Accessing the Power of Good Debriefing

A colleague of mine at TCK Training spent time preparing and travelling to facilitate a two-day debrief with a family who were on home assignment in their passport country. As they all introduced themselves and began to get to know each other, she asked what their hopes were for their time together over the next two days. The parents looked at each other and then back at her as they sheepishly admitted, “Actually, we have no idea. This is something our organisation requires, so we just signed up because we were supposed to. We have no clue what a debrief actually involves.” 

While debriefing has grown in popularity and more missionaries are at least familiar with the concept, the actual nuts and bolts of a debrief can be a bit murky. Because of that, it can be hard to even know, “What is a good debrief?” What should your expectation be of the debrief you signed up for? How do you know a debrief went “well”? 

As we’ve worked with hundreds of families at TCK Training, we’ve heard about a wide array of debrief experiences. There’s a vast mixture in what they received and how effective it was. We would love to see a broader understanding of the hallmarks of a good debrief, even if the execution differs.

In this article I am going to explore what a good debrief involves, why good debriefing can be so powerful, and how to access quality debriefing – no matter what services are (or are not) made available to you in your own situation.

Q: What is a good debrief?

1) A good debrief is preventive. 

That is, the debrief is not in response to a crisis situation but is part of a program of regular care. At TCK Training, we recommend that all families experiencing global mobility do a full debrief (two full days set aside for the sole purpose of debriefing the entire family) every 3-4 years and a check-in style “annual debrief” each year in between. While crisis situations also need to be addressed, this should not be the only situation in which a debrief occurs.

2) A good debrief crafts an intentional, open-ended journey.

Good debriefing is more than verbal processing, prompted with questions along the lines of “Tell me what happened? How did it go? What happened next?” A good debrief instead asks about all different facets of life, and is open to unexpected answers, not just looking to check items off a list. A good debrief asks intentional and purposeful questions that are crafted to lead you and your TCKs through a journey of discovery, finding things that need processing – even if you weren’t consciously aware of them.

For children, this element of a good debrief involves engaging in a variety of ways. Since we all know that sitting across from a child and asking them direct questions isn’t particularly effective, we need to make sure that movement and creativity are a central part of a TCK debrief. 

3) A good debrief creates a sacred space for hard things.

During a good debrief, you feel safe to explore difficult experiences and the difficult emotions that go with them. You are not shamed for your emotions, worried that your emotions might be used against you, or that what you share might result in you losing your job. In the sacred space of a good debrief, you know there are no “right” or “wrong” answers. 

4) A good debrief embraces both shared and individual experiences.

At TCK Training we believe in the power of families working through debrief materials together. We all have shared experiences as a family, and it is helpful and healing to process those shared experiences together. During the debrief, parents get the opportunity to model expressing hard feelings and doing the hard work of emotional processing, with expert guidance to support them. As their children watch this, it will help them recognize the importance of this work and how to do it, as well as give them permission to do this work with their parents, not only in the moment but in the future.

In addition, there will always be aspects of our lives as a family that are individual. Children and parents do not have the same experiences, nor does each child or each parent have the same experiences. Having individual sessions as well as family sessions is necessary to build self-awareness and for personal growth.

Q: Why is a good debrief powerful?

Making debriefs part of a regular program of preventive care leads to more beneficial outcomes. Reactive care – a debrief that takes place in the aftermath of a particularly stressful event – occurs when individuals are full of heightened and heavy emotions and aren’t able to fully engage in the debriefing process. During a preventive care-style debrief, individuals are less occupied with a specific need and can engage in the process of working through all the small things they have experienced over time. This leads to greater learning about themselves and their needs and greater likelihood of retaining that learning over time. 

As part of an individual debrief, teenagers and adults alike get the opportunity to work through their experiences with guided assistance. The crafted questions of a good debrief help us recognise things we didn’t even know were hiding under the surface of our hearts and minds. We debrief our emotions, identity, grief and loss, subconscious expectations, and more. 

Debriefing as a family helps us see where these different facts do and do not line up with each other – where we have different perspectives on the same events. Children are provided a safe space and a mediated opportunity to share emotions they have struggled to express. Parents can help fill in the gaps where children were missing part of the story. These can be powerful family moments.

One Adult TCK shared with me that as a child, their missionary family had something called a “debrief” every four years through their parents’ missionary agency while on home assignment. Yet this experience never included anything individual for them as a child or teenager, where they could explore their feelings. In addition, they felt constrained to not speak about certain events. A debrief that created sacred space and acknowledged their individual journey would have been far more powerful. It would have combatted the loneliness far too many TCKs struggle with and instilled the value that they are worth being individually cared for.

Q: How can our family access a quality debrief? 

If your organisation offers (or requires) a debrief, try to get some information about what debrief means to them. You might ask what the debrief consists of, how children are involved, what the goals/aims of the debrief are, and how the debriefers are trained. 

If your organisation does not provide debriefing, or the debriefing offered is not comprehensive, you could ask them to outsource these services to another organisation or to cover the cost of your family procuring a debrief elsewhere. Knowing what a good debrief is and why it matters will help in explaining why this is important to you.

Our priority at TCK Training is ensuring that families have access to quality debriefing, both inside and outside the missionary world, and we are not the only group with this goal. Other sources of quality debriefs include MTI (Mission Training International), Alongside Ministries, TRAIN, and Safe Place Ministry. 

TCK Training provides debriefing services (both in-person and virtual), and we also train others to provide good debriefs. (We have trained hundreds of people in how to conduct quality debriefs, including staff at various mission organisations.) To make quality debriefing even more accessible, we now offer a resource to help parents lead their own family debrief at home. We also have a FREE processing worksheet with great questions to ask yourself or someone else to help work through emotions. This free resource is a great place to start if you want to learn more about what a quality debrief can look like.

Photo by Mike Scheid on Unsplash

Failing Lent

Church seasons are my jam. I love how struggling through Lent prepares me to celebrate Easter and engaging in Advent readies my heart for the miracle of Christmas. But this year I’ve failed. 

I started Lent with grand dreams to write a letter a day. I’m talking a hand-written, thoughtful, prayerful, encouraging note from yours truly. I bought 40 cards, made a list of 40 people, and began imagining those little rays of happiness flying into mailboxes all around the world. 

That commitment lasted about a week. 

Slowly writing a card got replaced with an ever-expanding to-do list that made even a 10 minute pause seem impossible. And often, I just forgot. Making a new habit was difficult, and soon a whole week had gone by without a card. Then a second week. My shiny, pretty cards mocked me, and I had a vague sense of guilt for not following through on my plan.

It has been a busy season. (I loathe that word, “busy,” especially the way it’s worn like a badge of honor for overcommitted folks with poor boundaries… especially when that person is me.) Some unexpected roadblocks came my way that needed my attention, and my good intentions were crushed under my feet as I rushed off to fix problems and put out fires. I’m surely not the only one. 

That’s why I was so relieved when I sat down to read my daily devotional toward the end of Lent and found this thoughtful reflection by Jan Kwiatkowski: 

“Most likely you started Lent with specific intentions and desires and then found yourself having to adjust, perhaps letting go of some of your original intentions, or maybe you realized that you took on more than was possible this season… I don’t think it matters to Jesus what any of us did or did not accomplish… we never 100% get any spiritual practice right… Trust that compassion and love surround you waking and sleeping, no matter what is done and left undone.”

Whew! I’m so grateful for this reminder that God is not a harsh taskmaster who refuses to grade along a curve. Instead, we serve a God who knows all of our human weaknesses and our most intimate struggles and flaws… and still calls us “good.” 

We are made in God’s image.
We are God’s beloved children.
We are God’s good creation.

Even when we fail.
Even when we are unloving.
Even when we don’t look good.

The Bible is full of stories of God’s lovable failures and imperfect followers. Whenever I need to remember that, I flip to the Psalms. They remind me that this following-God-life is not about performance or perfection and that it’s okay when my ridiculous humanity far outweighs my hopes for holiness.

One of my favorite passages comes from Psalm 73:

Surely God is good to Israel,
    to those who are pure in heart.

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
    I had nearly lost my foothold.

(Ugh, same.)

When my heart was grieved
    and my spirit embittered,

I was senseless and ignorant;
    I was a brute beast before you.

(Oh I know that feeling.)

Yet I am always with you;
    you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will take me into glory.

(I’m clinging to that promise.)

My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion forever. 

(Yes! Amen. Thank you, Lord.)

– Psalm 73:1-2, 21-24, 26 

My Lenten failures reminded me of how utterly dependent I am on God and how very grateful I am for grace. And if that’s the case, can they really be considered failures?

Those Wordless Bracelets Might Not Be Saying What You Think They’re Saying

You’ve got plans to hold a VBS this summer in a cross-cultural or overseas context, and you’re feeling the challenges: How do you communicate effectively with kids who don’t speak English? How do you come up with activities that you can fit into a suitcase? Maybe you’ve got a limited budget or time constraints. Yet you have a sincere desire for your team to share Jesus during your trip. 

So maybe you are considering the classic go-to activity for sharing the gospel with kids from a different culture or language: the simple wordless bracelet.

You can order 12 kits for $5.99. They’re fun, they’re cute, and kids love them. Plus, the children now have a tangible reminder of the gospel, right there on their wrists, no language skills required. Perfect.

Maybe not so perfect. Sometimes cross-cultural communication is a lot more complicated than just a language barrier. This classic VBS activity might not be communicating what you think. 

Before you put wordless bracelets into your cross-cultural VBS curriculum, take a moment to consider the following thoughts.

  1. Many cultures in Asia, Africa, and South America have strong beliefs in the spirit world. In order to protect their children against evil spirits, they will often tie an amulet around their wrists. This will be a cloth, twine, or leather cord and may include a few beads. 

So when a group of religious foreigners arrive in their country and put on a children’s program and start tying bracelets around the kids’ wrists that have spiritual meaning…..

Unfortunately, you may have just given those kids a new amulet. 

  1. Languages divide up colors differently. For example, in English, we have a word for red and a word for pink (not light red!). But we say light blue and dark blue. Other languages might use the same word for blue/green or red/orange. And when a person doesn’t have a word for different colors, he might not see them as different. This is fascinating stuff – and something we need to be aware of.
  1. Other cultures assign different meanings to colors than we do. We may see green as representing growth. But in Indonesia, it’s associated with exorcism. In China, it can be associated with infidelity, and in South America it’s connected with death. White is correlated with purity in Western cultures, but in some Asian cultures, it’s a symbol of death. The children in your host culture may not understand the gospel story the way you intend to tell it if they are not making the same color associations. 
  1. Contemplate for a moment the implications of a missions team with lighter skin visiting a group of people with darker skin and telling them that black means sin and white means holiness.  
  1. The gospel presentation that goes along with wordless bracelets is grounded in a guilt/innocence paradigm, which may not be the best way for the message to make sense to the people you are trying to reach. If you are unfamiliar with what I am talking about here, check out this excellent 7 minute video on guilt/innocence, honor/shame, and fear/power worldviews. 

I realize that this list might make you feel a little uncertain about not just wordless bracelets but your entire VBS program. Because if something as simple as a colorful craft might be communicating something different than what you intended, then what does that mean about all of your other activities? So if you are feeling that tension, great! That’s a good place to be. That’s where learning and growth start.

So what should you do?

Start with some research. In the time you have available, your team needs to learn all they can about the history, customs, worldviews, and religion of the people you will be visiting. Hofstede Insights is a great resource for this. Remember–don’t assume that what works in your own country will automatically translate to another culture. 

Most importantly, before you set any plans in stone, run your entire program–teaching, activities, games, songs–past your missionary or local contact. Make it very clear that you want feedback and are open to change. Even better—if there is any way that a local person can do the teaching instead of someone on your team, make that happen! The best way for you to impact a community is to train others to do the program alongside you and then later—without you. 

For more reading about short-term missions, check out these links:

Have you considered how Your Short-Term Trip Should Be About You (And That’s Not a Bad Thing)? Perhaps what God wants to do in you during this trip is more important than the service project you are taking overseas. 

This one has a similar idea: 3 Quick Ways to Improve a Short-Term Missions Trip. How can you reframe your trip for maximum impact in your life and the team’s recipients? 

Also, Sarita Hartz’s What to Do About Short-Term Missions provides a comprehensive list of ways to prevent your team from causing more harm than help overseas. And Short-Term Missions: Is the Price Tag Worth It? offers some thought-provoking insights on ensuring we are stewarding our resources well. 

If you are an overseas worker who is hosting a team this year, then this one is for you: How to Host the Best-Ever Short-Term Team

Also, this excellent video series Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions by the Chalmers Institute is extremely valuable for any church or organization that wants to prioritize short-term missions. 

Cultural Tug-Of-War

“This is not America” my colleague says under her breath as she rolls her eyes and walks past my conversation with another teacher, both of us caught up in a discussion as to how things “ought to be.”

“This is Liberia” is what another teacher says as he shrugs his shoulders and teases me in my frustration as we start yet another staff meeting 30 minutes late.

I grit my teeth and try to smile back; I don’t need either reminder.

When I left the US and came to Liberia, I traded my skinny jeans for flowy skirts and my cute workout shorts for baggy cargo pants. My sandwiches and salads for soup and rice. I traded my quick smile and wave greeting for a handshake and a lengthy conversation.

I’ve slowed down my speech, adjusted my grammar, learned new words, and adapted a new accent all for the sake of more effective communication. I’ve had to let go of my uncontrollable need for deadlines and structure and learn to wade in the waves of ambiguity. I’ve traded my watch for a bench and gotten used to passing the time rather than watching the time. I’ve learned to tame my desire to be independent and unique in an effort to belong and be unified with the larger group in harmony.

In the beginning when I moved to Liberia, I knew there would be things I would have to adjust to, but I didn’t mind. I’d been on mission trips and managed in a new setting for a few months at a time plenty of times before. Besides, there were so many things about the country that I admired. I was happy to adjust a few of my preferences and get rid of a few of my old habits. But then it all became too much.

Every single part of me, my clothes, food, dance, language, and rights, has been relinquished from my grip in some way or another. And still, it feels like this country keeps pulling and pulling and pulling on me, asking me to give up more and more.

Some days it feels like all I’m doing here is playing a constant game of tug-of-war. They pull me to become more Liberian, to talk this way, dress this way, and think this way. At times, I go along willingly, trying my best to please them or gain their adoration and approval, but other times I dig my feet into the ground and hold on tight, clinging to the American mantra of being “unapologetically myself” no matter what. I try to pull them towards me to see the worth of my American culture’s values like timeliness, efficiency, and independence. They look at me and shake their heads and laugh, leaving me to pull on the rope and falling back as they just simply let go, done with the game all together.

I never did like tug-of-war growing up, and I don’t like it now. And yet, I foolishly keep standing up, grabbing on to the rope, and tugging as hard as I can.

When will they will start bending toward me? When will they start loosening their grip as well? Haven’t I given up enough? Haven’t I let go of the rope and allowed them to tug me towards their side long enough? At what point do my needs and wants matter too? At what point will I stop being the American missionary and just be a friend, a friend worth changing just a little bit for? Doesn’t it go both ways?

Deep down, though, I know this is not what it’s all about.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22 that “I became all things for all people.” Why did he do this? Why did he give up his own rights and freedoms? Why did he give up his way of life? Why did he not dig his heels in and fight for what he believed to be right? Did he give up on the fight so that others would praise him about how well he was fitting in or how much he had sacrificed? Did he do it so he could make friends, expecting that others might do the same for him in return?

No, he did it for one reason and one reason only. He did it “so that by all means, I might save some (vs 22).” “We put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ (vs 13).” “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (vs 23).”

This cross-cultural ministry life is hard, and it is draining. It is life-altering and identity-shaping. There is a constant tension between who I was and who I am, and who I am and who I want to be. There is a constant tugging, stretching, and pulling.

My immediate tendency is to blame the ones I see in front of me for the pain and loss that this process entails, but I know that they are merely the pull of my Creator’s hands.  I feel the tension, and I attribute it to the horizontal tugging that I see between them and me, but in doing so I inadvertently ignore the upwards prying that is also at play as I wrestle with my own identity and rights.

Rather than pulling back and forth on this rope, sweat running down our faces and grunting and gritting at the other, what would happen if we instead directed our eyes to the center of the rope? It is there where I see God reaching His arm down and grabbing hold and pulling upwards. The further up He pulls, the closer we get to Him and therefore each other, and the further behind we leave our earthly identities and woes. I wonder, then, is this merely the pain of a tug-of-war between two cultures that we feel, or is it the deeper sanctification of our humanity?

The goal in our life and our ministry is not just a mere adaption or transformation from one culture or the other. Nor is it a total abandonment of culture altogether. But it’s also not a lifelong game of cultural tug-of-war where we pull each other from side to side endlessly.

It is neither my identity as an American or as a Liberian transplant that I should be grasping for the tightest; it is my identity in Christ. It is not the culture in which I was born into that I should be holding onto for dear life; it is my born-again identity in Christ which actually gives me life.

The goal for Christians is that we might pull each other more towards Christ, spurring one another upwards, not just tugging each other endlessly from side to side (Hebrews 10:24).

Rather than looking at our cultural differences as something that allows us to be pulled back and forth and side to side, what if we allowed them to instead be a rope that tugs us upwards, closer toward our Creator?

Rather than looking at all these cultural differences as things that God is doing to us, what if we looked at them as something that He was doing for us? What if those tugs on the rope were not from the host country nationals, but from God Himself? What if this tension was meant to show us where our priorities truly lie? Where we have been placing our trust and our hopes? Where we need to let go of some ground? What if instead of blaming one another and always trying to change one another, we thanked God for the gift of our differences and allowed them to instead be used as opportunities that can pull us closer towards Him?

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of playing the same old game of cultural tug-of-war and falling face first in the dirt after fighting yet another losing battle against my host country. I don’t want to dig my feet in anymore and fight for my own rights when I could be using that energy to instead fight for the gospel. I can see the places where I’ve been digging in and wearing myself down for the sake of my own “freedom,” and I think it’s finally time to let go.

You will not clear them away all at once

Deuteronomy has a good word for missionaries. You’re familiar with the setting, the Israelites were finally getting ready to enter the Promised Land after 40 long years.

In part, God said:

“No, do not be afraid of those nations, for the Lord your God is among you, and he is a great and awesome God. The Lord your God will drive those nations out ahead of you little by little. You will not clear them away all at once, otherwise the wild animals would multiply too quickly for you. But the Lord your God will hand them over to you. He will throw them into complete confusion until they are destroyed.” Deuteronomy 7:21-23

The wilderness was an in-between place for the Israelites. No longer in Egypt, God used their time in the desert to prepare them for what’s next. While you might not be in an in-between place right now, this passage contains reminders that are good to revisit.

1. Do not be afraid for the Lord your God is among you. 

God doesn’t start with the details, instead he starts at the deep heart level: do not be afraid. Why does he say not to fear? Not because what you’re facing isn’t scary, it may be very scary! You don’t need to fear because God offers the gift of his presence. You will not be alone.

2. The Lord your God will drive those nations out ahead of you. 

When you’re in an in-between place and getting ready for a new or next stage, it’s good to be reminded that you don’t have to do anything at first. Too often I think I have to go first and then God will come along once he sees that I’m “willing to do my part.” This is backwards.

3. Little by little. 

What? Little by little? What happened to great and awesome? But little by little rings true to my life and ministry. Far more true than the Hollywood version of change where there is one big, life changing moment and then the credits roll. Even for situations that seem more clear cut—I now pronounce you husband and wife, It’s a boy!, Welcome to your new cubicle—they do not, in fact come all at once. Instead they are little by little until deep roots are extended and the change has taken place.

When you enter the new phase, remember that at first, it all may feel overwhelming, unfamiliar, and even slow. But something is happening, little by little.

4. You will not clear them away all at once. 

Isn’t this phrase a relief? When we face an old temptation or think we “should” be further along than we are, God holds the long view in mind.

Why not move faster? (I’m a “faster is better person.”) Otherwise the wild animals would multiply too quickly for you. Who knows what wild animals God is protecting you from I admit that I can grow weary of a slow process, but when I think of the wild animals I am clueless about, I can lean into the slow pace with more gratitude.

This passage ends with two sentences using the word will. It will happen. You will enter a promised land. What is not promised is the how or the timing

If you’re in an in between phase, may these four reminders prepare you for the time after the in-between:

—God will be with you in the new unknown.
—God will go before you.
—The process in the new phase most likely will be little by little.
—The process may be slower than you would like.

What other scripture passages have helped prepare for what’s next when you are in a waiting phase?

Kisses From My Father

by Denise Beck

“My father told me that when I was a teenager he only ever kissed me when I was asleep.”

I wrote these words down this morning after they were spoken by a Romanian pastor at a conference I’m attending in Eastern Europe. 

He went on to say that the saddest part of hearing this from his father was remembering that being a teenager was really hard. He was trying to be brave and hold things together, and so instead of leaning into affection from his father, he pushed it away. 

How very sad that during these really hard growing up years, the number of people who can show you affection decreases at a time when you can’t ask for it but really need it. 

And now that his earthly father is gone, he wished he could have the memory of all of the kisses he doesn’t remember getting.

A grown man. The privilege of perspective that age brings. The generousness of his honesty. 

Something about this combination made me want to slather my now mostly adult children with kisses and praise them in public and support their craziest ideas. 

I bet you’ve never had anyone make the comparison between your life as a global worker and the affection-deprived teenage years. Well, let me be the first.

There are the newsletter moments, and there are the moments we hold in our hands behind our backs. The moments that encourage support and new teammates, and the moments we can’t tie a pretty bow on. 

And these awkward, unkempt moments are the ones we wish our kids would bring to us, when sometimes they don’t. Because if they did, we would gently place our hand on the top of their head and let it fall down to their back ever so slightly. We would lean our cheeks close, next to theirs. And we would be the felt presence of 100% unconditional love. 

Is it a stretch to think Jesus had awkward, unkempt moments? Moments of pure anguish? Imagine if he kept them to himself. How in the world could he have done the hard things if he didn’t take his moments to his Father?

We won’t ever have that story to read because he did take the good and awkward moments to his Father. Among other places, the Mount of Olives was the place where Jesus brought his hands out from behind his back and asked his Father to lean in close.

Maybe, just maybe, you’ve been collecting some hurt. Some pain. Some things you are holding behind your back. Maybe you are feeling the same lonely “I should be able to handle this” feeling we fight in our teenage years. Maybe you need some time in an olive grove with your Father.

This year, the 2024 Velvet Ashes online retreat is entitled “Olive: Receive the Tending of Jesus.” And you are invited to do just that. Experience the connection and renewal He has for you. Explore themes of healing and forgiveness and abiding trust. As always, this totally downloadable retreat comes with everything you’ll need for a meaningful time away. You choose a time and location that works for you. Retreat by yourself or with a group. Your lifetime access opens April 1. Join the global community April 19–21. 

Someday, I pray we will all have the privilege of perspective that age brings. And from there, I hope your story doesn’t have you longing for the affection and presence of a Father that was just waiting for you to come to him with everything you were bravely trying to hold by yourself. I pray you always have the memory of kisses from your Father. 

~~~~~~~~

Being shaped by her years in S. Sudan, Denise’s heart grew for women who take the unknown and carve out beauty in all its forms. When she was introduced to Velvet Ashes, she found a place that celebrated that beauty as well. Partnering with this team to provide connection and courage for women in their cross-cultural lives has been another reminder of the beautiful gifts God gives. Her favorite places to be are anywhere her four kids are, next to her husband no matter what country, and anywhere that gets her close to the feet of Jesus.

Jesus Died to Save My Body

by Corella Roberts

Today I am annoyingly aware of my body. Just to get to these words I have moved to the dining room table (the tall desk in my room just felt too, well, tall today), brought a pillow from the couch to go behind my back (these wooden chairs have no contour), settled in to write only to pop back up again to find some socks (who can write with cold toes?), munched on a bowl of tortilla chips while rereading the last chapter I wrote (salt cravings are real, my friend), and found about a dozen other environmental adjustments to make before finding the words of this incredibly long sentence.

I am clearly more than a mind doling out thoughts to entertain you. I am dependent on my fingers to type, my eyes to see what I’ve written, my achy back to support my frame, and my heart to keep the blood flowing through it all. This is me: the living, breathing Corella Roberts.

I consist of a regenerated spirit that will live for eternity with Christ, but also an earthly body that will someday become a resurrected, heavenly body. The two are intricately interwoven.

In fact, Jesus values our flesh and bones so much that he was publicly humiliated and physically tortured that we might also have resurrected bodies. This can’t be understated, though the implications of it aren’t always preached at Easter (or any time, for that matter).

Jesus died to save my body. 

Ever heard that one? Souls, yes, but bodies? Paul seems to suggest so in his letter to the church in Rome—a church comprised of people who freshly understood the transition from a life of bodily sin to a life of bodily worship. He writes, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22–23).

How do we live out an embodied faith while we wait, groaning inwardly (sometimes outwardly, too), for the redemption of our bodies? And what does that look like in this healing journey we’re on?

First of all, it’s easier than we dare to think. Simple, physical acts such as bowing your head in reverence or gazing skyward in joy, moving to music or kneeling in silence, hugging a sad friend or crying our own tears in God’s presence are all ways to integrate our faith with our bodies.

Sometimes, too, the mind is weak, or the heart is broken, and these expressions are all we have.

“In the midst of this, though words failed me, prayer without words—prayer in and through my body—became a lifeline. I couldn’t find words, but I could kneel. I could submit to God through my knees, and I’d lift my hands to hold up an ache: a fleshy, unnamable longing that I carried around my ribs. I’d offer up an aching body with my hands, my knees, my tears, my lifted eyes. My body led in prayer and led me—all of me, eventually even my words—into prayer,” shares author Tish Harrison Warren.[1]

Several years ago, a friend gripped my arm and said that God was asking her to do something scary. Would I please pray for her? Concerned, I agreed. And then, to the astonishment of the nearly one-hundred other women in the room, my friend stood up and began to dance.

Through her beautiful Portuguese accent and a well of tears, she told us how she was born to dance. She loved it with every fiber of her being, but when she came to Christ, she was told it was sinful, so she stopped. She hid and shamed this gift of hers until that night, when she set it free in worship to the song “Agnus Dei.”

“Alleluia, Alleluia,
For the Lord God Almighty reigns…
Holy, holy,
Are you Lord God, Almighty.
Worthy is the Lamb, worthy is the Lamb,
You are holy…”

Those of us present knew we were witnessing the healing of a soul. A foretaste to the redemption of a body. It was beyond beautiful. We all wept, and then, something equally miraculous happened: several other women began dancing, too. Their motions, graceful or otherwise, swept around the room with the purity of a daughter twirling in her daddy’s arms.

Embodied worship. The healing of a soul. The delight of the Father.

If you find yourself dry, discouraged, defeated, or even burned out, I want to remind you of this: Jesus died to save all of you, including your body. As Dallas Willard said, our physical bodies are the “power pack” for our spirits.[2] We live out this life with Christ through our bodies; therefore, soul restoration must be holistic.

So what can you do? Where can you begin this healing in your own, real-life body? Here are a few of the basics.

Worship. Lift your voice, raise your hands, lay face down, clap, dance, play an instrument—however you like to praise God, engage your whole self in it. If this is awkward or uncomfortable for you in your church setting, do it alone. You’ll know, like my friend did, if God is urging you to bring freedom to others by doing it in public. But for now, get your own heart, mind, and body fully engaged in praising God. After all, it is what you were created to do; worship is coming home for the human soul.

Rest. A life filled with stress, demands, frustrations, and heavy responsibility is often a body flooded with cortisol, aka the stress hormone. And you may not want to hear this, but the number one way to lower those cortisol levels is to get enough sleep. Getting out in nature and moving your body gently by hiking, walking, or biking are helpful, too. Meditating on scripture, especially when paired with slow, deep breathing, is an excellent, integrated way to reduce stress. Try this one: Breathe in slowly while thinking, “Peace of Christ,” then breathe out slowly while thinking, “Guard my heart.” Also high on the list are laughter, a whole-foods diet (think lots of fruits and veggies and limited sugar and processed snacks), and quality time with loved ones.[3]

Exercise. Slow, moderate exercise is wonderful for lowering cortisol levels, but a more rigorous exercise routine can help you sleep better, boost your mood, improve your heart health, and strengthen your muscles. Remember, we’re not doing these activities out of vanity; rather, we’re desiring to honor God with our bodies and trust that He cares for our whole selves.

Create. We are crafted in the image of a creative God. He has hard-wired that creativity into our DNA, and exercising your creative gifts is a sure path toward healing. Maybe you create meaning with words, paint, melody, or clay. Maybe you create beauty through gardening, photography, woodworking, or sewing. Maybe you create order through organized drawers, spreadsheets, or lesson plans. Or maybe you create sustenance through cooking and baking. Our endless God has given us endless modes to reflect His creativity. Which one has He given to you?

Now, two days after beginning this chapter while restless at home, I end it at a quiet café tucked in the hills of Northern Thailand. A fan cools my back, a Thai milk tea soothes my throat, and out the window I watch leaf-sized birds dance from one flowered tree branch to another. Beyond them, a breeze stirs the verdant hillside, and heavy clouds spill over the mountains on the horizon. I feel refreshed from my earlier workout and shower, and here, in this space, the words flow freely. The simple contentment of this moment for my mind, heart, and body is tangible.

As it should be.

This article is an adapted excerpt from Corella’s new book, Catch the Rain: Soul Restoration for the Dry and Weary Christian.

References:

[1] Warren, T. H. (2016). Liturgy of the Ordinary. InterVarsity Press.

[2] Willard, D. What is Our Body? Retrieved January 28, 2024 from https://www.facebook.com/dallas.willard.0717/videos/587141839057176/?mibextid=rS40aB7S9Ucbxw6v

[3] 11 Natural Ways to Lower Your Cortisol Levels. Retrieved August 31, 2022 from, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/ways-to-lower-cortisol

~~~~~~~

Corella Roberts is the author of Colliding with the Call: When Following God Takes You to the Wilderness. She serves at an international school in Thailand with her husband and three kids—two biological, one adopted. She loves music, mountains, and walking with people toward soul restoration. Find out more at corellaroberts.com.

Midlife in Missions

by Roberta Adair

I turned 40 in February, and I think I have a new understanding of the whole “midlife crisis” thing. The completely arbitrary transition from my 30s to my 40s has felt a little (or maybe a lot) disorienting. My swirling thoughts have occasionally bubbled out in conversations (perhaps “bursting forth” is more accurate). If this happens when I’m on the phone, I picture the person I’m talking to staring straight ahead with bug eyes, nodding slowly, and thinking, “Wow, that’s a lot of emotion. She has some stuff to work through.”

More than conversations with real live people, though, I’ve been talking in spits and spurts with my younger self – more often than not defensive and preachy. Perhaps this is because I feel her judgment, her confusion, her disappointment.

After all, when I was 20, I had dreams. Oh boy, did I have dreams – wild, unrealistic, grandiose ideas for who I would be when I grew up. “I’ll volunteer for two to three years with the Peace Corps which will help pay for my master’s in public health which will help me get a noble and important job with the UN which will…” (I have a friend who did this, and I salute her.) Other jobs I remember high school and college student Roberta considering: becoming a reconstructive surgeon for war victims or a human rights lawyer working with victims of the modern slave trade.

I didn’t think then that I’d someday live in Japan. I think differently now, but I’m sure I would have thought of that as soft. I certainly didn’t anticipate getting married or having four wild, tender, ridiculous boys. I most certainly didn’t consider that the bulk of my life in this season would be setting up play dates, getting help from mom friends with my son’s second grade homework, serving a lot of simple meals to people, and doing laundry constantly. Most of all, I would not have expected that I could find contentment – happiness even – with this small, beautiful life.

Most of my family members have skills and jobs that others can easily understand. A college professor, elementary and high school teachers, a high school band director, a nurse practitioner, a dietician. I look at them and think, “Wow, well done.” And then too quickly I think again about me, wishing that I, too, could say: “I am an expert in my field. I have developed this particular skill that I use to serve my school, clients, company, or community. I have arrived. I am an adult.”

I know missionaries in other parts of the world and in Japan who are experts – drilling wells, teaching at medical hospitals and seminaries, running NPOs for displaced people, starting micro-enterprise projects, writing thoughtful, helpful books. Perhaps part of being 40 is seeing these people and cheering them on – proud and not jealous of them – and not having the same angst and internal wrestling I’ve had with wanting their lives, their impact, their skill sets, and their experiences. Perhaps “entering middle age” is about being increasingly present to the people and places in my right-now actual life.

Sometimes I picture myself making peace between my 20-year-old and 40-year-old selves. I listen to Younger Me telling Now Me that she feels a little disappointed in her for not being more impressive or important. And I picture Now Me smiling – a little sad but also nodding with understanding – and gently telling Younger Me that she’s actually pretty happy. That it’s ok that her life looks pretty much nothing like she expected it would.

I picture Now Me having compassion on Younger Me who had a gigantic savior complex. She sees the simplicity and goodness of Younger Me in wanting to be noble and brave and, with a smirk, the ridiculousness of her also wanting to be Xena Warrior Princess. (I watched one episode. Yet that didn’t stop me from wanting to be her, a tall brunette who beat up bad guys.)

I picture Now Me helping Younger Me reframe the phrase her mom said for years before going to school: “Go MAD – go make a difference” (borrowed from a Christian radio personality). I picture them talking about that and some of the messaging she received from church (“dream and do big things for God!”) and society (“you can do and be anything!”) and even from songs and slogans of much-loved missions conferences from childhood (“Let me be a shining light to the nations,” “Let me be the one to take his light into a dying world…” Woah). I see Now Me not looking down on Younger Me or feeling annoyed with or ashamed of her but accepting and even loving her.

I also picture Younger Me not really buying any of it. After all, she knows better. But I also picture her liking and wanting to be friends with Now Me, popping over for tea (of course late, disheveled, and forgetting to exchange pleasantries) and both of them talking with Big Feelings, big hand gestures, and lots and lots of words.

Hopefully we would be less focused on trying to impress one another and more interested in seeking to understand and love one another.

~~~~~~~~

Originally from Pennsylvania (USA), Roberta lived in Kosovo for three years before getting married and moving to northern Japan in 2012. She and her husband partner with a Japanese church and have four young and energetic boys. She enjoys hiking, camping, and having friends over for average and boisterous meals.

Following Jesus to Unlikely Places

I never thought I would write a book. At least not until I was old and retired and had actually “done something with my life.” But then a few years ago, a conversation with my parents spurred me on to start writing—and I wrote my first book, Beyond Our Walls: Finding Jesus in the Slums of Jakarta.

And somehow, in writing that book, I found my voice in a new way. Even as I wrote down those first stories about a decade living and serving in a slum in Indonesia, I knew that I had something else to share, too. I knew that I was not done writing.

I have been obsessed with Amy Carmichael for the past seven years or so. Have you ever heard of Amy Carmichael? Don’t feel bad if you never had—I never had either until listening to a recording of a seminar about the untold story of women in missions. Something about Amy’s story captured my attention, and I began buying book after book written by her.

Amy Carmichael was born in what is now Northern Ireland in 1867, but she spent most of her life serving at the southern tip of India. Initially, she was an “itinerating” missionary—travelling around with a group of other believers, preaching and teaching wherever they could get an audience. But her life began to change when she became aware of the practice of temple prostitution throughout India. Young girls were dedicated to the gods from infancy and raised by temple women to serve in the temples. As Amy’s heart was broken, learning about the traumas and injustices these girls faced, she found God calling her to a new work: rescuing children and providing a home for them.

Amy was a prolific writer, penning more than thirty books throughout her fifty-plus years in India. Her writing is beautiful, and I find her words written a century ago still have a profound relevancy in my own life. I decided that these gifts that I was gleaning from Amy’s writings were too precious to keep to myself.

In my new book, Downward Discipleship: How Amy Carmichael Gave Me Courage to Serve in a Slum, I share seven lessons that I have learned from the life and legacy of Amy Carmichael. Interwoven with these lessons from Amy, I share more stories from my life in a slum in Jakarta.

Amy’s life and books are a call to radical discipleship, to following Christ into unlikely places. She testifies to the profound joy of listening to and obeying Jesus’ call, even when it calls us to go “against the flow” or to do something unpopular. As Amy and her team fought against the injustices and evils being done to children in India, they learned that it was a lonely journey. Many people did not support the work—in fact, many other missionaries at the time did not approve of Amy. She wore Indian clothes, worked “too closely” with Indian co-workers, and was challenging systems of evil that many people did not even want to acknowledge existed.

One of the most inspirational parts of Amy’s story for me is her profound theology of suffering. She learned that when one follows Christ, there is pain and loss. But she also continued to trust in her savior—and to believe that one day God would, indeed, have the final victory. When Amy was in her sixties, she had an accident that essentially left her bedridden for the rest of her life. But during her twenty years in her sickbed in India, she wrote some of her most powerful books.

And while my short time in Indonesia is nothing compared to Amy’s five decades in India, Amy’s writing encourages me on. She invites her readers to move beyond self to surrender, beyond guilt to gratitude, beyond grasping for control to living lives of compassion. She invites us all to a journey of downward discipleship, following Jesus into difficult places—to fight injustices with God’s love and hope. And while the journey will not be easy, Amy promises that it will be a journey we will not regret. If we are walking with our savior, He will sustain us even in the darkest valley.

My prayer is that Downward Discipleship would be a gift for readers, too. That my humble attempts at sharing some of Amy’s story would serve as an encouragement for all of us as we follow Christ.

Amy and her community in Dohnavur prayed this beautiful prayer whenever a book was published. I offer it now as a prayer for Downward Discipleship, too:

“Take this book in Thy wounded Hand,
Jesus, Lord of Calvary;
Let it go forth at Thy command;
Use it as it pleases Thee.

“Dust of earth, but Thy dust, Lord,
Blade of grass in Thy hand a sword–
Nothing, nothing unless it be
Purged and quickened, O Lord, by Thee.
Unless Thou touch it graciously
It will do less than naught.

“O touch, inspire and purify,
We lay it at Thy feet,
Let all of earth about it die,
Turn it to corn of wheat.

“O blessed be the love that takes
This that we offer Thee,
And out of our poor nothing makes
Seed for Eternity.”[1]


[1] Amy Carmichael. Gold Cord: The Story of a Fellowship. Fort Washington: CLC, 2002. First published 1932 by SPCK (London), 28.

What Two Raw Vegans Taught Me About Sharing Jesus

A few months ago, I was talking with a Muslim friend about her beliefs.

“How do you know XYZ is true?” I asked. She stared at me for a moment.

“Because the Quran says it’s true.”

“How do you know the Quran is true?”

“I’m… not allowed to ask that question.”

“Okay. Here’s a totally different question. How do you know anything is true? If someone told you something, how would you verify it?”

“Oh. Well, I would research, and talk to people who knew, and try to find out.”

“Okay. So, would it be okay to do that with your beliefs?” She hesitated. Even though she answered in the negative, this way of looking at things shifted her perspective just slightly.

*

My friend isn’t the only one with religious baggage. I have it, too.

See, I really want to share the gospel without feeling like a used car salesman. But when I try to picture myself doing that, all these experiences come flooding into my mind: times I’ve tried to share, reactions people have had, the intense longing to obey God and to represent Him well, all the cheesy “witnessing instructions” I’ve heard, potential consequences for myself or others…

It’s complicated.

So, let’s just set that all aside for a moment. Let’s change the camera angle and take this from a different perspective.

What if there were something else I wanted to share? Something important and life-changing, but not spiritual? How would I share that thing?

*

I once met a couple who were raw. Like, they had discovered Raw Veganism, and they were like, into it. Yes, they sounded like walking infomercials for a $500 juicer. But they meant what they said. And they weren’t getting a commission.

“Like, ever since finding Raw, we’re like, so healthy, and my skin glows, and I just feel amazing.” This is the type of thing they said every five minutes. They were seriously satisfied customers of the Rawness movement.

So I googled going raw. I wondered how one goes raw, and what it entails. How to cook if you are raw. Where Rawness came from. I wondered if I had to go all in, or if I could try being “rawer” than mac and cheese and egg McMuffins. I began to explore. 

I didn’t convert. But we do eat a lot of salad now.

They say the best salesperson is a satisfied customer. These people were “selling” raw veganism with a capital RV.

Which leads me to ask — are you a satisfied customer of the gospel?

*

I once knew a guy who had a special talent for selling stuff. “D” was such a great salesman that my college psychology professor once brought him to class to do a demonstration about sales psychology.

Seven people in our class bought what he was selling.

Other than being a brilliant salesman, D always does one thing. He always chooses a product he, himself, truly believes in and uses. He is 100% confident in the product. If he wants to sell magical car wax, he scrapes his car and tries out the wax, and keeps a tub of the stuff in his glove compartment, and tests it, and has his friends test it, and in general, makes sure it works in his own life.

In our witnessing journey, is it possible to get into the headspace of a satisfied customer without sounding like a used car salesman? And is there anything we can do to make sure we are satisfied and ready to speak?

I’m not suggesting that we turn sharing our faith into selling a product. So let me bring it back into a spiritual context.

*

I have a friend I’ll call Meg. She was a member of my home church who consistently invited me into her world. I tagged along when she picked up day-old bread from the bakery to give away for free from the church porch. I helped when she cleaned the home of a depressed friend. When, because of extreme circumstances, she adopted her sister’s children, I saw her rearrange her life to love them.

But the very best thing Meg did for me was share her faith in real time. She would share scripture songs she’d written. She would tell me why she’d written them, the story behind them, why she needed God’s word so much, and how it changed things for her. She’d ask me to pray with her for her children, that she would concentrate fully on following Jesus herself, whether or not they chose to follow. She’d tell me, every time I saw her, something God had taught her that week.

Meg talked about Jesus like He sometimes stopped by for a slice of apple pie. Like He’d told her to say hi to me if she saw me. Meg was satisfied in the presence of Christ. And she told me what she saw Him do.

Meg is one of the (many) reasons why I write what really goes on in my heart. Because seeing her walk with Jesus is still a model for me.

Now I am asking God to show me how to share my faith in real time in a place very different from the town where I grew up. Instead of apple pie, there is bitter mint tea and semolina cake. Or, sometimes, when we’re back in India, there are chapattis and chai.

But God is still the same. So maybe authentic witness still begins in the same place: in my experience of God, in relying on Him, depending on Him, learning of Him, following Him, going through stuff with Him, seeing how He works, being changed by Him, enjoying His goodness and grace.

Right in front of people, out loud, in real time.

Lord, teach us how.

 

A version of this article first appeared on Abigail’s newsletter, Whatsoever Thoughts.

Today’s TCKs Need Us To Be Culturally Humble

Our family was finally slowing down for lunch after having been mostly separated from one another for the past day and a half. I turned from the breathtaking ocean view and let my eyes adjust on my sun-kissed kids. We were on our yearly team retreat, and the kids had been hanging out on the beach learning and playing with one of the Americans who had come to lead our retreat time.

“Mom, I thought she just wanted to play volleyball, but then she started asking all these questions like a therapist. Did you tell her to do that? Is there something wrong with us?”

It was not at all the reaction I had expected from my teen and tween children, but they were clearly distressed by the subtle hints from the adult TCK/leader that they were weird and needed to be fixed. While I cannot claim that my children are without their fair share of weirdsies, they were certainly not fitting into the TCK boxes that their retreat leader had perhaps unconsciously drawn.

Without a doubt, there will come a day when they begin wrestling with their TCK status, but for now, they feel at ease with kids of their generation no matter which part of the world they find themselves in. In their minds, the leader was the weird one! 

Most TCKs feel pretty normal in their international environment, but it is usually after repatriation when they will feel the rub. However, global trends may be changing the degree to which young TCKs will feel “out of place” in their passport culture, or any culture for that matter. Seeing the digital trends quickly changing nearly 15 years ago, some researchers even posited that TCKs were something of a prototype of generations to come.

When meeting youth from other countries, many Gen Z kids are finding a common baseline of shared slang, idioms, and humor as a result of a generation-wide digital narrative. Throughout the world, Gen Z is consuming web-based products such as social media, video games, and streaming services more easily and more frequently than any generations past.

This is partially due to the reality that many of these services simply did not exist prior to Gen Z’s arrival. A generation ago, a child from Kenya and a child from Croatia may have had little shared culture. Today, however, youth from two different corners of the globe may share a die-hard loyalty to the same K-Pop group, binge watch the same Japanese anime series, and simultaneously respond to awkward situations using the same catchphrases from viral TikToks.

Gen Z is more globally aware, socially conscious, and culturally inclusive than generations past. Their coming of age in a globalized and highly connected world is, for better or worse, having an enormous impact on how youth around the globe communicate and relate to one another.

The reality remains that TCKs, upon returning to their passport countries, will still bear unique features of both identity and belonging that influence the rest of their lives. However, the common assumption that TKCs are confused about their identities and ever searching for a place to belong is changing. While this has certainly been the case for some, research shows that many TCKs are not perpetually confused about their own cultural identities, but that others may find the cultural identities of TCKs to be quite confounding. This phenomenon stretches not only beyond those of us outside of today’s generation of TCKs, but also to adult TCKs. 

Whether a TCK feels totally at ease or immensely unsettled with their sense of identity and belonging, we need to start talking to TCKs without preconceived notions that were formed by past generations and vastly different situations. Adult TCKs often see younger TCKs and feel deep compassion and empathy for them because they intimately understand some of the challenges of the lives they are living. For those who have repatriated, they also know the difficulties of what may lie ahead for young TCKs.

Adult TCKs or indeed anyone who genuinely wants to extend empathy and understanding to young TCKs must have a stance of cultural humility. Simply put, cultural humility is the stance of an eager learner who is willing to critique their assumptions and beliefs as they encounter new information and experiences. This may mean withholding assumptions about family life, social life, and identity issues, and instead just being a curious learner and listener. 

Jesus lived out cultural humility as he interacted with both the lowly and elite. Having neither assumptions nor beliefs that were inaccurate, he had no need to ask anything. But despite knowing, he still inquired. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus’ two-word question allowed his flummoxed disciples a chance to speak and process the devastating things they had just witnessed: “What things?” (Luke 24:19).

Having a full and firsthand understanding of all that had transpired over the weekend in Jerusalem, Jesus still wanted to hear what these two disciples were reeling over as they traveled. Time and again, Jesus, being in very nature God, took the time to ask questions to which he already knew the answers. He asked and listened for perhaps no other reason than to allow people the opportunity to know and be known by him. 

Today’s TCKs need us to listen to their stories without trying to put them in a box or assuming we know their struggles better than they do. As we do so, we may find that our own hearts are changed and our perspectives broadened. 

Can I Find Belonging in the American Church? {Wrestlings of an Adult MK}

by Jessi Bullis

As an adult missionary kid (MK) who grew up with a fairly mobile childhood, “home” and “belonging” have been tricky for me. I remember being as young as five years old and responding to the question “Where are you from?” with deer-in-the-headlights style anxious sputtering. 

As I’ve grown, I’ve spent oodles of time processing how each different country I was raised in has impacted who I am as a person, and I’ve learned to weave them together to make up the mosaic of my personal cultural complexity. Nowadays, I have a ready-made answer for the “Where are you from?” question. But just because I’m prepared to answer doesn’t mean that internal confusion and childhood longing aren’t sometimes set off. 

Over the years, digging into scripture and falling even more in love with Jesus, I came to know Him as my true Home. And since Christ’s bride is the Church, I desperately wanted the Church to be my earthly home.

Afterall, that was the one consistent “location” in my life. In England we attended a church with 300 members, while in Turkey we went to a house church that fluctuated from 20-30 people depending on the week and in whose apartment it was held. Visiting Tanzania, we worshiped in a mud structure, and in Germany church was held in the school auditorium. Each might have looked different, but the underlying feeling was the same.

So when I returned to the exotic, frightening, and magical land of the United States of America for college, my hope was that in the midst of my hardest transition, I would find a home-ful belonging in the Church.

However, while there was hope, I’ll admit there was also a bitter pessimism. 

The American church has often felt like an unsafe place for me growing up. As a child, whenever we would return to the U.S. on home assignment and enter the church circuit, raising support felt like a job requirement to be filled rather than a place to be known and loved.

I felt like a hidden immigrant in the church — misunderstood, but also laden with high expectations to be “the perfect MK.” It was assumed that I would know all the ‘right’ answers to any biblical questions thrown my way, while at the same time I was confused by the jokes and cultural references made in conversation. I learned to play the part, but internally I felt like an outsider.

I also noticed that it sometimes seemed like American patriotism and Christianity were intertwined. 

While my passport country is the United States, and I am legally a citizen, I have struggled to wrap my head around what that means. For many of my mono-cultural friends raised in the U.S., this has meant that the American flag elicits an emotional response, and July 4th comes with life-long traditions of celebration and reverence for American history. Because America was born from the drive for religious freedom, for some it seemed that being patriotic was the most Christian thing they could do.

I, on the other hand, didn’t know the words to “America the Beautiful” or even the Pledge of Allegiance. Whenever I attended sporting events (which I’ll admit wasn’t often), I moved my mouth around hoping it looked like I was saying the same thing as everyone else. 

So when I attended churches where I heard pastors talk from the pulpit about how “America is the best country in the world” and where church members discussed how great a blessing it is to be American, I felt like an outsider. Many cultures have informed my faith, and the global perspective I have impacts how I read my Bible. I love that about myself and my story, so hearing words of American patriotism in the church feels to me like a sucker punch. Suddenly the separation between me and my fellow American believers seemed even wider. 

In these church sanctuaries I found myself questioning: If I didn’t “feel” American, would I be fully accepted as a sister in Christ? Are we not brothers and sisters in Christ first – before our cultural backgrounds? If I voiced concern about patriotism and Christianity being conflated, would my character and faith be questioned? 

In the New Testament, I saw that Jesus spoke with Gentiles as cultural equals. On days when the fear of not belonging has felt strongest, I’ve turned to Philippians 3:20 for comfort (“we are citizens of heaven”). And I always drew hope from Revelation 7:9, where we see people from every tribe, tongue, and nation worshiping together in blessed harmony. 

As I considered these scriptures, I began seeing my own assumptions and prejudices arise. Sometimes my own religious comfort has been built from my cultural experiences, and I have had to repentantly unwind them at the feet of Jesus.

Culture impacts how we interact with God and how we worship. Sometimes this is beautiful and glorifies God in the diversity of His creation. But at other times culture becomes an obstacle to the true message of scripture. I have learned beautiful things about God, His creativity, the depths of His love, and so much more from every culture I’ve worshiped in — including in America. 

I write this article not as someone with all the answers, but as someone who has so very many questions: for myself, for my fellow believers, and for the American church. Questions like:

  • How does national culture play a role in my relationship with God? And with my fellow believer?
  • Do I have opportunities to view Christianity from different perspectives and cultures? If not, do I need to find them?
  • Could I have blind spots towards my faith due to my national culture? 
  • Do I feel closer to a believer from a different country than to an unbeliever from my own country? 

It’s important for all of us to consider questions like these. I pray that each day we, the Church, become more and more like the Bride of Christ that will meet God at the shore of eternity.

“…there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” (Revelation 7:9-10)

A great resource on navigating God and culture is the Perspectives Course, and if you’d like to know how to support missionary kids in their walk with God, I recommend Tim Sanford’s book I Have To Be Perfect, along with this training for Churches Supporting Missionary Families.

Photo by Josh Eckstein on Unsplash

~~~~~~~~~

Jessi is an Adult MK who grew up in Singapore, England, Turkey, and Germany. She has a heart for TCKs and the unique struggles they face. She received her undergraduate in psychology and a seminary degree in counseling for the purpose of caring for TCKs well. Jessi loves getting to walk through the repatriation journey with Adult TCKs, as this season can be especially difficult to navigate. Her deepest passion is for TCKs to know and feel the love and goodness of God.