by Janice Dixon
Some major causes of frustrated expectations.
"I know it’s only been six month, but…" "These people aren’t ready for the gospel, so my board is sending me to…" "I haven’t heard from my pastor in months. If they don’t care, I’m going home." "I found out that I really wasn’t called."
"I got nothing but criticism from my superintendent when I needed help." "We’re having too much trouble getting a visa." "Family problems are just too difficult." "I don’t like it here!"
Flimsy excuses for leaving the field? Of course, but they reflect the hurt, confusion, and depression of people who do not know how else to face defeat. My thesis is that much of their frustration arises from unrealistic expectations, either their own before they left for the field, or those of their board.
I have seen many new missionaries — praised and supported by their friends at home — hit the field with high hopes and great visions of how God can use them. Unfortunately, too often their hopes and visions crash when they collide with field conditions. These new missionaries are not prepared for the consequent emotional pressure. Because they can’t handle their disappointments and frustrations, too many of them go home within a short time.
I’d like to discuss some of the major causes of frustrated expectations. The roadblocks to fulfilled aspirations spring from many sources. Sometimes new missionaries are told about some of them, and some are quite obvious, but other roadblocks sneak up on them and cause unexpected trouble. Some pressures are internal, some external. Let’s look at the new missionaries’ identity and self-image, their roles as foreigners, their cross-cultural adjustments, language learning, and other personal circumstances.
NAIVE EXPECTATIONS BASED ON SELF-IMAGE
Our sending churches think of missionaries as super-people and that affects our self-image. Add to that our strong sense of call from God, and we may see ourselves as God’s answer for a certain country or tribe. Off we go, aflame with the Holy Spirit, wearing God’s armor, planting the gospel on foreign soil—where immediately, of course, hundreds, if not thousands, will come to faith in Christ.
Truthfully, one young man told me that he more or less expected something like that to happen the first time he walked down the street. I laughed because somehow that sounded familiar. Of course, such distorted optimism can bring a gigantic let-down.
Some new missionaries arrive with a record of significant accomplishments at home, and they’re not prepared to wait years to see results. So, they start to ask themselves if perhaps they have misunderstood God’s leading. Satan whispers, "Why would God want you to be where you aren’t leading people to Christ? Think how many people would have believed by this time, if you had stayed home." Over and over this thought comes back until the victim concludes he or she is in the wrong place. The pain of a faulty self-image exacts a heavy toll on new missionaries.
RELATING TO THE HOST COUNTRY
Yes, we know we are guests in a foreign country, but aren’t guests usually welcomed and given deferential treatment? New missionaries, eager to make friends, expect the same eagerness from the local people. How brutal, then, when you realize that in some places you aren’t seen as a welcome guest but as an unwelcome intruder.
I arrived in Jakarta in 1965, on the eve of the aborted communist coup, full of good, friendly, noble feelings (I thought). I looked up and saw a huge banner stretched across the street, which screamed at me, "Go to hell, Yankee!" That was me, a Yankee who had come to help people who clearly didn’t want either me or my help.
Of course, in the colonial era, foreigners got respect and consequent gratification. The missionary was the father and the leader, beloved and depended upon by many. Sure, dangers and hardships abounded, but in most cases you could survive because you felt you were indispensable.
In my home church, when I was young, warm feelings crept over me when I heard missionaries tell how nice it was of the natives to call them "mother." Many years later I learned you had to earn the title, not because you had white skin, but because you had persevered long enough to have gray hair.
You can endure a lot of pain if you have an appreciative following, but in today’s rampant nationalism and urbanization that’s not always the feeling you get. Local people, for good reasons, often doubt the usefulness of foreigners, except as sources of money. When this fact sinks in, you may not only be humbled but also led to question the wisdom of being there.
The new missionary, picked for leadership skills and all-around talent at home, suddenly is thrown into the role of a learner, a student begging for a chance to serve. No one knows his or her worth, or even cares. But rather than losing self-confidence, the new missionary may need to revise expectations and find a way to be accepted on local terms.
New missionaries arrive with more than a mound of baggage; they arrive with a monstrous burden of learning how to relate to people they do not understand, either culturally or verbally. Yes, they get some basic training, but no one can be fully prepared ahead of time for adjusting to a foreign country and culture. To make things more confusing, a given country may have several cultural groups living in the same place. West Java, where I live, has many ethnic groups, plus 30 million Sundanese. Each group has different manners, customs, and needs. They may give conflicting signals about how to behave. When you’re trying hard not to make a fool of yourself, such complexity can be overwhelming. Your once poised and articulate new missionary doesn’t know how to behave, can’t speak properly, and feels painfully alien.
Of course, language learning ranks first. "Oh, you’ll get it in a year," the recruiter may have said, not explaining that means the basics of conversation. Even with that, you can be disappointed. After I had been speaking Indonesian for several years, a young fruit seller deflated me when he responded to my "fluent" bargaining by saying, "I cannot speak English."
Learning to communicate takes time — much more than you want to think about — and requires innumerable body gestures, other signals and cues, as well as the spoken word. It may take three years or more before you can handle abstract ideas (i.e., religious terms) competently. So, you’ll be laughed at (or with, depending on your reaction). Most educated, status-conscious, goal-oriented Americans find it exceedingly difficult to go back to the level of a child learning to talk.
Beyond language learning, you have to learn how people think and react; that’s even harder. After several years of trying to figure out how one group of people was thinking, and trying to relate this to my own experience, I suddenly realized I could not make the comparison. How did I wake up? While teaching my son "base 6" math.
To do that, I had to disassociate from the "ten" system I had learned and instead learn to think in groups of sixes. I had to approach math from a different view of reality. So it is when you’re trying to learn the world view of the people of another culture. Their whole base of thinking is different from yours, and although you can never expect to comprehend it fully, you can learn to appreciate the difference and live comfortably within it. That’s time-consuming, but well worth the effort.
LIVING SITUATIONS AND FAMILY PROBLEMS
While new missionaries try to cope with being foreigners, learn the language, adjust to culture, customs, and unfathomable ways of thinking, their fluctuating personal circumstances seem to spin out of control like a broken yoyo. Their circumstances vary, depending on whether they are single, married, or married with children, whether they live alone or with local people, but one thing they problems like they never had to face at home. Of course, they arrive thinking that they pretty much "have it all together," but suddenly they find that they have to make radical changes in their habits and attitudes. Simple, everyday tasks become complicated, or even traumatic.
Does bonding with a local family hasten cultural adjustment and language learning? Although not always pleasant, living with a family usually works out well. However, couples with children need to go into this with their eyes open, because their children may suffer from the shake-out of the family system.
When we lived with a family for over two years, they irritated me by asking me why we disciplined our children. Also, they didn’t seem to grasp our need for privacy. One night one of them plunged into our bedroom without any warning to reach the fuse box. I would gladly have grabbed the next plane out of there.
Some people deeply committed to bonding forbid any fellowship with other missionaries, even though that is essential for counsel and prayer. One isolated couple got into such deep troubles — which could have been avoided if they had talked with other Westerners who had already made the same mistakes — that they left the field. No one knew about their problems until then. Bonding should work to prevent problems, not create them.
Of course, single people find it easier to bond, but if a new missionary expects bonding to meet all his or her needs, it won’t work. Even after making good friends with local people, great loneliness will ensue, because their understanding of the foreigner is bound to be limited. Singles face a small pool of potential close friends, so while they try to cope with their problems, they have few friends with whom to discuss them. Married couples seem to have enough struggles of their own to pay attention to the singles. To escape this pressure cooker, some singles rush precipitously into marriage with a local person. If marriage does come hastily, without adequate appreciation of cultural differences, severe stress may result in years of unhappiness.
Married missionaries can rely on each other and find strength, provided they have become good friends and companions previously. But if their relationship is rocky, friction will mount under the new pressures on the field and cause defeat. I knew a couple that expected their problems to vanish once they got to the field and became missionaries, I suspect because they believed that would make them more spiritual. Field stresses exacerbated their marital problems and they did not return after their first term. In our field, too often marital infidelity has caused missionary failure. Perhaps in a less stressful environment, they could have solved their problems.
In some families, one spouse may find adjustment impossible. In such cases I have seen, it’s usually the wife. She’s left out of the excitement of the work, but carries all the burdens. At home, she probably felt productive in ministry, successful, and appreciated. On the field, she spends days at a time without seeing anyone but her children and her servant. Instead of feeling like she is serving God, she feels hemmed into a useless routine. She doesn’t get the language very well and her sense of achievement and worth gradually diminishes. She decides that her goal is to survive until furlough, but when she gets home her gets all the accolades for "the work."
Then there’s the interminable tug of war over what to do with the children. Their health and education become time-consuming issues. If every family member is expected to be a missionary, who will look after the little ones? What about boarding school? If you send your children away, will you be overcome with guilt? Because of pressures from within and without, some families have to leave the field for the sake of a child.
TOWARD A REALISTIC VIEW
What shall we make of these conflicts and pressures? I say missionaries should go with and maintain realistic identities and expectations. They need to pray for wisdom patience. They need to have a long view of who they are in God’s plan and of the time and effort it will take for them to develop fruitful work. This will take years, not months or weeks. Time is the price we pay. People who are goal – and time-oriented will suffer the most, if their self-image is measured by their achievements.
God has not quit, although the new missionary may think that is the case. God molds servants; servants listen to orders and submit Servants trust and stay in the background. They don’t try to take a piece of God’s glory by saying, "Look what I did." God takes clay and turns it into useful vessels. He desires Spirit-filled servants who develop fruit of the Spirit as well as gifts of the Spirit, to advance against the kingdom of darkness. This also takes time. To survive, missionaries need prayer, a willingness to grow, and common-sense expectations.
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