Like most kids her age, our four-year-old has no filter. Several months ago, she closed our front door, sat down, and announced, “I only like English.” We had been living in a new culture for a little over a year at this point. When I asked her what she meant, she made her stance clear: “I only like people who speak English.” Then suddenly checking herself, she asked, “Does God speak English? Or does he speak [the language where we serve]?”
She couldn’t explain why she felt such a strong preference for those who spoke her language. However, as a fellow human wrecked by sin, I understood well the desire to surround myself with those who do not make me feel alien or uncomfortable. As with her, what any of us really thinks or feels about the nations is directly related to what we believe about God.
As Christians, we’re not aiming for the mere flower of common courtesy or appreciation for otherness. We want the fruit of genuine love that comes from God (1 John 4:7). This love does not end in talk, but in deed, caring for both the temporal and eternal good of others (1 John 3:16–18). Raising our kids to love the nations means raising them to obey from the heart God’s command to love their neighbor, including those from other people groups. It’s part of bringing up any child in the Lord’s discipline and instruction (Ephesians 6:4).
So how do we cultivate that kind of love in young children? Parents can begin to draw them into God’s global work in at least five practical ways.
1. Tell them the whole story of Scripture.
Loving the nations begins with seeing the wider story of what God is doing in the world. We can tell our children that God created people, unlike any other creature, in his likeness (Genesis 5:1–2), but sin broke our relationship with God and one another (Romans 5:12). In the beginning, all mankind spoke one language (Genesis 11:1), but in response to humanity’s evil plan at the Tower of Babel, God confused the people’s language and scattered them to live all over the earth (Genesis 11:7–8).
Since the beginning, however, God has been sculpting the history of the nations and determining the boundaries of their dwelling place so “that they should seek God” (Acts 17:26–27). “He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him” — without discrimination — “should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus reconciles us now to God and one another by his blood on the cross (Ephesians 2:16). The nations will be his inheritance (Psalm 2:8), and one day they will stand before him, crying out, “Salvation belongs to our God!” (Revelation 7:9–10).
First, keep this story warm in your own heart (because our kids do learn to love what we love). Then proclaim it to your children. Before they can love the nations, our children must first behold the King of the nations and marvel at his love and salvation for every people. Let his words build their view of the world, brick by brick. Start from a young age and tell them, in terms they can understand, the faithful story.
2. Pray for them and with them.
Hudson Taylor, a missionary to China in the nineteenth century, credited his parents and their prayers when asked about his love for the nations. His father was deeply moved after reading about the millions in China who were “sealed against the truth,” so he prayed that, if he had a son, one day “he might be called and privileged to labor in the vast, needy empire” (A Retrospect, 2). Over twenty years later, God answered his prayer.
While raising our kids, our “primary business,” as J.C. Ryle calls it, should be prayer. If we want our children to love the nations, we should pray they would. Whether we pray through the news, through missionary newsletters, or with the help of resources like the Joshua Project or People Groups, we can invite our children to pray specific requests with us (and let them begin voicing their own simple prayers).
Parents need prayer, too. Some of us want our children to love the nations — but not if love’s expression means they give their time, talents, and money in ways we think are dangerous or wasteful. Not if it means abandoning our secret dreams for their lives. Some of us might even be quietly praying, “Anything but the mission field!” Pray against such tightfistedness, and pray that you would never be the one standing in the way of your children’s obedience to love the nations.
3. Introduce real faces and stories.
My kids’ love for the particular people group we’re serving started with friendship. It took just one friend or two in each of their lives. Even my four-year-old has come a long way since the days of unloving declarations. She probably could not explain what it means to love the nations, but she can tell you that she loves Gem (a local friend whose name has been changed). Now, instead of shutting doors against the local culture, she asks to knock on Gem’s door to play.
Many of you do not need to travel far to meet those whose lives and cultures are vastly different from yours. Some of you even go to church with them. Even if not, many of God’s people began to love the nations by reading books or missionary stories. Hudson Taylor’s father was “deeply stirred about the spiritual state of China” after reading several books, especially one about the travels of a certain Captain Basil Hall.
Start with just one nation (or a few), and teach your kids who they are. Wonder with them over a map. You could try different foods with them until they find ones they like, or give to the work of the gospel and relief efforts in specific nations. Teach them to give generously, even if it is small, and their hearts might just follow where they’ve put their treasure.
4. Teach them negative examples too.
Wise parents study the false narratives and negative examples that actively compete for our kids’ hearts. Do their extended family, cultural history, and society tell them that some ethnicities are friends and others are enemies? Are they learning to look upon some cultures with suspicion and others with favor? As our children look to us, are we perpetuating any lie or hate in our lives with our words or actions?
Our enemy of old loves to sow hatred and pit the nations against God and one another. Examples of hate will be plentiful, so our kids must be taught that our adversary is not flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). Satan wants the nations to fear and consume one another, but we remind our children that no nation or person can take away our treasure, heritage, or lasting city, and that God means to have a family from every people group on earth. The cross levels every barrier and boundary between us. God “made from one man every nation of mankind” (Acts 17:26), so we do not deride the language, music, customs, foods, or dress of other cultures.
Like us, our children will sin, make mistakes, and fail to love the nations. In those moments, we can show them how to confess sin and seek reconciliation, because God the Father understands and accepts the prayer of the repentant in whatever language (even English).
5. Invite other believers into their lives.
Our children will learn a lot from the words and lives of people outside their immediate family. Especially while they are young, we can create good opportunities by sharing our family life with other believers.
Long before we moved overseas, through the blessings of church family, our kids enjoyed the friendship of “aunts” and “uncles” who looked, talked, and ate differently from us. They heard faithful pastors and teachers exposit every part of Scripture. They saw the body of Christ praying for the nations and giving sacrificially. They heard uncomfortable but good conversations about how we as a church of various cultures could give preference to one another. They observed God’s people expressing love for the nations in ways as different and unique as they were. In our little church, they saw a foreshadowing of the kingdom to come, those ransomed by the blood of the Lamb “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9–10).
As our kids grow up, the responsibility to love the nations will belong to them. For now, though, we can show them the good way and urge them to walk in it, trusting the God who loves the nations to work what is pleasing in and through our children.