Culture shock: Mission trip re-entry

Coming home from a short-term mission trip?

"He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" -- Philippians 1:6.

Good trip follow-up (debriefing during the trip and upon reentry) enables participants to cement life changes as well as nourish their ongoing growth and sharpen their commitment to Christ and His vision for the world.

The effects of reentry stress often include:

During and after a short-term mission trip, leaders will often "debrief" participants. Debriefing is a primary strategy used to decrease the negative effects of being out of one's comfort zone as well as help people incorporate long-term positive changes in attitude and even lifestyle. A good debriefing time reviews the purposes of the mission trip and encourages participants to ask questions about the experiences. It also allows the leader to address unresolved issues that arose during the mission trip. Mission trip participants need to understand that the reactions they are experiencing are normal. The participants, as well as family and friends, need to understand that one good way for people to process what happened to them is to tell and re-tell their mission trip stories.

Good debriefing and re-entry preparation will ensure that mission trip participants understand that a short-term mission experience is not just a dot on the timeline of someone's life. a self-contained event in one's life. Rather than being a self-contained event, mission trip participants must see how that trip fits into their life-long discipleship journey.

Reentry: Bouncing Back

The "short-term" mission experiences on this page refer to periods of 10 days to two years.

What's the secret to a positive re-entry from another culture?

How do you survive reverse culture shock and other issues associated with returning to your home culture?

Adapted from Student Leadership Journal, a publication of Inter-Varsity

Can you survive coming home?

Some suggestions for the deflated short-termer

by Stanley E. Lindquist and Daniel B. Peters (with some editing by Howard Culbertson)

Turning up the driveway of his home church, Darrin felt a sense of relief to be home. Yet deep down, something was bothering him. The lawns here were too well-mowed. The buildings were too well-maintained. The pastor's car was too nice looking. Then, as Darrin waited in the missions pastor's air-conditioned office, he looked at pictures of family outings to Disneyland, a seminary diploma, and missions association membership plaques. A sickening feeling slowly overwhelmed Darrin.

Where was the commitment? he thought. Earlier, Darrin had written home pleading for an offering so he could help a local pastor get desperately needed surgery. The response was that the church's missions budget was spent. Such a special offering, he was told, would violate church policy.

Where was the Body of Christ? Darrin wondered when he had written telling them of his frequent vomiting spells caused by sheer exhaustion. If he had received one more message from home reminding him to leave his concerns at the Cross, he knew he would have gotten deathly ill. How do you leave concerns at the Cross when people in need are standing there stretching out their hands to you? Nobody knew the real story. Nobody cared. Darrin suddenly told the secretary he had to go.

Six months later, confused and depressed, Darrin sought out a missionary counselor for help in re-entering American culture.

People often assume it's easier to reenter one's home culture after a two-year short-term mission experience than it would be after being gone for many years. However, many missionaries report that the opposite is true. Short-termers seem to feel the shock of adjusting back into the "new-old" culture more, not less. They haven't been away very long, but everything seems different when they return home.

Short-termers often go overseas with stars in their eyes. They dream of great things happening on the field. They are admired for their dedication. They feel supported by everyone. Often, however, they are poorly prepared for the task. They are often surprised by what they encounter in another country and can be even more surprised by what they find when they return home.

Reentry problems can be divided into two categories: cultural adjustment and personal reactions.

Cultural adjustment and readjustment

Short-termers face the same problems as those who stay longer but have to face them and solve them in less time. Most short-term experiences are intense, emotional, and life-transforming. Many young, evangelical Americans live out of a set of assumptions that sort things into "right" and "wrong" boxes. Seeing throngs of people with physical, emotional, and spiritual needs can easily overwhelm short-termers assumptions. The plight of lost people and the problems of missionaries can converge to shake the short-termers hopes, wither their faith, and even reduce their readiness to share God's love.

Some short-termers have to cope with tumultuous experiences. It may be the realities of mass malnutrition, a national's rejection of the short-termer, or contradictions between the words and the behavior of a missionary. Few orientation programs help short-termers effectively handle the disappointment, loneliness, depression, and strained relationships they likely will encounter. If these problems do not get worked out on the field, they can strike back later, just when the pressures of adjusting to home life begin.

Sometimes, it is only upon reentry into one's home culture that the subtle but serious shifts in worldview that occurred during the short-term experience really come to light. The resulting internal turmoil can lead the short-termers to react to their home culture in bitter and negative ways.

While overseas, short-termers tend to assume that life back home remains the same. It is startling to return and discover changes have happened. Friends have married, moved, purchased homes, and changed jobs. Any of these changes can create a feeling of insecurity and instability on the field.

Personal reactions

Because of their commitment and sacrifice, returnees may see friends and others as being uncommitted to the priority of sharing the Gospel with the whole world. That may be true. However, because of the fresh exposure to the needs overseas, it becomes easy to see the normal spending habits of people back home as lavish, foolish, and unspiritual. The costs of simple things could support a family for days or even weeks in the country where the short-termer has been working. A house that cost $400,000 would support the entire mission program.

The seeming excesses encountered in reentry can cause a judgmental reaction to set in. Even though nothing is said, feelings begin to grow and can emerge in quiet, confusing ways. Testimonies in church meetings can begin to show growing bitterness and disillusionment about the church's commitment.

Often the short-term personnel serve at the bidding of the "real" missionaries. As a result, the short-termers may babysit or do laundry to free up career missionary mothers for the "important" work. Other kinds of seemingly inconsequential worl may be expected of the short-termer. This treatment breeds a feeling of unimportance. When those back home display their lack of concern for missions, they simply reinforce the short-termer's feelings of uselessness. Often short-termers return without a clear vision for the next step in their lives. The pressure of fending off conflicting sets of expectations laid on them is often enough to nudge them toward isolated bitterness.

Ways to bounce back

If you are having trouble with reentry shock, here are some practical ways to begin working through it:

  1. Remember, you are not alone. Others have gone before you on the short-term missions journey. What you are feeling is not unique in the history of missionary emotions. Begin by searching out people who have had similar experiences. Ask them to share honestly what has helped and hindered them during their reentry.
  2. Seek objectivity. Go one step further and ask these same people, or others, to be honest about you. If you can muster up the courage, ask someone who, in the past, has even been critical of you in some way. Ask the person if he or she sees some ways in which your actions, motives, or personality may have contributed to your reentry stress. The goal is to get realistic feedback. You might not get all the realistic feedback you need if you only ask your mother or best friend.
  3. Face the facts. Get honest with yourself. Take what you have learned from others. Face issues head-on. Although much of what they may say is mere opinion, some of it will reflect the truth about you. Embrace what is the truth. A good help in the process is the book Telling Yourself the Truth by William Backus and Marie Chapian.
  4. Put responsibility where it belongs. No one person is solely to blame for issues or problems you encountered. Accept responsibility for your own actions. Your sending agency, church, field missionaries, and even the nationals have no doubt partially shaped the way you feel now, Be clear without being judgmental. With a forgiving attitude, cautiously accept your part of the problem.
  5. Recognize that change comes slowly. You may not have been all that you wanted to be on the field. You may even be disappointed with how you reacted when you got back. The key is to be faithful today in what God has equipped you to do. Set aside all the rah-rah visions you had of saving the world single-handedly, and get down in the trenches where progress and growth are slow.
  6. Check your motivation for going. How do you see the world now compared to your perspective before your mission experience? Make a list of things you learned that will permanently change how you see the world, relate to the Church, and relate to your peers. Does this list show you anything about God's purpose you didn't initially realize? Who do you think benefited more from your short-term experience: you or the nationals you went to help?
  7. Evaluate your experience. Ask yourself how certain factors contributed to your short-term experience. Regardless of how effective you felt your short-term experience was, ask yourself questions such as:
  8. Plan your future. Base your dreams on what God has designed you to be. The Body of Christ is dependent on diversity to live and move effectively. Don't let anybody foist on you their private vision of how you should fit into God's plan for the Body. You know that you are to live for God's glory. But is missions the future that God has designed for you? Your short-term experience could help you answer that question.

If you honestly accept the mission experience as a permanent part of your life and objectively evaluate it through feedback, you will move back into American culture more smoothly. Deal with the problems of your short-term. Whether you move out again from your home culture as a missionary or serve God at home, you'll be much better prepared for whatever He has for you.

Stanley E. Lindquist, founder of Link Care Foundation, has spent years counseling missionaries and helping mission organizations with personnel issues.

Case study: Coming home from Poland

Reflecting on this case study may help you survive re-entry. Or, if you have friends coming home from a trip, it may help you do some quality debriefing with them.

Originally written by Angel Leigh Grant, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA

I had expected my short-term missions experience in a European country like Poland to be wonderful, and it was! Going on that trip was one of the best things I have ever done. What I did not expect, however, was the enormous difficulty I had re-adjusting to life on a university campus in my home country.

I spent five weeks in Poland as part of an InterVarsity short-term missions program. Three of those weeks were in Wisla, a wonderful small mountain town near the Czech border. In Poland, our “cultural exchange camp” included thirty Polish university students, none of whom were evangelicals. They seemed excited about the chance to study English with native speakers and to learn about us.

Each of the Americans had two or three Polish roommates. Almost immediately, several began asking questions about how we believed and practiced our Christian faith. Many were fascinated by the worship times to which we invited them on Sunday nights. They often wanted to continue praising God after our worship had officially ended. They even initiated some impromptu worship on other nights of the week!

“I am intrigued by you Americans,” my Polish roommate Anna told me. "There's something special about your faith. I can feel it when you are singing."

Several small group Bible studies started up as well while we were in Poland. “My Polish roommates were the ones who initiated the Bible study,” said Jeanna Leigh Allen, my American prayer partner during the trip. “I don't know about at your school, but at UMPI [University of Maine at Presque Isle], no one would ever say to me, Hey, do you want to get together and read the Bible?

"I was floored by what God did there," another North American teammate, Amy Sparks, a senior at Milligan College in Tennessee, said to me. “I did not know the Poles would be so eager to openly talk about spiritual things.”

That openness of the Polish students made returning to an American campus difficult for me. Back at my school, everyone — me included — seems to have an extremely busy agenda. No one takes the time to sit and talk like we often did in Wisla.

As classes back in the USA got underway, I found myself wondering if I was selfish because of all the time I spent sitting in classes. It felt as if I was studying just for my own sake. I questioned if the path I was on was going to benefit anyone else. I wanted to be back in Wisla with the teammates I had grown to love dearly. I wanted to be back in Poland, talking about God's love with people who seemed sincerely interested in knowing Him.

When I returned to the States, I experienced reverse culture shock. Almost everything I saw reminded me of something in Poland. I needed to talk about my experience, but I didn't feel other Americans could understand because they hadn't been there. I feared that people were tired of hearing me talk about my trip.

I came home wanting God to do wonderful things on my campus. Still, for some reason, I was reluctant to throw myself into any campus group. Leaving Poland was hard. The truth is, I hadn't wanted to return to the USA at all.

In Poland, I saw God's Holy Spirit work in ways I'd never seen before. Back home in my everyday routine, that was not the case. For one thing, entire days now pass at the university without my talking to God. In Poland, how I saw God at work drove me to my knees daily. The differences between what I experienced in Poland and what I experience now on an American university campus have caused me to struggle in my relationship with God.

Talking to my teammates from the trip to Poland helped in the readjustment process. As we returned to the States, we all felt we had changed somehow. We were not the same people who had left our home country. I discovered that we all had experienced similar conflicting emotions and re-entry difficulties.

Time and prayer have helped me to re-enter life at school. Still, I wonder if there were things I could have done to better prepare myself for what turned out to be a bumpy re-entry. Are there things in that re-entry period that I should have approached differently? How can I use my summer experience to be even more effective as a witness on my campus and as an encouragement to other believers?

First published in Student Leadership Journal © InterVarsity Fellowship. Adapted and used by permission.

What do you struggle with? Jill Fischer, summer study abroad coordinator at Northwestern College (Orange City, Iowa) has identified five issues that students at her school struggle with as they return home from extended mission trips:
  1. Attitudes toward wealth, consumption, and stewardship
  2. Gender roles in other parts of the world
  3. The ways our individual choices, as well as the policies of our government, affect the world
  4. Christianity in other cultures and around the world
  5. Issues of justice, including what it means to "pursue justice" as a Christian

"I will never be the same again"

Tears streamed down my face. It was a Sunday morning in early June, and I was sitting in a Sunday morning service at Pasadena First Church of the Nazarene. The next morning those young people who filled the sanctuary choir loft would be heading out around the world in small groups for eight weeks of short-term mission assignments.

One-fourth of the Nazarene university students in that choir loft were from Southern Nazarene University, where I taught missions and helped oversee short-term mission trip teams. At that moment, I was listening to them sing Geoff Bullock's song "I will never be the same again."

I knew they wouldn't be the same again, and that's one of the reasons I was overcome with emotion that morning. I knew those young people standing there singing, "Burn away the chaff . . . Whatever you need to do, Lord, do in me," would come back radically changed from their eight weeks of cross-cultural ministry.

I knew that some of those young people's close friends would be mystified and maybe even turned off by the changes that were about to occur in them.

I knew some parents would wonder what had happened to their offspring who stood before me singing: "I will walk the path, I'll run the race, and I will never be the same again."

So, that morning I wept for joy at seeing their dedication and excitement and for sadness at the bewilderment that lay ahead in their re-entry paths at the end of the summer.

    -- Howard Culbertson,

"My brother-in-law recently went on a mission trip to India. He had a very hard time adjusting back to 'American culture.' I remember him telling us that he was dismayed at how Americans are so different and focused on such insignificant things. His biggest complaint was how 'spoiled' my kids were. :-) ." -- Melina H., Northwest Nazarene University student

"I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers." -- Philemon 1:14

Reentry from Bulgaria

Returning from a year of volunteer missionary service

"Greet all God's people in Christ Jesus" -- Philippians 4:21

by Rob Burgess

Reentry reflections

After graduating from Southern Nazarene University, Rob spent a year of volunteer missionary service with SNU's mission to Bulgaria. In this article, Rob shares his thoughts on re-entry.

It doesn't seem all that long ago that I boarded an airplane in Dallas, TX. I was headed to Bulgaria, via Frankfurt, Germany. I remember thinking: "Lord, what have I gotten myself into? A year away from my family and friends? Am I going to make it?"

As we landed, I was excited about being in Bulgaria. Then they put me into a tiny Bulgarian taxi. I had only been in the country for an hour, and suddenly, there I was in a taxi with a driver who spoke no English. He accelerated quickly, swerving in and out of traffic at top speed. It seemed like the little taxi was going as fast as it could without falling apart. Sitting in the backseat, I prayed that we wouldn't be killed. We finally made it to our apartment, which we thought would be housing four of us for a few days. We soon realized that it would house six of us. WOW! Dorm life again.

It wasn't just that taxi ride that made it clear we were living in a different culture. For instance, the day after arriving, we toured the "whole" city on foot. Then we discovered public transportation. We rode trams and trolleys and buses. There were never enough seats for everybody, so most of the time, we stood up, hanging on for dear life. Standing on those crowded trams and buses, you're "glad you use Dial" and wish everybody did.

That I was living in a different culture really hit me one evening during the second week. We went to a restaurant that was Bulgarian Tex-Mex run by a Canadian (you figure it out). Going into that place, we almost felt like we were back home. American music was playing and a big Texas flag hung above our heads. When we left, however, culture shock hit me full force because outside the front door was an elderly gentleman going through the trash, looking for something to eat.

As I look back on those experiences, I realize how much I miss Bulgaria. I miss seeing the gypsy children begging for money. I miss seeing the elderly gentleman and his wife walking down the street with one holding a small cardboard box and the other holding a fiddle in one hand and leading a trained bear by a leash with the other. There are so many needy people in Bulgaria. There are handicapped people sitting in wheelchairs holding cardboard boxes and elderly people doing the same. Walking down Vitosha Street, I often saw people with weight scales waiting patiently for someone to come by and give them a few leva to be weighed, and they, in turn, could go and buy a loaf of bread.

Did we make a difference in these lives? I wasn't sure at the time, but as I look back, I realize that we did. Week after week, we visited elderly people in their homes and took them a sack of food. We started with five homes in December and saw our list grow to thirty-three by May. We not only went to the elderly, but we went to the invalids also. We visited one woman crippled for life because a doctor performed the wrong surgery. Each week, we went to see Grandpa Ivan who is blind as well as very deaf. He lives with a friend who is also blind.

As we read Scripture to these people, sang with them, and prayed with them, they saw hope. We saw lives changed. Zlatka, for example, went from a woman who disliked people and only loved cats to someone who had a smile on her face when she came to church, shaking hands with everybody.

The children with leukemia were a joy for me to visit. At first, it was very hard for me to go because we would never know who would be there from one week to the next. Because those children were staring death in the face, they needed to know that they were loved. Seeing the children with tubes sticking out of their hands and little marks around their shaved heads became very special for me. We were bringing hope and friendship into their lives, and also Christ.

I have never been watched as much as I was that year. We became friends with several teenagers who watched us closely to see if we were part of some strange religious sect. They realized we weren't, and, at times, they would ask us about our faith.

Once, I was drugged and then mugged. In the aftermath of that experience, I had two friends, Latcho and Ivy, ask me about my faith. They were amazed that I was not angry at the man who had done that to me. Yet they were not ready to accept God's free gift. Two other friends, though, Peter and Rouslen, would talk about God. Rouslen is a believer looking to become stronger and understand fully what it means to be a Christian.

My feelings, now that I've returned to America, are mixed. I like it here, but also want to return to Bulgaria. I see how convenience-oriented we are, specifically in the way we pay our bills. Here in the U.S., we slip a check in an envelope and put it in the mail. In Bulgaria, you pay all bills in person. Paying the telephone bill could take an hour or more because of the lines. Waiting was something we had to learn to do. It is a way of life. I have watched people here in the U.S. get irritated because they have to wait a couple of extra minutes in a check-out line. It's fu to watch them.

In Bulgaria, I was involved in people's lives every day, making a difference. There was always someone to pray with or go see. There were always people to invite to our apartment to make dinner for them to show that they were special and that we cared about them.

Here in America, though, I find it easy to feel alone. Loneliness is a big factor here. Maybe it is because of the change of always having people around and not having enough days in the week to do what we had to do. Then again, it could be because I am away from my support group. In Bulgaria, the five guys on our team of volunteers learned how to depend on each other as well as on God.

People here have changed as well as I have, but my views have changed too. I have been stretched by the Lord in so many ways this year. I have had to depend on Him for so many things. God has shown me that I need to love people. He's shown me that I can be satisfied with what I have and that I don't have to constantly have more.

If I could go back to the broken-down public transportation, certain smells, and people begging for money on almost every corner, I would do so in a heartbeat. Why? Because I can see I was making a difference.

Many of the elderly Bulgarians have no one who will take a few minutes out of their week to visit them. The orphans are housed in the hills outside the cities, so they won't be seen and can be ignored. Those orphans need to be loved.

The young people are very afraid of being taken in by religious cults. They need to see that there is a real God who loves them and cares for them as individuals. The gypsies need people to share Christ's love with them and let them know there is a better way of life than stealing and prostitution.

My feelings from the past year run deep. God is at work in Bulgaria. People there are hearing the gospel. We need to pray they will be willing enough to accept it.

Originally published in the New Covenant Society Journal of Southern Nazarene University

"I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers." Ephesians 1:16


Reverse culture shock, also known as re-entry shock, is the phenomenon that individuals experience when they return to their home culture after an extended period of time living in a different country or culture. It's a complex psychological and emotional reaction that can be quite surprising and challenging for many individuals. Here's a breakdown of why it happens and some common experiences associated with it:

In short, reverse culture shock is a natural and common response to the process of returning home after an extended period abroad. While it can be challenging to navigate, acknowledging and understanding these feelings can help individuals better cope with the transition and eventually find their footing in their home culture once again.

More on reentry shock / reverse cultue shock

Related articles

You might also like these