I recently came across this quote on the website of the Youth Hostel Association.  It sounds great, in its context of being adventurous and going places, and those of us who have travelled in cross-cultural mission will be only too aware how much we have changed as a result of our experiences.

We have taken on board aspects of other cultures which we have found valuable.  Learning to express ideas in another language has helped us appreciate different ways of perceiving the world.  Our dietary preferences will have changed – whether we love the food in our host country or are more enthusiastic for the food we grew up with.  We feel richer for the privilege of having stepped outside our own culture and embraced other cultures.

The downside of this is that by exposing ourselves to other places, we have become people who are not the same as we would have been if we had stayed home.

Mission workers don’t usually notice this until it’s time to return to their ‘home’ culture.  Then they discover that they don’t really fit in any more.  They can experience various levels of stress as the difference slowly dawns on them.  This is something we know as ‘reverse culture shock’, and the effects can include irritability, tearfulness and anger as they try to find an equilibrium in a world that doesn’t feel the same as they think it should.  It’s often been observed that reverse culture shock is worse than the culture shock experienced when first moving abroad, largely because it is so unexpected.

Particularly difficult issues which can contribute to reverse culture shock include:

  • feeling that a church is more concerned about apparently trivial issues concerning its Sunday service than it is about world mission;
  • hearing about friends plans for holidays, home extensions and new cars when they don’t appear to be at all interested in world mission;
  • finding people spectacularly disinterested in what mission workers have been doing for the last few years.

At this time of year, many mission workers are back in their sending countries on home assignment.  This is a period of a few months when their work is to reconnect with churches, agency and family while raising new support, promoting the work of their agency, and having routine reviews and checkups.  Their time here is often too brief for them to struggle with reverse culture shock, but it may impact some of them.  So what can we do to help them?

  • Remember that they may be disorientated by changes while they’ve been away. Ask them what’s changed, how they feel about it, and be ready to engage with any hurt or anger they’re feeling.  Explain changes that have happened recently and show them how to do things.
  • Show interest in what they’ve been doing. Even though you may not understand everything, remember that this is a vocation they feel passionate about, and they want to talk about it.
  • Recognise that they’re tired. Often they have been travelling around the country, sleeping in different beds, answering the same questions day after day.  Give them some space in which they don’t have to ‘perform’.
  • Understand that your country is no longer ‘home’ for them, especially their kids. When they first get back they may be longing for Sunday roast or Shepherd’s Pie, but after a couple of months they’re probably desperate for nshima or dhal.
  • Realise that as they’ve changed (and you may have too) the nature of your friendship may have changed. Work hard to establish common ground and interests so that you can maintain your friendship well.
  • Encourage them to talk about their experiences in a formal debrief, either with their church missions team, their agency, or an external debriefer like Syzygy.

Home assignment can be a great joy for mission workers, but it can also be hard work.  Let’s try not to make it any harder than it has to be!