9 Things about America that Surprise Returning Missionaries

I spend a lot of time with missionaries. In many cases, I’m with missionaries who’ve returned to the States for various reasons (e.g., health issues, aging parents, new position, etc.). I often ask them what most surprised them when they returned to the States. Here are some of their most common responses:

  1. The breakdown of the home. They know what they’ve heard from a distance, but seeing it firsthand is painful.
  2. The apparent shallowness of the American church. These missionaries have often been serving in places where sacrifice is the norm for believers—and the American church doesn’t always show that commitment.
  3. The cost of living. In many cases for the missionaries with whom I work, our denomination has provided them with salary, housing, and benefits (sometimes including a vehicle). For these returnees, making the financial commitment to buy things like a car and a home can be daunting.
  4. The vast number of choices we have. Consider the missionary whose breakfast has typically been two or three options at best—but who now must choose among dozens of cereals at the local grocery store. It’s overwhelming.
  5. The church buildings. We take them for granted, but that’s not the case for missionaries who’ve worshiped under trees, in huts, in simple buildings, etc. In fact, they sometimes view our buildings as opulent.
  6. The geographic ignorance of Americans. We give too little attention to what’s happening around the world. In fact, we have little knowledge of other countries in general.
  7. The amount of food that people eat. Sometimes, a single serving we get in a restaurant is more than others around the world eat in a day. We pile—and often waste—food on our plates. Missionaries who’ve served needy people especially grieve our waste. 
  8. The fast pace of life. Everyone seems to be in a hurry, and nobody seems to have time for relationships—a big change for many missionaries who’ve served among highly relational peoples.
  9. The silliness of many local church and denominational battles. When you’ve been in places where the gospel is just now taking root and the number of believers is minimal, you find our “Christian squabbles” a bit absurd.

If you’re a missionary, what would you add? If you’re a pastor, how might you use this information to equip your church? 

11 Comments

  • Nancy Bleakley says:

    As a military family member who lived many years overseas, we experienced the same sorts of culture shock when returning to the U.S.

  • Clf says:

    We’re always shocked at how few people there seem to be in the US. It’s due to how spread out people are. In our place of service, we’re used to large crowds of people everywhere we go, people living on top of one another. After getting used to that, we come to the states and it feels like a ghost town. 😄

  • Courtney says:

    Yet again you’ve proved that most people think overseas missions only exists in poorer or rural countries..

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      I understand why you might read these conclusions that way, but I’m only reporting what others have particularly said. I don’t personally think that missions only exists in those places. Thanks for writing.

  • Allen Lawless says:

    I really appreciate this piece and the great opportunity it could provide for we the church, to remember the extreme importance of being thankful to the One who is the giver of all good gifts.

  • Robin G. Jordan says:

    I would add to this list the scarcity or lack of fervent, expectant prayer in American churches. In too many churches prayer is perfunctory at best.

  • Al Hodges says:

    We served 26 years as missionaries, and 11 years on IMB Richmond staff. When we took Stateside Assignments, our adjustments had to do with the extreme opulence, size, and almost addictive focus on consumerism. (Big houses, cars multiplied by family, big churches, etc.)

    A real shocker was the low standard and almost non existent awareness of the requirement of holiness in conversations and lifestyle among church members. In Sunday School classes, we’d be shocked by the use of crude vocabulary and what seemed to be a lower standard for Christian living.

  • Carolyn Penick says:

    Everyone would rather hear about their friends vacation trip than about your experiences in your country of service.

  • Joel Gass says:

    I am floored by how few people care about the actual local church. Thanks for your work. Great article.

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