By Brock Johnson
You've done it. You heard the call, and you obeyed. Welcome to the mission field! You are one of the very few who have been willing to leave it all so that others may know Jesus.
At the end of Luke 9, Jesus talks about the cost of following Him. Sadly, it is because of the great sacrifice required that many decide it’s just not worth it. One guy just wanted to go bury his dad after he had died. Another wanted to go say goodbye to his family. But Jesus said, “No… no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom.”
Wow! How great the cost! And it is true… leaving it all behind to follow Jesus requires sacrifice. For some, it may lead to sickness, imprisonment, or even death. But for everyone who crosses borders for the sake of the gospel, it will lead to certain sacrifices and tough adjustments.
If you haven't had to make a foreign land home (over the longterm), it’s simply impossible to understand the difficulties that it entails. The truth is, there is much about missionary life that is simply dreadful. Without the hope outlined in 2 Corinthians 12:8-10, the mission field could be a pretty miserable life.
Just when something good or encouraging happens, the enemy shows up to remind you how lousy it is where you live. Not just the extreme things that strike every once in a while, but the daily stuff... like a simple errand taking 5 hours, internet always being down, language and culture acclimation, kids being depressed/emotional/bitter/sad, longing for a deep conversation, the realities of poverty, sickness and death all around you, missing family, or a million other things.
And just when progress is made, some attractive lure from home (family, friends, speaking english!, and simple comforts, conveniences, and luxuries) will come screaming for your attention.
Loneliness in the mission field can be crushing. After spending a week working on a ministry/personal update, you’ll hit “send,” excited to share with everyone back home what you've been up to. Often times, you’ll end up terribly disappointed with the lack of response. Little by little, you start to feel forgotten about.
Most missionaries end up feeling like their friends, family, and even their home-church start losing interest in them. In some cases, it’s largely true. But even when it’s not, being alone in a foreign country sure makes it feel like it is. A healthy team, scheduled phone/video calls, and good missionary care, are all hugely important. But the reality is… abiding in Christ is the only thing that will sustain you. As your dependence on Him grows, you will find that His grace is more than enough!
There are four phases that missionaries go through after hitting the ground. They are 1) honeymoon, 2) crisis, 3) recovery, and 4) adjustment. There is no exact science to the timing of onset. Some will move from honeymoon to adjustment quickly, and for others it will take much longer. But it is almost a certainty that all foreign missionaries will experience the following four phases:
Phase 1 - Honeymoon
You begin your new adventure in the honeymoon phase, and it usually comes to an end between your first 3-9 months (sometimes sooner, almost never later). This stage allows you to "get through" because of the sheer adventure of it all. Everything is exciting and fun. You're riding on adrenaline!
You've answered the call to the mission field, and even the annoyances can be “embraced.” You’ll likely see the difficulties of language, shopping, traffic, and paying bills as a “challenge” and you’re eager to give it your best shot. You’ll know when “honeymoon" is dwindling when things begin to shift from fun to frustrating. But you’ll hang in there for a little while longer because its still pretty awesome, adventurous, and exciting to live in another country!
Phase 2 - Crisis
The line between honeymoon and crisis is very fine. Honeymoon ends abruptly and crisis comes BANGING in. “Crisis” will hit sometime during your first year, and can last another 6 months to an entire year.
During this phase, everything seems to be falling apart. If you have kids, their struggles begin to take their toll on you. Consoling your kids every day, seeing them hurting, crying, and missing “home” will bring feelings of guilt. Your marriage may be strained during this phase, especially if one of you is adjusting better than the other. Its common for the man be busy working and finding his “place” while the woman is struggling to find hers. Of course, the reverse is possible as well.
Even if your language skills are improving, you become more frustrated that you can't have conversations of any substance. At some point you will no doubt feel like your language skills are regressing. You've learned just enough to realize how much you wish you knew. You feel like a 6 year old every time you try to have a conversation. Fun during “honeymoon”… meltdown material during “crisis.”
You'll start growing tired of the country's slow, outdated, annoying ways of doing things. Your inner-gringo starts longing for the efficient ways of old. You miss home. You miss foods. You miss central heat and air. You miss carpet. You miss Publix, Target, and the ability to just go get gas on your own. You miss everything! And being followed, stared at, and feeling uneasy is no longer “dangerously exciting.” Rather, it’s starting to make you mad.
Most missionaries will visit home at some point during crisis phase, and while it may be refreshing, it’s actually not very helpful (nor recommended)! I don’t have solid statistics to support it, but I’m certain that trips home during “crisis” often leads to missionaries making a decision that their calling is not long-term. The trip will only remind you of all the comforts and niceties that you miss. Instead of simply feeling rested, your return to the mission field could bring bitterness, frustration, or even anger.
Oh... I forgot to mention. During crisis phase, all of your sin is becoming glaringly apparent. You realize that the reason all of these things bother you is because you lack patience, contentment, an identity anchored in Christ, true dependence on God, and overall peace in your life. You begin seeing a selfish, high-maintenance jerk every time you look in the mirror. Like a punch right to the face, you're having a pure identity crisis. You never realized how much your "identity" was wrapped up in your former life! Your reputation as leader, husband, mom, athlete, sister, daughter, great friend, truth teller, multi-tasker, business person, organizer, host or hostess, comedian, super-mom, bible teacher, (list goes on)... JUST GOT ENTIRELY CRUSHED IN THE MISSION FIELD. Suddenly, you are unable to do ANY of those things with any level of quality or efficiency whatsoever.
You realize that the stripping away of your comforts, routine, and securities only allowed all of your well-hidden sins to come oozing out of you - all at once! You see your sin more clearly now than ever. Your fears, insecurities and false idols all get thrown onto the table, and you are forced to confront them. You begin to not like yourself. You begin to consider how moving back home could set things right. You start to justify "understandable reasons" to call it quits. Maybe conflict with others you are working with, security concerns, or lack of quality education for your kids all become justifiable reasons to start looking at the 2-year mark as an honorable end-date. It’s no wonder that 75% of missionaries head home after 2 years…
And remember, during all of this, you start realizing that many of your friends, family, and even home-church aren't nearly as interested in your calling as they once were. They were so excited for you when God was stirring your heart toward the mission field. But you left… and they stayed. Corporate America, Little League, YMCA, extracurriculars, the suburbs, and summers at the pool is still very much their life. They support your ministry, but may not reach out much. And when you are able to catch up, your conversations might be awkward. Some of your friendships begin to lose the quality/depth that you thought they once had.
Phase 3 - Recovery
Recovery phase usually begins to settle-in sometime during your second year. You've made it past crisis! Things start looking up - at least a little. You made the decision to face your sin head-on. During crisis phase, you likely had some level of a breakdown. But instead of running, you fell at the feet of Jesus, confessed your sin, begged forgiveness, found grace, and are on the road to... well, recovery! The process of “crisis to recovery” is wonderful, beautiful, and necessary. It is purification and sanctification.
Regarding the annoying in-country things… they are still annoying. But God is working on your patience, bitterness, and your deep desire for "american systems.” You are embracing the idea of “dying to self,” and with that, you are learning to let go of some of those things. You are likely finding joy in new simplicities.
God is replacing some of your old relationships with new ones. He has likely put people in your life that need Him, and therefore need you. Maybe even someone special that you needed! These new friendships might take away the "sting" of some of the ones back home that have grown distant.
During this phase you’ll probably get a visit from some friends, family, or church from home. Sometimes (not always!) these visits can be truly encouraging. Whether being around old friends is awkward or refreshing, it may allow you to see how much you have grown. That, in and of itself, will serve as a private and personal encouragement. You also might see how your life or your work affects them. This can remind you of the importance of what God called you to.
During the first 3 phases, missionaries tend to lean to heavily on what people back home are doing and saying. Remember, God called you to the mission field - not them. You will find your hope, strength, and sustainability in Jesus. Your relationships that are truly anchored in Jesus will not only persevere, but strengthen. And as you live sold-out to the call, you may gain a better understanding of some tough scripture, such as Matthew 10:34-39.
Lastly, a pretty cool breakthrough usually happens in this phase… you have a deep, critical conversation with someone in your new language! It’s not uncommon to have a moment where you realize you can “finally be yourself.” Joking, laughing, sharing your faith, and fully expressing yourself in a second language can definitely serve as a signal that you are nearing “adjustment.”
Phase 4 - Adjustment
The adjustment phase is usually around year 3 and beyond. You are starting to feel like your new country is home. You care a lot less about the little things. You don’t long for american food, culture, or systems any more. Your love for the people and commitment to the call outweighs all of that. God has revealed more to you about your specific calling to this place. You are sharing your faith more, and seeing how He wants to use you so that others may know Him.
Your language skills have finally gotten to the point where you can be yourself, go deep, have true relationships, share your faith, etc. Your kids are thriving as well… talking, studying, and reading in their new language. Their ability to express themselves in another language has allowed them to find their place. In fact, their arrival to “adjustment” will likely be ahead of yours!
When you visit "back home" the comforts, luxuries, distractions, and conversations probably bother you more than they lure you. The simpler, albeit tougher, life has captured your heart. It has led you to a different intimacy level with Jesus, and you wouldn't trade it for anything.
Welcome to the foreign mission field, long term! May the great commission of Jesus (Matthew 28:16-20) forever sustain you.