I remember returning back home from the mission field and being completely overwhelmed by, well, everything. As hard as it is to believe, coming home, even after a relatively short time away, is incredibly disorienting. If you’re in the role as a full-time mission pastor/director or part-time giver of missionary care, what follows is information about returning missionaries you need to know.
Big Box Stores
Walking into a Walmart Superstore or Home Depot with their mile high ceilings, aisles that stretch to the horizon and giant, bright directional signs was an assault on my senses. And I live to explore these stores.
The non-rush-hour speeds with which one can travel on the US interstate system are mind-boggling when you’re not used to it. While I learned to drive on Southern California freeways in driver’s education in high school, coming back to a metropolitan freeway system is like returning to those early days in driver’s ed. You have to form new driving habits.
What is often taken for granted is that traffic here on surface streets in the States is incredibly organized, and with a few exceptions, well-orchestrated. In the developing world, missionaries need to learn to navigate through traffic that is unorganized, chaotic, like a sea that ebbs and flows with vehicles on wheels in every shape and size imaginable, many of them overflowing with goods, animals and humans. The missionary begins to understand that navigating developing world traffic is more normal on this planet than carefully engineered developed-nation traffic. Navigating traffic overseas – believe it or not – takes learning how relationships work, while navigating traffic in the U.S. requires an internal understanding of rules.
Similar to the shock of walking into a Big Box Store, even a small town church can be a technological assault of sight and sound to the returning missionary. Almost every US church uses a sound system and multiple screens. If the missionary is returning home to or visiting a metropolitan mega-church, the experience is even more significant. While these tools are becoming more available around the world, their use is much more ad-hoc and sporadic; it is not a given and missionaries need to be gently given space to adjust.
Missionaries are immersed in ministry dialogue by the very nature of their vocation. Moment by moment, they are navigating conversations that constantly work toward fulfillment of large and small ministry goals. They rarely get a break from this. In many cases, they haven’t engaged in conversations about football teams, baseball statistics, or sports personalities for a long period of time. In some cases, home team loyalties have lapsed. A return to discussing the weather and World Series at church can be a huge leap for a missionary. They often sit in silence.
Missionaries are “in-betweeners”. They’ve had to un-learn many things as they’ve re-learned how to survive and navigate life in a new culture. As much as we expect them to, they can’t simply pick up where they left off. They need to be treated (no offense to the missionary reader intended) a little like Rumpelstiltskin. While they haven’t been asleep, the world they left has continued, and in many ways, changed into something they no longer recognize.
The Mission Pastor and missionary caregivers are “go-betweeners”. They facilitate safe-passage. Missionaries are best served when listened to and then personally introduced (or re-introduced) to their home culture.
The best analogy I can give you, missionary care person, is that a missionary can be like a human castaway who was stranded on another planet (bear with me, missionary reader). You’re like the Vulcan Doctor Spock. You’re responsible for preparing the castaway for re-entry into human civilization. You provide safe-passage into the community. The missionary can be easily irritated by the new things he isn’t able to understand. You need to sensitively explain how sight, sound, and technology are used to achieve the same goals the missionary has: reaching people for Jesus in the language of the culture.
Transition back into culture takes time, nurturing and planning. While the needs and experience of the different missionaries you’ll engage with varies, approaching your relationships with returning missionaries with these things in mind will serve missionaries well.