How to Build Community as a Missionary Overseas

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build community

Editor’s note: Tucked away in my family room sits a box made of exotic African wood, lugged back using precious luggage weight when my family returned from Uganda. It is one of our most beautiful possessions–not physically, but in its emotional cargo. It was fashioned by hand in the workshop of our organization as one-of-a-kind. Tucked within are loads of letters and laminated photographs of lives we loved and shared in our efforts to build community overseas. 

You likely share the goal of my family: to dig in deeply enough to love well, intimately enough to change each other. To work toward the brand of enduring, life-on-life love that models God’s Body.

See, no more than a chapter and a half into the Bible, we’re confronted with a stark statement by God: It is not good for man to be alone.

In part, this is because community displays a trinitarian God, giving and receiving in perfection before the world was made. The world will know you’re disciples of Jesus, he says, by how you love one another (John 13:35). And keep in mind that as you build community overseas, it’s those relationships that will act as a vehicle for the Gospel. 

Today, veteran missionary David Armstrong weighs in on how to build the kind of community that helps you thrive overseas.

It’s a challenge–and a balancing act–to build community as you move overseas!

To feel at home, to have friends you can share life with, you have to develop a whole new set of relationships.

Nationals: How to Build Community

The first and most obvious group you will develop friendships with are nationals, the people who grew up there, who have lived there forever.

If you are in ministry, they’re why you’re there. So of course you are going to focus on getting to know them and have them get to know you.

So how does that take place?

Time together, talking and observing.

At first it will be awkward for you. You will feel like that time someone snapped a photo of you while you were chewing, You won’t know what to say, how to act.

But the first couple months are the best time to get started. People usually will show you a lot of grace as you try. Yet it will take initiative on your part. Smile, be friendly and try to connect.

Try these to build community:

Accept invitations, even if you are going to feel awkward. Pro tip: Bring along photos of your family and your extended family; other cultures are more family-oriented than most Americans, and pictures of your family can help you as you visit. (Toss in a picture of you enjoying your hobby as well.)

Go shopping. Shopping forces you to use the language you know and you meet people in the process. You will learn from all the inevitable humor, like the time when you ask for 5,000 pairs of underwear.

And eat out! Get to know the restaurants. Your vocabulary will grow, especially if you are using Word Climber, and you will become more adept at surviving on your own in your new “home”.

Bonus: These experiences will also give you conversation topics with others whom you will meet. Attend events–music, sports, churches, farmers markets, celebrations, birthday parties, showers, etc.–and doubly so if it is in the national language.

Make the most of the first 30 days

We found that in each of the three countries we lived in in Latin America, during the first 30 days we were willing to venture out and try new things. So that was the time to go exploring, check out new stores, eat at a different restaurant.

(After 30 days we started wanting the tried and true.  We were feeling more drained by all the differences. We pulled back a bit.)

I spy with my little eye

Another key piece in this process: observations. Notice things that happen or things that are said and then think about “why” that happened or “why” that was said.

Observations, followed by questions, will also help you to quickly develop a sense of community–because you’re placing yourself in the position of being a curious, engaged learner of culture; of studying the values that motivate the people you hope to love.

Share what you experienced with a national and ask them why that person said or did what they did. The more you observe and ask “why”, the more you will understand those you now live among. Especially if asked from a position of humility (rather than superiority), these establish the national as a teacher, you as student.

And the sooner you build community, the sooner you’ll begin feeling at home there.

build community

EXPATS: How to Build Community

To be clear, expats are foreigners who live in the country. Some will be from your country of origin, others will be from other Western Countries, others will be from anywhere in the world.

And some of these will probably be with people not in your ministry or organization. My wife and I found this gave us feedback from someone outside our bubble. To build community outside of our org provided a “safe” place to vent and think out loud without it getting back to your boss. (Yes, even in mission organizations!)

But they can all meet a critical relational need that nationals cannot meet.

The Clash

They know from personal experience what it is like to live with your feet planted in two different worlds, with two contradictory sets of expectations.

In your home country you, and they, were just people. Now you are different. You stand out.

As foreigners, you don’t think the same as nationals. You don’t act the same. Your values often don’t match those of the nationals. Expats understand those feelings and frustrations.

build community

They will also understand the pull of family and friends back “home” and the occasional trips back to there. They will understand the clashes of underlying values you have with the culture you are now living in. Together you will sharpen and encourage each other.

Ask these people about your observations and tentative explanations for why something happened or why something was said. Often they will have had a similar experience. Comparing notes will speed you along the way to acclimating.

Immediate Family: How to Build Community with the Group that Never Leaves

There is a third group you may not think of: your immediate family.

See, you’re in this together. You want everyone in your family to succeed in this new adventure. (If they don’t…you won’t.) You have shared experiences and stories. Your family is a known entity with common values and ways of looking at life.

You’ll look to them to cover your back, to encourage you on, to help you process, and they will look to you for the same.

Interestingly, my own immediate family found ourselves pushed together as we entered this adventure. That was helpful. The more we trekked through this adventure together, sharing our discoveries and blunders, the better off we were, and the more we all enjoyed being there. To build community in that way helped our longevity in that place and ministry.

[su_button url=”” target=”blank” style=”3d” background=”#00779b” center=”yes”]Check out WE WERE MISSIONARY KIDS. HERE’S WHAT MY PARENTS DID RIGHT[/su_button]

build community

Finding “our spot”

Take your family to the common places, the well-known places and the tourist places. You’re looking for places that will become “yours”.

By that I mean, find a coffee shop that will be “yours”, your special place, where you can kick back and chill. Find the shopping mall that has what you like. Find the park where your kids feel at home.

In Bogota, Colombia, “Crepes and Waffles” was our favorite restaurant. Piedras de Tunja was our favorite out of town park where we could throw pine cones at each other. Los Tres Elefantes was my favorite variety store. and there were several hole-in-the-wall coffee shops downtown where our office was. Their tinto was great.

[su_button url=”” target=”blank” style=”3d” background=”#00779b” center=”yes”]Don’t miss David’s thoughts on 8 WAYS TO HELP YOUR FAMILY FLOURISH OVERSEAS![/su_button]


Everyone in your family will have different experiences and perspectives of your new “home”. Share them.

Children see and hear things the adults will never see or hear. Our kids visited parts of people’s homes I wasn’t “welcome” in. Each of these experiences gives you things to talk about together–and as appropriate, with your new community.

When I would visit pastors in the mountains of Guatemala, it was extremely valuable to have my wife go with me. In the sitting room the pastors would tell me the glowing reports about their churches. In the meantime my wife was in the kitchen hearing the other half of the story and the serious relational problems going on.

Early in our time in Costa Rica we had to go buy some shoes. It was an unforgettable, hilarious family adventure. We each had different sets of vocabulary. The kids had been roller skating and therefore knew words about shoes and shoe sizes that we didn’t know and we knew the words for buying and completing the transaction. Every person in the family contributed words to the process that the others didn’t have.

We exited the shop with shoes in hand and everyone smiling and proud of the part they had played.

Build Community. it Matters to your family

Don’t forget: It’s very important to your family’s wellbeing to develop community. For us, community made life enjoyable! Community helped us understand what we were seeing and hearing daily around us.

And ultimately, to build community brings you to the place where you can all say–maybe in two languages–“I could live here!”

Like this post? You might like

Help Your Marriage Thrive Overseas! Part I

3 Tips for Moving Your Family Overseas

What Lies Beneath: Recognizing Cultural “Icebergs”


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