For as long as I can remember, the word missionary conjured up a specific, anxiety-inducing image in my mind. A young person felt a burning call to some “dangerous” or “poverty-stricken” nation, said goodbye to the comforts of home and family, and assimilated into a new culture. They suffered, trusted God, bore fruit, raised money. Repeat.
It was this notion that popped into my head when a furloughed missionary asked me on a date, a situation that led me to confront my unease of a prospective life on the mission field. The furloughed missionary was preparing for a five-year commitment to the Youth With A Mission (YWAM) base in Taipei, Taiwan, and even though I was interested in him, I didn’t think I was built for the anticipated sacrifices. But after visiting him for a few weeks in the summer, I was surprised to find that his life looked nothing like my childhood impression. He studied Mandarin in cafes by day and went to the base’s coffee bar a few nights a week to teach English and the Bible to locals. He lived in a modern apartment with air conditioning, Wi-Fi, and satellite TV and most of his furnishings came from the IKEA a few Taipei Metro stops away. Even though he lived thousands of miles from home in North Dakota, he could still watch Vikings football games online and call his family anytime he wanted to.
These modern conveniences would end up making it easier for me (and many others) to say yes to Taiwan. What I didn’t realize was how difficult saying yes would become later on—in the small but crucial moments of transition and incarnation.
High-speed internet, airplanes, and cellphones have given those of us who have left our lives and loved ones behind an unprecedented ability to stay connected to that world. But these technological advances have also inhibited missionaries’ ability to be present and engaged in the work they believe God has called them to.
Prolonged Culture Shock
The missionary and I got married the summer after my initial visit, and we moved together to Taiwan three weeks later. A season of culture shock awaited, as the exotic image of Taiwan I had gave way to the reality that I was now living in an unfamiliar culture. Unlike my family’s wooded acre in rural Minnesota, I now lived in a city made of concrete high-rises where it was nearly impossible to find a patch of grass. The language barrier meant that simple tasks like buying groceries and going to the post office took hours, leaving me exhausted and spent before the day was even half over. The blazing hot and humid summer lasted for months, while the few cool days we experienced were often accompanied by torrential downpours.
In those early days I often scrolled through my Facebook feed or called my mom to temporarily relieve the pressure of transition, sometimes fantasizing about returning home. I spent hours watching Netflix and eating junk food from the local convenience store after I got home from Chinese class, desperate to feel normal in a completely foreign place to me.
My struggle didn’t surprise Scott Contival, the base leader for YWAM Taipei and my husband’s boss. Contival, who has lived in Taiwan for 17 years and has witnessed many of his staff grapple with a new culture in their early months, told me my experience was normal. “It typically takes a person 6–18 months to go through the cycle of culture shock, to get to a point where they can feel a sense of normalcy.”
Or at least it used to.
“In recent years we’ve seen a trend of new missionaries who don’t ever actually get out of the culture shock phase,” he said. “Their laptops and smartphones provide them unlimited access to their families and own culture and it makes it much more difficult to do the work of incarnation.” Incarnation, I was slowly—and sometimes painfully—realizing, was perhaps the most important part of the “successful” missionary’s life abroad.
A New Generation
While incarnation remains the desire for many modern missionaries, the challenges are growing.
“For missionaries of old, the day they said goodbye to their families to depart for the mission field might have been the worst day of their lives. But as soon as that boat pulled away, the wound started to heal,” said Contival.
Doris Brougham can attest to this, having made her first journey to China on a six-week freighter ship from Portland in 1948 at age 22. She spent her first three years in China as the Cultural Revolution was fomenting, before ultimately settling across the South China Sea on the island known as Formosa (the previous name of the island that is now Taiwan). During those tumultuous first few years, she scarcely heard from family, her only access being letters that happened to arrive in the right place at the right time. By the time she arrived in Taiwan, her only possessions were her Chinese Bible and her trumpet.
Life didn’t get immediately easier for Brougham. She lost both of her parents unexpectedly during her first three years abroad, but the trip home was too long and expensive for her to attend their funerals. Her grief was immense, but she had to find a way to process it on the field, an approach that would ultimately deepen her love for her new home and her dependence on God. The children from the villages often gathered around her as she played her trumpet, forming impromptu choirs that brought her joy and meaning in difficult times. Little by little, she built a new life among the Taiwanese and today boasts 70 years (and counting) of fruitful ministry.
In the modern age, the distance between the mission field and our home countries keeps getting smaller—and cheaper. Flights return us home in a matter of hours or days instead of weeks or months. Our smartphones allow us to get in contact with family instantly. Social media keeps us up to date with the lives of our family and friends, not to mention political, celebrity, and sports news. This access is a gift in many ways—it is much easier for our families and churches to send words of encouragement and also to be aware of emergencies we might be facing. Traveling home for furloughs is easier and affordable, and people can visit us without a months-long commitment.
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Source: Christianity Today