Rob, Sandy and Jenny Shaffer
Embracing my normal world: from MK to full-time adult ministry
Jenny is one of Rob and Sandy Shaffer’s three daughters. We asked her to write about her own childhood overseas and how it impacted her life, specifically, how it led her to pursue international ministry as an adult.
I grew up an MK, short for “missionary kid.” I lived in Vienna, Austria, with my parents and two sisters. My mom and dad served with Entrust. To me, this life was normal.
It wasn’t until I returned to the U.S. to attend university that I began to understand how unique my “normal” had been. In Vienna, I grew up hearing stories of God at work in miraculous ways, surrounded by people who held similar callings to serve God, and I saw people incorporating their ministries into their day-to-day lives. For my parents, and many of the other families around us, there didn’t seem to be a divide between ministry and life. The people around us were the very ones we were called to love, and the needs we saw were the ones we were called to meet. This integration of ministry into everyday interactions felt so normal—and I grew up thinking this was everyone’s normal.
Since then, I have come to realize that in many people’s understanding, serving Christ internationally means living in the jungle or in Africa, and ministry is only for those who are called by God’s audible voice. While our family did serve overseas, we certainly did not live in this stereotypical setting. And the call in Matthew 28 to “go and make disciples of all nations” is for all followers of Jesus to obey—not just those serving in cross-cultural settings. Wherever we are, whatever work we do, and whatever stage of life we are in, Jesus has given the directive to disciple others; this includes sharing what we believe and explaining why we believe, as well as demonstrating God’s love and care for people.
The “abnormality” of my Vienna-influenced upbringing only became clear to me through conversations and interactions with peers in America. As a child when we visited the U.S., many of my peers’ first questions were whether I lived in trees, had toilet paper, if our house had electricity, or if we owned a koala. After I explained that Austria was in Europe, and that there were no koalas, they still struggled to understand why our family was needed there. Later while studying at university, when I spoke about wanting to return overseas to serve God, my peers talked about the 1- to 2-week short-term trips they had taken—the majority of them to Mexico. Their understanding of cross-cultural ministry was more limited to organizing a VBS, painting a school and sharing one testimony of how they chose to accept Jesus.
As an MK, I saw the Great Commission modeled in many ways, a key reason I chose to serve overseas as an adult. I realized there were places in the world that had no or very few believers and that I could be a part of telling God’s story there! My childhood was full of stories; Bible stories, testimonies of miracles witnessed firsthand such as smuggling Bibles into Eastern Europe under tight communist control, and biographies and autobiographies of people who’d served God in the past. These stories spoke to me. They made me believe that we all have stories to tell, that often our stories are woven together, and that God uses us to teach and inspire others. They moved me to connect with people I had never met and places I had never been. In my ministry now, I have the opportunity to meet incredible people serving God in Asia and to help write their stories for a global audience, to bridge the gap for people who may never have been to this part of the world.
It’s hard to imagine what my life would be like if I had grown up in my passport country. Certainly I would not have been teased as a child for being the foreigner, and it might be easier to give an answer about where I’m from. But I believe my life is richer for having been exposed to knowing more than one home, and from hearing exciting first-hand accounts of Bible smuggling adventures, and by seeing that others have needs that outweigh my individual desire for comfort and convenience. I believe the Viennese faith-community I grew up in taught me to see that I have a place in what God is doing in the world, and I wish that for everyone: that we would realize we all play a part in seeing “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes” bowing before Christ.