Missions And The Shocking Reality Of Culture Shock

All missionaries struggle with culture shock. The question is not if, but how and when it will hit you.

Many missionaries think they have culture shock licked before they ever leave their home. We try to intellectualize culture shock. We think, “Ok, I get it. There is going to be poverty, new food, new language and new customs. Great. Let’s move on.” The reality is culture shock is exhausting. You don’t realize how much your senses are bombarded by new sounds, sights, tastes and experiences. It wears a person down to continually process the external stimulus.

 

Missionaries read about it, study it and most have experienced it. But, when they arrive on the mission field few things are as surprising as culture shock. The intensity of their initial culture shock and its lengthy duration are startling to most missionaries.

When, how and how often culture shock hits is different for each missionary. Some missionaries are hit hard, right upon arrival, while others don’t get hit with it for months or years. Culture shock is hard to describe, but it is generally thought of as being negatively impacted by an unfamiliar way of life. Sometimes it is little differences, while other times it is a cumulative effect. Some people respond with sadness while others manifest their culture shock with anger or frustration.

Shocking

Merriam-Webster’s says culture shock is, “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation.” It is a human response to sin. Culture shock occurs because we covet what we know. Our sinful heart longs for the comfort of the familiar.

Understanding what culture shock is and experiencing other cultures can help lessen the intensity and duration of culture shock. Intellectually, it makes sense that all cultures are going to be different, and that those differences can weigh on a person. The more cultural diversity a missionary is exposed to before they arrive on the mission field the quicker they will adjust. Investing time in experiencing other cultures, even if it is not your new culture, will help prepare your brain, heart and soul for the shock of a new culture.

It sounds so basic, but by exposing themselves to other cultures they begin to grasp the idea the world is truly different than their home. Their culture is not what life is like in the rest of the world. Intellectually this makes sense. Which is why culture shock can be so, well, shocking.

Exposure

Before you start to experience other cultures on the mission field, expose yourself to cultural diversity in your own city. Your exposure does not necessarily need to be similar to the place you will serve, just different than what you are used to.

Go to an ethnic neighborhood in your own city. Go clothing shopping, get a haircut, eat at a restaurant, read a community newspaper, go to a movie. Experience the differences. Once you have experienced things on the surface, go deeper. Volunteer in other ethnic communities, attend church, teach English, help kids with homework, make some friends, and get yourself invited into homes. This all sounds very awkward and uncomfortable. That is the point. Missions is about being awkward and uncomfortable all the time.

It doesn’t matter that the sub-culture you are experiencing in your home city is different than your future ministry home. The point is to experience differences. Be present when a woman exposes herself to nurse a baby. Walk by an old woman who spits on the sidewalk. Experience loud, public verbal altercations. The idea is that you come to the reality that the world is huge and diverse and your exposure to it is limited. The faster you learn that things are just different outside your world the better you will be. Once you can look at other cultures and think to yourself, “Well, that was unexpected and different,” and you can just move on the faster you will be able to adjust. Developing that valuable skill will benefit you no matter where you work or live or minister.

Not Me

Many missionaries think they have culture shock licked before they ever leave their home. We try to intellectualize culture shock. We think, “Ok, I get it. There is going to be poverty, new food, new language and new customs. Great. Let’s move on.” The reality is culture shock is exhausting. You don’t realize how much your senses are bombarded by new sounds, sights, tastes and experiences. It wears a person down to continually process the external stimulus.

Then add in experiences like not being able to communicate, or understand anything, moral dilemmas and always getting lost. There is nothing more humbling than to be pulled from your home culture, where you are relatively smart and can communicate, and being plopped into a situation where you sound like an uneducated three-year-old and nothing makes sense.

All missionaries struggle with culture shock. The question is not if, but how and when it will hit you. Members of the same family are hit differently, at different times and with different manifestations. Give yourself and those around you plenty of grace.

Culture shock sanctifies us and makes us more open to flexibility in God’s service. It is humbling, frustrating and in some cases emotionally crippling. You can’t control it, but you can diminish the negative impact it will have on you.

Expect it and even embrace it. Like the Apostle Paul, thank God for the thorn he has given you. Don’t ignore it or view it as a sign of weakness. Culture shock is a natural and common experience for almost all missionaries. When it does hit you, use it as yet another reason to lean into the mercy of Jesus Christ.

Mike Pettengill is a missionary serving in Equatorial Guinea with Mission to the World (www.mtw.org).  He previously served seven and a half years as a missionary in Honduras. To learn more about the Pettengills’ mission work visit Pettengill Missionaries.