by J. Randal Matheny
This article first addresses living in a foreign country, and then turns to consider Christian families who endure changing mores around them or who live in a pagan society, as many countries like the U. S. are becoming. We hope it will have something to say to most saints since, in a real sense, every Christian family lives in a strange land as “foreigners and exiles” (1 Pet. 2:11 NET). We belong to the Christian dispersion, as those who are “residing abroad” (1 Pet. 1:1).
Our family has lived in Brazil for almost 28 years. Our oldest son was 19 months old when we moved. Our other two children were born in Brazil. This month, my wife and I joined the ranks of those with empty nests when our youngest left the home. So this moment provides us a good opportunity to look back and think about the blessings and challenges of being a family in a strange land.
Others may have far different experiences than ours, so generalizations on the topic can be risky, but friends and coworkers have shared similar thoughts with us at different times throughout the years.
First, and perhaps most obvious, being a family in a strange land often means living far from extended family. Children miss out on the support and love of grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. Grandparents are deprived of seeing their grandchildren frequently. So nuclear families in a strange land tend to be closer than most. In the first years of our service, our mission team provided some of the advantages of the extended family. The church family also offers opportunity for meeting social needs.
This sacrifice is done for the kingdom with joy and enjoys the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to Peter, “And whoever has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:29).
With friends and brethren fill in for physical family, being in a strange land also tends to bond the nuclear family together more, if they have in place a strategy for dealing with the potential for greater friction. Greater togetherness engenders more frequent opportunities for personalities and opinions to cause conflict. Conflict resolution is a must. Without dealing with the inevitable irritations and differences, negative emotions will choke the positive ones, bitterness and resentment will chill the heart, and relationships will die the death of a thousand small cuts.
Being a family in a strange land provides opportunity to choose between two cultures as the family culture is created. From positive features of Brazilian culture and traditional practices of our own American background, our family created our own way of celebrating our life together.
As we integrated ourselves into Brazilian culture, we benefited, for example, by the greater verbal and physical demonstrations of affection typical of Latin American cultures. Even as adults, our children, both male and female, express their affection freely to parents and to each other.
Being a family in a strange land also provides opportunity to minister together. Sometimes, when we would have an evangelistic study with a couple, the whole family would participate. The children might listen in or, more often, babysit or keep the interested couple’s children occupied.
Being a family in a strange land helped to keep our children from the ghetto of youth groups. Our children learned early on how to relate to all age groups. They sat at the table when we had visitors and engaged adult visitors in conversation. They learned how to interact in a wide variety of social settings.
Being a family in a strange land means resisting the pressures of an immoral society. Through prayer, the reading of Scripture, the teaching and instruction and counsel of one another in the family, we help one another deal with the temptations which promise pleasure, but steal from us the life of God. Sometimes, ungodly behavior and attitudes may even penetrate the church, so the family has to become the first line of defense against Satan. When that happens, the family must face the decision, sooner or later, to challenge such compromise or even to leave the congregation if correction is impossible.
Being a Christian family in a strange land leads us to function as an invitation to kingdom-living and a new mode of being for those who are without God and without hope. While we protect the integrity of our family, at the same time we offer to envelope others with the love of Christ. Opening our homes for studies, for visits, and to our children’s friends provides glimpses of how the Way is practiced in daily life.
Bruno lived down the street from us. As a friend of our boys, he often came and went. He would eat meals with us, raided the refrigerator for my wife’s lemonade, and even celebrated holidays with us. That led to studies with our boys and his conversion to Christ.
Both as individuals and as families, we are called to God’s mission in the world. Whether we live in Brazil or America or China, being a Christian family in a strange land offers us a protective refuge against the onslaught of Satan’s attacks and a platform to proclaim the saving word of God.