Christian Missionary or Cultural Nomad?


We’ve all been subject to friends or family members who made us suffer through a slideshow of pictures from their latest vacation. At first, we may actually be interested…or at least pretend to be. But, after seeing yet another selfie or another picture of what they had for dinner on the trip, we tap out. After all, when you’ve seen one picture of the beach, you’ve seen them all, right?

Reverse Culture Shock


There is a phenomenon that returning or furloughing missionaries often experience called “reverse culture  shock.” While missionaries serving overseas still consider themselves Americans, they don’t realize the changes that have taken place within them. They have adapted so well to the culture where they are serving that they no longer fit into the American culture.

In essence, they are cultural nomads.

Missiologist Paul Hiebert notes:

“ [Returning] missionaries are shocked to find their relationships with relatives and friends strained and distant. They expect these folk to be excited to hear about their many experiences, but after an hour or two, conversation drifts off to local affairs – to politics, church matters, or family issues. The people at home have no frame of reference within which to fit these tales from abroad. Their world is their town and state or province. Missionaries have lost touch with local matters and have little to say” [1]

In some ways, this is understandable. Those of us here at home don’t know the back-story to all of the experiences the missionaries might share about. We may not be aware of the time spent in prayer so that a simple gospel conversation could be had with their Muslim neighbor. We aren’t aware of the hours spent preparing teaching materials just so a small group of leaders could understand Christian doctrine. So, when a missionaries tells us about these things, we may see the excitement in their face, but we might be thinking, “What’s the big deal? Once you’ve heard one missionary story, you’ve heard them all, right?”

How You Can Help

I am confident that most sending churches, along with friends and family members, want to love and care for their missionaries well. So, how can we listen to missionaries and allow them the room to really share?

1. Listen to Understand

Our default mode is listening to respond, rather than listening to understand. With missionaries, we should work harder for the latter. This involves being patient and asking good questions. You may be interested in bringing up the presidential campaign or the Super Bowl, but I assure you that the missionaries are not interested in what people think about Donald Trump in their country of service.

As you listen and ask questions, the real needs – the real areas where you can offer support – will begin to arise to the surface.

2. Allow missionaries to share about their struggles.

If we’ve only read the highlights from missionary heroes like  Judson, Taylor, Carey, or Elliot, we might be tempted to think that there is only victory on the mission field. But this would be a shallow understanding of missionary work. All missionaries struggle, from the Apostle Paul to William Carey to those that you support. Often, they don’t feel the freedom to share about their struggles because they want to ‘keep up appearances’ for their supporters.

Certainly, prudence is necessary, but we must allow our missionaries the space and opportunity to share about their struggles and failures.

3. Allow missionaries to share about victories.

Do we really need to be reminded to do this? In general, Americans are results-driven. This can be helpful in the business world, but it can be dangerous in church ministry and mission work. Some churches expect their missionaries to save all of Africa in their first term. I’ve actually heard of churches ceasing support to a missionary family because their baptism report showed the numbers were slowing.

Yet, the spread of the gospel, planting of churches, or training of leaders does not always fit well on a monthly report. Just because your missionaries haven’t baptized all of Africa (again!) doesn’t meant they aren’t doing good work and seeing God move.

Missionaries need accountability, but they don’t need sales quotas.

So, even if missionaries share a victory that to us seems small or insignificant, we should celebrate with them. We must seek to understand the prayer, labor, and sacrifice that they have offered.


It can be difficult to look at one more picture of people in a context you don’t understand or to hear another story about a culture you don’t understand. Yet, if we love and desire to support our missionaries, we will make every effort to lovingly listen to and encourage them.

The words of Paul certainly apply here: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil 2:3-4).

[1] Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Baker Academic, 1994), 154.

Jason Wright

Jason Wright is a missionary in Córdoba, Argentina, with Reaching & Teaching. Jason formerly served as a pastor of Redeemer Church in Abilene, TX, and as Director of Ministry Operations at Reaching & Teaching. He and his wife, Kami, have three children.

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