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  • Writer's pictureBradley Bell

Helping Sent Ones Navigate Culture Shock

Culture shock, day 1 of 1,095.

On my first day as a missionary, while riding from the airport to my new home in the obscurities of East Africa, I suddenly had this overwhelming sense—“What have I gotten myself into?!” Full-blown panic attacks always make me want to run. But in this case I did not run. I did not say anything. I rode in silence, deeply troubled, but unable to explain why.

Culture shock, day 1,095 of 1,095.

On my last day as a missionary, while packing up my belongings, I verbally exploded on some of my closest national friends (and members of a church I had been planting). Years of complex relational dynamics that had gone unaddressed suddenly erupted in a way that stunned all of us. I spent my last hours in the country trying to clean up the mess.

The Inevitable Shock

I hope these glimpses into my story communicate at least a couple of things. First, that culture shock is an inevitable struggle that stretches from the beginning to the end of cross-cultural service. It’s not something that can be completely avoided through preparation or overcome through expertise. To serve as a missionary is to embrace a lifestyle of dying to self (see Luke 9:23; Romans 8:36; Acts 9:16; Hebrews 5:8). Laying down one’s culture in order to take up another is especially death-laden. Thus culture shock is a natural part of the journey.

Second, I hope that it communicates how culture shock is unique to each person and each circumstance. I’m not certain of the term’s origin, but I would imagine the word “shock” reflects the surprising nature of the phenomenon. Sometimes the cause of the disorientation is hard to see, and the missionary’s response is hard to predict. Perhaps you are surprised at my reactions described above. Perhaps you would be surprised by your own! Immersing oneself in another culture is really the only way to find out. And that is why culture shock can be somewhat intangible.

Thankfully, however, there are many things about culture shock that are tangible. This means there are ways to help missionaries to navigate it. Remember, the goal is not to help them avoid it, but to give them the awareness and skills to work through it. Yes, unaddressed culture shock can embitter the missionary’s soul, sour their relationships, and bring them home prematurely. But culture shock addressed well can have the opposite effect. In the Father’s hands, it can be pruning that bears much fruit.

Proactively Addressing Culture Shock

In order for culture shock to be a matter of pruning (rather than severing the whole vine!), there are two general categories of how the church can help: proactively addressing it and reactively addressing it. Much of being proactive involves instructing candidates about culture shock prior to being sent. That begins with a basic understanding of what it is. I’ll share it with you. You share it with them.

Culture shock can be defined as the disorientation that comes from encountering new cultural norms. It’s typically stereotyped as things like a moment of emotional outburst, the repulsion of certain food or drink, or accidentally causing offense through words and actions. However, culture shock cannot be minimized to a singular moment. It is a process. Yes, the initial moment is shocking—but the shock continues throughout the process of recognizing, understanding, and adapting to the new cultural norms.

This process may be best understood in four stages:

Honeymoon Stage

This is aptly named for the similar effect of the wedding honeymoon: an initial experience of bliss at the novelty of marriage. Sent ones arrive in the new culture and are immediately caught up in the excitement of it all. They clearly recognize the cultural differences, but are charmed by them for the most part. There is a sense of adventure, euphoria, and idealism. They may even struggle to see themselves ever succumbing to culture shock in such a wonderful place—which only heightens the eventual crash.

Frustration Stage

Eventually the honeymoon is worn down into frustration by culture fatigue (though sometimes the culprit can be a sudden traumatic experience). Culture fatigue is the mental exhaustion that comes from overstimulation. That which was once exciting becomes unimpressive, and the differences that were once charming become annoying. Sent ones find themselves irritated, insecure, and overwhelmed by the encroachment of the new culture, and they find ways to retreat into their preferred cultural norms. This often includes homesickness and some measure of depression.

Adjustment Stage

In order to move past the frustration, sent ones will have to embrace this reality: it is not the culture that must adjust—but them. This is not a matter of ignoring or justifying the cultural differences, but coming to terms with them. Sometimes it is as simple as the choice to leave the enclave (apartment, compound, neighborhood, car, etc.) and immerse oneself in the culture for a few moments each day. At this point the irritation can be intentionally forged toward renewed curiosity and conformity.

Acceptance Stage

Although the process is painful, the three previous stages make it possible for sent ones to reach acceptance of the new culture. This typically includes a high level of comfort, not just with general cultural differences, but more detailed nuances. A new identity is being developed. This usually includes enough language acquisition to be self-sufficient in daily routines. There is a sense of peace, delight, and belonging in the culture. A new home is being made.

As helpful as these stages are, however, they may be over simplistic in and of themselves. Navigating culture shock over the course of years (rather than a one-week mission trip) makes those stages more like an ongoing cycle than a neat timeline. Thus it’s helpful to teach candidates what’s going on under the surface of culture shock. Because adaptation to new cultural norms requires some measure of losing one’s own cultural preferences, the deeper work isn’t navigating culture shock—it’s navigating grief.

Grief also presents itself in a number of stages (though not necessarily in the following order). They include the following:

Shock. Like the initial paralysis of hearing bad news, the sent one experiences disorientation in the face of a shocking new cultural norm.

Denial. This is a mental attempt to avoid reality. For example, the sent one says to herself, “That didn’t just happen—my passport didn’t just get stolen.” This often includes numbing oneself through distraction.

Anger. This is the frustrated release of bottled-up emotion. Since Christians tend to struggle with expressing godly anger, this can also be pressed down and thus express itself indirectly as moodiness and passive aggression.

Bargaining. This happens when the sent one seeks in vain for a way out of the loss. At this point he may say to himself or to others, “Maybe I should just go home.”

Depression. Depression comes when the sent one finally realizes the inevitable. There is no way to avoid the loss. Similar to my opening story, the sent one cries, “What have I gotten myself into?!”

Testing. When sent ones begin seeking realistic solutions to work through the grief, they are testing ways to move forward. This trial-and-error process takes courage. For example, the sent one says, “Even though I was threatened on this street, maybe I can still go down it, but just at a different time of day.”

Acceptance. This is finally finding a way forward. It’s a refusal to remain in any of the prior stages, though the emotion of those stages may still sometimes appear.

One caveat to the process above is that occasionally sent ones will be unable to even identify their specific source(s) of grief. There can be so much sensory overload and daily demands that they don’t even know why they’re feeling the way they are. In this case it will take time, self-reflection, loving relationships, and possibly even counseling (depending on the severity of the shock).

It’s also important to note two unexpected forms of culture shock, which can thus be far more negatively impactful. One is reentry culture shock, what I often call “missionary kryptonite”. Imagine going through all the grief of transitioning cultures, only to have to do it again upon returning to their “home” (which isn’t actually “home” anymore). The sent ones’ cultural norms and identities have changed, but those of the home culture have not. It’s very disorienting.

A second overlooked form of culture shock is that which children experience. They are aptly described as Third Culture Kids (TCKs), that is, not fully belonging to either the home culture or field culture. For example, once I provided an art therapy session for a group of TCKs, and we asked them to draw a depiction of “home” (something other than a house). One participant drew a suitcase. Another simply drew a question mark. Imagine, then, the further disorientation of reentry, which for TCKs is more like “entry” to a foreign culture. That is not to mention how the instability of their parents’ culture shock creates their own instability. It’s critical to prepare families for these realities.

Reactively Addressing Culture Shock

It’s a meaningful step to give candidates awareness of culture shock, and to affirm that navigating it well will actually be a significant part of their work. However, that’s only half of what the sending church can do. Once the candidates are sent, and once they’re in the tumultuous waves of culture shock, they will need your help. What does reactively addressing culture shock look like?

Well, for an easily overlooked vision from Scripture, just consider how God the Father cared for his missionary Son. Certainly Jesus experienced disorientation and grief as he took on humanity. But instead of abandoning him, the Father drew near (Jesus even said himself, “The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone,” John 8:29). The Father was available to him, gave verbal affirmation to him, and heard his cries (in addition to many other forms of loving support). Even though we know this flowed from their perfect union in the Godhead, it’s still a stirring example for the sending church to follow.

At the heart of this kind of support is relationship. Churches can most effectively help sent ones navigate culture shock in the context of ongoing, reciprocal relationships. Here are some important expressions of such relationships (which you can utilize and/or train advocates in your church to utilize):

Be compassionate. Listening to someone pour out their frustrations that come from culture shock—especially when you are outside that cultural context—can itself be a frustrating experience. As you can see in the stages of grief above, the interactions may be a bit of a rollercoaster. Furthermore, when the processes of culture shock and fatigue drag on, it’s often a discipline to remain compassionate. But being a safe place for sent ones to honestly share could be all they need.

Ask good questions. Take a deep interest in them. Don’t settle for surface conversations. Ask questions that go beyond the culture itself. This may include inquiring about their physical health (diet, sleep, exercise), marriage, children, hobbies, rhythms of rest (Sabbath, vacations, etc.), relationships with the church, agency, teammates, and nationals, and anything else that you think might draw them out. If nothing else, this may help them to see life beyond the culture.

Listen actively. When you’re asking these questions, be sure to listen well. This means fully concentrating on what is being said rather than just passively hearing. It’s listening with spiritual sensitivity. You may have heard the counsel in marriage (especially for husbands), “Don’t just listen to what she says, listen to what she means.” This may allow you to read between the lines, draw out the deeper troubles, and minister to the soul.

Do not fix. As much as possible, refrain from giving advice. It’s tempting in such conversations to try to fix the situation. However, remember that God is working to bring life out of the sent one’s death to cultural preferences. That is a process you can support, but not suddenly resolve. If they ask your perspective, then share. If you are burdened to suggest something, ask first (“Would it be ok if I share a thought about this?”). And by no means resort to the unfortunately common statement, “Well, why don’t you just come back home?”

Recognize the signs. Sometimes sent ones will lack the self-awareness or willingness to share their culture shock with you. Therefore it’s important to be on the lookout for signs of trouble. Some of them include a prolonged lack of response to your communication, an emotional rollercoaster, a complete denial of any problems with the new culture, withdrawal into enclaves from the culture, commonly using “us” and “them” language, and seemingly irrational decisions. If you begin to see these signs, pray and press in gently rather than assuming everything is fine.

You (and/or advocates from your church) can lay a strong foundation of relationship by utilizing the five approaches above. Then you can build on that foundation in three ways:

Encourage with the Gospel

Missions is often defined as the movement of the gospel through us. But a more holistic understanding of missions is the gospel also flowing in us. In fact, if the work of the gospel does not continue to conform us to the image of Christ, then it limits our ability to bless others. Thus when you are helping sent ones navigate culture shock, the goal isn’t simply to keep them on the field. The goal is to keep them abiding in Christ. The best way to do that is to point them to the gospel. The gospel declares that Jesus is their anchor. In the midst of endless changes (and daily deaths to self), he is their unchanging One. Their greatest hope isn’t simply to replace one culture with another. It’s to further embrace their identity as sojourners and strangers who are longing to be with Jesus, their true home. This is encouragement for the soul.

Exhort Toward Relationships

When it comes to the care sent ones need, you simply can’t do it all. The hardships of following Christ (especially overseas!) requires a community of support. Remind sent ones of this. If you are going to exhort them toward something, let it be toward other important relationships: their spouse, friends, teammates, supervisors, pastors, mentors, counselors, etc. If the sent one is an introvert, she will especially need this. If she is an extrovert, she may need encouragement to be intentional in her time with others (instead of passively absorbing their presence). Culture shock can have a world-shrinking, isolating, self-obsessive effect. Healthy relationships can shift the tide.

Escalate When Necessary

Finally, there may come moments when you need to involve others who have more experience and access to the sent one. This could be because you’ve observed in them concerning language and behavior such as severe depression, suicidal ideation, threats, abuse, withdrawal from loved ones, disappearances, making travel plans to leave the country, substance abuse, neglect of responsibilities, spiritual apathy, lying, sexual immorality, excessive changes in weight or appearance, etc. Prepare yourself for such moments by not putting sent ones on a pedestal. Don’t make promises to never tell anyone, especially if there is illegal activity that must be reported. Instead, know who to escalate the situation to, and be willing to kindly say that you need to involve another person. Hopefully this will not happen, but better to be prepared.

The Overcomable Shock

I walked through 1,095 days of culture shock—and lived to tell the tale. What a gift it was to have loving relationships that helped me survive the rollercoaster. But I didn’t just survive—I died! That’s right, I died to my cultural preferences, to my pride, to my self-dependence. And I came alive more to Christ and to a culture that was not my own.

Imagine the joy of enabling sent ones to overcome the shock that claims so many. It’s the profound work of seeing them die to themselves, thrive in a foreign culture, and make disciples among the nations. The apostle John described this kind of support as being “fellow workers for the truth” (3 John 8). Amen to that! You can be more than just an appreciated supporter—you can be a fellow worker for the truth.

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