When Self-Discovery Becomes Self-Worship

by Josiah Dangers

“What’s your Enneagram number?”
“What’s your Meyers-Briggs code?”
“What are your top five on Strengthsfinder?”
…Hammer or duct tape?
…Beaver or Golden Retriever?
…Which Disney Princess are you?
… Marvel villain?
…Pokemon character?

Can soul-care become idolatry? Can self-discovery become self-worship?
In the contemporary Church and in missions, we spend an inordinate amount of time helping people achieve a “healthy soul.” We endeavor to use every tool at our disposal toward that noble end. We administer various self-discovery tests and discuss the results. We talk to people about why they do the things they do, why they react the way they do, why they sin the way they sin, why they thrive the way they thrive, why they stress the way they stress.

But if we are not very careful, we can actually lead them on a journey of counterproductive introspection and self-absorption instead of leading them on a journey toward Christ. We will fail in our efforts to improve a person’s soul-health every time if we don’t help them to look up.

The Gospel key to soul health is to look up. The Gospel proclaims, “get your eyes off of yourself and onto your Savior.” The Gospel call is not to become a better version of yourself but to be crucified with Christ and become a new creation (Galatians 2:20). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The call of Christ is a call to come and die.”


The Race
In Hebrews 12:1-2 we read that we are in a race: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Have you ever watched a stage of the Tour de France? How much time do those riders spend looking at themselves? Almost none. How much time do they spend looking over their shoulders? Very little – just the occasional quick glance. If you fixate on yourself while traveling at 30-60 MPH on two wheels that rival your pinky finger in girth, you won’t win the prize – you will win the prestigious “worst case of road rash” award as the rest of the peloton races ahead.

To be sure, each athlete in the Tour spends time in self-evaluation and preparation. The best riders spend an obsessive amount of time in training. However, the best ones are not fixating on themselves – they are fixating on the prize. They, like Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, discipline their bodies into submission for the sake of the prize. They recognize that who and what they are in and of themselves is insufficient to win the prize unless they train and become something that they naturally are not.

Sounds a lot like sanctification, doesn’t it?

What your soul needs is NOT to become more like you. After all, you are the primary cause of your soul’s sickness (Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 7:18). What your soul needs is to become less like you and more like Jesus (John 3:30). Granted, each one of us is designed to reflect certain aspects of the image of God. No one will ever reflect the fullness of the image of Christ. The catch is that so many of us spend our time and energy trying to discover what facet of the image we were designed to reflect instead of simply pursuing Jesus and allowing Him to call to life aspects of His image in us.


So what about all these tests?
Personality tests and the like can be useful. There are good ones out there, and there are many worthless ones. However, even the good ones are just tools. The Enneagram is not the Gospel. Nor is Meyers-Briggs, DISC, or any other test. Where they are useful, use them. After all, all truth is God’s truth, but nothing besides the Word has the corner on ALL truth.

These tests can be very helpful in identifying besetting sin patterns, areas of weakness or strength, causes of interpersonal tension or communication failures on teams, or even incorrectly deployed personnel. But please, for the sake of the Gospel, ask this question as you use them: Is my study of myself through this test causing me to become more like Christ, or is it leading me toward self-worship and idolatry?

With that question in mind, here are two potential pitfalls of self-discovery tests.

1. Excuses
That’s just me.  That’s the way I am.  That’s how God made me.  Deal with it.

Oh good… now we are blaming the Creator for our bad behavior.  Friends, that dog don’t hunt.  If you have a natural tendency to treat people badly, to be so driven that you hurt people in the process, to be reclusive, to be loud in self-promotion, to be arrogant or judgmental, call it what it is: sin.  Don’t ask others around you to accommodate it.  Put it to death!  Hate the sin in yourself enough to deal with it!  Repent where needed!  Use your list of weaknesses, needs, or sinful tendencies as a prayer list.  Run to your Savior and find freedom!

Never hide behind a number on a test.  That number, that descriptor, that code, should only serve to illuminate your need for Christ and your potential as a new creation in Christ.  You will only be free from your sin and reach your potential in Christ, or as Paul puts it, “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” (Ephesians 4:13) as you fix your eyes on Christ and become more like Him.

2. Pride. 
Our natural tendency as humans, regardless of our activity, is to compare ourselves to those around us. How easy it is to end up thinking: my list of strengths is cooler, more dynamic, more flexible, more impactful, or just plain better than yours.  I scored higher than you.  I am more balanced that you.  I’m more ______ than you.  I might have this weakness, but at least I don’t have THAT weakness like they do!

The Bible has a word for this line of thinking: pride.  One of the seven deadly sins, pride will manifest itself in the form of self-idolatry in a heartbeat.  Self-idolatry is one of the most insidious forms of idolatry because it is so hard to self-identify. It’s like dirt on your forehead – it’s perfectly evident to onlookers but invisible to you.  It’s only visible when looking into the mirror of the Word – the perfect, liberty producing law (James 1:24,25).

When you see your sin, your weakness, and your brokenness, join Paul in declaring, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a)


As we seek health for our souls, we must never allow soul-health to be the center of our pursuit.  Pursue Jesus.  As you do, you will discover that your soul will find its rest in Him. As a follower of Christ, your default in seeking to understand yourself should be to run to the Word of God.  What does God say about you? What does His Word say about your sanctification?  How does He want you to treat people?  How does He want you to communicate? Listen first and foremost to His voice and allow Him to guide you into all truth (John 16:13).


Josiah’s African roots go way back. His grandparents were career missionaries in D.R. Congo, and he grew up in Uganda, where his parents are still missionaries. Josiah studied at John Brown University, where he met and married Autum, his wife of 14 years. He spent eight years serving first as youth pastor and then as worship pastor at a local church in Colorado. In 2015, he moved to Uganda where he served as a camp director. He’s now back in Colorado serving as the Director of Missionary Care and Development for New Hope Uganda and as a worship leader at Woodmen Valley Chapel. Josiah and Autum have five adventurous children.

8 Resources When You Are in the Valley

To those of you who are walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, can I just tell you how brave you are?

You might not think of yourself as being brave at the moment, but you are. You are brave to get up day after day and interact with people. You are brave to be honest with yourself (and, at times, us) about how you are.

Having been down this long and winding path with more folks than I ever imagined when I first put my foot on foreign shores, I’ve gathered some resources and offer them here — not to fix you, but to walk with you.

1. To those not in the valley — The biggest “resource” we can offer to our sisters is prayer and our presence. If you are aware of someone who is in the valley, write her name on a piece of paper and place it where you’ll remember to pray for her. As you cook, fold laundry, commute, brush your teeth, let’s pray for one another. 

2. At times our thinking can get out of whack when we are depressed — and it becomes so automatic, we don’t even notice it. Scripture reminds us over and over how important our thoughts are because out of them flow our feeling and reactions/responses. (This isn’t meant to shame you and say, “Hey, get your thoughts right!” It’s meant to give you some context :))

Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS) help us to figure out where we might need to change how we think/talk to ourselves. Give someone you trust — spouse, good friend — permission to point out what they hear or read (if in emails) from you. You might be using “all” or catastrophizing in ways you didn’t realize. We can’t change or pray about things we’re not aware of.

3. If it is available, you might want to go to the doctor and have a check up to be sure nothing else is going on. When you are in the Valley of the Shadow of Death that probably sounds too overwhelming to navigate. Can you have a friend be your advocate and figure out the steps for you? Or set up an appointment? Sometimes medicine is easier to get in a foreign country –if the doctor thinks your blood chemistry may have gotten out of balance a bit of medicine can be a resource. And medicine alone isn’t going to solve the problem — find a confidant (friend, counselor) to help you untangle and sort out some of what is going on in your head, heart, and soul. God is in the business of restoration, though not always quickly.

4. Just needing a place to start, I like this one: Coping with depression. They offer small practical steps.

5. The Anxiety Centre comes highly recommended by a trusted friend who has used their services in remote areas of the world and had truly life changing results. There’s lots to look at for free, but then membership is required for access to all their stuff.  Memberships can be monthly, semi-annual or annual (and of course, the longer the membership, the cheaper put month it is.)  I think it’s reasonable and worth it!  If you have sessions with one of their coaches, you’ll be free access to the full website for the duration of your counseling time.  The counselor costs are reasonable, too.  They can meet with you by skype or other methods.

They not only deal with anxiety disorders, but have info on OCD, PTSD, panic attacks, and other related issues.  Even though there isn’t a special section on it, in the body of their main info, they have some helpful tips for depression, and they’ve noted a connection between anxiety and depression.

6. If you or a loved one (spouse, child, or friend) will be traveling while walking this path, this is a helpful list.

7. Advanced Global Coaching –-they are trained to know when someone would benefit from coaching and when they need to look into professional counseling. Sometimes, valley times are not full-blown depression, but seasons of confusion and lack of clarity as to the next step(s). AGC is a place that can help sort out which path you’re on. I know several people who work for them and everyone we’ve encountered has been top notch.

7. Another coaching resource is: Coaching Mission International. Coaching for missionaries is very reasonable. For more info, check out the Bridges program.

8. These two articles are by people with personal experience with depression. All the way down is by Parker Palmer and The Spiritual Dimension of Depression is by Elissa Elliott. A book from “the front lines” is Henri Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom.


I don’t mean to overwhelm you with resources, this is more of a starting point. What other resources have you heard of or found to be helpful?

We here at A Life Overseas are not “professionals,” but we are professional carers! Thank you for enhancing our community by offering a piece of yourself.

A version of this first appeared on Velvet Ashes

Moral Injury

I first learned the term “moral injury” in a Plough magazine article by Michael Yallend, Hope in the Void. He quoted authors Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini who say moral injury, “comes from having transgressed one’s basic moral identity and violated core moral beliefs…Moral injury destroys meaning and forsakes noble causes. It sinks warriors into states of silent, solitary suffering, where bonds of intimacy and care seem impossible.”

Foreign Policy magazine describes moral injury as “damage done to a ‘person’s conscience or moral compass by perpetrating, witnessing, or failing to prevent acts that transgress moral and ethical values or codes of conduct.”

Can you think of ways you have experienced this in your life abroad?

We know about female genital mutilation and cannot stop it. We turn away from the begging children. We participate in economic inequality. We are inappropriately respected or honored because of the color of our skin or our passport and we do little to stop it. We huddle behind locked doors and guarded, walled compounds when disorder breaks out in the streets. We pay the bribe to get our mail or our water turned on.

This is not how we imagined serving, helping, or changing the world. We are humanitarians, we are people motivated by faith and by a desire to serve and help. Some of us thought we could change the world, only to discover we are complicit in harm, subconsciously or not.

About his own memories of serving as a soldier in the Iraq war, Yallend wrote, “I know I am not who I thought I was. I am something different, something I never planned on being.”

Another way to think about moral injury is as a wound to the soul.

I am not heroic and I know this far better now, after 16 years abroad, than I ever would have learned had I stayed in the US. I am the opposite of heroic. Living here has stripped away all illusion of moral superiority or high character. I stand exposed.

All my high ideals and righteous ambitions lie in tatters at my feet while people around me go hungry and I can never feed them all. When injustice reigns and I don’t protest. When racism rules and I benefit.

And that’s just what I’m willing to publicly confess.

I know now, who I am. I am not who I thought I was or who I intended to be.

Oh how deeply runs the chasm between who I thought I was and who I now know myself to be.

Oh how much greater my knowledge of my need for a grace I cannot earn.

This is not about moving abroad and learning how selfish and greedy and impatient and proud you are. (I learned all that too) This is darker, deeper, and more damaging.

Moral injury is a heavy, serious topic that deserves much deeper exploration than a single blog post. I’ll provide some links below and encourage you to explore the idea on your own, to see how you may have been impacted, or not. And then I encourage you to find a place where you can be honest and courageously vulnerable so that you can find healing.

Does this resonate with you? How? And how can you move toward healing?

The Headington Institute

Hope in the Void, Plough Magazine

Foreign Policy The Warrior and Moral Injury

Psychology Today: Moral Injury

How to get into missions in just one month

Didn’t do great on your New Year resolutions? That’s ok, March can be your month. This easy to follow plan will have you storing up treasures in heaven in just 31 days!

March 2019 Get Into Missions Now Plan:


Ok, ok so it took my family 10 years to acquire the needed skills and experience to move overseas. We were probably just slow. I think this plan will work.

A Prayer of Repentance


To the women and girls of New Tribes Mission*

Lord, we repent for the sins against children. We repent for having ears that were deaf and eyes that were blind. We repent for the loss of innocence and beauty – things that were stolen from children molested in the dark of night. We weep for the damage to body, mind, and soul that these children, now women, sustained. We mourn for what was taken from them.

Lord, we repent for systems that allowed this to happen. We cry out for justice and we beg for healing for those whose lives bear the scars of abuse.

We pledge to never let this happen again. We commit to screening, to predeparture counseling, to hiring professionals that are trained to see warning signs. We commit to rigorous systems of accountability, to immediately believing the child who comes to us, to facing uncomfortable truth. We commit to changing systems that perpetuate abuse, to supporting victims throughout their lives, to holding and healing hurt children.

We commit to having our eyes wide open to abuse and injustice in all its forms, to having ears that hear beyond mere words. We commit to loving truth and hating and exposing lies. We commit to the hard work of change.

We confess and repent that we have viewed “ministry” as a god, as an idol that must be broken; that we have upheld the reputation of men and women and ministry as more important than the protection of children.

We beg you to pour your love and grace over the wounded ones. Honor their courage. Honor their humility. Honor their grace.

We repent. We confess. We fall on our knees before you in humility. 

May we be people who do justly, who love mercy, who walk humbly. May we be people whose love for God extends first to our children in holy honor and protection.

Lord, we repent. Lord, please forgive. Hear our prayer oh Lord. 

Author’s note: Like many of you, I read the story and watched short video clips about the abuse of children through New Tribes Mission. Like many of you, I was overcome with grief and anger. This is my response.

For articles from this community on abuse and responding to abuse please click here.

*Disclaimer: The author has no connection either from the past or present with New Tribes Mission or Ethnos360.

4 Ways to Take Your Language Learning to the Next Level

by Jessica Dais

There is a lot you can accomplish as a missionary in a foreign country, regardless of whether or not you know the local language. However, there’s something to be said about the special connection that’s forged when you speak in someone’s native language.

There is a deeper level of empathy on your part, and a stronger sense of trust on theirs. You’re able to move much more quickly from “stranger” to “friend.” Nelson Mandela captured this idea beautifully when he said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

If you’re hoping to make a lasting impact in the country God has called you to, and you’d like to take your personal relationships to the next level, consider learning the basics of the local language.

With the right strategy and tools, becoming conversationally fluent isn’t as hard as you might think. Here’s how to get started in four simple steps.


1. Immerse Yourself in the Language
The fastest way to learn any language is by immersion. Many consider this method to be a form of “trial by fire.” It involves surrounding yourself with the local language, and not shying away from it.

If you’re already in your host country, seize every opportunity to hang out with native speakers. Go to local events in the community and observe how others communicate, including their body language.

For extreme introverts, it can feel like torture to step outside of your comfort zone in this way. But when you realize that the only thing standing in between you and fluency is yourself, it gets a lot easier to put yourself in an immersion experience.  

2. Use Leisure Time Wisely
In your free time at home, the learning shouldn’t stop! Watch the news, movies, and YouTube videos featuring native speakers. Even better, turn on the English subtitles so you can follow along. This process is highly beneficial as your mind will start automatically associating words and phrases with their meanings.

If you want to take it a step further, change the language settings on all your devices to the language of your host country. Subscribe to a blog in the language, try reading children’s books, or listening to podcasts.

3. Practice Speaking Often
As intimidating as it may seem, remember that the best way to become conversationally fluent is to put your skills into practice. Don’t wait until you feel comfortable enough to start speaking with the locals.

On the contrary, you should become more and more comfortable with misinterpretations and miscommunications – these are a normal and expected part of language learning. So don’t take yourself too seriously! Accept the fact early on that it’s very likely at some point you will embarrass yourself.

Thankfully, there is grace in these situations. Local people will appreciate your efforts to speak in their language immensely, and oftentimes, it shows. So don’t be afraid to try and fail. Be encouraged by Galatians 6:9, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

4. Build a Solid Foundation
One final tip- Many missionaries prefer to learn the basics of a language first, before embarking on their trip. This is a great way to set yourself up for success and build a solid foundation right off the bat. In this digital age, there are fortunately many free tools at our disposal. Here are just a few options:

  • Download an app like Duolingo or Memrise to quickly memorize the basics.
  • Take online language classes, preferably with a live teacher. Try the free membership option at TakeLessons Live for starters.  
  • Use Meetup to find other nearby language learners that you can practice your skills with.
  • Find a penpal or learning partner on a language exchange network, such as italki.


Any of these tools would be an excellent starting point. Do you have any additional tips for fast and efficient language learning in another country, or before going on a mission trip? Share your ideas with us!


Jessica Dais is passionate about missions and creative writing. She previously lived as a missionary in Mexico and hopes to someday lead short-term teams to Nepal. Jessica is still working toward fluency in Spanish and enjoys sharing the lessons she’s learned along the way.

The Missionary Life Cycle (in Five Stages)

Like any really good assessment, these five categories are totally made up.

There are no peer-reviewed studies parsing these five stages of cross-cultural work. There is no quantified, objective data set; still, please feel free to say you’re in “Stage 3 – Wing 4.” That would make me happy. And remember, if you say anything with exactitude, we’ll all think you know what you’re talking about.

The lines of demarcation between these stages are blurred, and in some cases overlapping. Just roll with it. And remember, this isn’t the Rubicon, so feel free to cross back over to an earlier stage if you’d like.

Are you ready?

We’ll look at the two options within each stage, we’ll list some common statements you might hear from folks taking each option, and then we’ll look at some primary goals for each stage.

This is more Wiki than Webster’s, so please add your thoughts, explanations, arguments, additions, or funny jokes in the comment section.

Idealist/Ignorant – Pre-field

You know the idealist, right? If you’re on the field, you probably were one. Once.

We need the idealist. Often, the idealism of youth or new belief motivates people to the field in the first place; that’s not bad. In fact, idealism is a fantastic place to start; it’s just not a fantastic place to stay.

Idealism is not what’s dangerous; ignorance is.

The main difference here is that the ignorant person doesn’t know what it is that they don’t know. And it’s a lot. The idealist knows they don’t know everything, so they’re safer. The idealist is a day-dreamer, aware of the reality around them, while the ignorant is lost in a fantasy dream world at night, unaware that their sick child is vomiting in the bathroom down the hall and their wife has been up three times already and the dog just peed on the clean laundry. Yeah, ignorance is dangerous.

Things you might hear the idealist say: “This is all so amazing! God’s going to do amazing, new, prophetic things in this glorious season of fresh wind. He is calling the nations to himself and he’s calling me to the nations. Will you donate?”

Things you might hear the ignorant say: “I don’t need a sending church or org or agency. I read a book and I feel super called! Also, I served a person once on a short-term trip and now I’m going to save the world. Will you donate?”

Goals for this stage:

  1. Don’t be ignorant.

  2. Protect your ideals, while purposefully listening to the reality of some who’ve gone before you. You’re not the first person God’s called across cultures, and you won’t be the last.


Learner/Survivor – Arrival to Year 2

Landing in a foreign land will sometimes feel like just trying to survive. That’s ok. But if the functional goal for your first term is just to survive your first term, you’re a survivor, not a learner.

A learner is an idealist who’s landed. They don’t know stuff, but they’re super excited to find out. They don’t know how to even ask for stuff, but they’re going to find out. They don’t know who’s who and what’s where and when’s good, but they know how to breathe, ask around, walk the street, and…learn.

The learner’s goal is to figure stuff out, to learn about a culture, a history, to meet new people, to make new memories.

The survivor’s goal is to not die.

Things you might hear the learner say: “I don’t know where to buy milk; let me find someone to ask.”

Things you might hear the survivor say: “I don’t know where to buy milk, but as soon as I find out, I’m buying 9 gallons so I don’t have to go back out on the street again for at least a week… SHOOT! SHOOT! SHOOT! Where do I buy a refrigerator?!”

Goals for this stage:

  1. Learn as much as you can (about language, culture, workers who’ve come before you, the state of the local church before your arrival, etc.)

  2. Recognize your need for mentors, and find some (expats and nationals).


Established/Workaholic (Year 2 to Year 7)

Getting established in a foreign field is quite an accomplishment. You know the language and you’re driven to finally start doing the work you’ve been called to do.

At this stage, folks start to realize that they can’t do as much as they thought they could. Folks start to get overwhelmed by the complexity of the culture, because now, they’re starting to really see much more of the culture. The established will face a crisis, and the risk is that they respond by turning into a workaholic, shouldering all the responsibility for all the souls all the time.

Things you might hear the established say: “There is so much work to be done, we should get involved in mobilizing local believers.”

Things you might hear the workaholic say: “There is so much work to be done, and if we don’t do it all, who will?”

Goals for this stage:

  1. See the task for the S I Z E that it is, without succumbing to depression or despondency.

  2. Disciple others into the roles to which God’s calling them, remembering the axiom that the “resources are in the harvest.”


Experienced/Pessimistic (Year 7 to Year Infinity)

(What? You know you’ve met missionaries who’ve been on the field f o r e v e r…)

The experienced are those folks who’ve got tons of knowledge. They’ve been around the block and they’ve seen a lot of folks come and go. They’ve probably had ministry initiatives succeed and they’ve probably had more fail. But they stayed. And they’re relatively happy. Their words are nuanced and balanced, and the people themselves are fairly enjoyable to be around.

To the pessimist, however, everything new is bad, and everything old is bad, because everything is bad. These folks are a little harder to be around, unless you are them. Then they’re easy to gripe – I mean chill – with.

Things you might hear the experienced say: “Well, that could work, but the few times we tried it that way it didn’t work. Want to talk about some alternatives?”

Things you might hear the pessimist say: “$#@!@#(*!!! [or “gosh darnit” if they’re Baptists] Sure, try that. It won’t work, just like what we tried didn’t work. Because nothing will work. This ground is rocky and hard and I want to leave but I’m too worried about what people will say about me, and I haven’t saved enough to retire.”

Goals for this stage:

  1. Nurture the idealists.

  2. Mentor the learners.

  3. Caution the workaholics.

  4. Avoid the pessimists.



If you’re in this stage, you knew we’d come back to this. If you’ve been around long enough, you knew the earlier discussion about being a learner was too perfunctory. Congrats.

You know a lot more now that when you started. But if you’re healthy, you also know how much you don’t know. And so, you’ll still be a learner.

Someone who’s been on the field a loooong time without being a learner is dangerous. They have a LOT of experience, but it’s dated. Some of it will of course still be accurate, but it won’t be tinted with the wisdom that combines age-old knowledge with present-tense reality.

When we arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 2012 someone told us that you couldn’t get fresh milk in-county. So, for the first month we drank UHT milk, which is an abomination.

I’ll never forget the day, a few months in, when I went to the grocery store and saw rows and rows and rows of fresh, refrigerated, amazing milk. Skim, whole, 2%, and chocolate!

Even if you do know everything today, you won’t tomorrow. (And you don’t know everything today.)

Goals for this stage:

  1. Be willing to ask questions, even of the younger people, and even if you’ve been on the field for longer than they’ve been alive.

  2. Share your wisdom and experience with those who will listen. There will be some who will listen. Find them and offer yourself.

  3. Don’t be a jerk.



Whatever stage you’re in, welcome! And might I offer a few pieces of advice that I think would help this whole cross-cultural life and ministry thing to be more enjoyable and more effective?

  1. We need to nurture the Idealists while cautioning the ignorant. Don’t treat them as the same, because they’re not.

  2. We need to mentor the Learners, helping them to find milk and refrigerators. It’s not their fault they don’t know stuff. (Help the survivor too, but add a little encouragement that survival is possible, and thriving is possible too.)

  3. We need to encourage the Established. They’ve been on the field long enough to know the size of the job, but they might not have been around long enough to see the resources at their disposal, which might include you (whether you’ve been on site longer than they have or less than they have).

  4. We need to listen to the Experienced. As the saying goes, Get experience as cheaply as you can, for many people have paid a high price for it and will gladly give it away for free.”

  5. And lastly, we need to keep Learning. All of us, all the time. If this comes naturally to you, awesome. Please help others. If this doesn’t come naturally to you, you might want to do some pondering on the phrase “growth mindset.”

This missionary life of serving others and sharing the Gospel is too hard, too good, and too important to forget these things.

May the Father of all light continue to lead us all out of the darkness, into the dawn, and straight to his heart.


All for ONE,

Jonathan T.

Barnga: A Card Game for Culture-Stress Show and Tell

Have you ever wanted to show, not just tell, people what culture stress is like? Have you ever wanted them to be able to experience cross-cultural confusion without having to travel overseas?

Have you ever heard about Barnga?

Barnga is a simulation game created by Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan in 1980, while working for USAID in Gbarnga, Liberia. During a coup, his team’s vehicles were commandeered by the military, so Thiagarajan and his colleagues stayed in their compound, passing the time playing Euchre. Born in Chennai, India, Thiagarajan had learned how to play Euchre after moving to Bloomington, Indiana, and as his Liberian coworkers hadn’t played it before, he gave them a copy of Hoyles Games to read up on the rules. The trouble was, after their crash course, they all came away with different interpretations of how to play. Rather than clear up the arguments, though, Thiagarajan let the players work it out, and after three hours, the group had settled on their own unique version of the game.

“This interesting episode presented me with a blinding flash of the obvious,” writes Thiagarajan in Barnga: A Simulation Game on Cultural Clashes. “Serious conflicts arise not from major, obvious cultural differences, but from unrecognized, minor ones.”

From this, Thiagarajan developed Barnga, one of 120 simulations and games that he has created during his career.

The concept of Barnga is simple. Each player is handed directions for a card game called “Five Tricks.” The participants have a few minutes to familiarize themselves with how the game is played and then they give the rule sheets back. During play, they are told, they won’t be able to talk or write out words but must communicate only by using gestures and drawing pictures.

While learning new rules and facing difficulties in communication seem like the point of the game, there’s another twist (don’ read the rest of this sentence if you don’t want to find out what it is)—unknown by the players, there are slight differences in the rule sheets they’ve studied, so they’re not all the same.

After the cards are dealt, the results are many and varied. There’s confusion and frustration. Some think that others are cheating or just can’t understand the rules. Some assert authority or claim superiority, while others give up or give in. Some love the game. Some don’t want to play any more.

Yup, sounds like culture stress to me.

The instructions for Barnga include not only how-tos for the simulation and printouts of the rules but also guidelines for directing the follow-up discussion—wherein lies the real meat of the experience. It’s when people are allowed to talk and share how they feel about the game, and about each other, that the shift is made to the realm of cross-cultural interaction. Though it’s possible with as few as four players, the simulation works best with about 20 to 40, allowing for numerous interactions through tournament-style play, and more voices for the follow-up conversation.

Possible uses for the simulation are numerous: as part of a class on cross-cultural issues, for pre-field orientation, for teams visiting overseas workers, as a preparation for receiving international students or other foreign visitors, or for supporters of missionaries or those involved in member care.

The 25th-anniversary edition of Barnga comes with rules and discussion guides in English, French, German, and Spanish and includes updates to the original publication. Copies are available from several sources, including Thiagarajan’s website, The Thiagi Group, and Amazon.

I’ve participated in Barnga and I’ve facilitated it, as well. It’s always interesting (and entertaining) to see how players’ attitudes change as the simulation progresses. And even if some figure out what’s going on, they have to make decisions about to how to deal with that knowledge. When it comes to culture stress, it’s not just the differences you face, but how you and those around you react to them. And dealing with that, regardless of the setting, can show and tell us a lot about ourselves.

This post is adapted from “Barnga—When Cultures Play by Different Rules.”

(Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan, with Raja Thiagarajan, Barnga: A Simulation Game on Cultural Clashes, Intercultural Press, 2006)

[photo: “Shuffle,” by Melissa Emma’s Photography, used under a Creative Commons license]

“John took Carl and I to the camel races before church on Friday” and other reasons I love my life overseas

Sometimes I get bored with my life overseas.

I still enjoy it, don’t get me wrong, it just loses the sizzle every now and then. The exotic allure of the “overseas” part gets pushed out by the humdrum realities of the just plain “life” part.

And then I hear myself talk and I’m like, “Who gets to do this?”

“John took Carl and I to the camel races before church on Friday” is my sentence of the week.

True story. He did.

We got up before the sun to go drive beside racing camels, honking our horn and yelling as if we had bet the farm on number six.

Carl yelled the loudest.

It was great — but maybe even greater was hearing the sentence roll out of my mouth and remembering —

I love this life.

I couldn’t even have imagined combining those words to form a thought in other stages of my life.

Like, maybe, if it was game night and we were playing some kind of speed round where you have to draw random words out of a bag and make a sentence before the sand runs out.


“Frank threw Bob and Sue over the purple airplane on St. Patrick’s Day!”

“Uhh! Uhhhhh!”

“Simon jumped on slimy watermelon at the birthday chicken!”

“Ahhhh! Hurry! Hurry!”

“John took Carl and I to the camel races before church on Friday!!”


“Ok, I’ll give you the airplane one but there’s no such thing as a birthday chicken and dude . . . who goes to church on Friday?”

Turns out . . . a bunch of people . . . all over the world. Which I never would have known apart from this life overseas.

And camel racing is a thing. Who knew?

And John and Carl — they’re like brothers. Would have missed that too.

And pausing . . .

Just for a moment . . .

On the exotic overseas bit . . . makes me remember how much I love the humdrum realities of the just plain life bits too.

I just told my daughter goodnight.

I love this life.

How about you? What’s the sentence that is true now that you never could have imagined as a younger you? What’s the single thought that resets your sense of overseas wonder? What’s sitting right in front of you that if you paused . . . and thought about just for a moment . . . would remind you just how much you love this life?

The End.

When Life Gives You a Chicken

by Emily Raan

The day started out so normal. The kids even slept in! Leftover-rice porridge for breakfast and then off to town for some quick shopping.

“Quick shopping” quickly turned into two hours, while we made connections with our friends around town. One man, in particular, stood out. He somehow had lost, or possibly never had, the use of his legs. Without a wheelchair he was forced to scoot around on his hands and beg for money. We were starkly reminded, amidst the mundane “normalcy” of our daily shopping, just how harsh the realities are for so many. And there set the tone for the rest of the day.

As soon as we returned to our house, our night guard arrived at our gate with his son. We were so happy to see him, since he’s been gone in the village for a week visiting his family. Having been in the village, he brought us back a chicken for a Christmas gift. Yes. A real. Live. Chicken. Figuring out what to do with that cute little thing so that our dog didn’t kill it before we could was yet another challenge for the day.

However, our night guard’s reason for visiting wasn’t just a casual social call. His son was covered with jiggers on his feet, an infection on his legs, and fungus on his head. He had been living with his grandfather in the village and, I guess, the grandpa, how ever good-intentioned and loving, wasn’t able to care for the boy in the way that was needed. My husband rushed them to the best clinic in town and stayed with them for a while. He made it back just in time for lunch and our power outage – which lasted the whole rest of the day. When it rains, it pours! And the day was only half over.

Also on this day a young lady, “Grace” (not her real name), who has become dear to our family was visiting us. We’ve been paying her to help out with our kids and clean our lunch dishes one day a week for some extra income for her family while on her school break. But I could tell that this day was different. Something was not right. The first clue being that she brought her six year old brother with her this time.

While she was washing dishes and I was beginning dinner prep for our supper that night, I started asking questions. Though hesitant at first, I finally got the story out of her. Grace’s mother has left them to go to a hospital in the capital city to be with her auntie while her cousin is hospitalized with, presumably, poisoning from their local witch doctor. The poor girl’s dad had recently died and now she is sick with the same thing. Grace’s mother has now told her that she doesn’t know when she will return. Confident that she is safe and being taken care of in her current situation after more questions and conversation, I sent her and her brother home with enough money to last for a while.

The struggle is real and the need is great! And in the midst of all of this, our sub-leasers moved in to our back house, friends were in and out all day, my husband had yet more meetings and errands to do in the afternoon, we had to hang another line for drying laundry in our backyard, dinner took a long while to make, and we have a two-month old that needed nursing. And that was only part of the needs that were presented to us this day. There was another situation that also needed tending to, which, for privacy reasons, I’m not able to share.

Yes, this is a true story. And, yes, this all happened in one 24 hour period.

Life gave us a chicken, and I made beef stew. There’s probably a lesson there somewhere, but I’ll leave that to you to figure out; I’m too tired. For now I am choosing to take joy in the God that says “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).


Emily and her husband currently live in Uganda with their three kids, but they’ve also lived in India and traveled to six other countries on four continents. Once upon a time she was a high school math teacher, but now she’s living the life as a stay-at-home mom and loving it.  After several years of youth ministry, college life that went on far too long, and a year-long internship, they finally made it to this life abroad that they love so much.

Help build your own stool at the watering hole

When I was in high school Cheers was a popular television show. If you’re not familiar with Cheers, it was a comedy set in a local bar where the regulars shared their lives, grew together over time, and in many ways were family to each other.

But what solidified it was the theme song. Read through these lyrics (or listen) and ask yourself if this doesn’t also sound like the church:

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot

Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came

You wanna be where you can see
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
your name

Obviously, the church would be centered on God. But guess what God loves? People. Cheers was long running because it was funny, tackled complexities of life, and fostered belonging. The name of the theme song is “Where everybody knows your name.” God is a God of belonging, of wanting to know us and wanting us to be known.

We know this and this is why we have heard His heart for the lost and responded to the call.

And over the years, places like A Life Overseas, Velvet Ashes, and Taking Route help us know we are not alone, challenge our thinking, and provide spaces to share our stories.

Which of these have you experienced on the field:




—Losing touch with yourself

—Not having the skills equal to the task

—Being used up and spit out by the missionary machine

—Fearing you will be exposed as a fraud

—Feeling you are out of your depth



I know you see yourself on somewhere on the list. Even if you are in your first year, and all is new and shiny, boredom has knocked on your door a time or two. I am dreaming another space for us, a space that doesn’t make you choose between tending your own soul (being) and building skills to help you do the work you are called to (doing). In order for the new space to meet your real needs, would you help by taking this survey? 

A couple of months ago I asked for your help and you participated in another survey. Your answers have enhanced the book I’m writing for people in their first year on the field beyond words. You inspired me so much I want to find ways to have your input in more areas. If you wondered if I read and use the data, here is a picture of the data printed out and poured over. (And the cards in the upper left-hand corner were used to write thank you’s to supporters).

So, thank you for taking this survey and helping to build a place that points us each to Jesus and each other.

Humming wit you . . .

You wanna be where you can see
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
your name {and worships God}.

Thanks for your help! Amy

Welcoming Broken Missionaries Back

John Chau’s death in November raised a complicated and important conversation about the role of Christian evangelism. I’m going to let that debate rage on Twitter and the New York Times and the Failed Missionary podcast. I want to launch a different conversation. I believe Chau’s dream, work, and death forces the church to consider what the push of evangelism will require not of those who “go” but of those who “send.”

There is a missing piece in that go-send picture because the one who goes out will eventually come back. How will be they welcomed back? What kind of support systems are in place? Who will be the “receiver” of the returned missionary?

This question is especially relevant in the context of evangelism among what are known as unreached and unengaged populations like the people on the North Sentinelese island, (“An unengaged unreached people group (UUPG) has no known active church planting underway,” the Joshua Project) because missionaries who go to these places are also often missionaries who return broken. How will they be supported?

There is a reason groups of people are unreached or unengaged. They are sometimes hostile to outsiders, remote, living in places of poverty or disease or isolation. They tend to live in areas not considered comfortable, beautiful, or safe. They may speak languages that are not written down, difficult to learn. Their cultures might be radically different from the Western culture out of which many missionaries come. They want to be left alone.

Reaching these people is hard. Slow. Discouraging. And it comes with risks. There may be bodies buried on beaches, like Chau’s. There will certainly be brokenness, pain, and grief. Those who have gone out rejoicing will return weeping. I’m not sure the sending church is ready for that.

The call of the church to raise up Christians who will go to the unengaged is not a triumphal call for heroes. It is a call to suffering and death and brokenness. Churches which actively promote this kind of mission work need to be prepared to receive their people back, along with all their sorrow, pain, and anger.

There needs to be strong support systems in place to help those who return.

Counseling, intensive therapy for all members of the family, marriage help, help in finding jobs, financial advisors, medical assistance, physical space in which to recover, nonjudgmental and safe ways for them to ask all the deep, hard, scary questions about God and faith that rocked their world while living abroad, opportunities for them to be angry. Time. I don’t mean a week or a month. I mean maybe a year, depending on what a person has walked through. Community, people willing to welcome the returned into their families and holiday traditions and Bible studies, even though that person doesn’t have a shared history other than a yearly visit or monthly newsletter.

And grace to recognize that while living abroad, the person sent out from the church has changed. Is the Church ready to welcome that kind of changed person back into their arms with tenderness and acceptance?

I have seen missionaries ask for prayer as they grieve the death of their child and the prayer request is rephrased as, “Pray for their work.” I have seen missionaries told to move on quicker after a family accident or to stop being afraid when death threats or sexual harassment bombard them.

The church dare not, dare not, pray for the unengaged to be engaged while in the same breath refuse to face the tragedy that will come with that engagement. This is dangerous and irresponsible, if the church is not prepared to deal with the consequences.

People who live abroad get broken there. Then they come home and their wounds go unacknowledged. They are heroes. They are brave. They are warriors.

Fine (sort of). But guess what? They are also weak, lonely, confused, shattered. Their marriages are damaged, their children have depression, their bodies are fragile and filled with parasites, their resumes have unexplainable holes, their job skills fail to translate. They are lonely, their faith has been pushed sometimes to the breaking point. They have seen poverty and the global realities of politics and their own ideas on these topics have been transformed. They are no longer welcome, when they speak from what they’ve learned, in the places which sent them out.

I certainly see churches ready to send people triumphantly out.

Please, dear Western Church, be willing and ready to welcome them brokenly back.


Written by an anonymous worker

the missions conversation