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. 

Sounding an Alarm on Social Media Evangelism

Excitement and awe were palpable in the dimmed hotel ballroom as I stared at the presenter’s screen. The young speaker, who appeared to be in his early 20s, was explaining how Facebook was proving to be a strategic way to share the gospel and allow people to learn about scripture safely and privately. Facebook users could view his page that was filled with scripture verses, and if they commented or liked the content, he would send them a link to an online Bible in their language. It was clear to all of us that this was a revolutionary way to broadly share the gospel with people who might not have the courage to ask for a Bible in person. 

Since that day in 2011, Christian ministries and indeed the world have experienced massive shifts in how we communicate, connect, and share information with one another. With smart phones now outnumbering people globally, social media platforms have morphed from a means of connecting with loved ones to a ubiquitous medium of communication and marketing. People separated by thousands of miles can now easily form a community that does not require physical proximity.  

A Double-Edged Sword

With every innovation comes both blessing and curse, and social media has been no exception. What began as a medium of socializing is now a powerful advertising tool. Social media platforms’ ability to market to the audience most likely to purchase a product is at the heart of many marketing strategies. Since social media platforms can quickly learn details of users’ preferences, personalities, and socioeconomic status, they are able to disseminate individualized content that is curated for each user’s ever-changing preferences. With increased usage, users grow dependent on social media to meet their needs for interpersonal connection, news, entertainment, and general events in their community. 

Dependency on these apps has turned into outright addiction for many users, and the problem of social media addiction has turned from concerning to an outright crisis both in the U.S. and around the world. The tentacles of social media addiction reach far beyond how a user spends their time. Mental health experts and former social media insiders are sounding alarms on how social media is purposefully addicting youth and young adults and making them depressed, anxious, and suicidal. 

We know far more today than we did 12 years ago about the mental health hazards of social media use, and we have a greater awareness of social media companies’ incessant use of unethical practices in addicting and exploiting their users. Nevertheless, Christian ministries are promoting social media use for evangelism, and doing so with little regard for the well-documented accompanying hazards.  While some would argue that the “end” (users hearing, believing, and accepting the gospel) justifies the means, it would be irresponsible for Christians to neglect a careful examination what exactly the “means” is. While we cannot deny the fact that social media can and has been a way of exposing people to the gospel, we must start recognizing that no one, neither users nor administrators, are inoculated against the harms of this medium’s addictive and exploitative nature.


Social media companies can give users content that is personalized and helpful. Based on their searches, posts, and likes, expectant mothers can expect ads for baby gear and nursery furniture. A grad school student might find their feed peppered with study aids and paper-writing tools. But what begins as a simple search for ten minutes is, by design, often extended into viewing other similar or related posts, and that added time viewing more content gives the platform evermore data on the user’s preferences. The apps purposefully remove “stop cues” like an actual end of a page or a blank screen at the end of video reels. There is limitless content that the platform is able to offer up to its users, so people who see no harm in spending hours upon hours on social media may do so without realizing that they are becoming addicted. 

This practice becomes increasingly unethical among users who are unwittingly using a service that is likely to harm them. Social media use is just as ubiquitous in low-income countries as it is in wealthy areas of the world with a broader understanding of internet addiction. Nevertheless, impoverished and low-income regions tend to be where social media evangelism efforts are being deployed. These areas have far fewer resources to educate populations on mental health hazards, so there is consistently a minimal understanding of addictive internet use.  Consequently, low-income countries offer up highly vulnerable and captive audiences to social media companies, who then sell that audience’s attention to anyone willing to pay for it. This is Exploitation 101: offering a service that seems highly beneficial while concealing its hazards in order to exponentially benefit and enrich the service provider. 

Seizing upon the dependable attention of social media audiences, Christian ministries join the fray by purchasing a piece of that attention. For a fee paid directly to the platform, evangelistic ministries can buy ads and broadcast to audiences most likely to view their content and respond. In order to grow their online audience (and thereby attract more users to their page), account pages can pay for likes, views, and follows. These accounts are often being run hundreds or thousands of miles away from the target location in order to protect the identities of Christians who live nearby, as these are often places with a history of hostility towards Christians. 

Users who view evangelistic pages are often presented with content and videos full of grace, hope, and love. For some, it is the first time they have ever read scripture, and it speaks to them in a deep, profound way.  Users who respond to the ministry’s social media content with questions or a desire to learn more are encouraged to call or meet in person with a local Christian who speaks their language and understands their culture. The hope is that people who are genuinely interested in knowing Christ will go beyond just text exchanges on a screen and begin a relationship with people who care for them. 

The question of ethical practice here is not about the message being offered to vulnerable social media users. It is about the medium by which that message is being conveyed and its incendiary methods of creating markets of hungry consumers. Yes, Christian ministries are offering a message of truth and hope to these markets. But is paying the drug lords who run the market an ethical practice? And are Christian ministries taking the time to inform their patrons of the health hazards of the medium they are both using?  

Beyond the Target Audience

The target audiences of social media evangelism are not the only vulnerable parties in these efforts. Those who are tasked with responding to inquiries are also falling prey to social media’s addictive devices, but their unhealthy habits or full-blown addictions are easily cloaked in the language of urgency for the gospel and “lives on the line.” Since this type of work is increasingly becoming a full-time job for globally minded Christians, we must recognize the addictive nature of social media ministry as an occupational hazard. Some responders are staying up into early hours of the morning to correspond with people who have reached out, and others report a hesitancy to create boundaries around ministry time on social media and personal time in general. 

The church should never shy away from entering dark places to carry in the light and love of Jesus, and we have a rich history of doing so. Ministering to people who are trapped in substance addiction, sex trafficking, and systemic abuse is the work of the body of Christ. However, we have historically done this work with diligence and awareness of the systems of oppression that can just as easily ensnare and brutalize us. We need to treat social media outreach in much the same way we would treat ministry in night clubs, casinos, or red light districts. The people on the inside may just be passing through, but they are very possibly there because they do not know how to leave. This may mean that people who put their faith in Christ as a result of finding hope on social media were indeed there because of an addiction to the platform. And this may mean that they need recovery rather than an invitation to work as social media evangelists or responders. 

Installing Guardrails

There was a road in the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan where the guardrail was completely destroyed, giving way to a frighteningly clear view of a bus skeleton far below. While the guardrail had certainly been in place on that treacherous road, it did nothing to deter a bus full of passengers that veered off course. 

The best boundaries are both strong and visible. Seeing them helps you keep a healthy distance, but bumping up against them protects you when you fail to notice. In using a tool as powerful, addictive, and controversial as social media platforms to spread a message of hope, Christian ministries need to ensure that guardrails are well-established to avoid doing harm to vulnerable populations. This could mean refusing to use strategies of engagement that are addictive in nature, such as rewarding users’ viewing of a video with another video. It could also mean transparency about how their respondents’ information is being saved, stored, and shared. This particular issue requires imagining how you would feel if, in an existential search for connection and hope, a person responded to your need while keeping a detailed record of your messages in a database and shared it with donors who funded the campaign. A guardrail could also mean that ministries begin disseminating information about social media addiction right alongside their regular posts. When using targeted ads, it could mean researching and adhering to rigorous standards of ethical advertising. 

Likewise, Christians who are taking part in social media evangelism ministry need clear guardrails with regular accountability on when, where, and how much time they spend on the platform. Since social media platforms make both accidental and purposeful viewing of pornographic content easy, we must also inquire of a person’s current internet habits and personal history with pornography use before inviting them to make social media work their full-time job and ministry.  The Kingdom of God is not dependent on any social media platform. It has been advancing since Jesus blew the doors off and began inviting everyone into his family. As we assess the time, space, and resources God has provided for us today, may we work with both compassion and conscientiousness of the realities of oppression and sin that will be present until the day of Christ’s return. And until that day, may the Holy Spirit guide us in serving people with love, respect, and dignity to the glory of God the Father. 

How to Come Alongside a Friend in Burnout

Prior to our move overseas, I recall occasional talk about this thing called “burnout.” I could not articulate exactly what it meant, but it sounded like a toxic mix of depression, deep exhaustion, and despair. One counselor explained that burnout was like a house that has had a fire on the inside. From the front lawn, everything may look tidy and intact. But once you get inside, it is immediately clear by the smell and charred walls that this home was badly damaged and requires repair. Maybe it was confined to just one room, or maybe the entire interior needs to be remodeled. Either way, the house needs internal gutting and rebuilding before it can safely function again. 

More than a decade later, my husband and I got a crash course in “the notorious B.O.”, as we came to call it. Despite the good and beautiful fruit of God’s work in our personal lives and ministry that year, I felt exhausted and unmotivated. I had little motivation to get together with friends or go visit the Afghan ladies whom, at some point prior to those days, I had loved so dearly. Upcoming events sounded overwhelming, and I desperately wanted to find an escape route from every responsibility.

We knew that we both needed help, but the weight of the many responsibilities we were bearing felt too consuming to leave any margin for yet another regularly scheduled Zoom call with a counselor. Eventually, however, the alarms were blaring, and it was clear that if we did not get help soon, the fire damage on the inside of my proverbial house was going to cause the entire structure to collapse. 

In my particular case of burnout, I had allowed pressing, important work to overtake equally important, but non-urgent personal needs. Simultaneously, my husband was suffering under the weight of heavy work and ministry responsibilities. We wanted to cut back on his work hours, and we also realized we needed to raise extra support in order to stay on the field. It all felt crushing.

As we were in the middle of drawing up plans for the summer, my husband’s boss decided, without any prompting, to leave my husband’s pay and benefits unchanged despite the fact that he would be working fewer hours. Neither of us realized how heavily the issue of finances was weighing on us until it was lifted. This one massive change allowed both of us to see the parts of our lives that needed tending, so we began to pursue healing in the parts of our lives that were still sore and tender.

The first few calls with my counselor felt a bit monotonous as I told her some of my own history and background. She began asking me about the nature of my work. Having just completed an emotionally intense project, I could barely get through a sentence without beginning to weep. It became apparent that, while I had been talking openly with friends and teammates about the emotional toll of work, I had not allowed myself to feel the depths of it.

Soon after, I heard an Enneagram expert explain that some folks are quite skilled at talking about their feelings while still managing to shield themselves from actually feeling them. “Guilty,” I said aloud. I invited the Holy Spirit into the innermost depths of my thought life. I asked for peace in those corners where emotional jack-in-the-boxes of memories and mental pictures would lie dormant until my sleeping brain would pop them open to be anxiously scrutinized at 3 am. 

One particularly memorable session with my counselor included some questions about leisure time. “What is something you enjoy doing on a daily or weekly basis?” I could not, for the life of me, think of the last time I had gone out of my way to do something I (and not my kids) considered fun. I would go for runs some mornings, which I enjoy immensely, but as my schedule had become increasingly packed, morning runs were often overruled in favor of extra sleep.

My counselor instructed me to make a list of things that I would consider fun and could feasibly do in the coming weeks and months. The very task of being made to sit and consider what would be fun activities was much harder work than I thought it would be. It was as though I had forgotten what things brought me joy, like I had been subsisting with a charred interior for so long that I could not even remember what it should or could look like. 

One of the items on my “fun list” was to have regular lunch and coffee dates with friends. Not for accountability time, not to do a Bible study, and not for ministry planning. Just regular lunch dates for some good ‘ole fashioned fun. This was not the be-all, end-all solution, but the impact of these dear people on my well-being was immense. The healing I experienced was slow, but I could see that God was cleaning up many places in my heart that had been neglected or altogether forgotten. Mercifully, He moved slowly and with intention, taking time to clean, reorganize, and sometimes hoist a giant load of trash onto a burn pile. 

Those days were incredibly difficult, but the lovingkindness shown to me by friends shed light on how to come alongside others who are also trying to navigate recovery from burnout. Here are a few ways you can help a friend who is struggling:

1. Tell them it’s ok to complain. Some of us feel immense guilt for telling the truth of how hard certain situations or people are. We believe that sharing our experiences when it might paint someone in a negative light is wrong, or that we are dishonoring them by disclosing behavior or attitudes that have affected us. While situations may require us to anonymize individuals and keep some information confidential, we all need an outlet to talk about hard and painful experiences. Being a friend who is willing to hold space for the whole gamut of frustrations and pain is a noble task. It can sometimes be difficult to share these emotions because we, as global workers, tend to see a lot of suffering. The temptation to minimize our own troubles in relation to those of our neighbors is all too real, but our struggles are still valid. Plus, minimizing our pain since it’s “not as bad as That Guy’s” comforts neither That Guy nor you. 

2. Encourage them to get professional help. Burnout and depression tend to go hand in hand. I was recently talking to a friend about starting antidepressant medication, and she joked that sending organizations should distribute them as standard procedure in pre-field orientation. While your friend may not need medication, they will likely need some help examining the deeper issues that created ideal circumstances for burnout. Even if they already understand these things, extricating long-practiced habits from faulty internal narratives about God, ourselves, and others is where we can sometimes find ourselves at an impasse. A professional counselor who is experienced with global workers can be a great help to someone who is feeling stuck.

3. Remind your friend of God’s unrelenting love for them. Burnout, for better or worse, serves to remind us that we are not capable of doing or being everything that we had hoped. In the depths of this realization, the voice of shame speaks pretty loudly. Here are a few of the more common phrases burnout shame spews:

  • You should have been able to handle more than this.
  • Look at That Guy (or That Girl)! They are in almost the same situation as you but with even more responsibilities, and they are thriving. What’s wrong with you? You really are a failure.
  • You have nothing worthwhile to contribute.

    The often-overlooked truth is that God’s love for your friend is unrelenting. His loving presence is so un-forsaking that he goes into the depths of our pain and despair right with us. Your friend, and indeed all of us, need to be reminded of this truth.

4. Check in on them regularly. Bring over a favorite drink or ask to go on a walk together. Exercise has proven to be a powerful way to combat mild to moderate depression and build emotional resilience, but it can often be difficult to find the motivation or energy when people are experiencing burnout and depression. The exercise is helpful, of course, but the company of a friend who cares and will simply be present is priceless.

5. Assure them that taking a break is a good thing. A season of burnout can mean needing to step away from responsibilities or leaving the field altogether. For those of us in ministry, our identity and sense of purpose tends to be so tethered to our ministry output that the idea of stepping away feels cowardly. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Stepping away, whether for a season or indefinitely, is often the hardest step to take as it can contain so many unknowns. God’s healing power and love is not only for the people we minister to, but for your friend as well. 

If you or a friend are in a season of burnout, you are not alone. In fact, it is a common reality for many global workers. Those of us in ministry roles recognize the importance of our work and are often willing to make great sacrifices in order to do it well. The nature of our work is to serve and love people as Jesus did, but we tend to overlook the reality that our own souls, minds, and bodies also require as much care and attention as those whom we came to serve. While it may look different from season to season, our neediness for the healing love of Christ, delivered through the vessels of human hands and feet, will be present until the day we see Him face to face. Recognizing our frailty can be painful, but it is in these places where the body of Christ can meet despair with hope, pain with comfort, and weariness with relief.  

Are Transient Friendships Worth My Time?

Are Transient Friendships Worth My Time?

In my 15 years on the field, the number of dear friends I have made and then said goodbye to is beyond my ability to recount. Some were genuine heart-level relationships, the kind where I could bare the depths of my soul and still feel entirely loved and unjudged. Others were such a barrel of fun that the laughs started rolling the minute we began chatting, and some friends had such depth of love for Christ that it felt highly contagious in the best way. 

But the one thing all of these friends had in common is that they left. Whether they moved to another field or returned to their home countries, my friendships with them are no longer the same because of the geographical distance between us. 

Of course, I also have left. I left my home country and the friendships I had there so I could move to Afghanistan. I transitioned to a different field in 2014, and with that transition came many goodbyes. It does not feel so drastic when I am the one leaving because there is so much newness and excitement to look forward to on the other side. But when I was the one left behind, the void felt as though I could trace its crater with my fingers. “It’s fine,” I would tell myself. “That is where God wants her, and I love that for her!” 

After saying so many goodbyes, it felt safer to hang back and observe. I would watch carefully and check in with different expat ladies in the community to see how they were doing, only to calculate whether or not they would “make it.” While they were sharing their triumphs and struggles, I was cautiously measuring them up to see if they were worth my time and energy. It’s a sad and ugly confession, but it’s true. (It’s also worth noting that my predictions have rarely been accurate.) 

My watch-and-wait strategy backfired, and I simply wound up not having close friends outside of my husband and a teammate. This lasted a couple of years because I was pretty slow to figure out that my plan had failed. In my attempt to shield myself from the pain of more goodbyes, I had effectively cut myself off from friendships. It was a lonely time. The fear of pending heartache was gnawing at the present reality of loneliness, but I felt too stuck to know which was the better existence. 

When I was finally able to articulate my dilemma, it became clear that God had made me, and indeed all of us, to live in relationship with one another while knowing that loss is inevitable. Our souls yearn for infinite comfort and familiarity, and Jesus is the only one who can meet this longing with his constant presence and unchanging nature. This change in perspective brought me into a new depth of communion with Christ, and his unchangingness became a new point of meditation and gratitude in my prayer life. 

I have since made several meaningful friendships. And, of course, some of them have moved on to other places or back to their passport countries. However, I am grateful for each one because we needed each other in those specific seasons of life. We sharpened each other, we cried together, we shared laughter and joy, sorrow and pain. My life and relationship with Jesus is far deeper and more vibrant as a result of relationship with these friends, even if we were together for only a season. 

God made us relational creatures with an intense need for human connection. In our communion with one another, we commune with Christ as well. Knowing and being known by others allows us glimpses of the Maker who put others together just as he did you and me. This is the kind of goodness that you go out of your way to behold, the sort that makes you stand in awe and gratitude. 

Making friends in adulthood is not easy, and the transience of life overseas tends to add another layer of complexity to the mix. Overseas life can bring burdens too heavy to shoulder alone, and God has given us the gift of each other for the journey.  The short-lived nature of our togetherness can be a reminder that God’s provision may look different from season to season. But the beauty of the vast family of God is that we are tied together by a love so powerful that it transcends time and distance.

5 Lies Global Workers Believe

Uprooting your life and transplanting to an entirely new setting is simultaneously exciting and disorienting. Perhaps one of the most annoying questions well-meaning friends and family members ask is, “What are your expectations for your life there?” We all have expectations, but some of them are so intrinsic that we don’t even know to extract them for a thorough examination. 

Most of us do not head overseas with the expectation that we will start believing lies about ourselves. On the contrary, many of us go through such extensive field preparation that we are more self-aware than we’ve ever been. Even so, in the absence of relational transparency and honest self-reflection, we are prone to believing destructive lies about ourselves. Here are five of the most common lies I’ve seen workers believe.


1. Living on the field will make me a better Christian/human!

Before actually moving to the field, I pictured myself praying a lot more and being so filled with Holy Spirit power that I would eloquently bestow wisdom upon each person I encountered (perfectly conjugated, of course). In reality, I was regularly uttering profanities under my breath while hoping that God would smite all the reckless drivers.

Most of us have some delusions about how much better our future selves will be, especially when we picture our lives in a new place with new surroundings. We fail to account for the toll that emotional strain, illness, and interpersonal conflict (among other things) will have on our daily lives and the very real fact that some of our same old habits will follow us no matter where we live. 

2. I should be further along than this by now.

Whether it’s the comparison game or falling back into old bad habits, we can easily believe the lie that we should have outgrown this ugly thing by now. We should have matured past this struggle or thought pattern, but here we are again. The danger of this lie is the shame and hiding that tend to accompany it. Realizing that you are back in the same ugly place that you were a few years ago or struggling with the same sin that you thought you had overcome before you came to the field can bring such grief that the tendency is to just bury it. Rather than holding it out with open hands before a friend who cares, we want to keep it quiet enough that we can just talk to God and get rid of it on our own.

Believing the lie that we should not be struggling with the same junk again makes us lose sight of the fact that God the Father delights in us. We devalue ourselves because of our shortcomings, and then we project our own disappointment onto the God who already knows our proclivities and still chose to subject himself to undeserved shame, torture, and death for us.

3. I must justify leisure activity.

“I used points for the trip!” I can’t tell you how many times I have personally justified purchases with the fact that they were paid for by points or airline miles. For the sake of not looking indulgent or excessive, we will quickly volunteer information about how travel, services, or expensive items were procured. Michéle Phoenix summarized this beautifully in her article about guiltitude. Some of us buy into this lie because we have read or heard stories of missionaries who nearly starved to death or lived in such humble circumstances that indulgences such as a pedicure, vacation, or trip to Starbucks were unthinkable.

Add that to the fact that some pastors and church leadership believe cross-cultural workers should enjoy subsisting on scraps, and we’ve created a perfect storm. Not only have we personally ingested an unrealistic standard of living, but some of our church leadership back home have also placed this expectation on us. Our member care personnel and counselors tell us the importance of breaks and rest, reminding us to partake in activities we enjoy and take time for ourselves. But to avoid judgment from churches back home, many of us explain that our leisure activity was paid for by something or someone that has a net-zero impact on our budget. This can lead us to believe that we don’t really deserve to rest or take a break.

4. My worth is measured by my language ability.

Language ability is often the key instrument used to judge a cross-cultural worker’s worthiness to stay on the field. Spoken word is the most common means by which the beauty and truth of Jesus are shared, so language should certainly be a priority. However, it is entirely possible to become proficient in language but have minimal bonding with the people who speak it. Language ability does not guarantee that you will be an effective communicator of truth or even a person who is embraced or accepted by the local people. 

In our drive to attain high levels of language proficiency, we can neglect equally important aspects of our lives such as time with family or friends, leisure activities, or even the needs of people around us. Defining our worth by our language ability also fails to recognize that within the expat Christian community, there exists a myriad of different giftings. While some will be crushing it at language, others are connecting through unseen service to the body of Christ. New parents may be quietly praying over the nation as they bounce a crying baby night after night, and others may take on administrative roles to keep the unseen moving parts functioning.

Parents, and mothers in particular, can feel an extreme amount of guilt over their language ability. Being expected to learn a language while keeping tiny humans alive and often simultaneously giving them an education, in addition to forging deep friendships with both teammates and locals, while filling a ministry role? It’s both unreasonable and a potent prescription for burnout. 

5. I am failing at everything. 

Seeing little or no “fruit,” experiencing conflict with co-workers, and family strife are all issues that merit a big red “guaranteed” stamp on our job descriptions. Unfortunately, difficulties on the field can compound and leave even the most optimistic worker feeling like their efforts have amounted to nothing. Part of the complexity of living overseas is that we are often expected to excel at many things. Our language should be impeccable, our families should be thriving, our evangelistic efforts should be fruitful, our team relationships should be life-giving, our professional skills should be valuable, and our spiritual lives should be a well-watered garden bursting with flowers and butterflies. The truth is that we are often experiencing serious disappointment in many areas of our lives at any given time. We can convince ourselves that our value lies in our success and that we are therefore failures. 


There is no algorithm for untangling the web of deceit we can find ourselves in, but we can rest in the reality that God is truth. Embracing the truth means believing that God cares for us as much as he cares for the nations to which he called us. This truth can feel lopsided and selfish, but grace is always unmerited by us. 

As you review the past year and create goals for 2023, may you take comfort in the God who delights in you not based on your achievements, success, shortcomings, or failings. May you remember that your value to the Father was birthed in undiminished, ever-pursuing love that is present even in the darkest nights. You are beloved because you are his.


Fighting My Inner Cynic


We were hosting another vision trip for bright-eyed twenty-somethings, and I found myself trying desperately to stifle another eyeroll. A recent college grad was explaining his plans to move to Afghanistan and eventually completely revamp the entire education system. 

“Oh, would you try to do that before or after your closest friends are kidnapped and killed?” 

“How innovative of you! I bet none of the countries that have poured billions of dollars into the country have ever tried such a thing! It’s a good thing that you’re here and can show them how it’s done.”

These are things I was tempted to say, but by the grace of God and the knowledge that I could unleash my eyerolls later, I kept my thoughts to myself.

If you have been on the field for more than a few years, perhaps you are familiar with the cynicism that so easily creeps into the consciousness of the field worker. It’s the uneasiness we feel when new co-workers arrive, but their excitement and fervor feel more like ignorance than vibrant ambition to us.

It’s seeing new teammates talk about the great spiritual conversation they had with a friend but privately thinking that it will not ever really go any further than that. After all, you have had many similar conversations.

There’s no denying how jaded we can become after experiencing countless disappointments and atrocities. Like tire tracks on a dried-up dirt road, my mind had created expectations for disappointment, for nothing to actually turn out well, and for people I love to eventually leave the field. 

What had happened to me? I came to the field with so much excitement and hope. But the difficulties and disappointments had taken such a toll that I could not even respond with a kind word to our young friend’s enthusiasm. Granted, his ideas were lacking historical awareness, but my attitude towards any lofty plan or vision was one of sheer cynicism rather than tempered optimism. 

For most of us, our expectations have been forged by the fact that life on the field can be brutal. Endless goodbyes, evacuations, and friends who had been murdered had all taken a heavy toll on my own ability to retain any sense of optimism. While I had dealt with the trauma of the painful events, I had not acknowledged the fact that my mind had been trained to expect the absolute worst. And I wanted everyone else to expect the worst, too.

I would really love to tell you that I had some special encounter with Jesus or a few breakthrough sessions of therapy that completely turned around my critical attitude. I wish I could report that I now listen to people’s well-meaning aspirations and feel the urge to empower them rather than poke holes in their dreams. But that would not be entirely true.

Not long after feeling convicted about what a downer I had become, a friend and fellow worker came to stay with us. She also happened to be a mental health professional, and she too was feeling the cynicism sneak in when spending time with new arrivals. Together, we prayed for a renewed spirit of joy and compassion when met with the tender naiveté of our friends. 

She asked me what I was like when I first landed in Afghanistan, and I confessed that I secretly thought that I was going to be like Mother Teresa. She shared her own misguided expectations of being in perfect, harmonious friendships with all of her teammates and local friends. We both laughed until we cried as we remembered our hopes that had been blown to smithereens by the ruthless realities of life on the field. We, too, had once been the newbies with preposterous ideas. The only difference was that we did not have the audacity to actually voice them out loud upon our arrival. 

This little moment of clarity did help me to approach short-term visitors and field hopefuls with more tenderness and grace. My friend encouraged me to share my stories with them in a way that was personal rather than didactic. Our stories of heartbreak, disappointment, and times of despair are both true and relevant. 

Rather than telling someone to adjust their expectations, a story gives listeners the option of taking in new information and assimilating it into their own perspective. The difficulty, of course, is that many stories are painful to retell. It is far easier to say, “Trust me, you are about to have your heart ripped from your chest and repeatedly stomped,” than to tell the stories of friends’ tragic deaths. It is more expedient to let newly arrived ladies know that it’s only a matter of time before they are sexually assaulted on the street than to share with them personal experiences of violation. But lasting relationships and trust are not built on ease and expedience. 

When I am really honest with myself, I have to admit that I want people to believe what I say simply because I have experience they do not have. This is unreasonable, pretentious, and ultimately says a lot more about my pride than anyone’s naivete. 

Jesus could have quite easily told his listeners, “Trust me . . . I’m actually God and I know everything.” Instead, he approached the crowds and his disciples with relatable stories and agricultural metaphors. He explained hidden realities with the familiarity of the mundane. Despite his intimate knowledge of each person he encountered, he still took the time to ask questions. “Who do you say I am?” “Where is your husband?” “Where have they all gone?” “Are you going to leave, too?” The compassionate curiosity of Jesus exposes my pride and impatience. 

The freshness of new field workers also tends to highlight how much my faith has changed. Sure, my expectations have been weathered by hardship, but my belief that God is truly a salvager of the perverse, atrocious, and devastating has taken some blows. I want to believe that the wreckage I see is not the end of the story, because my hope is still in the all-powerful God who has promised to make all things new. But asking God for the improbable now requires a painfully honest examination of my heart, because the temptation is to expect disappointment rather than relinquishing the actual fear of failure and disappointment to Him. 

When new co-workers arrive with a head full of dreams and hearts full of hope, their excitement and joy have the potential to ignite new ideas, bring fresh perspective, and remind us to expect beautiful gifts from the Father. The Spirit of God has birthed dreams in their hearts and a fire in their bones, and it may look entirely different than anything I have ever imagined.

That new field worker will eventually be a seasoned one. The hardship and heartache will eventually take up residence, and they will need the refreshing and reassurance that we have also needed. 

As we welcome new arrivals, may we choose to bless their dreams and listen to their hopes with tenderness. May we hold space for them when the disappointments feel crushing, and may we find fellowship together in both joy and heartache. 

Where Are the Men?


“I have to go back home and work on my seminary degree.  It’s an org requirement, and it will take me too long to complete online if I stay here. But don’t worry! Once I finish, I’ll be back.” 

Jacob* was resigned to the fact that he would be leaving the field for a while to fulfill the requirements of his sending organization. While the seminary degree in and of itself was not a bad thing, it would be the impetus of his leaving the field for good.

That’s because, about a year into his program, Jacob fell in love with Kara. They shared a deep love for Christ and making him known, but Kara was not at all interested in living outside of her home country. Nevertheless, the couple went ahead with their wedding day. Five years and two kids later, Jacob and Kara are pretty well settled into life in their home country. With Jacob having no intention of going back overseas, the team he left behind now consists of two couples and five single women.**

There’s a cheeky statistic I’ve heard that says, “About two thirds of field workers are married couples. Another third are single women, and the rest are single men.” Of course, this facetious statistic would imply that there are no single men on the field. And while we know this is not correct, most of us have noticed the conspicuous imbalance of single women to single men on the field. 

While I have yet to see a study on why there is such an imbalance of singles on the field, there are some interesting observations to be made and perhaps a few questions we should be asking to get a clearer picture of the reasons and consequences of the male shortage in overseas ministry. 


Why Are There So Few Men?
So, why are we not seeing more single men in full-time overseas ministry? It certainly cannot be said that there is a lack of men wanting to work in full-time ministry. Men fill most paid ministry positions in local churches, but when it comes to overseas work, single men are heavily outnumbered. Here are a few observations about this phenomenon:

1. Men are compelled (and are sometimes required) to go to seminary or grad school before they begin service in overseas ministry. Sometimes, this requires several years away from the field. The extra time spent obtaining more education can be long, burdensome, and expensive. In the midst of time spent obtaining this education, these men may find themselves with mounting student debt, in love with someone who does not share their desire to live overseas, or drawn into the world of preaching to congregations in their own country. 

2. Some men who desire to minister cross-culturally don’t want to do so until they are married. However, this “wait for a mate” time often leads to involvement with other ministries or jobs that pull their attention and passion away from living overseas. Some of these men wind up marrying women who do not share their passion or desire to minister cross-culturally. These life changes often mean a complete redirection of plans and passions.  

3. When a single man expresses his desire to minister overseas to his church leadership, these overseers tend to encourage men to stick around and “learn about ministry” by interning or leading a ministry in their local church. While the heart and intention behind this is one of love and mentorship, the experience gained in a local church in the Western Hemisphere is often entirely unhelpful for a person headed to a culture that does not even have a concept of church. 

4. Churches often want men to be married before they go overseas because it’s believed that marriage will save them from sexual temptation and pornography addiction. However, the widely-held belief that marriage will be a deterrent to sexual misconduct is not only entirely inaccurate, but also keeps church leadership from addressing an actual issue that is likely already present in most men’s lives

5. When I have put this question to men who are engaged in ministry in their home countries, many have responded with a real apprehension about fundraising. They might be willing to go overseas and work a paying job, but the thought of asking churches for support feels arduous and humiliating. I am not sure how this mindset might shift between unmarried and married men, but it seems to be a common sentiment.


Feeling the Strain
The imbalance of men and women serving cross-culturally has very real consequences. We don’t just stand idly by and make observations because it makes us feel smart or important. The imbalance takes a heavy toll, and many field workers are feeling the strain.

My team in particular lives in a place with a disproportionately large population of male migrant laborers. Our team is and has always been mostly female. While there will always be work for the women to do, there is a much smaller workforce to focus time and attention on a population with whom we, as women, cannot interact: men. We live in a conservative country with strong cultural taboos about mixed company, so there is rarely a situation where women speaking to these men is appropriate. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:32-34 that “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs— how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world— how he can please his wife— his interests are divided.” To put it plainly: We need a more diverse workforce because the harvest field itself is diverse. 

In addition, many ministry teams work in cultures that have oppressive and cruel attitudes toward women. Living in patriarchal societies takes a heavy toll on women. There are spaces where women are simply unwelcome, and there are areas where women know they will be ogled or sexually assaulted. However, these locations may be the only places to, say, get a car repaired or buy a ceiling fan. Within the community of Christ-followers on the field, we depend on each other for help with tasks we would ordinarily be entirely capable of doing on our own. 

Then there are the cultures that simply expect single adult men to misbehave. The expectation is that young men will stay out all night, philander, and live as wildly as possible until they tie the knot. Who will show them another way?  Where are the single men who can live a life of sacrifice, love, and purity among them? We need representation of the body of Christ in all of its diverse beauty, and that includes the unique struggles and freedoms that are inherently a part of a bachelor’s life. Jesus himself lived his life unmarried and devoted to the work of his Father. Ministry as a single man is the first example the church was given, so why would we believe that this status is less than ideal? 


How Can Churches Help?
Of course, the questions and observations merit answers. While I do not believe that there is anything simple about the dilemma we face, there are some ways the church can help more single men get to the field:

1. Stop expecting men to get married before they live cross-culturally. Have the difficult conversations and counseling sessions to deal with porn addiction, lust, and objectification. Do not fall for the lie that having a wife will be the fix-all for potential sexual misconduct.

2. If single men express a desire to be married before they move overseas, ask them why they feel that way. We must be willing to ask where this desire is coming from, and to explore their reasons why ministry overseas requires them to be married but ministry at “home” does not. It also bears mentioning that the pool of single women on the mission field is deep and wide. Men who want to get married may actually have a lot more opportunity to find a spouse who shares their vision once they get to the field!

3. Rather than creating years-long responsibilities as a prerequisite for life on the field, set goals and reasonable expectations for men’s personal and theological development. Like anyone headed into overseas ministry, single men need people to walk alongside them to grow in maturity and in gaining an understanding of cross-cultural ministry. But we have to be willing to allow life on the field itself be an instructor. I once heard Vinay Samuel say, “Theology should be written on the mission field.” Indeed, life and ministry on the field will likely be a far better teacher on theology, scriptural interpretation, and strategy than any seminary class.  

As churches, we should be questioning why such an enormous imbalance exists both within domestic ministry, where men hold most full-time ministry positions, and within cross-cultural ministry, where women hold most full-time ministry positions. Granted, the gender disparity is far greater domestically than it is overseas. But, with such an abundance of women in full-time cross-cultural ministry, and so precious few of them in full-time local church ministry, we have to ask: Are women just picking up the ministry positions that men don’t really want? Women have a long history of heeding the call of Christ to make him known near and far, and there have been relatively few barriers to keep them from overseas work. However, if women wish to fill ministry positions within their home countries, the opportunities tend to be limited, unpaid, or for men only.

While I’m not wanting to get into the weeds on gender roles within ministry here, I do believe that we must take a hard look at how ethnocentric our attitudes have become when it comes to women ministering domestically versus overseas. For example, the ESV Bible was translated and overseen by an exclusively male team of 95 scholars and translators. Apparently, women were not invited, so this was not a simple oversight. However, when it comes to women leading bible translation projects in languages other than English or outside the Western Hemisphere, there is scarcely a voice of dissent.  

These are issues of importance not because sexism in church is a hot button issue. They are important because Jesus said that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. In fulfilling the command of Christ to make disciples of all ethnicities, the workforce must be as multifaceted and diverse as the world itself is. The goal is not just to have a balanced ministry team, but to give the world — women, children, men, marrieds, singles, widows, minorities, rich, poor, and so on — a chance to hear that Jesus loves them from someone who can effectively live and communicate that truth to them. 


*Name changed 

**This story is not taken from one individual per se. It is a combination of many such stories that I have seen and heard from multiple cross-cultural workers. 

When Culture Shock Makes You Cuss

It was summer 2008, and I was the only female in my language class. It was my turn to say a simple past-tense sentence, and I had once again managed to maintain my streak of zero percent accuracy. I was on my sixth try that day, and I was failing on all fronts. But that sixth sentence was the last straw, as they say. I abruptly stood up and announced, “I’m going to the bathroom, and I’m going be there for a while.” 

In a country where nearly everyone had giardia or some other parasite prowling around in their stomachs, my classmates understood my announcement to mean that I needed the toilet in a prolonged and urgent fashion. On that particular day, however, my gut was fine. I marched myself to the upstairs bathroom and locked the door. With my face to the window, I let the sobs come rolling out. I cried for a solid twenty minutes. 

“Why am I such a miserable failure at this?” I asked out loud. “Why can’t I just speak correctly and show my teacher that I’m not a dummy?” 

After a serious ugly cry, I exited the bathroom and sat back down in my classroom. The cry had actually helped a little, but I decided not to let any of my classmates know that I had gone to the bathroom to unleash my tears rather than my gastrointestinal distress. 

When we changed fields and moved to the Middle East, I figured I was long past the days of culture shock. “After all,” I reasoned, “this is where I used to come for vacations!” 

On one particularly hot day, I was collecting my daughter and some neighbor kids from school. In classic Middle Eastern fashion, the school traffic was insane, and tempers were running high. The kids were piling into my SUV, and I was about to put our stroller in the trunk. I eyed the passageway between my car and the one parked next to me, trying to calculate if my stroller would fit between my perfectly parked car and the minivan parked by some idiot next to mine.  “Doable,” I thought. 

It was not. 

Two steps forward, and my stroller was firmly lodged between the two cars. It was hot, I was sweaty, and car horns were being honked at deafening volumes. I shook the stroller, then tried to pull it backward to dislodge it, but to no avail. 

The word that came flying out of my mouth at that point cannot be repeated here. Suffice it to say, it was a combination of four letters that would merit censorship on network television. 

Suddenly, the darkly tinted window of the obscenely parked minivan buzzed downward. I had failed to notice anyone sitting inside that van during my expletive-laden outburst. The open window revealed a face that I instantly recognized from church.

“Need help?” he cheerfully asked.

“Oh, no thanks! I’m fine!” I lied.

“Maybe try to fold it up,” he suggested. I did not respond, but I did heed his advice and collapsed the stroller there between our two cars.  Mercifully, it worked, and I was quickly able to pack the enormous stroller into my trunk. 

It was not just the awkwardly stuck stroller, or the heat, or the car horns. It was all of it plus many other small grievances. Traffic, miscommunication, language barriers, and simply not being known were all other factors in my mini-meltdown. I chalked it up to being a crappy mother and feeling overwhelmed. What I could not wrap my head around at that moment was that all of the anger and frustration I felt was actually culture shock.

In our circles we talk a lot about culture shock prior to moving overseas, but it seems we undersell just how pervasive and long-lasting it can be. Without a name for what we are feeling, we can sometimes mislabel ourselves or become so self-critical that we begin believing that we just were not cut out for this life after all. 

Culture shock can take on many forms, but it is rarely one singular event that causes the dam to break. Usually, there are many struggles or tension points that, on their own, feel inconsequential. But after enough of those stressors have compounded, it may only take something as tame as an ill-timed language mishap to bring calamity. 

Culture shock can take the form of feeling overwhelmed by your incompetence, or even by the feeling that you are the only one who actually is competent. 

It can be the deep longing for rhythms and seasons that once sustained you. A longing that may sting even more with the realization that finding new ways to sustain yourself will involve trial, error, and awkwardness.  

Culture shock can take the form of feeling unknown and unseen, with no immediate avenue towards a relationship where you might finally be known and seen. 

Wherever the culture shock train may be taking you, it’s vital to ask how you got there. Get curious and ask yourself the hard questions.

What makes your current feelings so heavy or debilitating? 

Why are you are feeling the way you are, and what you were feeling before you got to this place? 

Were there other things that had you unsettled? When and where did they happen? 

How did the events prime you for feeling even worse when the next disappointment came?

If you have a story that might help someone in the thick of their own culture shock, we would love to read it in the comments.

Was Afghanistan Worth It?


In the frigid winter of 2008, my husband and I touched down in snow-covered Kabul, Afghanistan. We didn’t know exactly what to expect in our first year of life on the field, but we knew that it was where God had asked us to go. Young, eager, and probably quite naïve, we and many other Christians went to Afghanistan with our wills written and signed. For some of our dear friends, their time in Afghanistan ended in their untimely deaths.

As we grieved the loss of both Afghan and foreign believers, many of us did not realize that Afghanistan would become our new family, the siblings who would grieve with us when heavy losses hit close to home. We did not realize that Jesus would show up in the form of Afghans comforting us in our loss and grief with their own understanding of the same searing trauma. And perhaps none of us realized that, from the day we first stepped foot in the Kabul airport, Afghanistan would forever be a home to us, a place that would prove to be a far better teacher of the lessons of Jesus’ sacrificial love than any seminary or Sunday school class could ever be. 

Afghanistan was our home for nearly seven years. Our two children began their lives among Afghans who trained them in the art of generous gift-giving. But in 2014 as the country grew increasingly unstable and our oldest approached school-age, we knew the time had come to say goodbye. Leaving the rugged beauty that is Afghanistan was perhaps the most difficult parting we have ever experienced. Afghanistan was rarely in the news those days. But today, bloody images, heart-wrenching reports of abuse, and Afghans’ desperate attempts to flee their country are in the headlines almost daily. News and heartbreak have caused people around the world to ask the question: “Was all of this mess worth it?” Our friends and family have been asking this question as they consider the many soldiers who died or sustained life-altering injuries in Afghanistan. 

Like all things, the answer is nuanced. But Christians should be willing to consider more than just the governmental expense and military loss of life. Prior to the Taliban’s fall in 2001, there were several Christian organizations working in Afghanistan to care for the poor and needy. God’s people had been working in the harsh land of Afghanistan for many decades prior to military intervention. Organizations like IAM, SERVE, and Shelter Now International had been bringing hope and help within the borders of Afghanistan and also to her refugees in Pakistan. They served Afghans with health programs and educational projects. They dug wells, set up hospitals, educated children, and helped rebuild a country ravaged by decades of war. They worked under Taliban rule and sought their permission to implement aid projects.

These Christian men and women came from all over the globe to learn a new language, culture, and way of life very different from the ones they had left behind in their home countries. They came armed only with sincere faith in the God who called them and with the hope that their lives and work would bring some sliver of light to a troubled land. Before the eyes of the world were on Afghanistan, God was at work. And when the country fades from headlines and the world moves on, our Father will continue in the work He started there.   

When the Taliban fell and foreign forces invaded Afghanistan, it brought a new sense of stability to the country. Very quickly, women were given new freedoms and children gained educational opportunities that had not been available during the Taliban regime. International aid started pouring in, and with it came a new wave of Christian workers who would implement new projects and programs and help to start businesses. It was not only Christians, of course. Professionals from many backgrounds, countries, and walks of life came flooding into Afghanistan; some because it paid well, others because they felt compelled to do something to help this struggling country. 

As Christians, we must not fail to miss that the past twenty years of relative stability allowed for a massive number of Afghans to encounter Jesus for the very first time. This happened because of Bible translation projects, media production and broadcasting, and the simple fact that Christians were present and able to communicate the gospel in the heart language of Afghans. This is not to say that stability is a necessary precursor to making Christ known (history proves the opposite is true), but the amount of media coverage Afghanistan received during the past two decades placed it on the world’s collective conscience and in the hearts of Christians around the globe. It’s hard to know just how many Afghans are following Jesus today, but Afghanistan’s long-persecuted Hazara minority has reportedly been the most responsive to the gospel.[1]

While the church is right to grieve the many losses of foreign soldiers in Afghanistan, we must also lament the fact that so many innocent Afghan lives were lost as well. Men, women, and children were slain for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were simply people on their way to a wedding or at home sleeping in their beds.[2]  This loss of life should grieve us just as much.

Perhaps what the church in the west has failed to recognize is how much there is to learn from Afghanistan.Afghan Christians who remain in their country are now living out true humility, sacrifice, and obedience. They are enduring daily harassment, threats, and persecution from the Taliban. Many young Christians depended on the guidance of older believers, but the older believers had to flee the country. These young Christians are weak by the world’s standards, but they are growing strong because of their complete dependence on the help and sustenance that comes from Spirit of the Living God. While we Christians in the west are prone to following the strongest and trendiest in our orbit, Afghan believers are displaying the power of God in their fledgling faith as they follow Jesus with joy, boldness, and trembling hands. 

A military invasion that led to senseless carnage and corruption also gave way to more opportunities and human rights than Afghanistan has seen in my lifetime. The presence of both foreign interference and foreign aid paved the way for thousands of Afghans to meet Christ-followers and to hear the truth about Jesus. Could this have happened without military intervention? Of course. Our God is not confined by the will of the rulers and authorities of the kingdoms of this earth. But we cannot deny that God builds his kingdom in ways that confound us. He can use any circumstance for his glory. The eye of the Father has never looked away from Afghanistan, and I believe that one day the world will marvel at the vibrant church that takes root and thrives in a place that was long notorious for its bloodshed and violence. Perhaps on that day, we will dance around the throne of God and know without a doubt that our God and His kingdom are indeed worth it.