Youth Ministry With Third Culture Kids—Who’s Hiding in Your Youth Group?

One of the worst questions you can ask a third culture kid

“Where are you from?” I began. Jeanne rolled her eyes a bit and stared back at me, “I hate that question,” she said. Not realizing the hole of ignorance I was digging for myself, I kept pushing: “Well, where were you born?” Another eye roll. The problem? I was talking to a Third Culture Kid- and I had no idea what a Third Culture Kid was, let alone the secret code of acceptable and unacceptable questions I might ask of a “TCK.” Throughout that conversation, I continued to probe and pry into Jeanne’s experience in an effort to help her construct who she was.[1] It wasn’t until two years later that I’d get the chance to redeem those questions.

Searching for Connection and Belonging

 I was serving as a youth minister in two international churches in Lausanne, Switzerland that year. Neither church had a particular working model for youth ministry with Third Culture Kids. In fact, both churches shared a new intern each year that they’d fly in from the United States. This meant that every year a new person would try new ideas with (often) new kids. So much for consistency. Jeanne was one of a handful of consistent kids in the youth group. Her parents had moved to Switzerland before she was born, and they were working on their Swiss citizenship. Because Jeanne stayed, she faced particular struggles as a TCK. Every time she came to youth group, she’d ask for prayer about school and friends. “No one understands me” she said, “Not my teachers, not the stupid people I go to the Swiss school with, not anyone. I feel like the only person I can hang out with is my brother.” Every Sunday, Jeanne would make sure to steal some time with me, and tell me just how alone she felt. She’d always tried to make friends with the girls who came to youth group- and often successfully did- but after two or three years, those girls were off to another country with their families, and she’d be alone all over again. It was the same thing with her youth directors. Jeanne had no one, and she knew it.

One night Jeanne was the only one who showed up for youth group. I’d planned on introducing an ancient form of prayer to the group: Lectio Divina. Since it was only the two of us, I checked to see if she wouldn’t mind praying together for a while. She timidly gave me the “OK”. We lit a candle, and read a psalm together. We made the practice our own: reading through the psalm out loud, reading it silently, focusing on images and words from the psalm, and then ending by allowing for a long stretch of silence, where we would intermittently speak prayers to God by lifting up words and phrases that aligned with the prayers on our hearts. 

After about forty minutes had passed, I drew the prayer to a close. Jeanne looked up at me with a bit of a start and said

“Woah! I feel like I just woke up from a dream. That was so weird.”

I was curious. After some silence, Jeanne started to clarify,

“I never prayed like that before,” she said. “It was almost like for the first time, I actually felt…God.”

What is a Third Culture Kid?

Jeanne is one example of what authors David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken would call a Third Culture Kid. Pollock and Van Reken penned the first comprehensive book on Third Culture Kids in 1999, assigning a category, name and acronym (TCK) to the experience of children who spend a significant portion of their adolescent development outside of their parents’ home culture(s). TCKs include military brats, refugees, missionary kids, and children of diplomats, foreign service workers, educators and (the list goes on). You don’t have to do youth ministry in Switzerland to have a third culture kid in your youth group. Youth ministry with third culture kids happens all over the world in every cultural and denominational setting one can imagine. Is there a TCK hiding in your youth group?

Jeanne is categorized within the TCK experience as a hidden immigrant, which (Pollock and Van Reken argue) occupies the most challenging relationship between cultures in adolescent development: “When [TCKs] grow up in countries where they physically resemble the majority of the citizens of that country, they appear like those around them, but internally these TCKs view life through a lens that is as different from the culture as any obvious foreigner.”[3] In other words, no one in Switzerland would’ve been able to pick Jeanne out of a crowd as a foreigner. Some TCKs might experience this positively, because they can essentially “take a break” from being a foreigner in the place they (for the moment) call home. Hidden immigrants can relish the fact that they have the power to go unnoticed. In many cases, however, this makes it difficult for hidden immigrant TCKs to find each other. There is no obvious person with whom they might connect. There is no built-in identifier for their other-ness. There’s no immediate community to which they might belong.

The Need to Belong Transcends Culture

A need for belonging is not relegated to Jeanne’s cultural identity. Belonging is crucial for a young person’s spiritual formation. Through establishing an emotional state of belonging, Jeanne will be able to move beyond what theologian James Loder identifies as a state of spiritual isolation. Loder argues that “the most powerful intimacy comes from the presence of the Spirit of God.” Jeanne may not have willfully entered into every relationship around her. She expressed anxiety over the fact that any one relationship could be taken from her—at any time—based on another’s physical or cultural re-location. Despite this fact, she was awakened to a relationship with God through the Spirit’s presence in Lectio Divina. This “powerful intimacy” was one that defied time, space and culture. This shared moment of prayer kept her calling me on the phone a year after I’d left my job at her church to ask and share about the God she’d encountered in Lectio Divina. It kept her heart open to sitting with me and wrestling with the tough issues of identity formation, two years later. For once, Jeanne could see that she was not fully isolated. This begs the question of what powerful youth ministry with third culture kids might look like.:

How do we serve TCK’s?

How do we minister to a TCK who wrestles with the emotional isolation of being a hidden immigrant? How do we minister to hidden immigrants who hide themselves behind a wall of isolation caused by anxiety? These questions are simply the tip of the iceberg that the spiritual formation of TCKs demands.

Two years after our first conversation on the shores of Lac Leman, I flew back to Switzerland to visit. Jeanne and I walked down from her town to a restaurant by the water’s edge, where we’d replay our first conversation. Both of us were better prepared this time.

“What place feels like home to you?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Jeanne answered.

After thinking, she continued, “I guess both Switzerland and America feel like home to me. I can’t imagine living anywhere else than here, but I think when I grow up I’ll want to move to America.”[5]

To minister with TCKs is not to approach their cultural or spiritual development with a rubric for faith. To do so would be to utterly negate their experience of cultural dissonance. Our call as youth ministers to TCKs is to stand with them in the liminal space of their cultural and spiritual identity. (Click Here To Tweet That Last Sentence!) The call of the church is to place-share and place-hold. We witness to the presence of Jesus in our lives when we do things like break bread and drink wine—whether we’re in a missionary church plant in India (okay, they’d use grape juice) or the American Church in Paris. Some highly liturgical traditions have found an interesting niche for the globally mobile. After all, what is more connective for an Episcopal family than the predictability of Anglican liturgical worship found in 165 countries around the world? We are called to hold fast to that which identifies us as the community of Christ — sacramental practices, prayer, acts of justice and Christian witness — and we are called to point to the One who stays put.

When we minister to youth, we testify to a God who has staying power- a God whose covenantal relationship with us sets the stage for our development and discernment. TCKs know all-too-well what abandonment feels like. The good news is that the story of who we are doesn’t begin with the city in which we were born. It begins with the story of the One who called life into existence, the One who dwells together with us in our rootlessness and restlessness, the One who would beckon us to “follow him.” Perhaps TCKs are better prepared than most to take Jesus up on his offer: to follow him into the world, to testify to the grace found on the cross and all the while, to be “rooted and established in [God’s] love.”[6]

Do you have any experience working with TCK’s? Please leave a comment and tell us what do you think are some best practices for youth ministry with third culture kids?

What can youth ministry with third culture kids teach us about youth ministry with monocultural kids? Please, leave a comment and tell us your thoughts!


Abigail Visco RusertSince starting her journey in youth ministry as a summer camp counselor, Abigail Visco Rusert has had the chance to work with youth on three continents and in six churches. Ordained in the PC (USA) and a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, she served most recently as the Associate Pastor at Carmel Presbyterian Church in Glenside, Pennsylvania. When she’s not chasing after her toddler, Abigail enjoys drinking strong coffee and affirming her Lutheran husband’s excellent cooking skills. She is the IYM’s Assistant Director.


[1] Though my methodology wasn’t specifically geared towards helping Jeanne construct who she was/is as a child of God, my actions here mirror a type of relational ministry that Dr. Andrew Root outlines as a relationally that utilizes a “third thing” in the relationship between adolescent and youth minister. This “third thing” is an assumption that the relationship is formed for a reason outside of the knowing and being known by another. He states, “To assume that there is a third thing, that a relationship with an adolescent is the means to another end, is to deny both the transcendence of the adolescent and the transcendence of the person of Christ.” (Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, 116)

[2] It could be argued that Ruth Hill Useem coined this term in a paper entitled, “Third Culture Kids: Focus of Major Study” in 1993. I would argue that Pollock and Van Reken popularized the term and introduced it to a more mainstream audience.

[3] Pollock, Third Culture Kids, 54.

[5] Pollock and Van Reken highlight the difficulty that many TCKs have with the idea of home: “Home connotes an emotional place- somewhere you truly belong. There simply is no real answer to that question for many TCKs…No matter how home is defined; the day comes for many TCKs when they realize it is irretrievably gone.” (Third Culture Kids, 124)

[6] Ephesians 3:17

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4 replies
  1. Marilyn says:

    As an adult TCK who then raised TCKs I appreciate this. I was a teen in the late 70’s into 80’s and hated coming back to the US and going to youth groups. If I thought I was an oddity in public school it was nothing compared to the oddity I was in youth group. My children felt the same and their experience was dismissed. This is a wise and well done article that I look forward to passing on. One of the things that is great to ask TCKs is “What did you leave behind?”
    Most of us will say that no one has ever asked us this question. Thanks again for an excellent piece.

  2. Ruth E Van Reken says:

    Just to reiterate that Ruth Hill Useem did indeed coin the TCK term first in late 1950’s/1960. It stayed mostly in academic circles until Dave Pollock began to use it in the late 1970’s/1980’s as he started doing seminars at international schools around the world and built his classic “TCK Profile”. In writing Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, first published in 1999, rev. 2009, Dave and I sought to consider why the profile develops as well as include what the profile is and how we can help maximize the gifts of this experience as well. This is a super article and I appreciate her making the point that TCKs can be hidden immigrants in their host cultures as well as when they repatriate. Thanks!

  3. Abigail Visco Rusert says:

    Ruth- Thank you so much for clarifying the history of the term TCK! I really appreciate the way you and Dave Pollock break down the different ways TCKs relate to their surrounding dominant cultures. I used your book as part of my research for my thesis at Princeton Seminary, and your writing continues to speak into the lives of so many TCKs who are looking for a way to articulate pieces of their formation. Thanks for reading!

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