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

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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.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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