not have children but I pray for my former students who do that they will allow their children and grand-children to do the Lord’s will.

  10. I came across this post through a link on another blog and when I saw the photo I knew I had seen it before. We used to live in Columbus and attended church with J and S. We live in another state now but still pray for J and S and their 4 and enjoy reading their updates as they serve overseas. Grateful for this post and your perspective!