Culture Shock and Missionary Failure

by Matt Hanna- BMM, Taiwan

What is Culture Shock?

Culture shock can occur when any individual is transplanted into a foreign culture for an extended period of time. It is not only a subjective feeling, but also a real, objective psychological experience. Culture shock is the disorientation that a person experiences when all of the familiar cultural landmarks he uses to navigate social relationships and to function in society are moved or removed. These cultural landmarks are learned at a very young age and are unconsciously held (for the most part). The more different the new (host) culture is from the individual’s birth culture, the more severely culture shock will be felt. For instance, a person from a Western culture (England, Western Europe, the United States, Australia, etc.) will face greater culture shock when entering an Asian or Middle-Eastern nation (and vice-versa) than when entering a nation with a culture similar to his own. A person in the process of adjustment to a new culture will pass through four stages: the honeymoon period, culture shock, cultural adaptation, and bi-cultural facility.

Generally, when a new missionary first arrives in his host country, he will experience a “honeymoon period” of several months. During this time everything is new and exciting. He takes the initial steps toward language acquisition, begins to explore some of the more obvious cultural differences, and has a high motivation to try new foods, customs, and skills. Spiritual zeal to reach new friends and acquaintances with the gospel initially helps him to maintain a high tolerance threshold for the discomforts that he soon begins to experience.

Eventually, these frustrations and discomforts begin to accumulate; he enters a stage of full-blown culture shock. A person passing through this period often desires to retreat and isolate himself from the host culture in reaction to overpowering feelings of alienation. He will become highly critical of various customs, beliefs, and attitudes of the local people around him. He will be tempted to withdraw from contact with the culture as much as possible. This may take the form of moving into a “ghetto” community where his home culture is dominant, refusing to leave his house or room, or isolation and rejection of opportunities to interact with nationals. For some people, this discomfort becomes so intolerable that they leave the field and return home altogether. For those who stick it out, this period may last from a few months to a year or more.

Those who endure will eventually experience a breakthrough and begin the process of adjustment to and acceptance of their host culture. This requires a much longer period of time, which varies greatly between individuals, and can last from a year to a life-time. During this period, the individual slowly becomes reconciled to the distinctive characteristics of his host culture. He learns to appreciate and enjoy the positive elements of the culture and begins to build deep and lasting friendships with nationals. This is a process in which he continues to experience occasional set-backs and periods of discomfort; but these periods become shorter and less frequent as time passes.

Finally, the individual who perseveres will at last achieve a comfortable level of ease and facility in his host culture; he develops a high appreciation for its good points and a more balanced understanding of its less favorable features. He also gains a unique perspective on his own (home) culture as well, by which he is able to see more clearly both the good and the bad in it. He becomes bi-cultural: He is now able to function with equal facility in both his home culture and in his host culture.

Why Do Missionaries Quit the Field?

About 50% of missionaries never make it to a second term. (Generally, a “term” of missionary service is four years.) The reasons for this are complex, but one significant factor contributing to this failure is the problem of culture shock. Among married missionaries, the failure of either one or the other of the spouses to endure and overcome culture shock, means the failure of both. This effectively doubles the “odds” of failure for married missionaries. A person’s “hardiness” (ability to endure and overcome hardships, including culture shock) is influenced by many factors including spiritual commitment, personality, background, and preparation. Culture shock usually peaks within the first year or two on the field.

An exacerbating factor contributing to the problem of culture shock is the difficulty of learning a foreign language. Some languages are harder to learn than others (Chinese for instance). Likewise, the ability to learn a foreign language varies greatly between individuals, and the greater the age at which an individual attempts to learn a new language, the more difficult it will be. The unavoidable hardships of learning to speak, read, and write effectively in a foreign language can exaggerate culture shock, and by itself can be a significant factor leading to discouragement and failure. The prolonged inability to communicate with those about you in the host culture magnifies the loneliness of separation from friends and family back home and greatly increases the pain of culture shock.

A further dynamic at work in missionary failure is the disillusionment concerning the missionary’s work which often takes place during the first term. We can call this “ministry shock.” After one works through the issues of culture shock, begins to make significant progress in learning the language, and enters upon the life-long work of cross-cultural ministry, only then does it begin to become apparent what it really means to be a “missionary.” As he gains this new understanding of his role, ministry, and aims, he will discover that it differs significantly from the rosy image that he imagined before he left his homeland. Cherished expectations may be disappointed concerning the number of converts, the slowness of the work, the responsiveness of the people, or the nature of his daily activities. Oftentimes the wife is the one who bears the brunt of living in a foreign culture as she keeps the house, cares for the children, and tries to be wife, mother, school teacher, pastor’s wife, pianist, and nursery worker without the support network of extended family and church that she previously enjoyed in her own homeland. This can drive her to anger, hopelessness, and despair. Consequently, many missionaries may survive to the end of their first term only to conclude, “I didn’t sign up for this; it’s not worth it!” They leave for furlough and never return.

There are several things that can be done by missionaries themselves, by missions administrators, and by supporting churches to help mitigate these factors. Pre-field preparation for prospective missionaries must focus first of all on their calling. This is basic. No individual should ever be considered for missionary service who is not convinced that he is called by God to the task. This holds true for the wife as well as the husband of the missionary team; they must both display a high level of commitment to God’s calling. It is this calling that must carry them through the dark days of culture shock and under-gird them with the conviction that when God calls he also provides and enables.

Secondly, information must be dispensed to the missionaries both before their arrival on the field and during the time that they are experiencing culture shock, so that they might be able to properly diagnose their own symptoms. They ought to be well prepared to recognize the causes, effects, dangers and opportunities of culture shock and to recognize the stages through which they can expect to move during this process. This knowledge will equip them to better endure the pain, discomforts, frustrations, and fears that accompany culture shock and give them hope for what lies beyond it.

Finally, prospective missionaries must be clearly exposed to the realities of ministry in general, and of cross-cultural ministry on their chosen field in particular. This can be gained through short-term ministry trips under the guidance of an experienced missionary, through long-term home culture ministry experience, and through frank discussions with veteran missionaries and mature pastors. The more realistic their expectations are before they arrive on the field, the better off they will be after they arrive.

Becoming and remaining a successful missionary demands a lifetime commitment, a long-term perspective, and a confident faith in God’s directing care. Like Abraham who left his homeland and “went out not knowing whither he went,” missionaries cast loose the moorings of their former lives and launch out into uncharted territory—at least in terms of their own personal experience. They commit themselves to stay the course because they understand that producing lasting fruit demands more than a casual or temporary investment of their lives. They cast the seed of their lives into the earth to die in confidence that God will cause it to bring forth much fruit in the time of harvest. Ultimately, it is only God who can sustain such life-in-death. To those of us who have invested our lives in such a fashion, he has abundantly shown himself faithful to do so.

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