Culture Shock! Successfully Navigating the Transition Phase of Ministry

by Kate Sauter

The author provides a biblical antidote to the suggestion that a rollercoaster of emotions is part of a normal behavior curve that serves to validate the newcomer’s right to a season of despondency.

It was the same old refrain, like an old-time broken record that I’d heard at least three times before. Its counsel rang true, but it seemed overly repetitive. Our sending organization provided our first exposure to this message during pre-field orientation, just prior to our initial overseas assignment. The key thought: we must be alert to common behavioral responses during the early phases of our adjustment to a new culture. I’m not sure how much I retained from that seminar. I was young and eager, and the prospect of future struggles just rode the crest of my consciousness (like my experience body surfing when I rode the waves). I was oblivious to where they carried me. We’d come to a pivotal point in our career, the culmination of years of preparation. Anticipation and enthusiasm carry one a long way. Several seasons passed before I sat through a second seminar that announced the same gloomy predilections, all in response to change of cultures. In this case, the seminar focused on teenaged children. Since my eldest two offspring had reached high school level, I’d joined the ranks of parents attending a Third Culture Kid (TCK) seminar, which was offered to parents of missionary kids (MKs).  

The TCK seminar speaker defined a TCK as being someone who has spent most of his or her childhood living away from his or her parents’ home culture. He further described both the advantages of the TCK’s experiences, as well as his or her almost unavoidable sense of disorientation—not belonging entirely to any culture. A TCK’s muddled emotions often intensify as the young adult steps back into his or her passport country following high school. He or she may experience reverse culture shock. The seminar speaker sought to enlighten parents, hopefully pre-equipping them to help their TCKs through the sometimes messy transitions back into a “home” culture.

Onto a New Field…and More Culture Shock Training
My two adult children are now managing well, having graduated from high school and readapted with reasonable adeptness to life in the U.S. Their parents, however, not having had their fill of cultural realignments, decided to take on a new challenge. Three years ago, my husband, our youngest son, and I left French-speaking Africa and moved to Central Asia. Our new assignment not only necessitated a new language acquisition, it also forced us to adapt to a fundamentalist Islamic culture. Consequently, my husband and I sat through yet another orientation class and again heard that old refrain regarding the normal curve: about six months into immersion, the novelty of the honeymoon phase (the period of time when differences appear new and exciting) will wear off of me, and culture fatigue will gradually creep in (see Oberg 2009). Culture shock will then choke me in its grip, possibly resulting in some degree of depression. At the very least, I may expect my confidence to be shaken. The full downward slide, called the transition stage by some, may be characterized by the following assortment of feelings: “discontent, impatience, anger, sadness, and feelings of incompetence” (Guanipa 1998).

That’s the bad news. But the good news is: typically the slump is short-lived and I should pull out as I build friendships, make language progress, and begin to accept the culture and its new framework of rules and expectations. After twenty some years working overseas, I understand the rationale behind this familiar recitation of symptoms. Yes, I’ve benefited from the facts, admonishments, and perspicacity shared by my predecessors. I understand the value of forewarning newcomers, enabling them to recognize the stages of culture shock. Truly, knowing I am normal does engage my coping skills, thus diffusing the crushing power of the emotions buffeting me, and I find my spirits moderately buoyed to know there is light at the end of the tunnel. Indeed, if I can remind myself that language progress and friendships are pivotal to my adaptation and to attaining a sunny outlook, I might, by sheer resolve, propel myself more quickly out of the tunnel of discouragement! This provides me with a valuable coping tool.

Justifying My Woes
On the other hand, I can visualize how aspects of this attempt at prevention may be self-defeating. Don’t psychologists warn us that people tend to live up to their labels? Tell a child he or she is a loser and will always be, and he or she gives up trying. Could the very suggestion that a rollercoaster of emotions is part of a normal behavior curve actually serve to validate the newcomer’s right to a season of despondency? Consider the following example:

“How are you doing?” my colleague asks. “I’m really struggling,” I reply. “I find myself avoiding the beggar kids with their matted hair and dirty paws. I’m afraid to speak for fear of getting laughed at for my childish mistakes. I hate smells of the open sewers, the dust that filters into every crack, and trying to avoid placing my feet in the dung littering the city streets. I’m supposed to visit and make friends, but I return home perspiring from my struggle to communicate and from worrying the whole time that I might show the bottom of my feet or blow my nose out loud. And the lack of privacy—sometimes I feel like screaming!” She nods sympathetically and counsels, “Yeah, we all have felt that way at the start. But you’ve only been here a few of months. Give yourself time—you’ll hit bottom, and then gradually you’ll begin seeing things in a different light.”

Has my sympathetic colleague really helped me? Or has she, in effect, authorized me to maintain my funk, my murmuring for a bit longer? I, by no means, wish to criticize or condemn people who linger in the throes of culture shock. But somehow I feel like a dimension has been left out of the formula. Perhaps it isn’t an intentional omission, but isn’t there a spiritual facet to the culture shock curve? I do respect the tools that our cultural orientation—and TCK seminar—teachers have bequeathed us. However, I’ve grown to believe that one very powerful tool is underemphasized—a key to trimming the doldrums back.  

Finding the Cure for Culture Fatigue
To illustrate this, please accompany me back to a point five or six months into my adjustment phase in this, my current assignment. I had begun reading the book SoulTalk by Larry Crabb. I don’t suppose Crabb intended his book be used in discussions regarding culture shock, but truth often has multiple applications, and something he wrote hit me between the eyes. I’m sure the timing factored into the book’s personal impact—I was then firmly ensconced at the bottom of the predicted curve. Since this was my fourth cross-cultural experience, I hadn’t expected to succumb to culture shock, but there I was.

Ah, but truly the culture grated on me! I begrudged the long scarves, making bad hair days the norm. I resented Muslim men for their oppression and arrogant superiority toward females, and for refusing to recognize my existence when meeting my husband and me for the first time. I chaffed at having to take an escort with me to the market. I felt tired of that foreign feeling—tired of fearing I might forget myself and shake a man’s hand or look him directly in the eyes; tired of young men on bikes turning their heads around to stare at my light hair and Anglo Saxon features. It was while in the morass of these ugly feelings that SoulTalk spoke to my condition. Crabb challenged readers to ask themselves the question, “What’s the real battle going on in my friend?” (2003, 111). I took the liberty to turn the question around to ask, “What’s the real battle within me?”  

Crabb makes the convincing case that the key to both peace and power in our lives is found in focusing on God’s person and living in intimate relationship with him:

Jesus taught that the core longing of our soul is the desire to know God, not the desire to feel loved, not the desire to experience meaning, not the desire for the pleasures of family, friends, or success, but the passion to know God as high and lifted up and to place ourselves beneath him, resting in his goodness and available for his purposes. (2003, 83)

If Crabb speaks truth, then why can’t that peace and power be applied to culture shock? My disgruntled longings for familiar ways and behaviors, the spin-off from immersion in a new culture, might be natural. However, if I am to be honest and take a close look at my feelings, I see discontentment, impatience, self absorption, and a desire to control my surroundings and guard my comfort zones. I do not simultaneously see a preoccupation with knowing God’s power and presence in my situation. I’ve missed out on the spiritual dimension.  

Yes, culture shock, even depression, is normal. But the truth is, locked inside of you and me is the cure. It’s our passion for God—our desire for his presence. As the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 84:2-7:

My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young—a place near your altar, O Lord Almighty, my King, and my God….Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs…. They go from strength to strength till each appears before God in Zion.       

This Psalmist spoke from firsthand experience about cross-cultural transitions. Embedded in these words is the echo of the footsteps and sentiments of a nation of wanderers. The writer knows what it is to be far from home—even passing through a “valley of tears” or sorrows, but his soul finds springs of life-endowing water. His strength is renewed over and again, due to a heart firmly nested at God’s altar. That’s his home, and God is his passion.

Culture fatigue had hit me in our new assignment right on schedule. And when it looked as though our plans for a four-day break out of the country might fall through, hot tears stung my eyes—my Valley of Baca. That was the start of my wake-up call. As I cried out to God, I knew my Father desired my trust, and I knew he loved me. I imagined myself crawling up into his arms like a child. In that place of safety, he spoke to my heart, showing me my “I” problem. With my heart repositioned at the Lord’s feet, peace and trust filled my being. Firmly tagged onto that peace was a renewed compassion for the people around me. A week or two after this experience, I visited a new friend, a career development worker. She dug out a story from her past—one that reflected the same old culture fatigue syndrome I had so recently been through. As her story unfolded, I saw again how God himself is the key to short-circuiting culture shock.

Case Study of God at Work
Ann* and her family first set foot in their host culture in April 1998. Their chosen people group followed a strict tribal code of conduct that took precedence even over the structures of their religion. Custom dictated that village women restrict social activities to mostly relatives, and women and men ate separately. Parents arranged whom their children would marry, often in their early teens. Women didn’t go out at all—or only with a brother, father, or husband.  Everything involving their daily lives happened within the walls of their or their relatives’ homes. People certainly didn’t go out of their way to chat with foreign women.

Since Ann was an extremely relational person, she felt a heaviness, combined with knots of frustration that gradually twisted inside her soul. She tried to focus on caring for her home, praying for her husband’s work, learning a bit of the language, and raising her children. But as much as she loved them, the restrictions of a world occupied almost solely by three children between the ages of zero and five years left her feeling empty and dissatisfied. Fortunately for her, they inhabited a huge compound—actually, an orchard. It provided a safe haven for the children to play, and afforded Ann a tiny margin of freedom to walk around the inside of the perimeter walls for exercise, fresh air, and to pray and clear her thoughts.

One day, about six months into their assignment, Ann was out hanging up laundry. Her thoughts chased each other as she tried with futility to figure a way to break through the restrictions binding her movements and threatening to crush her spirit. She commenced sounding off to God: “Why am I here? I might as well be on the moon, or back home in the U.S. for all the difference my presence makes. I can’t meet other women, and I can’t speak the language!” Her three small children, plus home schooling the eldest, limited her time to meet with a tutor. As for conversational practice, there again local customs seemed to dictate against her.

A day or two later, one of their neighbors invited Ann and her husband to come to a wedding celebration at his house. They dressed up for the occasion, and walked over to join the celebration. As was customary, a male relative of the family escorted Keith* to the men’s side, and one of the female family members took Ann to where the women sat, while a divider separated the two groups. Ann smiled politely at the questions aimed in her direction by the women surrounding her, unable to respond with much more than greetings. Eventually they ignored her, carrying on their own gossip. She caught a word here and there, but eventually she let the flow of voices wash over her, and her mind wandered. Two hours later a servant stopped in front of her and said, “Your husband wants to talk to you.” Ann assumed Keith had received his fill of meaningless chitchat and was ready to go.  

They met halfway between the two groups. Ann regarded Keith’s animated features with surprised puzzlement. He spoke in a low voice, “You’ll never believe the conversation we’re having!” Ann whispered rather dubiously, “Oh yeah, what? Probably not, since the men and women don’t mix. So, what are you talking about?”

“Well…” Keith paused, hiding his smile by pulling on his mustache. “We’re talking about you!” His eyes glinted with laughter. He knew how much she’d been struggling with the culture. “What?” Ann’s mouth dropped open. “These men don’t know that I exist! What do you mean they’re talking about me! They’re not even supposed to know that I’m here!”

Keith said, “Well, that’s part of why we’re talking about you. They just think you’re amazing. You know, when you go out from our home, you cover up with a chapan [the local woman’s overcoat] and a headscarf. You don’t talk to men, you just go to the bazaar, do your business, and that’s it. You go back home. They’ve never seen a foreign woman behave like you!”  

By this point Ann had to stifle the laughter she felt bubbling up—an outburst would spoil everything. Ann was both astonished and encouraged. But Keith hadn’t finished. He continued, “Actually, the mullah at the mosque speaks about you on Fridays. He just talks about what a fine woman you are… and… that… uh… other women should be like you!” Ann left that wedding celebration with an entirely different outlook. The whole incident testified in Ann’s heart to how God takes the little bits we give him and faithfully uses them. We all come to a place of discouragement, especially as westerners in a culture that restricts women. But how encouraging it is to know that God hears and cares, and that he doesn’t waste anything! He sees the difficulties and he sees the suffering, but it’s no mistake we are where we are.  

Ann could not testify to seeing people come to the kingdom while in that place. But they did plant seeds, and she says that perhaps they made the way a little easier for the foreign workers who would come after them. Ann confessed that all she did was respect the culture. She even wondered if she should thank the many tourists who demeaned it, since the villagers saw such a very great contrast. That’s why she believes she stood out.

Concluding Thoughts
When we are experiencing culture fatigue or shock, we don’t always notice the gifts and blessings God sends our way. Many first-termers even drop out and return home. But as Ann honestly poured her heart out to her Father, he gave her a gift. Ann was privileged to learn of a wonderful little miracle that God spun around her presence in a difficult corner of the world. He was able to take the smallest offering and turn it into something of worth. In the following months, as Ann turned her eyes away from the bleakness of her situation and focused on God and his goodness, God began to open up opportunities to minister to the women around her. She was able to start teaching crafts and cooking skills. Then she was asked to teach English at the school.  

Yes, culture shock is normal. It is normal because we have an old nature that loves comforts and comfort zones. God knows our frame. He understands. But he also is waiting for his frequently self-absorbed children to reach out for the supernatural strength and help he has to offer. He wants and expects his servants to walk, live, and breathe in him…and to give him their bits.  

*Names have been changed; story used anonymously with permission.

Crabb, Larry. 2003. SoulTalk. Brentwood, Tenn.: Integrity Publishers.

Guanipa, Dr. Carmen. 1998. “Culture Shock.” Amigos, March 17. Accessed February 2, 2009 from

Oberg, Dr. Lalervo. 2009. “Culture Shock and the Problem of Adjustment to New Cultural Environments.” Worldwide Classroom. Accessed February 2, 2009 from shock.html.    

Pollack, David and Ruth E. Van Reken. 1999. Third Culture Kids. Yarmouth, Maine:  Intercultural Press, Inc.


Kate Sauter (pseudonym) has a B.A. in Bible and missions, and an M.A. in intercultural studies. She and her family were missionaries in Africa from 1988 to 2005. They’ve worked with a humanitarian organization in Central Asia since 2005.

EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 2, pp. 142-148. Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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