A nation experiencing culture shock 

Culture shock! Many of us have experienced it, or at least heard of it. Culture is the set of ideas, customs, social behaviours and worldview of a particular people group or society; the “shock” comes when a person from one culture finds themselves living and operating in another.

The culture in Australia – our way of life – has changed dramatically since the onset of COVID-19, and we haven’t travelled anywhere! As a nation we are in culture shock.

Missionaries are in the business of changing cultures. They train for it and do it deliberately to take the message of Jesus to another culture. So what do they know that could help us in a time like this?

The initial shock

Changing cultures is physically exhausting. During their first year in a new location, missionaries invariably report how tired they feel all the time. When adapting to a new culture our brains are working very hard to process all the changes and work out how to operate in the new environment. We tell new missionaries to be kind to themselves and to have realistic expectations. 

"Be kind and have realistic expectations" 

In the weeks prior to and following a change in culture, a person is said to be in “transition”. Missionaries report that during such a transition routines are very difficult to maintain. 

An important routine for Christians is regular prayer and Bible study. This, coupled with the difficulty accessing normal spiritual support structures (such as regular prayer partners and a regular worshipping community) means most missionaries find transition is a time of spiritual dryness. 

At such times we must be deliberately proactive about maintaining spiritual disciplines and looking for creative opportunities for prayer and fellowship with others.

Changing cultures leads to increased stress, and this can negatively impact emotional health, relationships and the ability to cope with day-to-day tasks. If this sounds like you in our COVID-19 world, you won’t be alone! We must take account of this extra stress, plus its effect on our relationships and our spiritual and emotional health. We must be aware that we have increased anxiety and we should give special grace to others – just as they will need to give special grace to us.

"Give special grace to others" 

Living long-term in another culture

Most would expect that in time the new culture will feel as comfortable as home. It is helpful to remember that, although the new culture can be quite fun, we are hardwired to live in our own culture. There will always be mysterious elements to the new culture that we can never quite comprehend or learn to navigate.

"We are hard wired to living in our own culture" 

One missionary friend described long-term cross-cultural living as permanently wading through mud. I was a missionary in the centre of DR Congo on the Congo River and I know about mud! We lived in the second biggest tropical jungle on earth and it rained a lot. I have travelled for 40km on a motorbike in mud as deep as the top of my gumboots, and have fallen (with my motorbike and wife) into a deep, sticky mud hole. 

Operating in mud means there is resistance all the time, in every activity, with a cloud of uncertainty about the possible dangers ahead. That is what we are facing even after the initial culture shock has passed. 

It’s vital that all those living cross-culturally concentrate on staying healthy so they are up to its ongoing challenges. This means actively maintaining spiritual health, relational health and physical/emotional health. 


Having a purpose

Missionaries volunteer to cross cultures for a purpose: to share the good news of Jesus. They make plans well in advance so they can be successful in doing tasks in the new culture that God has sent them to do. They have language learning plans, culture learning plans and strategies for making friends and forming relationships. 

In our current situation, many Christians are struggling with the same questions. What is my purpose in all this? How can I honour my employer? How can I honour the Lord Jesus? How can I look after my family? 

Whatever our role, our overarching purpose in this Corona time is to serve Jesus. Finding out how to do this well takes prayer, thought and planning. 

"Our purpose is to serve Jesus" 

Reverse culture shock

This is the culture shock experienced as we finish our time in the “other” culture and return home. Most missionaries find that reverse culture shock is much worse than the shock experienced when they left home. 

It seems worse for a few reasons: perhaps a lack of planning, perhaps an unexpected return and, worst of all, the home culture has changed and they are trying to get used to a culture that is not the one they left!

So, remember: when “normal” life starts again after COVID-19 it is almost inevitable that our culture will have changed in ways we cannot predict. Reverse culture shock awaits.

While you continue to wade through mud for the sake of Jesus, remember that we have no idea how long this will last or what changes we will face in the future. But Jesus knows exactly what we are going through and what the future holds. He has promised to be with us until the end of the age.

The Rt Rev Malcom Richards is Sydney’s Bishop for International Relations and the head of Moore College’s Centre for Global Mission.