I recently drafted an Op-Ed that was intended for Christianity Today (CT). My goal was to provide a positive response to the unbalanced picture of missionary kid education I was finding in the pages of that influential magazine. To their credit, CT responded with genuine openness and interest, and the piece seemed to be moving towards publication. In the end, for a number of reasons, I decided to pull the article from consideration. I would like to share the article with you instead. Here it is.
The Importance of MK Schools to Global Missions
If measured by the numbers, resources, and the extent of its global reach, the period between 1945 and the present has witnessed the greatest outpouring of Christian missionary fervor in history. In many parts of the world, the direct and indirect results of this movement were remarkable. In Africa, for instance, the number of Christians grew during the 20th century from eight or nine million (9%) in 1900 to approximately 335 million (45%) in 2000, with the most dramatic growth coming during the peak of the missionary movement after World War Two.
Significantly, the influence of missionaries was not limited to evangelism and church planting. As Robert Woodbery and others have demonstrated, over the last two centuries, missionaries were a driving force behind the growth of literacy, education, and health care institutions in many parts of the global south. Even the development of democratic ideals and systems adopted in many regions appear to have been strongly influenced by “conversionary protestant missionaries”.
One of the key factors that facilitated this historically unprecedented movement was the increasing availability of schools for the children of missionaries. Recognizing that they would not be able to remain on the field for any meaningful length of time without a way to educate their children, in the decades before and after 1945, large numbers of schools for missionary children began popping up around the globe.
Today, over 150 schools founded to serve missionary families continue to play a critical role in the success and sustainability of evangelical missions globally. In many of the world’s cosmopolitan centers, schools like Morrison Academy (Taiwan), Rosslyn Academy (Nairobi), and Dalat School (Penang) are oases of learning and community, having earned outstanding reputations as places of Christ-centered excellence. And while Missionary Kid (MK) boarding schools are less prevalent today, the ones that remain are thriving, facilitating pioneering Christian work in places where no suitable educational options exist.
Despite the current health of most MK schools globally, over the last ten years Christianity Today has published numerous articles detailing past abuses at some schools for missionary children. These articles have brought needed attention to significant past failings and highlighted the ongoing and critical need to prioritize child-safety in schools everywhere. However, because these articles were one-dimensional, they created the impression that schools for missionary kids (MKs) were largely - and continue to be - deeply flawed institutions whose impact has been primarily negative. This inaccurate impression can be corrected by providing balance and context to this important story.
A Surprising Analogy
In his acclaimed book, Factfulness, Hans Rosling demonstrates how easy it is for our inclinations towards fear, generalization, and negativity to produce in us an inaccurate view of reality. One powerful illustration Rosling uses is the distorted view that many of us share regarding the dangers of nuclear energy.
Consider this example. On April 26, 1986 an experimental procedure, at a poorly designed and maintained nuclear power plant in the disintegrating Soviet Union, produced the worst nuclear energy disaster in history. How many people do you think lost their lives because of this admittedly horrific accident? 10,000? 100,000? A million?
During the three months following the Chernobyl accident, thirty people died from either the initial reactor fire or illnesses related to Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS). And, over the last thirty-seven years since, according to the United Nations, the total deaths related to radiation from Chernobyl are less than 100.
Chernobyl was a tragedy, and the worst nuclear energy accident in history, but it wasn’t even close to being the worst energy-related disaster during that period. Even more devastating was the San Juanico accident in November of 1984, two years prior to Chernobyl. In this case, a gas leak at a storage site for liquified petroleum led to explosions that killed more than 500 people. But both of these pale in comparison to the 1975 collapse of the Banqiao hydroelectric dam in China that killed between 170,000 and 230,000 people.
Yet, in the context of the Cold War, where fear of nuclear fallout was acute and virtually universal, it was the Chernobyl accident that received global attention from the press, further coloring public opinion, and prompting governments to move away from what had appeared to be the cleanest, cheapest, and arguably safest, answer to the world’s growing energy needs.
The Early Days of MK Education
Much like the haphazard context that produced the Chernobyl accident, during the early post-WWII period in particular, several factors combined to create a potentially unhealthy environment at some MK schools. For starters, the staff at these often-isolated schools were typically drawn from those who were struggling on the field and needed a break. These often burnt out or ineffective missionaries were then given the task, for which most were neither trained nor motivated, of educating and raising children (some as young as six years old) with little to no support and even less accountability.
Generally speaking, the smaller and more isolated the school, the greater the risk of harm to children. Mamou Alliance Academy is perhaps the most dramatic and well-known example of these early struggling schools. Between 1920 and 1971, this small and isolated school in the remote West African country of Guinea was home to approximately 200 missionary kids. In the 1980s, based on several claims of abuse, an independent commission was established to investigate these claims. While the commission found that “most people who reported to us were grateful for the positive impact” of the school and their experience as MKs, the investigation determined that over the fifty-year life of the school, at least nine people (seven adults and two students) were responsible for numerous instances of physical, psychological, and, in a few cases, sexual abuse.
There are several reasons why stories like Mamou were not widely known earlier. The contemporary missionary culture that spiritualized hardship, elevated authority figures, and discouraged criticism of institutions certainly played a role. But there is also an encouraging reason. While cases like those that occurred at Mamou were painfully real and have left deep scars, by the 1970s many other MK schools had begun to learn from their early failures and were starting to flourish.
Growth in the quality of MK schools was first noticeable in academic and co-curricular programs. For instance, despite significant and lingering blind spots in student care and safeguarding, by the 1960s the Rift Valley Academy (RVA) had become one of the leading private schools in Africa. Even though attending college was still relatively unusual at the time, RVA was sending over 90% of its graduates on to higher education, could boast of a consistent stream of National Merit Semi-finalists, and was the first school in Africa to receive full American accreditation. The school’s co-curricular programs were no less impressive. By this time, RVA’s choirs were nationally renowned, performing privately for the country’s first president and regularly at the National Theatre; and its sports programs were producing national championship teams.
Around the world, schools like RVA were not just increasing the effectiveness of Christian outreach by allowing missionary parents to stay on the field, they were also greenhouses for a second, third, and sometimes fourth generation of missionaries. It is estimated that between one in five and one in ten graduates of MK boarding schools have gone on to become missionaries themselves - roughly one hundred times greater than the rate found among American evangelicals today.
As was true with the Chernobyl tragedy, attention given to situations like Mamou produced healthy changes in MK schooling and MK care more broadly. By the 1980s, pioneers in MK and Third Culture Kid (TCK) care like Dave Pollack and Ruth Van Reken were bringing needed attention to the previous failings of MK schools and actively lobbying missionary organizations to prioritize MK care. In 1984, the first global conference on MK care took place in Manila, to be followed shortly thereafter by conferences in Quito and Nairobi. These global conferences helped inspire multiple new initiatives including the MK support group “MuKappa”, Dave Pollock’s Interaction International, the Association of Christian Schools International’s (ACSI) boarding school accreditation program, and ultimately the Child Safety Protection Network (CSPN).
While no school or type of school is without flaws, and students in even healthy schools can struggle, today the reality of MK education is significantly different from the experience of the 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s. Most missionary families can now choose the best fit for their child from a range of positive options. In many cosmopolitan centers around the world, international Christian day schools now exist that provide a caliber of education that matches the best private Christian schools in North America. Resources for homeschooling have also blossomed in recent years, especially for those families with younger children who do not have access to other quality options. Finally, for many high school aged MKs, legacy boarding schools like Faith Academy, Black Forest Academy, and Rift Valley Academy represent a trusted and life-giving bridge between the often-pioneering isolation of their parent’s work and their future university experience in their passport countries.
While boarding is not the right option for everyone, for many MKs the experience has been positive and life changing. Through two large and statistically robust surveys, Black Forest Academy (BFA) recently asked alumni to reflect on the overall impact of the school on their lives. Of the over 600 verified respondents, fewer than four percent considered their school experience to have been largely or almost entirely negative, while well over 80 percent reported the impact of the school to have been largely or almost entirely positive.
The quality of the education they received was one part of making the experience positive, with 91 percent of BFA alumni in the most recent survey reporting that they felt the school had prepared them either well (28 percent) or very well (63 percent) for their next academic steps. This clearly affirming sentiment was borne out in their actual academic achievement, with approximately 94% of the school’s alumni completing a post-secondary degree of some sort (including 87% with at least a bachelor’s degree and 34% with advanced degrees). When compared to the US population generally - which finds 37.9% of the US population completing at least a bachelor’s degree and 14.4% completing advanced degrees - these results are noteworthy.
The impact of these schools on faith formation appears to be just as encouraging. Despite the widely reported trends of formerly committed Christian young people walking away from their faith as adults, BFA’s alumni survey found that, by and large, the faith commitment that their students reported in high school was resilient, with almost all of those who considered themselves committed to their faith in high school continuing to identify as engaged Christians today.
Building on the lessons and achievements of the past, many historically MK schools are achieving their dual purpose of educating the next generation of global Christian leaders while simultaneously facilitating the ongoing work of Christian outreach around the world. Far from being a black eye on the face of modern missions, today most of these schools are flourishing and playing a significant part in the success of global missions.
We began with an unexpected analogy between MK education and nuclear energy. So let’s conclude there as well. Like the incredible promise of nuclear energy as a source of clean, cheap and safe energy for the world, MK schools have always been critical to the success of the modern missionary movement. And, like the early days of nuclear energy, the first years of missionary kid education included both tremendous successes and heartbreaking failures.
While largely ignored by the press, the successes were many and formed the backbone of the schools we find today. But the painful failures, rightly highlighted by Christianity Today, also played a critical role. They helped produce a posture of humility and learning which has been the driving force behind the robust child-safety programs that many MK schools have in place today. And that emphasis on providing a healthy environment for children has formed the foundation of the largely flourishing schools of today.
Raising and educating children in a broken world is never risk-free, but thanks to over a century of collective experience, and a posture of humility that is allowing them to learn from past mistakes, many of today’s MK schools are achieving their mission of empowering global missions by offering a high quality and healthy education for the children of missionaries. And this matters, for as MK schools go, so goes the missionary movement.