Our family had been in Ethiopia for about two weeks one February when we decided to visit the village where we’d soon be living.
My husband John is a water engineer. Our task was to put in a water system for the Tokay area and surrounding villages. We had just begun language school in Addis, so our skills were limited–but we were excited to see the village where we’d live for the next three years, about four hours west.read more
You might feel frustrated, too, by patronizing “help” that actually hurts. Or by work that makes us feel better but makes them worse. Or by global work that continues cycles of poverty. Maybe you’re angered by missions trips cannibalizing local employment, or blind to cultural norms so people are turned off to the Gospel. read more
Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on Rebecca Hopkins’ blog, Borneo Wife, when she and her husband served in Indonesia. She now blogs from her new American home at rebeccahopkins.org .
A window in my kitchen faces our backyard. Much of my days are spent cooking and watching, washing dishes and listening, making granola and checking. The kids are often dangling or running or whooping outside, playing on our mini-playground with the zipline.read more
One benefit of my kids growing up overseas is their rich experience of another culture. My kids absorb elements of the adopted country in an organic way. They often see the world with a different perspective from someone–even an adult–who hasn’t left their home country.
I love that my kids have adopted certain aspects from Egypt: They have favorite Egyptian foods. They wash their hands after eating, and believe tissues are reasonable as napkins at the table. My kids know how to say “thank you” to mean “no” if they don’t want something being offered. I love that three of my kids write and speak some Arabic and understand even more.
But wait, you might say, why just “some Arabic?” Haven’t your kids been growing up in Egypt?
Shouldn’t they be picking up the language smoothly and effortlessly like the sponges that children are?
Yes, they are sponges when they are immersed in the language or culture full-time.
FLUENCY: The Picture vs. The Reality
The reality for us? We speak mostly English at home. We attend an English-speaking church. They attend an English-speaking international school.
When my children were younger they attended a preschool where they were the only non-Egyptians. We also attended a Sunday school program at a large Arabic church. We all learned church songs in Arabic and followed the Bible story.
During that season, the kids enjoyed the interactions and even saw friends from soccer-training at church. Through these interactions, they developed a foundation for Arabic and Egyptian culture.
But just as kids learn quickly, with skills only occasionally used, they also tend to forget quickly.
Now at my kids’ school, they take Arabic class four days per week. They are reading and writing Arabic. They are speaking and understanding more all the time.
And they are not at a place of fluency. Neither am I.
Not Good Enough?
While I would like for my kids to be confident about communicating with locals, our experience so far has not provided for them to regularly be immersed in the language to the point of fluency.
And in that, sometimes I hear the message that maybe I’m not doing a good enough job at this cross-cultural thing.
In fact, a friend was criticized by a new member of her team who arrived in the country one day…and criticized her the next day. He couldn’t believe her child hadn’t attained fluency.
Reader, let’s not judge our fellow workers.
Let’s offer grace and seek to understand the situation of those on the field before we share criticism or offer instruction.
My Kids = My Success?
We need to remember to see our children as people, not as a marker of how successful we are cross-culturally.
Maybe your situation does not require your children to learn another language. But it’s possible you had expectations (or others had expectations of you) that your children would be immersed in the culture, surrounded by local children, loving their third-culture-kid identity.
Maybe, due to their school options or where you live or what your family needs to do in order to be healthy, those relationships and that cultural identification hasn’t completely happened for your children.
Some children will love learning the language and love speaking with locals. Some will not.
They may dive head-first into the culture and enjoy making that part of their identity. They might not.
When it comes to our children, it’s important to give them the tools to thrive, the encouragement to keep trying, and the flexibility and grace to find their place.
FLUENCY: CHOOSING TO STRETCH THEM
Since I recognize that interactions with the language and locals will not just “magically” happen for my kids, I make certain choices when possible.
When given the opportunity to play tennis with an American coach or an Egyptian coach, I’ll choose the Egyptian Arabic-speaking coach for my kids. If possible, I will find Arabic tutoring for my kids during summer break so they continue to develop their language skills.
What choices do you have available to get your kids into the local culture and language? Can they
take group lessons–art, swimming, karate, science–with local kids they don’t meet at school?
attend a family retreat or camp?
participate in a church class for their age group?
play with a local adult who speaks the local language and teaches local songs?
This might require extra work from you, parents. This might require a bit of pushing to get your kids on board.
I don’t think we should push our kids toward fluency beyond what they can reasonably handle. But I do think we make efforts to let our kids experience their host country in a non-touristy, daily-life kind of way.
Why Our Kids’ Adaptation Matters–Beyond Our Egos
The more natural and enjoyable experiences our children have with their host country, the more opportunity for them to identify with parts of the culture.
This creates ownership of the culture that helps to make them an ambassador for the local people of your host culture–becoming a voice about what is good and valuable about a foreign culture, strange and unknown, to their passport culture.
Your kids learn in a more natural way how to relate to different people. Maybe they’ll be able to move through different cultures and become like them in order to save some.
The bottom line: We give our children the opportunity and encouragement (and sometimes a little push) to be involved in the culture and language, learning more about their host country.
And we don’t use our children’s language or cultural fluency as the marker for our own success. That’s a part of their story. Not our merit badge.
In our efforts at Go. Serve. Love to help you in arriving well overseas, we’re posting from one of our partners, the all-new Mission App–which allows you to search and apply to 30 agencies with one app, and one application.
Check out their thoughts below on how set yourself up for a smashing start overseas.
Is this home now?
Your footprints in the cement of your new host country haven’t even had a chance to dry and the question pops into your mind, “How do I do this well?”
Everything is so new, so unfamiliar, and so important.
Take a deep breath. God has brought you here and will walk with you. Here are a few practical tips to keep in mind.
In arriving well overseas, Relationships are key.
So keep your relationship with the Lord fluid & fresh and He will make your path clear. As you feast on His presence, His life will overflow from you while you dive into your new life and community.
Being genuinely interested, asking tons of questions, and sharing time and simple resources with your neighbors will go a long way in building trust and friendships.
We’re all different in our ways of navigating newness. So there’s no right or wrong way to approach this. But the important thing is to be available, showing interest and care.
Classroom learning is great and helpful, though likely the best times will be over a cup of tea, or a shared meal, the local market shopping experience or as you walk through your neighborhood or village.
Remember your kids are experiencing a big learning curve as well.
Take time to talk about your kids’ concerns, what excites them, what makes them nervous. (It’s important your kids are arriving well overseas, too.)
Encourage them to talk about what’s important to them. Gently share Scriptures that will help them recognize God’s sovereign power, keeping each of you in His loving care (see verse list below).
Share your own experiences and feelings about inadequacy and fears as well. Make a list of strengths and weaknesses and pray through them for each other.
Soak in the truth of God’s Word.
Read and write down or memorize the Scriptures that speak to your own situation as God leads you.
ARRIVING WELL OVERSEAS: A FEW verses TO GET YOU STARTED
Deuteronomy 31:6 “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I AM God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
Psalm 56:3 “When I am afraid, I put my trust in You!”
Psalm 73:23 “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.”
Psalm 91 —The entire Psalm. A favorite is “For He shall give His angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways.”
Matthew 28: 19-20 “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Romans 8:26-27 “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God!”
Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”
Reach out to someone local, or to a family, to show you the ropes.
Ask them basic questions like:
Where should I do my shopping (if there are choices?!!)– or the proper way to cook/prepare a local food item.
What do you believe about life after death?
How do you dispose of garbage/waste?
What traditions do you have as a family?
Tell me about your family history.
How do you connect or hang out with others in the community?
Where to you go for medical assistance?
How do I locate school supplies or toys for children?
Where do I find garden tools?
Are there things I should avoid or be sure to do when I am out and about in the community?
Often it is the others we serve with that may be the most challenging.
Even though we have the same goals and purpose, we can have very different ways in mind to achieve them and/or our lifestyles and backgrounds prove to be very different.
The Evil One would like nothing better than to get us distracted by our differences and ‘majoring on the minors’ – we must resist this trap of our number-one opposition. Remember, we are in a spiritual battle and the evil one will use all manner of evil against us – but we are overcomers through the Lord Jesus Christ!
My niche, my place, my way to reach out and bring others in while living overseas. I was a young mom of a two-year-old, a four-year-old, and a newborn. At the preschool of my four-year-old, I was getting to know other moms.
I had a growing relationship with a young mom of a toddler who was soaking up our friendship and appreciative of the care and support I was giving her. She was introducing me to her friends who’d ask me questions about babies and parenting and marriage.
Reflecting on encouragement received as part of a mother’s group back in the U.S., I thought I could offer the same to these precious women: a mom’s group where I could encourage them, share truth and love, share hard-won wisdom from experience.
I could do this with my kids, not leaving them behind in the name of my ministry plans.
It seemed perfect.
I told my friend about my idea. She agreed this was needed. Her friends were lonely; they weren’t thriving as moms. She loved my perspective on motherhood and knew it would encourage these women. She would talk to her friends.
I started a private Facebook page to share thoughts and Scripture. Prepared short messages to share with them when they came to my home. Made coffee and tea and cookies and prepared my living room.
And the entire thing fizzled.
MINISTRY PLANS: The Beginning of the End
We tried it for a few weeks. One or two would come. Their kids would cry and scream. One even threw up on our bean bag chair.
The children frazzled their moms. I offered encouragement with a side of coffee. They were too embarrassed by their children’s behavior to hear me.
My friend and I talked about what was going on. She said they needed this type of group. She knew that they needed support and a change of perspective.
But they didn’t want to sit around talking about being a mom. They wanted to escape from thinking about this.
Basically, they didn’t want what I was offering.
When Your Ministry Plans are a No-Go
I felt discouraged. I thought I had found the perfect situation to use my passion and stage of life to encourage others, invite them into my home, and speak to their hearts. Wasn’t I meant to do this?
Disappointed and sad, I wondered if I even had a place. I wanted so much to see why God had called me here, uprooted me from my home country to figure out life in a huge city in a different language.
If I could just have a ministry, then I could see how it is all worth it.
There was nothing wrong with trying this, but God quickly closed the door.
What didn’t happen
I’d like to tell you that a new door opened immediately, a wide-open door I was able to sail effortlessly through into a lovely field of “productive ministry.”
I wish that were so.
My calling has not panned out quite like that. I think that my life on the field has been one of being faithful with the small things before me.
When the group failed, I had a choice to make.
I could keep trying for what I was passionate to do and what I thought was “just perfect,” or I could let it go and focus on what God was bringing to me. I took my eyes off my project and looked at what was before me.
Two women continued to seek me out. I chose to invest in those two. It wasn’t easy. It took a lot of time and effort that sometimes I didn’t want to do.
Then there were other relationships, one here, one there. Different faces, different needs, similar efforts.
Over the years there have been various opportunities, unique projects, long-term and short-term relationships. Sometimes I wish there was a certain “something” I could point to, a specific something with a name and a box it goes in. Something that’s easy to understand or write about in a newsletter.
The unfortunate fizzle
Dear reader, it’s possible that your ministry plans will fizzle, too. I don’t wish that disappointment on anyone who has left home and father and mother to follow a calling from the Father.
I think these experiences can cause some of us to doubt if we’ve heard our “assignment” correctly. We can wonder if we are even supposed to be overseas at all.
Should you find yourself in this place, on this path I walked, I pray for you to have the eyes to see when it is time to give that plan up to make room for whatever else might come.
What comes is not always pretty and not everyone will understand. But if we’re made open for what God will do next, the stripping of our ministry plans is a mercy.
Sometimes the next step is small
And sometimes the “next” is small. Sometimes the “next” doesn’t seem like much at all.
Do it faithfully.
We are not good judges of what makes something “worth it.” How do you even measure that accurately? I am not able to measure this because I don’t know the entire plan. I don’t know the steps God needs to reach the ultimate goal of His glory in this country.
To say what God has called me to do is insignificant is to say that those lives are insignificant. And I can’t do that.
I had a few different ideas when I set out to make this country my home. (Vision is good to have!) And I built a few different ministry plans as I tried settling in.
But ultimately, I want to do what God sets before me. He gets to assign the jobs. I’m a part of His kingdom, after all.
Sarah has served in the Middle East with her family for over nine years.
Editor’s note: We’re pulling this post from the archives to answer a key recurring question: Does Christianity destroy culture? Are you importing Western culture when you bring the Gospel? We weigh in.
If you’ve ever stood in the middle of African worship, it’s…well, it’s pretty hard to stand still.
Gotta admit. At a refugee-center staff retreat, I started as a mild observer. I marveled at the literal full-bodied movement and vocalization: music that took over my heart, my body. I was, um, really dancing (don’t necessarily try to picture it…) to worship for the first time. Moisture leaked from the corners of my eyes.
Perhaps you can see what I’m talking about:
After a rousing snippet of this kind of worship in staff devotions the week before, I’d told the teachers, this is just a sliver of what the African church offers the world. Every culture has its own strengths, its own vibrant display of the image of God.
And when Jesus comes, I will have watched so many cultures become the truest version of themselves.
Years ago, my husband and I talked about how to help missionary friends on the field in struggles they were working through in a marriage. The couple was fairly new on the field.
It was tough, we acknowledged: A missionary marriage was like a pressure cooker, intensifying whatever flavors were first lobbed in the pot. If basil, you tasted its nuance in the entire dish. If a sweaty gym sock? Well.
Make no mistake: Your marital issues and strengths will arrive with you on the field with more certainty than your luggage. But it’s critical you don’t let living overseas just happen to your marriage.
Because the natural course of marriage isn’t toward being one flesh, toward unity. It’s toward isolation, disconnection. But “by this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
What relationships will you feed while overseas?
You may not mind giving from your marriage to outside ministry. It’s quite possible you’re eager to share! Yet that flexibility and generosity flow best when marriage and ministry work as allies—not competitors.
I currently live in Colorado, a state notorious for deal-breaking foundation cracks in a home–cracks costing thousands of dollars to fix while you move out. So I keep an eye on cracks in plaster, in drywall, that could indicate a bigger problem–which I’d rather solve as early as possible.
The priority of your missionary marriage remains critical overseas. It speaks the Gospel to your family, not just an unreached people group or the world “out there”. And experiencing God’s love regularly also means you regularly experience that you are loved; that you are more than what you do for God.
It’s the same strategy for your marriage. Keep an eye out for warning signs:
a feeling of resentment
temptation toward an emotional or physical affair
a loss of respect
porn use, or other addictions
apathy toward your spouse
inability to recover from trauma, issues with kids, or other obstacles
isolation; finding yourself “holding back” from your spouse
mental health issues, like depression or anxiety (common struggles overseas)
Your ministry marriage can flounder—or flourish, should you invest in displaying the gospel intently there.
Understand your tendencies in navigating stress and trauma.
When I was about to deliver my first child, the instructor asked us where in our bodies we carry our stress. (I carry mine in my jaw, my shoulders.) This is a similar exercise as you prepare for stress. Are you prone toward depression? Workaholism? People-pleasing? Being gruff with your spouse?
Can you already anticipate the stressed version of your missionary marriage, and be ready with healthy coping mechanisms, truths to tell yourself, and ways to bridge the gap?
Many sending agencies now require mental health evaluations before you head overseas for these very reasons, and several more.
For those of you going to developed countries, the closer you are to the poor, the more you experience their hardship and heartache. Your probability of trauma skyrockets.
Make no mistake: God will triumph through your darkest days overseas. But starting from a place of health, with a number of robust coping mechanisms in place, means you stay longer and stronger overseas, without the wave of trauma capitulating you as easily.
Don’t hesitate to get counseling before you go, even JUST for evaluative reasons.
Family friends headed overseas racked up well over twenty medical appointments before they left: immunizations. Examinations. Checking out weird little problems they didn’t want to rear their ugly heads in a nation with less developed medical care.
We need the same mindset with our hearts, minds, and marital relationships before heading into the pressure cooker of a missionary marriage.
What could use a tune-up? And if you don’t know…will you make the effort to find out?
Many counselors can continue long-distance video counseling, and many sending organizations are happy to provide the counseling you need overseas.
Make sure you talk about the mutuality of your “call”.
Sure, your marriage reciprocates in every area of service you put your hands to. But even if you were only experiencing Jesus more in your own marriage? That alone honors and delights Him.
Do the hard work to deeply nourish the relationships that matter most–and not just “out there”.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and senior editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International.
Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House) releases October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.
The sun beat down on the back of my neck as I struggled to will each step forward.
I looked up to see our guide Mamoudou (Mah-mu-doo) just ahead of me. Our group had been walking for what seemed like miles down a long, dusty road, greeted only by the occasional motorcyclist. It was already well over a hundred degrees, even though it had not yet reached midday–and I was low on water and motivation.
A Muslim shepherd had asked us to teach in a nearby settlement of nomadic Fulani shepherds. We excitedly accepted the invitation, but I secretly doubted anything would come of it.
Finally, Mamoudou pointed across the fields to a cluster of huts.
As we approached, two children emerged, wearing traditional braids, coins, and vibrant garb. Seeing our strange group, they quickly disappeared shouting.
Moments later, two women approached us, hesitatingly greeting us and asking questions. Mamoudou explained that we had been invited by the old Fulani shepherd.
But our joy quickly faded as we learned that the shepherd was not home; we had just missed him. Discouraged and exhausted, we asked if we could briefly rest in the shade before heading back to our village. It felt like a wasted day, and we didn’t have very many left in Africa.
As we rested, several curious children stood at a distance to watch us. Soon they were joined by herdsmen who had come in from the fields. Before long, a crowd of nearly thirty Fulani were standing around us, awkwardly observing.
“Trust and Obey” Looks Like This
Seeing an opportunity, Mamoudou pulled out the picture book that we used to tell the story from creation to Christ. As we started to teach, more gathered to listen.
We told about the Creator and his perfect design for the world, we told them about our sin which separates us from him, we told them about the Savior who died and rose again, and we told them about the imminent return of the Lord to judge all the earth according to his righteousness.
When we finished, the shepherds eagerly invited us to come back. We joyfully set out, exulting in the goodness of God!
After all, this mission is His.
Mamoudou told us this was the first time these shepherds had ever heard about Jesus. We rejoiced even more knowing that we were fulfilling the command to preach the gospel to all creation (Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15).
Two years have passed since that visit, but I still think back on it often. I learned two lessons that I won’t easily forget.
1. THIS MISSION IS HIS. Followers are called to obey, regardless of the outcome.
The Fusion creed, a concise statement about the life of a believer, declares,
As a follower of Christ, I am called not to comfort or success but to obedience.
When I woke up that morning, walking out to the Fulani settlement was the last thing I wanted to do. And after learning that we had missed the old shepherd, I was quick to label our morning a failure.
But I am called not to comfort or success, but to obedience. And this mission is His.
And Christ commands us as followers, with no exemptions, to
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20)
Obeying this command is rarely comfortable or successful by the world’s standards, but we who proclaim Christ as Lord are called to obey nonetheless.
2. THIS MISSION IS HIS. Followers are called to trust, regardless of the circumstances.
Jesus bookends the Great Commission with two statements in Matthew 28.
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me [Jesus]
… Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Despite difficult circumstances, followers of Christ trust in him, knowing that the mission belongs to him.
My teammates and I never imagined so many would hear the gospel for the first time. In my discouragement, I failed to understand that our day was not wasted.
I did not consider that the One who created all things, who knows the name of every Fulani shepherd, and who cares for them far more than I ever could, had a much better plan in store.
The aim of missions is to glorify God. But it’s easy to lose this vision when we make things about us.
We experience the true joy of being gospel witnesses when we trust and obey Him, regardless of the outcome or expense. May our hearts be humbled to understand our smallness, may our minds confidently trust in our Father, and may our feet be quick to obey him.