5 Lessons I Have Learned From My Time Overseas

5 Lessons I Have Learned From My Time Overseas

by | Dec 8, 2020 | Missions

As the great theologian Bob Wiley said so many years ago,

“I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful… I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful… 

I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful…”

For those of you who have not seen What About Bob? (spoiler alert? Not sure if there are people who haven’t seen this movie but there could be some Gen-Z folk I imagine), Bill Murray stars in a slapstick comedy about a guy who suffers from severe anxiety and multiple paralyzing phobias, who ends up crashing his therapists family vacation (that description really doesn’t do it justice, please go see this movie immediately if you have not). In the opening scene he barely musters up the courage to leave his apartment building in order to meet his new therapist. On the way, as he is walking through the busy city, absolutely petrified, he keeps repeating the above mantra in a futile attempt to convince himself that everything is all right. I honestly can’t think of a better way to sum up our first two terms living and working overseas.

June 2016 my wife of 2 years and I boarded a plane and flew across the world with the hopes of helping initiate a church planting movement among an unreached people group in East Africa. Prior to leaving, went through all the recommended trainings and vetting that comes along with this line of work. Along with that, I also had the great opportunity to do all three years of Hope’s church based training program, Leadership Development Institute. During our years of preparation, gaining invaluable experience in ministry and lots of study, our excitement grew. Despite the fear of uncertainty, we continued taking the baby steps necessary to make our dream a reality. All of the preparation and trainings were very helpful and beneficial for equipping us for ministry and cross cultural work overseas. With that said, nothing could have quite prepared me for the challenges and difficulties I faced since hitting the ground.

There have been significant lessons I have learned by simply going and experiencing life overseas that I would not have learned otherwise. As overseas workers, we have the privilege of getting immersed in a different culture (or cultures). I can say with certainty that this experience has changed us (for the better, I hope!) as our perspective has been broadened and challenged. It is evident that God calls all of us in the body to a vast array of different life experiences and I believe that as we apply the Gospel to these experiences, we all have something valuable and beneficial to share with one another. For this reason, I would like to share with the people of Hope some lessons I have learned while living and working overseas that will bless, challenge and encourage you.

 

Lesson #1

Knowing that my identity is in Christ is much different than believing and experiencing it in my heart.

I was unaware of how much I actually found my identity and self-worth, not in Christ, but in how well I could do my job. Intellectually, I knew I should find my identity in Christ, but functionally I was finding my self-worth in how well I perceived I was doing as an overseas church planter. As I began to struggle with language, with relationships, with energy and with the excruciatingly slow progress we seemed to be making, I become very discouraged and depressed. I started questioning whether or not God had actually called me to this work. Prior to moving overseas I understood that life and work would be challenging; what I didn’t understand was the extent to which I was making an idol out of ministry success. So what does God have to say to those of us who are discouraged because we feel as though we are failing in our jobs or roles? Ironically, what our Lord told his disciples when they had ministry success is a good word for us who are struggling to find success.

17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17–20).

If Jesus told his disciples not to rejoice in their ministry triumphs, but to instead rejoice in their salvation, is it safe to say that He would say something similar to us who are struggling? When we are discouraged by ministry/work challenges, shouldn’t we still rejoice that our names are written in heaven? Jesus continues to challenge me to have a right perspective regardless of my perceived successes or shortcomings.

 

Lesson #2

Communicating the Gospel effectively takes more than rightly understanding the Scriptures and the people you are trying to reach; you must also understand yourself.

Being able to share God’s Story effectively to people who are different than me, means that I need to first identify what extra-biblical thoughts, values, feelings and perspectives I am bringing to the table. The reason why this is necessary, is not because being an individual is wrong, but because often our worldview shapes the way we approach ministry and the way in which we communicate God’s Story. Now, there are many different ways one can define worldview, but when most people talk about it, they often talk about their values and beliefs. With that definition most evangelical christians could rightly say they have a Biblical or Christian worldview. However, I think our worldview goes much deeper than just the values and beliefs we hold. Every person and culture on earth sees themselves as part of a story. The big question is, what is that story? Is it the story of American exceptionalism? The story of democracy as being the answer to all the world’s evils? The narrative that says my individual rights are ultimate? The reality is, no matter how saturated we’ve been in a Christian value system, we still can hold onto narratives that are not Biblically informed but rather culturally informed; and it can be surprisingly difficult to parse them out. Indeed, it is often not until the Holy Spirit convicts us through His Word or we are challenged by a fellow brother or sister, that we come to identify these prevailing false narratives. It takes time, effort, introspection, humility, community and ultimately wisdom from above for us work through all the different stories that we subconsciously use as a filter for how we see the world (and the Bible!). If we don’t do that hard work, we can come up short in effectively communicating God’s Story cross-culturally.

 

Lesson #3

Community is essential to life, and honoring one another is essential to community.

I have seen this very clearly while living in our city. Here, people don’t need to “seek out” community, rather they are immersed in it and dependent on it from the time they are born until the time they die. When we think of community, we often think of hanging out with friends and doing fun things together. It’s almost like community is an extracurricular activity that we can opt out of if we want. In contrast, community in this part of the world is literally your lifeline. Imagine if you needed to depend on your community for almost all of your most basic needs: shelter, food, social security, income/jobs, health insurance, protection from physical danger, etc. In America, we largely depend on ourselves and/or our government to provide those things. Our “community” (friendships and family mostly) are largely for relational and emotional connection.

Here, being part of a larger community and knowing where you fit into that community is a matter of survival in many cases. When this is the reality, showing honor to those in your community is not only natural, but is essential. Here, if you are late to work because you ran into an old friend, that is a perfectly legitimate excuse because, “Of course you would catch up with your old buddy.”  I have grown to appreciate the interdependency and honor that is shown by people here. In America, we don’t really realize how much we need one another until stuff hits the fan in our lives. We see doing favors for people as just that, favors.  As in they are going above and beyond their call of duty to help. We praise people and shower them with thanks for doing a favor, when if we’re honest, it would be less than human not to help. Which brings me to a question, “What do we see as our most basic duty?” Do we seriously think someone who is caring for their parents or grandparents is going above and beyond the call of duty? Or helping a friend move into a new apartment? Or inviting an immigrant family over for meal? Or helping cover someone’s medical bills? Or providing childcare for a single mom? “But I have my own life to live,” we say. That sounds a lot like, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” I wonder, is our obsession with our own individual rights, wants, desires and lives really what God has in mind for His church? Is community intended to just be an extracurricular or extra credit activity? I think it is worth asking and thinking about how God intended us to be in community and to show fellow image bearers the dignity and honor they are due. It is time that we embrace that we are our brother’s keeper.

Lesson #4

We have a responsibility to not only share out of our abundance, but also share out of sacrifice.

This is really related to lesson #3 but thought it deserved its own take. The absolute worst thing I can be seen as in this part of the world is stingy. This is because generosity is one of the highest values. I think the reason for this is because people are acutely aware of their needs and the great needs of their community (note: it takes being a part of a community to know the community’s needs!). To not share what you have when a family or friend is in need is extremely shameful. So, coming from a land of great wealth and prosperity, if I am stingy towards those in need, it will communicate that I am greedy and am not really a part of their community. It does take a great deal of discernment regarding how we share resources, but not sharing is not an option. Not only because of the common sense of it, but also because it is so clearly taught in Scripture (Prov. 14:31; Isa. 58:10; Matt. 5:42; 2 Cor. 8-9; Jam 2:14-17; plus A LOT more!) The question is, “Are we willing to give when our Lord has given us so much at such a great cost to Himself?” God gave completely of Himself for me, how could I refuse to give to those in need when it is in my ability to do so? I am not saying that we can solve the problem of poverty by just throwing money at relief, rehabilitation and development projects. However, we can make a difference. We can bring relief, we can impact a life, and we can share our abundance and dare I say make sacrifices for those who have less; in hopes that it would point them to the only one who can provide ultimate salvation. What does it say about our hearts if we ignore the plight of others or stay willfully ignorant when we have been so blessed? Have we forgotten that we are stewards and are not the Owner of the things we have (See Luke 12:35-48)? I wonder what would happen if we were radical and generous givers like my Muslim neighbors? I continue to be challenged by this everyday and ask God to help me be a sacrificial giver.

Lesson #5

Coming from a more developed nation to a less developed nation exposes pride I didn’t think was there.

As much as it pains me to admit this, it is so easy to believe that we are better than the people we live among simply because we are American, are (generally speaking) more educated and have more resources at our disposal. Biblically we know this is not true (See James 2:1-9). However, there is a subtle, unspoken narrative that many overseas workers believe that goes something like this:

“Since I have been called by God to go and serve in a foreign land, the people I am serving should be grateful for my great sacrifice and do as I say because I ultimately know what is best for them.”

Ouch. That was painful to type. Now, to be clear, I and most overseas workers would reject that kind of thinking. However, when I listen to my own complaints and the complaints of other overseas workers, it becomes clear this kind of thinking exists: “Can you believe they do it that way? They just don’t get it. You’ll never guess what I saw today. Oh, yeah, that’s typical here. In America, that would never happen.” This also comes out in the form of control over projects and ministry funds. Since we bring the money, we are the ones who should have the final say in how it is used. Really? We should have the final say just because we happen to be the ones with the resources? How about our brothers and sisters who know their own culture and needs? Is it possible that they may have some ideas as to how resources should be stewarded? If we want to make an impact, we must humble ourselves, listen and let our brothers and sisters who are a part of the culture take the lead.

Final Words

Moving overseas has been an incredibly difficult, yet rewarding experience. Has it been all mashed potatoes and gravy? No. Have things turned out how I thought or expected? Not exactly. Am I excited for what God will continue to show me, and trust that I can be of some use moving forward? Absolutely. I hope these lessons can challenge and encourage you in your endeavor to becoming devoted followers of Jesus Christ.