by Matthew Hirt
The only constant in the life of a missionary is change. Missionaries live through seemingly endless transitions. Beloved teammates depart, and new teammates arrive. Meanwhile, all missionaries are at various levels of language acquisition and cultural acclimation. On top of all of this, missionary teams frequently adopt new strategy initiatives, leadership vision, and even experience massive transitions in organizational structure. Despite being professionals at transition, nearly all missionaries seem to struggle with the same transition: the move back to the United States.
Missionaries leave the field for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they are between terms, their term is ending, or the Lord is calling them to a new place of ministry. Other times they may be leaving due to team conflict, fundraising shortfalls, or illness. Whatever the reason for the return, missionaries often have a hard time identifying “home.” Home is not the United States anymore, but it’s not exactly where they were living overseas either.
Lottie Moon recognized the need for churches to welcome returning missionaries back to the United States. In an 1887 article in the Foreign Mission Journal, she urged Southern Baptist churches to love returning missionaries well. She exhorts, “Give the returned missionary a cheerful welcome, even if he breaks down in two or three years, remembering that in his place you might not have done so well as he did.”* A cheerful welcome, however, means more than meeting them at the airport with balloons or throwing a “welcome home” party for them. The questions you ask them and the phrases you say (or don’t say) can do a lot to help a missionary.
Become a Cheerful Welcomer
Most Americans do not place a high priority on hospitality. This distinction of American culture is demonstrated not just in our lack of eagerness to welcome people into our homes but also in the way that we talk to one another. Here are a few common questions and phrases that many missionaries receive from friends and family followed by some suggestions to help you become a cheerful welcomer.
How was your trip?
This question is only okay if you mean, “Did you have a good flight?” Missionaries know that you mean well by this question, but the question reduces their years of service to the category of a “trip.” A trip is something a person takes in between their normal life. A missionary has often spent years learning the language, understanding the culture, ministering to the people, crying with them, and celebrating with them. In other words, it wasn’t just a break from normal life. The time overseas was normal life, and they are struggling to figure out what normal looks like now without ignoring everything they experienced overseas. The important point here is to not minimize their experience.
I bet you are happy to be home!
This statement usually means, “I’m happy to see you again!” If that’s what you mean, then please say that. Missionaries need family and friends to love them. There are, however, two main problems with this phrase. First, as mentioned above, returning missionaries often struggle with the concept of “home.” By assuming that the United States is home causes disorientation and confusion commonly referred to as “reverse culture shock.” This kind of culture shock is usually harder for returning missionaries to deal with because they should feel most comfortable in their original culture, but they don’t. When someone indicates that the United States is home, it can create an involuntary surge of anxiety and disorientation that makes them feel isolated, alone, and misunderstood.
Second, this phrase unintentionally communicates that the returning missionary doesn’t miss anything from their country of service, and they are pleased with everything they now have available. This, again, can result in some reverse culture shock as they immediately think of all the friends they already miss and struggle to quickly orient themselves to an elusive new normal.
Be a cheerful welcomer by saying “How are you doing? How can we be praying for your during this transition?”
Negative comments about the people/food/language/weather/culture
This is more of a general category because there are too many specific comments and questions that fit. Typical comments sound something like, “I bet you ate a lot of strange stuff,” or “I’m sure it’s nice to be around people who speak your own language again,” or “I read that the pollution is so bad there. You must be glad to breathe fresh air again.” Work hard to understand that there are parts of the culture overseas that all returning missionaries will miss. I still get cravings for certain foods and drinking milk tea with friends. There are times when I am tempted to jump on a flight just to get some buttered naan and momos from my favorite restaurant. I will always miss looking out my window on a clear autumn day to see the Himalayas or the sounds of rain falling during the monsoon. I miss the slower pace of life even though I found parts of it incredibly frustrating while I was there. I am certain that nearly every returning missionary has similar feelings.
Be a cheerful welcomer by taking the opportunity to learn something about the missionary’s host culture. Ask questions about what the missionary liked overseas. If you really want to show interest, ask the missionary to make their favorite foods from overseas for you or offer to take them to a restaurant that specializes in the food that they miss.
Be a Cheerful Disciple-Maker
If home is where the heart is, then it’s not hard to understand why so many missionaries struggle with this transition. Their heart is torn between at least two different places and groups of people they deeply love. Be patient with them, love them well, and give them a cheerful welcome. Returning missionaries should also work through this transition like the countless other transitions of the missionary life. That means showing a lot of grace to those who love you but truly do not understand what your life overseas was like. Instead of expressing offense or frustration, use the moment as a discipleship opportunity. Cheerfully teach them about daily life overseas. Cheerfully teach them about the people, language, and culture that is now a part of you forever. Cheerfully teach them about the way that the Lord is working and about the spiritual needs that still require prayer. After all, the command to make disciples persists even after returning “home.”
Lottie Moon, “The Breaking Down of Missionaries,” in Send the Light: Lottie Moon’s Letters and Other Writings, edited by Keith Harper (Macon, GA: Mercer University, 2002), 219–220.