What to Know Before You Go

Let’s say you are boarding a transatlantic flight and hear, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen; this is your pilot speaking. I’m 21 years old, and I’m excited to tell you that this is my first commercial flight! But don’t you worry; I’ve flown my Daddy’s crop duster at least a half dozen times. What I don’t have in experience or education, I make up with passion. I’m just about as willing as they come; my heart is practically bursting with willingness! Now buckle up your seatbelts; we’ll be off as soon as I find that user’s manual.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d be out of that plane faster than a fried egg off a Teflon pan.

Yet sometimes we approach missions in the same way. Willing hearts filled with passion are awesome, but they are not enough. So here’s where things get awkward: I’ve titled this “What to Know Before You Go,” when actually it should be more like, “What I Wish I Had Known Before I Went.” Because when I got on a plane to Tanzania almost twenty years ago, I was just about as bad as that pilot. Thankfully I didn’t completely crash and burn, but I learned the hard way, over and over again. Had I taken the time early on to do a little more study and a lot more wrestling, I could have spared myself a lot of grief, and certainly increased my effectiveness in those early years. Learn from my mistakes.

1. You need to have a basic understanding of worldviews.

This goes much deeper than a knowledge of world religions. For example, a person can call himself a Christian, but that doesn’t mean that his thinking, choices, and actions line up with the Bible. The same is true for those who follow other faiths. The religious labels people give themselves just scratch the surface of what they really believe. This is where a study of worldview comes in. If you are hoping to live, work, and have a gospel-impact on people of a different culture, that’s got to start with understanding their worldview–and your own.

Darrow Miller’s Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Cultures should be required reading for any new missionary.

2. You need to know how to interpret the Bible on your own.

Most new missionaries have been nurtured in spiritually rich environments–strong Christian colleges and solid churches that often include discipleship, biblical teaching, and small groups. This is wonderful–but what happens when you end up in a city where there are no strong churches? Or those that do exist are in another language? What happens when you find yourself in a spiritually harsh environment with only a small team of other believers who can help you stay afloat?

Online sermons can help. Rich Christian literature can help. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be you and your Bible. Do you have the skills you need to interpret it without a pastor or small group leader’s help? Do you know enough about the various genres of Scripture, the historical context, and sound interpretation practices so that you can be confident of what it’s really saying?

The technical word for this is “hermeneutics,” or Bible study methods. Our family favorite is Living by the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible by Howard Hendricks, but there are many other great resources out there.

3. You need to have worked out a biblical theology of suffering–or at least started to.

Of course, suffering can be found on every corner of the globe, in every social sphere. But any ministry that takes you up close and personal with the messiness of people’s lives, especially amongst the poor and disadvantaged, has the possibility of knocking you breathless with the depth of the suffering you will witness.

What will it do to your soul to see the blind child begging on the street corner? To be friends with the woman who lost her twins due to an unconscionable doctor’s error? To see the little albino boy whose arm was chopped off for witchcraft purposes….by his own uncle? If you haven’t already wrestled with God over the reality of suffering and the problem of evil, you may risk disillusionment, burn-out, or even losing your faith.  

Jerry Bridges’ Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts has had a profound influence on my life on this topic.

4. You need to know the theology of poverty alleviation.

What do you do about the beggars on the street corner? Or the constant requests by your neighbors for loans or favors? How do you assuage your guilty conscience when you go out to dinner or spend money on a vacation, knowing that people around you are hungry? Guilt will slowly strangle you unless you have already thought through how you will respond.

A theology of suffering answers, “How can God allow this?” A theology of poverty alleviation answers, “How should I respond?”

If you haven’t yet read When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor….and Yourself, now is the time. It’s an absolute must-read for any missionary (or any Christian, for that matter).

5. You need to know the history of your host country.

Are you able to identify the five most important events in your host country’s history? Do you know how the government is structured? Are you familiar with the nation’s holidays and why they are celebrated? What is every child taught? If you want to get to the soul of a people, then you must understand where they came from. Take the time find out.

All of these areas can be learned by dedicated study on your own. I learn best by reading, so I’ve given my recommendations for my favorite books. But I’m sure there are audiobooks, podcasts, or videos on all of these subjects. If you’ve got other suggestions, please share! Utilize the massive amount of internet resources at our fingertips, and educate yourself on these important issues–ideally, before you go.

Have You Read?

As the author of Looming Transitions: Starting and Finishing Well in Cross-Cultural ServiceI can tell when people have a Looming Transition by looking at my Amazon sales page. This makes me happy. Not for the reasons you might think. True, every time a book sells, I earn a few dollars. But ain’t nobody writing books for missionaries becoming rich through our efforts.

That is not why we write. We write because we love you. We see a need and we want to help.

This is why I wrote Looming Transitions: transition are hard and I saw far too many missionaries create unnecessary additional heartache in the ways they approached a transition.

In her research, Brene Brown discovered you cannot numb the painful emotions—like loss, sadness, disappointment, betrayal, or hurt—without also numbing the positive emotions of enjoyment, happiness, contentment, healthy pride, and love. I saw too many people unsure how to navigate a transition, and asked myself, “Is is possible to keep your soul fertile and your sanity intact during a transition?”

The answer is yes. So, I wrote Looming Transitions for you. I am happy when it sells, because I get excited thinking of the individuals, couples or families who will be equipped more when they read it. Once this need was tapped into I was asked to please help families, make a workbook, and turn it into an audiobook (on audible or for $10 with the workbook).

Today I want to share the works and words of fellow authors who have seen needs and put up their own sweat equity to help you. Resources might be tight for you, but when you buy one of these books you help yourself by gaining the nuggets they contain AND you support an author who is helping missionaries.

A Story of Pregnancy and Faith: In hope of what we cannot see  by Dorette Skinner—Dorrette is the mom of two little ones, both conceived and delivered while living abroad. This memoir is a good read for anyone living abroad, but a must-read for those who are pregnant or have infants abroad.

As Soon As I Fell by Kay Bruner—The Amazon description says, “For anyone who’s ever asked, ‘When will I be good enough for love?’ This book resoundingly answers: ‘Right now. You are loved, right this minute, in this mess.’ While few of us will live on a tiny island in the South Pacific, many of us will find hope and healing in this story of a painful fall into the arms of love.” Read this memoir right now. It is written by our very own, Ask A Counselor author.

Expectations and Burnout: Women Serving the Great Commission by Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss—Though geared towards women, I would say 90% of this info is directly applicable to men. Sue and Robynn explore six areas research showed missionaries had high expectations: of themselves, their mission agencies, host cultures, churches, co-workers, and of God. 

Love, Amy: An Accidental Memoir Told in Newsletters From China by Amy Young—I wrote this memoir because (understandably) many of the resources written are for the challenging parts of living abroad. But the truth of my experience was that most of the time, was ordinary highs and lows. I wanted to help people love communicating with supporters while honoring the ordinariness of many of our lives.

Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging by Marilyn Gardner—first of all, Marilyn’s writing will already be familiar to the ALO family! She generously shares her insights, leadership, and wisdom here at ALO. I loved this line from the Amazon description of this book “These essays explore the rootlessness and grief as well as the unexpected moments of humor and joy that are a part of living between two worlds. Between Worlds charts a journey between the cultures of East and West, the comfort of being surrounded by loved ones and familiar places, and the loneliness of not belonging.” You will find a friend who get is as you read these pages.

Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey by Marilyn Gardner—This is the revised version of Passages Through Pakistan: An American Girl’s Journey of Faith. I think you are beginning to notice that many of the books we have penned are memoirs borne out of our own experience. Marilyn is a championing voice to help us remember and honor the experience of TCKs, both when they are children and as adults. But she’s not a scolder, no, not at all. She’s a story-teller.

Misunderstood: The impact of growing up overseas in the 21st century by Tanya Crossman—I will be honest that I hadn’t heard of Tanya before I got an update from Elizabeth Trotter as one of the regular contributors. Tanya is going to become a regular contributor here at ALO. I’ve added Misunderstood to my reading list. Let’s welcome her here by buying her book because it “will equip you with insights into the international experience, along with practical suggestions for how to offer meaningful care and support.”

Returning Well: Your Guide to Thriving Back “Home” After Serving Cross-Culturally by Melissa Chaplin—Melissa has not only written Returning Well, she also offers affordable coaching to those transitioning off the field. “By using Returning Well, you will discover how this season influenced you, how to re-integrate well, and what moving forward in faith means for you.”

Home, James by Emily Steele Jackson—This is a Young Adult novel that follows 8th grader James through his first year in American public schools. What I loved? Don’t transitions make us all feel like junior highers if we are honest? I saw myself in James, especially when it comes to the “rules” for making friends in America.

We are blessed to live in an era when so many writers are able to see a need and fill it.

What books would you add to the list?

Four must-reads for anyone interacting with others (part one)

I really wanted to title this Four must-reads novels for cross-cultural work, but I was concerned that some of you would see the word “novel” and think “Ain’t got time for that!” and move on. But wait! I predominately read nonfiction, but I have found that fiction lets me reflect and process my life in ways that surprise me. Nonfiction lessons seem to enter my head. (The way I prefer lessons to enter.) While fiction sneaks lesson past my head and haunts my heart.

It has been years since I first read the following four books, but their lessons have stayed with me.

Books are a wonderful way to fall into another world and see things in ways we might have missed. Here are four must-reads when it comes to cross-cultural themes. They cover the broad spectrum of cross-cultural experiences: bad, innocent, good, and true.

1. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – Placed in Africa, this story chronicles a family of six moving as missionaries to a village. The story is told through the voices of the wife and daughters with the father prominent in the story. Kingsolver’s ability to capture the uniqueness of each female is some of the best writing ever.  Be warned, you may want to scream at times.

2. The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell – While living in the US several years ago I attended a book group that without fail, no matter what they were discussing referred back to “Priests in space.” I knew it was a must read. Russell wrote this in response to Columbus’ 500 year anniversary. Many were critical of Columbus and she wanted to remind us that people of that era came with the best of intentions and did not intend for it to go so poorly!.A group of Jesuit priests go to another planet to observe two species; they took great pains to alter nothing, become involved in nothing, and return home leaving no “footprints.” (Disclaimer: one part is not easy to read because some scenes are disturbing, but that’s true of cross-cultural work too!) Children of God is the follow-up book when the main priest is forced to go back, allowing for many confusions to be answered. It is also disturbing.

3. City of Tranquil Light: A Novel by Bo Caldwell — Will and Katherine moved to Guang Ping Cheng, China in 1904 where they lived for the next 20 years. Burying their only child, living through famine and war, setting up a clinic and school and starting a church — this book is a picture of the dance between seeing amazing things happen among very ordinary and hard times.

4. The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason — Set in the 1880s in Burma (Myanmar), Edgar Drake is commissioned by the London War Office to tune an Erand grand piano, deep in the jungle of Burma. Written in the pace of a different era, Edgar’s journey and learning about the history and culture of the land he came to serve mirrors many of ours. What he thought he would be doing is not exactly what he ended up doing. But more than that, he is changed in ways he never expected, in part because what he was told about Burma before he arrived is not quite what he found.

Bonus book: Fieldwork: A Novel by Mischa Berlinski.

What books would you add to the list?

A version of this post first appeared here.

Some Lists for Expatriates

These are not lists of useful tools, resources, or things to pack. These are lists of things that I personally love and which, in my humble opinion, speak deeply into the expatriate experience.

The things listed have do two opposing functions in my life.

The first is that they encourage me to thoughtfully and creatively pay close attention to my unique expatriate life. This life is a gift and the cultural, faith, relational, and personal lessons I am learning are beyond valuable. These podcasts, books, and songs challenge me to be present.


These things distract me from my expatriate life, specifically from the challenges and sorrows associated with it. I listen to the podcasts while I run and so am more able to ignore the harassment, stares, piles of garbage, and animal carcasses. I read the books before going to bed and I’m trying to forget about the ways I stepped in cultural poo that day, or while waiting in interminably long semi-lines at the bank. I listen to the songs while I cook with limited ingredients or on lonely holidays.


(because podcasts take our minds away or challenge or inspire or are just plain fun)



99% Invisible

Hidden Brain

On Being with Krista Tippett

Timothy Keller Sermons


Two Fat Expats

And a bonus: (my actual favorite, as in the one that gets me out of bed for a dark, sweaty run, but probably totally uninteresting to most readers of A Life Overseas) The Longform Podcast



(because we can’t only open a book to study language or culture or team dynamics)

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

From Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik

Heaven by Randy Alcorn

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

The Narnia series by C.S. Lewis (audiobooks – just try to make it through book 7 without crying)

Daring Greatly by Brené Brown (and everything else by Brené)

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

Thirst by Mary Oliver

Quiet by Susan Cain

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller



(because we all need the occasional dance party or ugly cry)

It Might Be Hope by Sara Groves

I Was Made for Sunny Days by The Weepies

Hard Way Home by Brandi Carlile (also, The Story)

The Weary Kind by Ryan Bingham

On the Road Again by Willie Nelson

Roam by the B-52’s

When it Don’t Come Easy by Patty Griffin

Should I Stay or Should I Go Now by The Clash

Wild World by Cat Stevens

Go Your Own Way by Fleetwood Mac

Traveling Light by Leonard Cohen

Walk on Water by Jane Siberry (This song. You guys. Gorgeous.)


What podcasts, books, or songs speak powerfully into your own expatriate experience?

In 2017, Get to Know Some Dead People

It’s a noisy, noisy, noisy world out there. If you’ve got an internet connection, you have access to a screaming torrent of opinions and crises and politics and yummy recipes for some no-bake-easy-prep-3-step-totally-awesome-cheesy-enchiladas.

And that, my friends, is why we need dead people.

Some time ago, I decided that I needed to balance my reading list with some not current authors. I needed to spend some time with folks a few generations removed. I needed some mentoring from history.

I’d like to encourage you to try it too.

Because if we only read Chan and Platt and Claiborne and Mayfield and Brown and so on, we’re missing something huge. We’re missing an old reservoir of tremendous depth.

I’m not saying you should stop reading modern books (or blogs like A Life Overseas!), I’m just saying, we’ve got to balance the new and modern and URGENT stuff with some long-standing, foundational writings.

After all, wisdom was building her house long before people started tweeting in the eaves.


The Danger of Thinking We’re the First
Have you ever seen someone who thinks they’re the first one? And they’re so not?

For example, some folks act like “social justice” wasn’t even a thing before they were born. By all means, these folks should read Claiborne and Caine, but they can’t forget to read Bonhoeffer, Augustine, Carmichael, and Aylward. These old folks were hardcore long before most of us were even born.

When we think like this, when we think we’re first, we blind ourselves to the wisdom of others; we deafen ourselves to the lessons they learned while living and fighting. And dying.

And that’s exceptionally stupid.

Being first has a sort of romantic ring to it for sure, and it makes us feel important. But it also unmoors us, and it’s usually just not true.

It disconnects us from our history and the bigger story. And the longer I live abroad, the more convinced I am that one thing we MUST do is remember that we are part of a much bigger story.

Remembering that our part is only one part of a grander story insulates from despondency when things go poorly and prevents arrogance when things go splendidly.

It is a Small Place we must visit regularly.


A New Thing?
Creativity is awesome, and we should come up with new approaches that adapt to changing demographics and emerging technology. God is certainly the King of the Dawn.

Isaiah gets quoted a lot this time of year: “For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:19)

But we can’t forget Isaiah’s neighbor, Jeremiah: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.’” (Jeremiah 6:16)

Want to keep your faith alive and growing in 2017? Remember that God is the God of the living and the dead. Anticipate the new things and walk faithfully in the old things.


Try It
For every living author, read a dead author.
For every new book on missions or missiology, read an old book on missions or missiology.

Here’s a check: Think about the last five books or articles you’ve read. If all the authors are still alive, you’re missing out on a very special treasury I call “wise dead people.”

If there are local stories of older (even ancient) believers in your region, find them and read them. Connect your story to theirs. Help new believers learn about and connect with these stories too, as a vital part of their spiritual heritage.

In this age when so much data is accessible so easily, it would be a shame if we never accessed the long view of those who’ve gone before us. We need them, the writers, thinkers, Showbox App Download and believers from ages past.

So, may God indeed do a new thing in you and your family and your ministry in 2017.
And may you not be surprised if some of the new things look like ancient paths.


Who are your favorite non-living authors?

How do you deal with the overabundance of screaming current information?

Debriefing Resources


Thanks to the facebook followers of our A Life Overseas page we have a list of debriefing resource links. Please share any resources you have found helpful. We would love to bulk up the list with resources around the globe.

Other names for debriefing include: home assignment, re-entry counseling, member care, and processing for repatriation.

Christian Training Center International at The Inn (Franklin, North Carolina, USA)

Life Impact (various locations around the world)

Link Care Center (various locations around the world)

Mission Training International (Palmer Lake, Colorado, USA)

Missionary Health Institute (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

The Rest Initiative (Maitland, Florida, USA)

TEAM (various locations around the world)

Thrive, empowering global women (various locations around the world)

TRAIN International (Joplin, Missouri, USA)

The Well Member Care Center (Chiang Mai, Thailand)


Member Care Radio

Expatriate Connection


Re-entry: Making the Transition from Missions to Life at Home” by: Peter Jordan

Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes” by: William Bridges

Trauma and Resilience” by: Schaefer and Schaefer

As Soon As I Fell: A Memoir” by: Kay Bruner


As stated up top, if you have links to resources that could help in the area of debriefing, counseling for repatriation or re-entry, member care, processing for home assignment, or other related needs those living overseas might have, please share.  Thanks! Be well and take care, my friends.