Trusting the Same God in a Different Culture
Esther is one of our missionaries and she was recently in Singapore on her Home Assignment. We sat down with her to chat more about her experiences and lessons that God has taught her and we will be sharing it in a series of articles. In this article, we asked her about what it was like to move to a new place and to learn to work in a different culture. Esther shares about her challenges and also the joys, and through it all, the lessons that God has been teaching her.
Adjusting to a new life
Esther shared that there were many things that she had to learn and get used to as she began work as a missionary. Firstly, the nature of the work was different from her previous work experiences. Before she worked in this field, she used to think that missionaries worked with all the tasks outlined and with clear expectations. But in reality, things are not as fixed and often change depending on the season. She was given a broad goal to work towards, but the path to achieving it often varied. The work was also quite self-directed, and this was different from her personality and what she experienced in her previous job, and this required some getting used to.
Secondly, the move also meant that she had to get used to a different way of life. Esther is a Malaysian but she spent years studying and then working in Singapore. She had gotten used to the way things were done here. Moving to Sabah meant that she had to get used to a different pace of life again, and though some of these things might sound small, these small differences reminded her again and again that she was in a different place and culture.
For example, in Singapore, things are expected to be done immediately. In Sabah, she had to adapt to a different pace and expectation, one that could at times be slower. People generally have packed schedules in Singapore; her meetups in Singapore often need to be arranged ahead of time and spontaneous meetups do not come as easily. In Sabah, the people she interacted with were more flexible and planned their calendars a lot more loosely.
She also discovered another small difference. In Singapore, information and help is at our fingertips via Google and we are rather self-reliant. A quick search online provides information such as the operating hours of shops, for example. When she moved to Sabah, she discovered that not everything is as readily available online. Instead, a more relational approach is encouraged. Similar information could be obtained; you just need to ask people! She had to learn to be helpless and rely on others.
Worshipping God overseas
Church life also looked slightly different. Many churches in Sabah are smaller and as a result, all the members often pitch in and play a role. This could take the form of things like cleaning the church together, or setting up and restoring the church after events. This fosters a sense of responsibility and belonging. At the same time, it can lead to burnout and tiredness as the same people are often tasked with multiple responsibilities.
It is also challenging to be a Christian amidst a culture and environment unfavourable to Christians. There are many ways cultural and political pressures are exerted on Christians. With opposition being obvious and common, it is important for the local churches to lay a good foundation and build up their members’ faith to withstand social pressure and systemic discrimination.
The church community can also be a transient one as people move to the cities and overseas to work and study. In many churches in the interior, this leads to a dearth of young people, as they move away for a particular season in their life. This has an impact on church life and community, since a church’s size and resources often vary, affecting long-term planning and ministries.
Caring for missionaries
Esther was able to return to Singapore in July and August and had the chance to meet the church and attend different gatherings. She is thankful for this chance to get to know the church. We asked Esther about the ways that the church can support and encourage missionaries while they are on the field. She suggested that for a start, church members can respond to missionaries’ newsletters to let them know that these mailers are being read. She shared that it’s always encouraging when people respond simply, just to let her know that her updates are being read!
Other practical ways to care for our missionaries include sending them care packages containing items that remind them of home, especially during festivals like CNY, mooncake festival, Christmas etc. Books and other printed resources may be harder for missionaries to purchase or access where they are or less convenient to bring over; this could also be an avenue to provide for our missionaries.
Esther also shared about how we can provide for our missionaries when they return. There is a certain level of culture shock when our missionaries return from overseas. Just as going overseas often requires one to adjust to changes, in the same way returning home poses some challenges. Things like public transportation could have changed when they were away. Small changes like the society becoming more cashless could be a change they may not have anticipated having to adjust to. Then there are “bigger” issues like a place to stay during their short stint back in Singapore. These are opportunities for the church to provide practical care. As a church family, these are ways we can work with our Missions Committee to love and serve the missionaries in our midst.
Apart from just providing for their physical welfare, Esther also highlighted an often neglected aspect of caring for missionaries – their spiritual needs. It would be safe to say that all of them have their own struggles. They may wrestle with conflict and trauma from their work on the field, and these things may not be easily shared in their newsletters. Sometimes, they just need a listening ear. This is also a way we can pray for our missionaries – pray that they will have good Christian relationships where they are known!
When we do get the chance to meet our missionaries, we can take the opportunity to ask good questions and listen well. Our missionaries love to share about their work and details about their trip, but beyond that, there are other ways we can ask good questions in order to care for them! Esther shared this article with us from The Gospel Coalition, and it in were some questions that she thought were helpful:
- “What wins have you had over the past few months? What’s been hardest for you lately?
- What does community look like for you here and back in your host country?
- Tell me what you love about your host country. What do you miss the most right now?
- What’s been most overwhelming about living in your host country?
- What does rest look like for you overseas? What are you doing for fun these days?
- What are you most excited about, ministry-wise, over the next few months?”
So the next time we get to meet a missionary, consider checking in on them and asking them some of these questions. They are, after all, a part of our community and their work is not their only identity. How can we help them rest and continue to grow and persevere in their own walk?
Lastly, we asked her how the church can continue to pray for our missionaries regularly even when we don’t have specific updates. We can pray generally, even if we don’t know them personally. We can keep praying that they will remain focused on the mission and be strengthened in Christ. In particular, we can pray that they will be able to keep up their own personal spiritual disciplines and find ways to feed their own soul. She shared that in her work and experience, it can be tempting to think that just because one is working in Christian ministry, their spiritual side is automatically being fed.
At GBC, our Missions Committee check in regularly with our missionaries and our misionaries also share at our monthly prayer meetings. The weekly enews also feature regular updates on our missionaries too. These are ways we can be informed about their work and prayer needs.