I spent the summer of 2014 in a Central Asian country on a prolonged vision trip to see if the Lord was leading me to serve there long-term. I had only been there a couple of weeks when reality set in. The excitement of a new place, a beautiful city, and a culture full of new experiences wore off pretty quickly.
Jet lag seemed to linger more than normal. I couldn’t sleep well. I grew frustrated at the constant city noise and tired of the food. I knew none of the language. I couldn’t figure out how to relate to the people. I certainly didn’t expect them to adhere to my own cultural norms, but I had a hard time learning how to relate to theirs. The call to prayer that rang five times a day reminded me of the spiritual darkness of the place, and I felt helpless to do anything about it.
If you’ve spent more than a couple of weeks in a different culture, like me, you likely experienced culture shock. Culture shock sets in when the unfamiliarity and differences of a new culture become overwhelming and disorienting.
For missionaries who spend years in a new place, culture shock typically occurs during their first year. As the honeymoon stage of entering a new culture wears off, differences become apparent and missionaries can feel frustration, anxiety, loneliness, and other difficult emotions as they try to navigate a foreign land they’re supposed to call home.
“Having spent a significant amount of time learning to be comfortable in another culture, those who return home may have a different view of the culture in which they grew up.”
Eventually, though, they adjust. As they learn language, become familiar with social norms, make friends, and accept the differences of their host country, it no longer seems so new and unfamiliar. They begin to adapt to their new environment and are able to participate more comfortably in everyday life.
Culture shock, even if we haven’t all experienced it, is likely a familiar concept. We can conceptually understand that it happens. It makes sense—of course adapting to a new culture would be difficult.
But did you know that there is also such thing as “reverse culture shock?”
What Is Reverse Culture Shock?
Reverse culture shock is almost identical to culture shock, only it happens when a person returns to their home culture. Having spent a significant amount of time learning to be comfortable in another culture, missionaries who return home may have a different view of the culture in which they grew up. They may even be homesick for the culture they left. Returned missionaries face the reality of adjusting to a place that should be familiar but is no longer.
For those of us who have not spent a significant amount of time overseas, the idea of reverse culture shock may be confusing. After all, those coming back to America are supposedly coming home. They are coming back to everything that should be familiar and comfortable.
But the reality is, those who have made a home in a new culture likely don’t feel like they’re coming home. Not only does their home culture seem more foreign, but things at home also are not as they left them. Friends may have moved, gotten married, or had babies. Perhaps a family member passed away while they were gone. All of these factors contribute to reverse culture shock.
How Can the Local Church Help?
This is where the local church comes in. It is important for us to be familiar with the concept of reverse culture shock and expect it to happen when our missionary friends return from the field. While we may have supported them while they were overseas, the support doesn’t stop when they come back. These are some ways we can support missionaries as they return home.
“While we may have supported them while they were overseas, the support doesn’t stop when they come back.”
Prayer should precede everything we do. When our missionaries are coming home, we should pray for all aspects of their transition.
We should pray that they are able to readjust to the culture they once called home. We should pray for their emotional, mental, and spiritual state—that they would trust that the Lord who sustained them during their time overseas is the same Lord who will guide them in their transition home. We should pray that the Lord will provide a home, a job, a supportive church community, and other basic needs.
We should also pray that we would humbly listen, encourage, and help them transition home as best we can.
A listening ear goes a long way. Genuinely care about their time overseas and the people they served. Ask them questions about their host culture and their ministry—and not how their “trip” was. Go with them to a restaurant that serves the food they ate overseas. Pray with them for the friends they left behind who may not know Jesus. Allow them to share stories with you to help them verbally process what they’re feeling and how they may be struggling. Show hospitality and introduce them to new friends who can also help them.
Respond with Grace
Parts of American culture may frustrate a returned missionary. I’ve had several missionary friends who came home and were appalled by how much food costs here—even fast food. That’s just one small example of reverse culture shock.
We may not understand why something that seems so normal to us is so frustrating to someone who is from America. But many missionaries have spent so much time away from America that cultural norms are no longer normal for them. If and when frustrations occur, respond with grace and as much understanding as you can.
Along those lines, be patient with your friends. I’ve known missionaries who seamlessly move between cultures, but I also know many others who take months to years to readjust to American culture, if at all. Some missionaries, especially those who have spent the majority of their lives overseas, may never feel at home again in America.
At whatever stage your returned missionary friends may be, don’t expect them to be the same person they were when they left. Embrace their hodgepodge of cultural attributes as they try to combine the culture they were born in with the culture they adopted.
Offer Practical Help
Returned missionaries have a lot of logistics to contend with when they come back to America, which contributes to reverse culture shock. These may include but aren’t limited to: housing, vehicles, jobs, insurance, schools, doctors, and more. Missionaries become accustomed to figuring out logistics in their host countries, so readjusting to America’s systems can be stressful and discombobulating. Dealing with health insurance is stressful for anyone—just think how that stress might be compounded if you were trying to figure it out after having lived overseas for years.
“The Lord who sustained them during their time overseas is the same Lord who will guide them in their transition home.”
There are many ways you can practically help with these logistics. Offer to watch their kids while they are looking for a place to live. Lend them a vehicle while they search for one of their own. If you know of any, give them recommendations for good doctors and insurance agents. Pass on any information you may hear about potential job openings.
It is an evidence of God’s grace that all believers, including returned missionaries, can fellowship with other believers in the community of the local church. As the church, we have the opportunity to support missionaries through all stages of their service, including their return as they experience reverse culture shock and adjusting to life in the place they once called home.
Meredith Cook is a content editor for the International Mission Board. She has an MDiv in missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She and her husband live in Houston, Texas. Find her on Twitter.