How do you help an MK who has come out of the closet? Not the ones who are making a proclamation about their gender identity or sexual orientation. The ones coming out of the closet about not being a believer, the ultimate taboo. As a former MK teacher and youth pastor to MKs, I’ve had the opportunity to journey with many of these brave but hurting souls.
I say brave, because allowing the missions community to know that you consider yourself a non-believer is the quickest way to have your name mentioned in every prayer gathering and school office. I’ve visited MK schools in Kenya, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and Thailand, and usually within half a day, I can tell you who all the non-believing MKs are. How? Because I’ve been told by multiple teachers, students, and the principal. “Look over there. That’s Jill. If you get a chance, please talk to her. She’s not a believer.” Often MKs are afraid to admit they have questions or doubts in their faith because they see what the community does to their unbelieving peers. While the spotlight shines brightly on the prodigal MKs, be careful not to assume the rest are safely in the Shepherd’s pen.
Here are suggestions for working with MKs who are willing to wear the scarlet letter of claiming not to be a believer.
First, clarify what they believe. Many MKs don’t know or distinguish between being an atheist and an agnostic. They use them interchangeably (knowing both are “bad”). Most say they are atheists, but in reality when you listen to them, most are agnostic. This is an important distinction. Listen inquisitively to their hearts. Most of them won’t confidently say “There is no God” because they’ve seen Him at work in their parents’ ministry and the mission community. Only a few will confidently and categorically deny the existence of a supreme being. When a student assents that they believe there is a deity, the path to reconciliation with God is already half paved.
One MK I had the privilege to spend time with told me that she believed, like people in her village, that after you die you become a firefly and stay near the ones you love. I was fascinated with this view and sincerely inquired to know more without judgment or argument. As I asked follow-up questions, she began to flounder. When asked, “So it’s kind of like reincarnation?”, she balked at the idea of believing it. And when I inquired, “Most fireflies only live a few weeks, what happens after that? Do you change into something else?” She paused, reflected, and then abruptly declared, “I’ve never thought about that. It doesn’t make any sense. I guess I don’t believe that anymore.”
MKs, like most teens, want to talk to safe people. Put yourself in a learner role and listen to their views and beliefs. Ask questions. Only share your thoughts or beliefs when asked.
Secondly, explore the true roots of their current convictions. Be careful to not accept at face value what they say initially. Seek out the origins of what led them to start this journey to a faraway land like a prodigal son. For a couple MKs I know, their crisis of faith came when God allowed a parent/friend to die even though they earnestly prayed. Several have blamed a hypocritical mission community that preaches one thing but lives differently, and they don’t want to be associated with it. A few have earnestly sought God, but since they never heard his voice or direction, they gave up (When I Don’t Desire God by John Piper). Recently, more MKs, when exposed to secular arguments they are unprepared for, feel like they’ve been lied to by the Christian community. An example is college-aged MKs who grows up being told how only dumb people believe in evolution. When they meet some astute and confident friends/professors who have “solid” proof for evolution, the foundation of truth in their life waffles when tested. When they’ve only been presented a one-sided, imbalanced view, anything that presents a significant question can be earth shattering.
Nearly all MKs I’ve encountered will say they had some belief in God while they were growing up. Help them trace back to the initial side trails that eventually lead them to their current state. For most, it was a slow journey, so identifying that critical turn may be where their faith crisis began.
Lastly, engage them in a way they will hear you and listen. According to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator personality assessment, people usually make decisions either based on feelings or logic. For an MK to change their mind, you need to speak their preferred “decision-making language” even if it’s not yours. For teens who make decisions based on facts and logic, Focus on the Family’s TrueU video material is well done. A Case for Christ by Lee Strobel is another helpful resource and has gained interest due to the release of a documentary film on Strobel’s life. One word of caution: this type of student may continue to bring up endless new arguments and objections. Call them out on this. They aren’t seeking truth. Ask them, “If I can help you answer this question, will it change anything?”
For teens who make feeling-based decisions more, help them recall a time in their lives when they felt emotionally close to God. Or share personal stories of what God means to you or songs that speak powerfully to your heart that reconnect you to God. MKs who make decisions more emotionally are susceptible to their environment—having friends, music, or other influences that can pull them down. For example, unresolved grief from a friend who is away on furlough can make them feel depressed and isolated.
Bottom line. Create a safe environment for MKs to honestly question and explore their faith. Don’t pressure them into confessing a fake faith. It is better for MKs to have struggles and questions in their teen years when they have a safety net, rather than their first years of independent living.