Growing up as the son of OMF workers in East Asia, Nathan is familiar with the struggles that third-culture kids (TCKs)1 go through. Issues related to identity, the transitory nature of life as a TCK, and expectations (sometimes self-imposed) to be a “good missionary kid” all affected him in different ways.
At the age of 2, he moved with his parents from the U.S. to East Asia to spread the gospel to those who had not heard. It was not easy. People came in and out of his life at a dizzying rate. He struggled to know where he fit in, whether in the local community, expat community, or elsewhere.
But Nathan now looks back positively on his childhood. His father taught him that Christians are “blessed to be a blessing” to others. Although being a TCK wasn’t always a comfortable way to grow up, his unique story can now help others.
“I can look back on my experience as a TCK – there were struggles and there were difficulties – but from where I am now, I see how God was working through it,” he said. “God has blessed me with this experience.”
That’s why when Nathan, 24, had the opportunity to share from his experience as a TCK with other, younger TCKs, he gladly did so. Over the past few years, he has taken four Serve Asia short-term mission trips with OMF, serving TCKs in various ways. First, he worked with the youth at OMF’s International Gathering in Thailand in 2016. Then he served small children (ages 3-7) whose parents were attending Orientation Course at OMF’s international headquarters in Singapore. Last year, Nathan led worship and games for youth at an OMF field conference in East Asia and then worked with kids at a Home Assignment Reunion Training in Littleton, Colorado, where OMF’s U.S. headquarters is located.
It was at the first gathering that Nathan’s desire to serve TCKs in a longer-term capacity was confirmed.
“I found this is the people group that God has given me a heart for,” he said. “The stories actually hit me hard. It’s a group I want to be able to minister to and hopefully be able to speak to from my experience.”
One of the common struggles Nathan hopes to help TCKs deal with is where to find their identity. Although his passport said he was an American, he grew up outside the U.S., in East Asia, while also being surrounded by an international community of people from all over the world. Answering the question, “Where are you from?” can be difficult for TCKs to answer.
Nathan hopes to help his fellow TCKs find their identity and foundation in Christ. In Jesus, TCKs can find an identity that doesn’t change or waver based on location or circumstances. This is especially important as TCKs often have to say goodbye to close friends who move away on a frequent basis. He wants to help TCKs deal with the changes better than he did while growing up in East Asia.
“My coping mechanism was to build walls because if I didn’t care about people, then it didn’t hurt as much when they left,” he said. “I don’t think I figured It out until undergrad that we were made to be in community and be a blessing and how God works through that.”
Although growing up outside one’s parents’ home culture results in some hardships, Nathan also wants to help TCKs see the many uniquely positive things that being a TCK brings. He points to the close community he experienced with other TCKs in the city where his parents served, as well as with TCKs he met at field conferences. Other benefits include being bi-lingual (or more) and more comfortable in cross-cultural situations than others who have not had a similar childhood (He is still shocked when he meets someone who doesn’t have a passport. “It’s like, ‘What? That’s your primary identification.”)
Another major blessing of growing up on the mission field is being able to see first-hand what serving Christ overseas looks like in his parents.
“To have the role models who have given up life in home countries and chosen to follow God, to represent God where he wasn’t represented, leaving careers, was really huge,” he said.
Nathan recently finished a Masters degree in Youth Ministry Leadership at Columbia International University in South Carolina. Soon he will begin a full-time job working with TCKs for JAARS, a mission organization based in North Carolina that sends workers all over the world.
“It’s been really cool to think about how this identity, this experience allows me to speak into the lives of people, to see where they’re at.”
1 Third-culture kid (TCK) is a term used to describe children who spend a significant portion of their growing up years outside their parents’ home, or passport, culture. They often incorporate elements of several overlapping and sometimes conflicting cultures into their identity. For more information, see https://omf.org/cross-cultural-work/serving-third-culture-kids-tcks/.