One of the more profound experiences in life is waking up for the first time in a new culture. The sense of adventure combined with a nearly insurmountable amount of fear creates an unbearable tension that can only be broken by opening the door to your new world. Missionaries experience the privilege of cultural adjustment in permanently transformative ways. Adjusting to a new culture is an earth shattering experience.
During one of the first nights I spent in Macedonia, my wife and I were awakened by an earthquake. Around midnight the four story Communist block building began to shake. We popped up vertically wondering why the room was shaking. I thought it was a dream. We looked out the window but didn’t see anybody or anything out of the ordinary. Soon thereafter we went back to bed. The next day we were asked if we had felt the earthquake. We were shaken a bit, realizing that Skopje, the capital, had been destroyed 30 years earlier by an earthquake. The next three years of our lives reflected the combination of quaking events one moment and nothing out of the ordinary the next moment.
Adjusting to a new culture creates opportunities for the human heart to go brave or go broken. Learning a different language and eating new foods puts tremendous strain on a person. Many Americans who have gone short-term do not understand the complexities of cross-cultural adjustment due to the shortness of their stays. Eating new foods and learning a few words every day rocks your worldview to the core.
- photo provided by Ardian Dumani
Marge and E. Grant Jones, in their book Psychology of Missionary Adjustment, suggest six spheres of missionary adjustment:
- from security to insecurity
- from safety to danger
- from support systems to self-reliance
- from comfort to inconvenience
- from the known to the unknown
- from love to hostility
Which of those would you like to tackle first when moving to a new culture? The table is set for some serious vulnerability.
Some missionaries are more successful than others in making adjustments. Truth be told, every missionary succeeds and fails in adjusting to the new culture. Those who succeed more often than not have a better chance of becoming a missionary who can make an impact. The missionaries who have a good sending structure have the best chance of surviving and thriving.
Many missionaries are unwilling or unable to make effective adjustments. Those who are unwilling to adjust don’t realize the significance of adapting to a new place, or they are too lazy to try. Those who are unable to adjust most likely lack the emotional resources or the spiritual maturity to make the right choices. Of course, cross-cultural living is so complex that it is often difficult to discern what is happening to you, particularly when more than one of the six spheres listed above become entangled with each other.
Been there – done that.
Years ago, a missionary friend of mine was having trouble with language learning. While she viewed the situation as difficulty trying to learn a new language (known to unknown), once I discussed her situation with her, it became obvious that she was experiencing severe loneliness (support system to self-reliance). An inability to mesh with people in the new culture affected her ability to obtain the language. Her language challenges exposed her heart’s inability to relate to others.
On the surface, however, she didn’t realize that she wasn’t connecting with the locals. She thought she simply couldn’t make the same sounds as them. In reality, she was missing her friends and family back home so much that it inhibited her from building new relationships. Self-reliance and self-preservation kicked in for her own survival away from home. Unknowingly, she put up walls that new potential friends were not willing to scale.
This missionary and others in similar stages have choices to make concerning their vulnerability before God and people. Check back in a few days for that piece of the story…
And here it is! Missionary Vulnerability