Dealing with Reverse Culture Shock

Beware of Setting Your Expectations Too High on Furlough

­­Culture shock is a feeling that can happen to us when we are in cultural situations that are different from our expectations­—usually in a bad way. With this definition in mind, we would guess that reverse culture shock should not exist. The first reason we would think reverse culture shock doesn’t happen is that missionaries coming from America should know what to expect. Second, the situation in America is usually much better than where we serve, so it can’t be different “in a bad way” from what we are used to.

But many times, that is not the case, and I will give you two reasons why. First, while we are away, our memory of America becomes this rosy paradise where everything is wonderful, thus raising our expectations. Second, the place we are from in America changes so much, that we don’t know what to expect!

When I first went to Russia, I had low expectations about what I would encounter there. Therefore, I don’t think I was very shocked. In fact, I believe the worst case of culture shock I experienced was not in Russia, but a type of reverse culture shock in Finland, where my expectations were very high. In an earlier stage of our ministry, my wife and I had to leave Russia every six months, due to visa requirements. My mother provided us a very nice place to stay in Finland.

I can say, without any doubt in my mind, that the place we stayed in was nicer than any of our accommodations in Russia. It was spacious with every convenience available, very quiet, and incredibly clean, all of which I was expecting. What I didn’t expect was the heat.

Kuusamo, the town we stayed in, was thirty-seven miles from the Arctic Circle. We saw multiple reindeer on our way. It was July when we went, but I was not expecting heat. To deal with the extreme cold most of the year, the Finnish people try to build their buildings air tight. They do a great job at this. Our cabin was about 110 degrees inside, because no one had opened any windows. I asked about air-conditioning and the Finnish man behind the desk looked at me and said, “This is northern Finland, sir, why would we pay for cold?”

In short, the cabin was a sauna. I should have expected this, after all the Finnish people love saunas. When their peace keepers served in the first Iraq war, the very first thing their army did

I had a terrible attitude. We had traveled fourteen hours that day in a car with no air conditioning, and a baby that was letting us know about it. I could not wait to get to a nice place and relax. I was a young missionary on vacation, and I was expecting a nice experience. I am afraid I did not act like Jesus that day. I was not content in whatsoever state I was.

The truth is, it really wasn’t a big deal. We opened all the windows and aired the place out, and in a day it was very enjoyable. When I expected difficult circumstances, I was fine, when I expected good circumstances, I was caught off guard, and I disappointed the Lord Jesus.

I share all of this with you to say that some of the most dangerous times in your ministry can be when you come back to America, because this is when expectations can become unrealistic, and missionaries can easily become discouraged with what they encounter.

Here are some expectations to avoid:

1. Don’t expect everyone to care about your mission field as much as you do. If God burdened their hearts about your place of service as much as He burdened yours, they would be serving there. Your job is not to expect a burden from other Christians, but to increase their burden for souls. If you are honest with yourself, you don’t have as great a burden for other places that you don’t see everyday either.

Mine eye affecteth mine heart because of all the daughters of my city.—Lamentations 3:51

2. Don’t expect everyone you knew to be in the same place where you left them. When you are a missionary, no one calls you to let you know all of the bad things that have happened in different ministries. People want to encourage you, not discourage you. When you come back to America you find out all that five people you went to Bible college with are no longer serving the Lord. Instead of a little trickle, it becomes one big bucket of ice water. It seems like everyone just up and decided to quit. However, if we keep our eyes on the faithfulness of the Lord Jesus Christ, even if everyone did quit serving the Lord on the same day, it would not cause us to lose heart.

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.—1 Corinthians 15:58

3. Don’t expect everyone to live financially like you or your church. You may come from a country where some of your church members make 150 dollars or less each month, to America where that kind of money would not cover a phone bill. If we are not careful we can either be lifted up with pride, or look at other Christian brethren with contempt. This is a completely unfair reaction from us. God expects different levels of sacrifice from different people. Peter, after learning what kind of death he would die, asked if John was going to sacrifice as much as him. What did Jesus tell him?

Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.—John 21:22

Don’t be silent about the hardships on your mission field. They can help people understand sacrifice in a deeper way (2 Corinthians 8:1–5). However, don’t forget that the Lord has not required everyone to sacrifice the same.

4. Don’t expect unsaved family members and friends to understand why you do what you do. When you left for the mission field, and God used you to reach people with the gospel, this confirmed the calling God put on your life. You can’t imagine doing anything else that would be as important or meaningful. However, your unsaved friends and family are just as confused about it as they were when you first started deputation. Tell them about the Lord again, but don’t expect them to understand, because if they really did understand, they would be saved.

For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.—1 Corinthians 1:18

5. Don’t expect the cost of being a missionary to be small. When you look at the faces of your aging loved ones at the airport as they come to meet you, and notice they are unmistakably older, it hits you that a good portion of their lives has gone by, and you have not been there for it. This is the cost you pay for having the honor of serving God on a foreign field. It’s not missing peanut butter or Dr. Pepper, but the people who loved you and still do.

Remember that your first love must be the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and when you go to the mission field, He is right there with you. Also keep in mind that we will have all of eternity to spend with the saints of God whom we love dearly, but we only have today to make a difference in the place God has called us!

For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.—Romans 8:18–19

I have good news about culture shock, there won’t be any in Heaven because nothing will be less than we expect.

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