top of page

Pains of Reverse Culture Shock and Shallow American Faith

Suffocatingly small-minded.

More married to tradition than to Scripture.

Cared more about aesthetic appeal than content.

I know what I've been taught. The end.

To say I struggled with my return to Arkansas after studying abroad is a gross understatement. It was honestly one of the most emotionally unhealthy times in my life. My overseas experience was misunderstood, under-valued, and disregarded. Peers would ask questions like, "How was your trip?" as if I had just taken a vacation instead of living four months somewhere totally new. No one seemed to care what I learned or what happened to me. I didn't know how to process such a large, drastically different piece of my life. I had to jump back into a life my friends and family had been living without me. For months, I suffered internally with no idea how to express it.

I think for the most part, people just didn't know what to say or ask. They didn't know how to listen to me talk about something they didn't understand. What I experienced didn't affect them, so they didn't try very hard to meet me where I was at. I was the one who had changed, not them, and as far as they were concerned, it was my job to morph back into their mold.

I have heard nearly every foreign exchange student, Missionary Kid, Third-Culture Kid, or study-abroad returnee share in this frustration. It's hard for people to grasp how important an experience is to you when it means nothing to them. They won't understand why you miss walking downtown and eating off of the same plate. They don't care what your house smelled like and what you could see out your window. When a memory brings you to tears, they think you're being too emotional. They can't relate to the things you miss because they can't miss what they never knew.

Reverse culture shock sucks 100%.

For me, stepping back into the private Christian school culture hit the top of the list of most frustrating. I have spent literally my entire education from first grade through graduate school in a Christian institution. I highly value the education I have received and the knowledge of my faith that has been taught to me. But let's be real: Knowledge only gets you so far.

Without a single doubt, I learned more about what it means to be a Christian in the world in my four months abroad than I did in the other seven semesters on my Baptist college campus. You can spend hours in Sunday school or in Christian friend circles talking through scenarios and "what if" situations, but your character isn't tested until you are in those situations. You can practice evangelism in classes, but you're not actually evangelizing until you're sharing the gospel with someone who doesn't know it. You can write papers about what you believe, but when no one around you believes the same thing, all of your assumptions are put to the test.

Like I said at the beginning, returning to American Christian culture after being somewhere that had no resemblance to it made characteristics like devotion to tradition over Scripture, misplaced values, and behavioral conformity glaringly obvious. And let me just be as real as ever: It made me sick. I was so fed up with it. How could I have lived my whole life right within that mold and never noticed?

How are we blind to the fact that we're so self-absorbed we miss opportunities to meet needs and speak into people's lives? How can we care so much more about our opinions than we do about people's hearts? We feel a need to beat other people into the ground so long as our opinions come out on top. We have church leaders devoted to doing things "biblically," but somewhere along the line they fail to recognize many traditions and requirements they set up within their churches are not present anywhere in Scripture. They have come up with molds and practices that stem from good intentions, but they teach us that their traditions are law, never exploring more in depth where they came from or teaching us why they are as devoted to them as they are to God's Word. We make sure we do certain things and avoid other things so that we fit into the culture's "acceptable" Christian mold, and all the while we miss the heart of Jesus that's supposed to be driving our every decision and action. We are more fired up about who got chosen to sing lead over who than we are about the people in the world who do not even know about the God to whom we sing.

And this last one gets me the most. You want to see me burst into tears? Simply mention Muslims who have many beliefs so close to our own but have unbridgeable gaps in the foundational truths of our faith. "Those people" across the world who don't know God aren't abstract to me anymore. They have faces and names and voices. We have laughed and broken bread together. They know things about me my American friends never knew. We have memories together. I love them.

I love them, and I am repeatedly broken as I remember where their eternities lie and beg God to reveal Himself to them. And I am maddened by the people who live as though they couldn't care less whether these people spend eternity with God or not.

I want to be clear that being "maddened" isn't coming from a place of rage but from a place of burden. Every single one of us (hopefully) has someone in our lives we are begging God to reach. Let's take the loved ones of each other seriously and spend time in prayer for the ones we know as well as the ones we don't, because every soul needs Jesus whether we are personally tied to them or not.

After almost three years of being back in the States, I still struggle with finding how to live my faith in my context. Americans don't often think twice about buying houses or clothes. We watch movies with Christian friends and go on vacations with our families. These are good things, but after having lived so differently among people who needed the Jesus living inside of me, I often feel uncomfortable in the comforts of life. I am grateful for them, but I battle with morphing back into the picture I once thought was normal. After the experience I had, and the ones I hope to have, I imagine it will never feel normal again.

Whether you agree with what I see or not, I hope I have at least challenged you to consider your long-held beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors. Whatever we do, let's do it out of a love for Jesus and a devotion to God's Word, period.

And for the emotional well-being of those you know and love who have had a prolonged cross-cultural experience, ask them to share their experiences with you. Look at their pictures and listen to their stories. Start with questions like:

What was your daily routine like? What do you miss most about it?

What part of that culture do you wish you could bring home and adopt into your home context?

What relationships are you grieving the loss of? Tell me stories of those people.

Share your most memorable experiences with me.

What parts of that culture confused or humored you?

What parts of that culture did you adjust to and enjoy most?

In what ways was your faith challenged? In what ways did it grow?

How did you see God work?

What is something you wish people asked about?

And the question that might mean the most: What else?


bottom of page