We’re pleased to share today’s guest post by James Davis. We followed the Davis family’s adventure as they prepared to leave the USA, and heard from them again as they adjusted to life on the Arabian Peninsula. Now back in the US for a time, James writes on the subject of re-entering your home culture. Turns out it’s not as simple as you might think…

When God calls you to move across cultures it’s highly exciting.

The process of adapting to your new culture is tricky but ultimately highly rewarding as you’re increasingly able to function comfortably within your new host culture. If there’s a language component to your move, perhaps you’ve reached the stage where you can make most daily transactions in using your new language. It becomes the new medium for friendships – you’re starting to use this new language intuitively and that in itself is a major thrill.

But the subject of this blog is reverse culture shock, which I’ve dubbed the “Silent Killer.” What if God calls you to move back “home?”

Sometimes this can happen unexpectedly. I have friends who had a close family member pass away and they sensed it was right to return for a period of time. Often decisions to return happen like this, prompted by some point of crisis. Perhaps the developing political situation in your host culture means you’ve got to go. Perhaps war breaks out. Perhaps, as was the case for my friends, a family member passes away. Perhaps there’s some other “happening” that God speaks through. In any case and however the decision transpires, the bottom line becomes this: God is calling you to return.

God called us (my pregnant wife, our son and myself) to move out to the Arabian Peninsula in 2013, and we recently returned back to the USA after spending 18 months in the MidEast. For us re-entry isn’t an academic exercise, but a process we’re walking through with God.

Here are 3 practical tips for dealing with reverse culture shock, before I deliver a necessary theological knockout punch.

(Clue: you’re probably motivated by the “task:” “Seeing all peoples come to faith!” “To the ends of the earth!” “Lets go!”  There is, however, something else we need to remember.)

1) Leave well

As we were preparing to leave the Arabian Peninsula a dear friend who is a spiritual father to me said this: “How you leave determines how you cleave.”

Cleaving here is the process of attaching to something new. His point was this; our current (at that time) season was coming to a close and a new season was beginning. It was important for us to tie up relationships, take care of any lingering unforgiveness and unresolved emotion associated with our time on the Arabian Peninsula. That dear friend had another word for us as well, which I’ll include here also because he said it so well:

Here’s a story that illustrates what can happen when you don’t do what my friend suggested.

Two men found an old woman waiting to cross a river. A storm had swept away the bridge that spanned the river, and the old woman was considering her options. She asked the two men for help. One responded gladly and said “Yes.” The other grudgingly agreed, and they carried her safely to the other side of the river and set her down. Several miles down the road, the reluctant one was still complaining about the imposition the old woman had been.

“My back hurts from carrying her,” he complained. “Why are you singing and smiling?” Turning to look at his companion the other man happily declared “My back doesn’t hurt at all, but that’s the difference between you and me – I put the old lady down several miles ago after crossed the river. You’re still carrying her!”

So wherever you’re at as you think about returning, do take a moment to think and pray about this: Don’t be like the man in the story who gave himself a bad back. Do what it takes to leave well.

2) Reinculturate

That’s not even a word. But I’ll go on and explain it anyway.

When you move cross culturally you decide to adopt the posture of a learner within your host culture. It doesn’t bode well if you barge in as the “western know-it-all” who has come to teach the “heathens” how to live the Christian life. We go as learners, eager to understand how locals view the world. What motivates them? How do they do family? What is their worldview? Its from that position of inhabiting and living within their culture that we are able to see the Gospel incarnate within their world.

Jesus, of course, is our primary example of this. He didn’t pour down salvation from afar, shouting from the heavens “Salvation is through me!!” Not at all! There was a time in history when you could smell his sweat, see his blood and literally touch his skin. He became flesh. And we’re called to incarnate similarly into our host culture.

When you return, I encourage you to approach your “home” culture like Jesus. Become a learner again. Re-inculturate. Truthfully, this is how all believers are called to live at all times within any culture they find themselves in. Doesn’t matter if you’re Spanish and living in Spain – Barcelona is not your home! Heaven is. You’re a new creation, gone is the old. The gospel story you are now a part of goes deeper than your nationality or culture. Yes, it might feel eerily familiar (or shockingly unfamiliar if you’ve been gone for a while) if you’ve left and then returned again. But as you return, make a choice to live proactively where you’re at – to reinculturate and resolve to make Christ known by getting stuck into real life with the people He places around you.

Finally a quick strongly-worded quote from Peter Jordan’s book (referenced below the post) regarding finding your place within your local church:

“Many missionaries who return home make the process of fitting back into their church difficult for themselves. They approach things with an attitude that stinks. They are proud, arrogant and critical. They expect the church to adjust to them, instead of adjusting themselves to the church. In so doing, they neglect the example of Christ, who humbly adapted himself to our world in order to enter it and minister life to people.”

3) Deal with all things relationally

Different cross cultural workers relate to their sending churches differently. At this juncture it becomes critical to reassess the strength of that sending relationship and, if necessary, be intentional about strengthening it.

As you reenter a familiar church environment, who is there to support you? Who knows what you’ve been through? Has there been regular support and updates while you’ve been away? Of course, there are instances when its impossible (or, in the very least, difficult) to communicate with those who sent you. But generally due to the accessibility of technology it is possible and therefore highly advantageous to stay connected to those who’ve sent you.

As you return, take time to spend with key friends who know you and understand what you’ve been through. These are often people who are gifted listeners, able to draw you out and help you to externalise some of the craziness of your interior world.

Our family have benefited greatly from these people as we’ve returned. I have one peer who sends me a text every two weeks inviting me out for an early morning coffee. When I meet him he asks me questions, listens, legitimises my frustrations and speaks truth to me as I exemplify the confused decision making process that often typifies those working through reverse culture shock. I have two other friends (both are like spiritual fathers) who often initiate with me as well. I’ve been so grateful for their love and compassion, and for the truth they have spoken into my life.

I wish I could point you towards some resources at this point, but sadly there is little out there that addresses this need from the viewpoint of the community of faith, the church. This is perhaps because churches tend to farm out their cross cultural workers to missions agencies. Yet when cross cultural workers return, it is their church who are on-the-ground with them, being Jesus’ feet and hands as they go through reverse culture shock. We need churches that are mobilised for world mission, even as they are mobilised for local mission. Such churches will be able to meet the needs of those returning from a season of working cross-culturally.

One final note…

Moving cross culturally is tough. There’s no way around it. It always involves a component of suffering. It’s a season of adjustment where expectations and norms will be challenged, regardless of whether you’re leaving or returning.

Paul had some cross-cultural experiences, which formed the bedrock for many of his letters to the believers in the early church. In 2 Corinthians 1 he writes:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,
who comforts us in all our affliction” (v3-4b).

Remember the Father. Remember his manifold mercies. Receive his comfort.

What happens as we return to what once was home can push us down one of two roads. The first is one where we don’t choose to face up to what we’re going through – we don’t acknowledge it. The pain of adjustment. The friendships that you’ll lose as you leave your host culture. The loss of gospel influence in your friends’ lives. The loss of language, as you’ll be moving back to a place where opportunities to continue your linguistic development will be more limited. These are all difficult things to grapple with. It can be tempting to bury your head in the sand with all these emotions, to not acknowledge them before God. This road is a path of denial and results in the loss of intimacy with the Father. The second road is much preferable.

One day, after being back in the US for several weeks, God spoke to me and showed me a different, better way. I was reading Matthew 7 and was struck by the dialogue between Jesus and a group of “heaven hopefuls” on judgement day. This group felt that they would gain entrance by virtue of their powerful prophesies and many miracles. After all, these things were done in Jesus’s name! Yet Jesus tells them to “go away.” He calls them “evildoers.” He refuses them entrance.

As I read this I was shocked. Prophecies and miracles, these are things I aspired to. Could there be something more? Something I was missing? As I thought and prayed about these things God drew my gaze to a short phrase in the dialogue, and it stung like a bee. Jesus said to that group;

“I never knew you.”

I thought about that simple phrase. I tried to get my head around it and was confused. Jesus knows men’s hearts (John 2:24), so how could it be that he didn’t know them?! Then it clicked. From where Jesus stood, knowing all things, of course he knew them. But for them, they hadn’t made themselves known to Jesus. They hadn’t offered themselves voluntarily up to him. They hadn’t engaged with him, been vulnerable with him, placed a high value on intimacy with him.

The Spirit burned softly in my heart as I thought about it. In my confusion and disorientation Jesus wanted me to offer all I am to him again. To share my heart with him, all the hurt and sadness. All of it.

If you’re returning again to what was once home I hope some of those practical pointers will prove to be helpful. Most importantly, however, don’t forget that final part.

Share it all with Jesus.


Recommended resources:

Ordering Your Private World, Gordon Macdonald

Re Entry: Making The Transition From Missions To Life At Home, Peter Jordan

Burn Up or Splash Down: Surviving the Culture Shock of Re-Entry, Marion Knell

Serving as Senders, Neil Pirolo. (Available free online)