"Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
I can guarantee you that, before today, we have never started an article at the Upstream Collective with a Mike Tyson quote. When talking about culture shock, however, this quote is incredibly relevant! The most difficult part of culture shock is that nothing can actually prepare a Sent One for it. You can read all about it, you can be warned about it, you can say that you’re ready for it, or even above it—but the reality is that it hits everyone. No one is immune to culture shock, so the key is not to try to avoid it, but to embrace the learning it requires and the humility and sanctification it produces in a gospel- and community-centered way.
The most difficult part of culture shock is that nothing can actually prepare a Sent One for it.
I remember how culture shock hit me in my first term overseas. I was in the category of, “This won’t happen to me—I’m above this.” I was looking at getting a bicycle in the country I was serving in. All the nationals in my city rode around on these one-speed, upright bicycles that could get you around slightly faster than walking. I grew up jumping off makeshift ramps, doing long bike trails, and riding off road—getting my butt off the seat for extra power, putting it in the right gear, and going as fast as I could wherever I went. When I went to buy a bike, I was looking for the one with gears, shocks, and some color. I was going to show these people the gospel of speed and efficiency (for some reason this really matters to me).
I found this blue and yellow ten-speed bike for around fifty bucks. I got out on the street and rode that puppy around like I was back on the hills and trails of Iowa (yes, there are some hills in Iowa). Man, did I get some looks. It’s one thing to see an American on the streets of that country—it’s a whole other thing to see him flying around, weaving in and out of traffic on a bright blue and yellow bike.
Within the month the bike started rusting, the chain fell off, and I think it might have even been stolen at some point. I went from having a superiority complex to just being angry with the culture. “Why would they make their bikes so terribly? Don’t they know the importance of quality?” Meanwhile, I’m learning a second language (that wasn’t Spanish) for the first time in a college setting. And I was also failing a class for the first time. One of our team members wasn’t responding particularly well to our leadership, so my team was dealing with conflict. Ministry was a roller coaster of highs and lows. One day you’re a rock star at an English club; the next day someone rejects the gospel.
Mercifully, this was only a semester-long overseas experience. When I went back overseas a second time for a two-year program, God had worked out some of the arrogance and insecurity that plagued me in my first term. While this didn’t make things perfect for me, I was certainly more equipped than I was the first time. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Thankfully, we can learn from these experiences and be guided back onto the right course.
Going overseas to do ministry is undoubtedly one of the most stress-inducing ventures anyone can undertake. When I went through training with the IMB, they cited a study that said moving overseas was the second most stress-inducing life event. First was the death of a spouse. I remember that statement really sobering me (this was after my first experience overseas and before my second). While life overseas feels exciting, and while the mission seems extraordinary, at the end of the day, we are all going to have to deal with some level of culture shock.
Joann Pittman, writing for the missions blog Velvet Ashes, says there are four stages people generally go through with culture shock: 1) “Yippee! I’m here.” 2) “Whatever was I thinking?” 3) “I can do this.” 4) “It’s beginning to feel like home.” This process can take weeks, months, and years. And the most maddening part is that the cycle can suddenly reset itself all over again after years of being overseas.
There are steps that can be put into place to train the emotional capacity of our people, to help them recognize culture shock, and to equip them deal with it in a healthy way.
As a sending church, there are things we can have in place to help our people walk through culture shock when they experience it. While it’s true that they can’t avoid it, there are steps that can be put into place to train the emotional capacity of our people, to help them recognize culture shock, and to equip them deal with it in a healthy way. This includes:
Helping our Sent Ones expand their emotional capacity so they can deal with stress in a healthy way.
Establishing partnerships with overseas teams that are equipped to recognize and handle the stages of culture shock.
Acquainting our Sent Ones with the realities of culture shock and its impact.
Helping our Sent Ones recognize what triggers culture shock universally and for them specifically.
Helping them deal with culture shock in healthy, gospel-centered ways.
We have put together a resource that explores these five points. This resource is free for Upstream Members and is also available for purchase for $1.99.
Mike Ironside is Missions Pastor at Cornerstone Church in Ames, Iowa. He has served on staff with Cornerstone since 2006 in varying roles–from college ministry to pastoral staff to being an overseas missionary sent from Cornerstone for two years. Mike is the Director of Cohorts and Content for the Upstream Collective. He also serves as Chairman of the Board for Campus to Campus, a missions organization dedicated to getting US college students connected to church-planting movements among college students worldwide.