Upon arriving in South Asia, I began to embrace the challenging task of driving on a different side of the road with exponentially more traffic. Thankfully, the app on my smartphone provided the necessary directions to get to my destination and back home. Unfortunately, during this time, my phone company stopped supporting this app. I was left lost, confused, and frustrated for several months as I learned my way around without my navigational crutch.
My lack of a road map parallels navigating a foreign setting without understanding the rules and expectations of the culture. Tension, frustration, and disequilibrium are inevitable when you use a different cultural grid to interpret, evaluate, and interact with a new culture and people. Our mind, emotions, and interpretive lens to view the world can cause us to feel like we are walking in thick fog, if not outright darkness. The wide range of emotions and actions that come from this jarring realization and confusion is what missionaries call “culture shock.”
In this brief article, I argue that culture shock is not a temporary episode to erase but an ongoing tension to mediate for gospel purposes. Missionaries may develop cultural intelligence and strategies to cope effectively with cultural differences, but stress from being an outsider will always remain to one degree or another. The calling to gospel ministry among the nations requires that we humble ourselves, build relationships, and learn the language so we can communicate the gospel message with the hope that unbelievers will become worshippers of King Jesus.
Culture shock is not a temporary episode to erase but an ongoing tension to mediate for gospel purposes.
Culture shock describes the experience of foreigners as they realize they don’t fit in, don’t belong, and don’t have the knowledge and skills to adapt. We bring our cultural grid from our home culture and may move from amusement and awe of cultural differences to judgment and rejection. Our new culture and friends don’t align with our expectations and former communal rules. Therefore, our ability to trust, communicate, and interpret our world is confused. Of course, it is easier to point the finger and assume others are wrong or ignorant instead of seeing how we must adapt to a new cultural roadmap. It is hard to acclimate when we don’t know what to expect and others don’t know our expectations.
Upon arrival to a new country, the first shocking cultural reality is the language, as simple signs and speech are no longer discernible. Adults who are fully competent in their home country suddenly get slapped in the face with the realization that they are unable to give directions to a taxi driver to their hotel. Later, cultural stress arrives in others forms, such as differing expectations about relationships with nationals. Navigating the logistics of transportation, securing housing, and dealing with government offices is often slow and time-consuming.
Former conveniences and routines are no longer available, as everything is new, different, and confusing. Our physical bodies often rebel against the changes in climate, germs, food, and time zones. None of these alone would normally create a crisis, but the accumulation and comprehensive nature of so many minor issues may cause “death by a thousand cuts.”
A person experiencing cultural stress and shock often exhibits wide-ranging emotional responses, including anger, sadness, fear, withdrawal, confusion, depression, or frustration. It is especially disconcerting when everyone else seems to be living and relating in healthy ways, and your feelings and understandings are inconsistent with those of the people around. This pattern is not sustainable for experiencing healthy adjustment, relationships, self-identity, or communication. Some options for those in this kind of crisis are leaving, adjusting, or staying unhealthy and ill-adjusted to your new cross-cultural context.
None of the struggles of cross-cultural ministry alone would normally create a crisis, but the accumulation and comprehensive nature of so many minor issues may cause “death by a thousand cuts.”
In Cross-Cultural Connections, Duane Elmer argues that cultural differences will always lead to tension, embarrassment, and frustration. A wise cross-cultural missionary approaches cultural differences with openness, trust, and acceptance, while others prone to failure begin with fear, suspicion, and inflexibility. No matter your pre-determined attitude, tension is unavoidable once you enter a new cultural context. Elmer states that responding negatively to this shock with criticism and withdrawal will only lead to alienation and isolation. Those desiring to develop good rapport and understanding should adopt the coping strategies of observation, listening, and inquiry.
I believe there are some practical things effective missionaries can do to mediate ongoing cultural tensions more effectively. Here are a few ideas:
Abide in Christ. This practice is essential to every believer, especially those giving up personal comfort, control, and passions because of the greater desire to build cross-cultural relationships for gospel proclamation.
Don’t be a culture shock/stress denier. Acknowledge that you are normal and experiencing challenges adapting to a new context. Reach out to others with experience for encouragement and help along the way.
Learn the local language. Once you can communicate and build relationships, the feelings of being completely out of place as a foreigner will wane.
Develop relationships with nationals and get into one another's homes. No matter where you live in the world, you need relationships. Commit to sharing life with those around you instead of merely lamenting over changes and what you have lost.
Plan some getaways to refresh and take a break from the challenges of daily life. We are not machines, and this is not your host culture, so allow yourself time to refresh and renew.
Laugh … like a lot. The task of missions is serious, but that doesn’t mean we have to live at the highest intensity or take ourselves too seriously all the time.
Intentionally look for things to be thankful for, as this is a significant key to joy. Learn the habit of enjoying things about the culture, people, and food of your host culture. Look for God at work, and let this be what you speak about.
Finally, journal your thoughts and write your prayers to the Lord. Acknowledge when you may not be doing well in your thoughts and feelings toward the people and place God has called you to serve.
 Duane Elmer, Cross-Cultural Connections: Stepping Out and Fitting In Around the World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 72–83.
Joshua Bowman holds a PhD in Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and is Assistant Professor of Missions and Theology at Cedarville University. He served with his wife, Amy, and their four children in Zambia and South Asia with the International Mission Board for seventeen years as a church planter, church strengthening strategist, and team leader.