In mobilizing folks to the field, I run across people from all walks of life. From the teenager to the young married to the family of five and the retiree. I love that God is calling people of all generations to the nations with his name.
Inevitably, I will meet with engaged couples and those on the verge of engagement. Usually, both people are passionate about going overseas, and now, they want to go together. I can't think of a more beautiful picture than an earthly marriage telling of the coming, better marriage!
Most couples are eager to get to the field and are prayerfully anticipating what it will be like to live, work and worship in a new culture. But the question often arises: Should newlyweds go to the mission field?
It's impossible to prescribe a one-size-fits-all answer. But it is possible to wisely consider the implications of each decision.
Think about just some challenges of international ministry:
- What will learning a new language be like?
- How extreme will culture shock be, and how long will it last?
- What is our ministry? How do we define "successful" ministry?
- How drastic will our lifestyle change be (food habits, transportation, etc.)?
- Who will be our friends? How long will it take to cultivate meaningful relationships?
Then, think about some challenges of a newly married couple:
- What does conflict resolution look like?
- Who will manage our money, and how?
- What is our daily routine going to be?
- What about children? Family planning?
- What are our annoyances and pet peeves of the other?
- For more, here is a great list of questions to think through from Desiring God.
A New Bride in a New Culture
Dave and Mary had only been married a year and a half when they arrived to serve in Pakistan. The culture in Pakistan was familiar to Dave because he grew up there as a missionary kid. But for Mary, it was all new.
Mary remembers, "There were so many stresses on us as a young couple: hours of learning a new language, reading a script that looked more like lines than letters and strong culture shock.
"The Muslim culture was so different for me, but it was almost second nature to Dave. I had a hard time understanding why he didn't treat me like the other young missionary men treated their wives in public. I am a touchy feely person. I loved to hold my husband's hand or have him put his arm around me as we were walking. But that doesn't happen in Pakistan.
"The day we arrived he changed. I noticed that he never touched me in public. In fact, he would walk three steps in front of me. No matter how fast I walked, I could never catch up. I would watch the other young [missionary] couples that didn't know the culture. They would be walking to language school hand in hand, but not us.
"It didn't take long for me to notice all the nationals staring at the other couples. I realized Dave was practicing [the Pakistani] culture, but that didn't make it any easier for me. I was young and in love!
"I had to have my head covered, and he didn't. I was hot under all the clothes I had to wear since women have to be 'covered,' and he didn't. Before I knew it, there was a strange jealousy forming between us that we never dealt with in our country. As a young couple, we were just learning to deal with disagreements, much less cultural differences that were turning into divides.
"I fell deep into culture stress and one day could not stop crying. I thank God for a godly, experienced missionary woman that understood and helped me through that time and a loving husband that put his arm around me in our living room with all the doors closed and curtains pulled!"
Questions Newlyweds Should Answer Before Serving
As couples preparing for marriage and missions, it's important to stress the challenges that both experiences bring separately, much less combined. Starting out your marriage on good footing is vital for any newlywed, and it's especially crucial for couples considering missions.
Every situation is different and nuanced, so I am not seeking to provide a list of, "Do this, don't do this," or "If this, then this." That would be formulaic for individuals and couples who are complex and intricate. Rather, here are a few questions to consider as you pray about making large life transitions simultaneously.
Who are we? With marriage being such a biblical metaphor for the gospel, knowing who you are as husband and wife can be a powerful tool for showing the love of Christ to an unbelieving world. Learning to model Christ in how he serves the Father and the church is a great launching point for gospel conversations and meaningful relationships. Plus, figuring out what it means to be married on the field can be difficult, so getting a deeper understanding of one another before you go would be beneficial for life and ministry overseas when cultural stressors hit.
What is the cost? When you marry, there are things you learn - communication with your spouse, shared chores at home, physical intimacy and daily rhythms to name a few. Navigating a new marriage is an adjustment for any couple, but navigating it while balancing language learning, culture shock, homesickness and moments of doubt can be very difficult. Counting the cost doesn't mean resigning to the fact that the aforementioned aspects of newly married life will suffer. However, It does suggest being very intentional about how you pursue your spouse inside marriage given how many external factors could cause stress.
How are we preparing? Stepping into one new culture is hard enough, but stepping into two (marriage and another country) is a lot to process. No one is fully prepared for marriage or missions. But this does not mean they are encouraged to go blindly. The last thing we want is couples who are full of zeal but rush headlong into ministry without stopping, pausing and taking necessary precautions to prepare well. If we look at the life of Jesus, we see that for roughly 30 years, he prepared for a three-year ministry. How much more should we - fallible, fallen people - take time to prepare and pray before jumping into our respective ministries?
Action Steps for Newlyweds Before Going Overseas
As you prepare for ministry as a couple, here are a few (though not comprehensive) actionable steps you can take today.
Consider a mentor couple with cross-cultural experience. Most of the time, experience breeds wisdom. There are few things more valuable than an older, wiser couple who know the path of hardship and can help direct your steps. Whether your choose to go right after you're married or not, mentorship will be invaluable to your marriage and ministry.
Consider serving together now. Ministry life can be frustrating when you're familiar with the language and people, so imagine ministry life in another country. As you and your spouse pray toward the nations, consider what it would be like to walk in tandem in local ministry first. Think about one another's passions and interests. Is it youth ministry? College students? Teaching English? It's good to have a gauge on what the other one does well and how can you support them - and possibly serve with them now, before you move.
Consider one another. Cross-cultural work requires sacrifice. Giving up comfort, accepting risk and entering the unknowns are all part of missionary work. And yet, out of all the things that will be sacrificed, your spouse should never be one of them. In preparing for ministry overseas, resolve now that your spouse will always take precedent. Do not sacrifice your marriage at the altar of your ministry.
Should Newlyweds Go to the Mission Field?
Ultimately, it's up to each couple to prayerfully ask the Lord how to weigh the options in light of a calling to both marriage and missions. Understanding no person or situation is the same, some missions organizations generally suggest couples take at least a year or two to be married instead of rushing to the field upon walking down the aisle.
Understand that marriage and missions are not pitted against one another. Rather, a thriving marriage accomplishes the mission. Unhealthy marriages do not depict the future kingdom, but healthy ones point to the gospel and the ultimate marriage in Christ.