9 Tips for Surviving and Thriving in Extreme Places

Katelyn Summers* could write the book on roughing it.

She’s spent fifteen years sharing the gospel with two unreached people groups in remote Southeast Asian villages, and it’s been anything but easy. Sometimes she hikes for hours to get to secluded mountain villages. Other times she rides in a small wooden boat to reach lakeside settlements that don’t have the Bible in their language. When she reaches her destination, she often finds that most locals have never heard about Jesus and don’t have any interest in doing so.

There’s no doubt it takes gumption to commit to long-term ministry among unreached people groups in extreme places. Although Summers has experienced her share of challenges, she remains steadfast in her faith and her task of sharing the gospel.

So what exactly is it that prepares someone for trading a mattress for long nights on the floor? For a transition from hair dryers and bedside lamps and clothes washers to life without electricity altogether? You may feel God’s call to serve in tough places but aren’t sure how to psych yourself up for sparse amenities and cold showers. Here is what you can learn from Summers’ experience to thrive in an extreme place:

1. Be grounded in the Scriptures before you come

Maybe it’s stating the obvious, but this is often a hard-fought battle. If you’re not convinced of the importance of daily Bible reading and prayer before you move overseas, then you’re probably not going to do it while you’re on the field. Don’t forsake the most important thing—your relationship with God.

“Once you’re out there and all alone, it’s all you have,” Summers said.

2. Go ahead and throw out your expectations

One of the first things Summers said when she reached her location was, “Where is the road?” She quickly learned that she had to stop expecting modern conveniences, such as paved roads, that many Westerners take for granted. Since settling in, she’s also grown accustomed to sleeping on floors, having no electricity, and bathing in rivers.

One of the more helpful practices to adopt early is to go in with low expectations of what you will have and experience. If you’re hoping for hot water and there is none, there’s an unmet expectation to process. Too many disappointments will undoubtedly hurt morale, which can become a foothold for crippling discouragement. If you go in not expecting hot water and it happens to be available, it becomes an unexpected surprise and a blessing.

Bottom line: Everything, literally everything, in an extreme place can be different from what you’re used to. One of the best things you can do is to laugh and leap wholeheartedly into that cold water.

3. Jump in and join the conga line

The best way to remain an outsider is to isolate yourself from the unfamiliar customs and cultural practices. Don’t be shy about immersing yourself in the culture. As soon as you arrive, surround yourself with nationals. Ask questions, adopt the local dress code, learn to cook their food, and try to live like a local. But don’t expect those relationships to bloom overnight.

“It took years for [locals] to respect us, and now they love us,” Summers said.

Ignore that self-inflicted pressure (and maybe those well-meaning questions from church members at home) and trust God to bring the results.

4. Be okay with having nothing to write home about

Your first few newsletters home will be easy to write because your adventures, your home, and your language learning will be new. But after some time, the pressure will slowly mount for you to have a gripping story about someone coming to faith, and you may not have one. Despite Summers’ living in the same village for a while, no one has believed in Jesus.

Ignore that self-inflicted pressure (and maybe those well-meaning questions from church members at home) and trust God to bring the results.

5. That said, don’t keep your mouth shut

You may work hard and invest many hours, yet see little visible spiritual fruit. Don’t be discouraged. Remain steadfast in the work God has called you to. As long as you follow him and faithfully share the gospel, he will work in his time. You are not responsible for the fruit of your labor. Only God can call people to himself.

6. Don’t give away your suitcases

Just because you’ve committed to serving long term doesn’t guarantee you’ll actually get to stay in a country long term. Anything can happen, from debilitating illness that brings you home to government opposition that forces you out. Therefore, it’s important to hold future plans with open hands and let that reality compel you to share the gospel with urgency.

“I’ve been close so many times to having my work taken away,” Summers said. “I realize how urgent it is, and my time is short.”

7. There are no brownie points for doing this solo

You can’t do this alone. You need encouragement from local believers, and you need prayer support from churches back home.

As a single woman, Summers is as independent as they come, but that doesn’t stop her from surrounding herself with like-minded believers. She and her staff of local believers live in the same home and work together on the village farm. “Strong relationships—that’s what has really kept me here,” she said.

8. Have a reason to be there

Many locals in extreme places are suspicious of foreigners. Chalk it up to stereotypes of Westerners or the damaging faux pas of well-meaning missionaries who have gone before you. As a result, many unreached people groups won’t let you stick around unless you have a legitimate reason to be there.

Because Summers couldn’t stay in the country long term as a tourist, she needed a legitimate purpose for living there. So she started a clean water project to help people avoid getting sick from drinking contaminated water.

Professionals with marketable skills (i.e., business, medicine, research, education) are more likely to find a welcome mat and establish a long-term presence. Having a professional background opens limitless doors to otherwise closed places.

9. Don’t let inexperience stop you

Although she had previously worked on her grandfather’s farm in the United States, Summers had to learn about Southeast Asian water systems and agriculture. She found a colleague to teach her how to provide clean water and she attended a local agriculture training. She now works on a farm where her team makes soap, grows coffee beans, and produces bricks for homes and other buildings.

*Name changed.