Navigating Church in the Re-entry Season – Part A

I heard it again recently…

“I thought coming back to the US that church would be the one place I would feel most at home, and instead it is the place that is the hardest.”

…and I thought again…why is church so complicated sometimes?

I’ll be honest this post has been sitting in my drafts folder for a while…because Church is not only complicated…it’s complicated to talk about.  Everyone in re-entry has their own church experience.  Some people find their faith community to be a place of community, hope, and spiritual renewal.  Others resonate much more with the quote above.

The one pattern I notice is that CHURCH is a very common topic in conversations I have with those in re-entry.  And often it is a topic filled with intense emotions.  So…at the risk of talking about a complicated issue… let’s spend a few weeks with this topic of church in the re-entry season.

My initial instinct was to subtitle this post:  Church and re-entry:  Why is this so complicated?

Sometimes it’s complicated because church doesn’t feel like it used to.

Sometimes it’s complicated because worship services triggers hard memories.

Sometimes it’s complicated because we are struggling with God on a deep level.

Sometimes it’s complicated because we’ve lost our “celebrity status” as a cross cultural worker, and we’re not sure if we are relieved or missing it a bit.

Sometimes it’s complicated because we just can’t go to another new church this week

Sometimes it’s complicated because we feel the pressure to stay at a church we no longer feel at home at.

Sometimes it’s complicated because we sense people’s expectations of us.

Sometimes it’s complicated because we just want to be anonymous for a while.

Sometimes it’s complicated because we don’t sense the same connection with God as we used to on Sunday mornings.

Sometimes it’s complicated because we don’t really know how to share stories about our life overseas.

Sometimes it’s complicated because no one asks about our life overseas.

Sometimes it’s complicated because it’s hard to make friends {or to see our old friends and not feel so close to them anymore.}

Sometimes it’s complicated because we feel like we just don’t fit in.

Sometimes it’s complicated because we don’t feel understood.

Sometimes it’s complicated because we feel like the focus of the church does not match our passions.

Sometimes it’s complicated because we don’t feel like we fit with the church subculture anymore.

Sometimes it’s complicated because the church wants us to share about our successes, and we feel like we failed on the field.

Sometimes it’s complicated because our thoughts on how to care for our world are different from the programs the church is passionate about.

Sometimes it’s complicated because we have transitioned from leading a church to barely wanting to sit in the back row.

Sometimes it’s complicated because our political views no longer fit with those of our community.

Sometimes it’s complicated because everyone seems so busy…and we desperately want one friend to really ask how we are doing.

Sometimes it’s complicated because there are so many options…and it feels overwhelming to choose which one.

Sometimes it’s complicated because our children don’t like church in the US.

And sometimes it’s not complicated at all.  If you are one of those people who is finding your faith community to be just what you need right now…I am so happy for you!

For those who are finding it challenging, maybe you resonate with this quote I recently read in the book When we Were on Fire by Addie Zierman.  She talks about church looking after recently returning from China:  “I waste no time setting us on a traditional, evangelical church-shopping excursion.  I am aware of how distant God feels, how far away I feel from myself.  And somewhere in my earliest memories, the Church people are smiling down at me, holding me close.  I was born into them, these evangelical Church people…..We begin to hunt.  It is tedious and difficult, this search for a group of Christians that will become your Christians, your church family.  It’s this step that often trips people up.  There are so many churches.  So many churches, but also, never the one you’re looking for.”

Over these next few weeks, I am going to share a few more thoughts on church in re-entry.

But for now, how has church gone for you in re-entry?

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Ruthie formerly served cross culturally in Central America. She had her own rocky reentry back to the USA about eight years ago. She currently lives in the Midwest where she enjoys volunteering with refugee families, shopping international grocery stores, and drinking cups of coffee with friends.

22 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Wow, this is so poignant for me. Upon my return to the States and move to a new city (I didn’t know anyone!), connecting to a church felt like my only lifeline to community and people. I work from home in my new role, so I was desperate to meet people at church. But how do you even do that? I joined a small group and actually found them to be a wonderful group of young professionals serious about studying Scripture, but I was still sitting alone on Sunday mornings and barely talking to anyone after the service.

    It. took. time. I knew it would, but the reality of it was wearying and discouraging. I am now incredibly grateful to be plugging into a local church that I can call “mine” during this season, but I hope I never forget the feeling of being new and needing someone to reach out to me. That’s what I’m called to be for the next person who’s new.

  • I’ve been out of the mission field for 10 months now and haven’t found a church. Most Sundays I just don’t feel like going to another church. I can’t connect – they all feel so big, so many people. I still don’t have any friends in my new city. A lot of the “It’s complicated because…” sentences above resonate with me. I’m looking forward to this blog series!

  • We have done re-entry two times. The first time was terribly difficult and we ended churchless, hurt and church “shopping” for more than a year. This second time has been pretty good. We actually relocated to a new community, we launched a new ministry, connected with the local church, and our new home church is reasonably welcoming and caring. If we had gone back to our “sending” church it would have been another disaster.

  • Sometimes it’s complicated because…all of the above. At least, a whole bunch of them. It’s been 15 years since we repatriated and I’ve just recently come to realize that I’ve been looking for something that cannot exist. I am not the same person I was when I left for the field way back in the last century. I’ve outgrown some things, lost interest in others, and, frankly, I’ve lost my taste for much of what the American church is enamored of. The experiences and perspectives I’ve acquired, however, are meant to be a blessing to the body of Christ. So I’ve had to start from scratch to develop new relationships that can be mutually beneficial.

    • Its been ten years since we’ve been back, and Dave hit it spot on! The church may have changed a bit – but we have changed a lot! Like you, I really don’t care much for “church”, though my relationship to God has never been better. The place where we used to be so very active is just the place we go to on Sunday mornings because we need corporate worship.

      About a year after we came back, I tried another church (though my wife did not), and after two years, gave up in disgust. I just didn’t fit in – except for one of the pastors – and he had been in the mission field overseas as well.

      These days, our ministry is working with the people of our adopted homeland who have come here. One of our team mates in the field put it, “You couldn’t stay in XX country anymore, so you brought XX country to you.”

      Our sending agency had a wonderful retreat for those undergoing re-entry – and they did it about 2-3 months after we returned. The retreat was spot on, and told us to expect difficulties with our churches. We did – and we’ve never reconnected. Not sure I want to at this stage.

      Oh – by the way – next Monday we leave for a month long visit to our XX country.

  • We are six months into this reentry period. Our sending church went through two major changes in pastoral staff while we were gone, with the result being that we really didn’t know anyone when we returned. We came off the field in crisis, and were told by our sending church that they “really couldn’t help us and maybe we should try talking to our friends”. The result was that we have had to navigate reentry after being betrayed by our mission and abandoned by our home church. We ended up relocating to a new city and starting over, and while we have found a church, we are not 100% “all-in” right now. We have told almost no one what happened, and probably won’t, at least for now. It’s all just so different. Not good, not bad. Just different. I have to keep reminding myself that six months is not such a long time, and that it’s OK for this process not to be over yet, much as I would like for it to be.

  • Feelings so hard to express and so hard for others to understand! It has been 15 months since our return to the States, it seems like a lifetime ago and just yesterday all at the same time. Thank you for your articles, they help, immensely.

  • Sometimes it’s complicated because others who have been through something similar to you don’t seem to find it as complicated as you do… Great post.

  • Terrible. Especially when the preaching is human authority. Opened up to my pastor the struggle on Sundays he just told me I’m on my own in this and find a church. So now I’m looking, but it’s hard. I found a pastor who preaches the word, not the works, but he’s leaving.

  • I was part of my sending church for 11 years (including my time overseas) and ONE week before I came back home, there was a church split. No one really told me what was going on. It was a huge shock for me. There was a lot of negative reasons why I needed to leave the field and come back home. More than anything, I needed pastoral care and some time to debrief and vent. I got none of that. I have been back home for a two years now and only recently have I found another church. It’s been a little hard to plug into community though. I’m slowly starting to make legit friends here. It’s been a huge struggle in re-entry. I am just glad I found this blog when I did. Keep writing.

  • From reading this and all of the comments so far, it seems there is a real need for a ministry for returning missionaries and their families. I’m talking not just a retreat, although that is a WONDERFUL idea, but a wholistic (spelling?) approach to looking at the challenges returning missionaries/global workers face and how to reintegrate, using their knowledge and wisdom from the field to build up the church back “home.” IS there something like this out there?

    For my own point of view, I get this. Each of these is totally within my realm of personal understanding! Whew, it’s hard to serve with our whole lives, minds and resources in a country so foreign to us and our own thinking then to come “home” and be expected to slot back into where we left off… I, too, feel the church’s lack of understanding and its stiff adherence to what they’ve always been and done. Is it because the leaders feel threatened by what God used us to do? Probably to some degree. Is it because they think since you haven’t been in their fold and indoctrinated with their own theology and have proven your worth and strength as Christians then you can’t ever really fit in? Oo, there might be some toes stepped on. Then again, the leaders as well as congregants might just feel intimidated by what they think we’ve been used to do or what we’ve seen and not want to get too close… I don’t pretend to know the exact reasons but I do intend on praying over this all. My own heart, my husband’s and my children’s hearts need to think and pray this out.

  • So true. And, as much as it stinks that everyone else is going through this, it’s great to know that it isn’t something crazy. My folks kind of understand it, but most of the other people I know don’t. So I just don’t try to explain it. And even the small group that I was part of before leaving is hard to get back in to. The church I used to go to is incredibly “seeker sensitive”, and act as though anyone who has been in the field is a super hero. And I don’t feel like that.
    Thanks for a wonderful article! Looking forward to reading the rest of your posts.

  • I love this article. We have been out of the country for 11 years with the FS. We moved back to a new area with two teenagers. We found a lovely church nearby with nice folks. For us, it’s the fact that while we attended church overseas, it was not always very regularly for a lot of reason and not quite like it is here with youth groups, etc. It’s a tight community and friendly but we just feel like such outsiders. Everyone has been together forever, the youth groups very established and we always feel rather lost…I guess it’s only time that will help us integrate. I just am tired of feeling like an outsider everywhere I go and was hoping that with church I could walk in and find “insta-community.” And the pushback from the kids is tough too…we want them involved and they are resisting because they never had church like this before.

  • Maybe it’s complicated because much of the focus is on yourself and your feelings, expectations, disappointments, etc. and not enough on submitting your reentry to the will and purpose of God.

  • I have hit my 1 year mark being back in the States after leaving the mission field. When i returned, it was out of a crisis situation where I was serving and I left hurt and felt like such a failure. When I got back to where my family lives and the church where I had called home for 8 years felt different. I felt judged and like I had failed in ministry. My send out church gave me no follow-up or emotional support and almost all of my core group of people who where partnered with me decided that I had too much baggage and was too needy. I left my church of 8 years and stopped going to church altogether. I didnt go for several months and in the span of 1 week 4 different people who stuck by my side during my re-entry encouraged me to go back to church. It was suggested for me to try a church i had only gone to once and the first time that I went, I knew I was home. I never felt such love – unconditional love from people whom I have never met. I have been going for the past few weeks and it has been so healing and I know that I have found my new home while I live in this state.

    Thank you for having this site. It is enabling me and propelling me into greater healing and understanding that I did make a difference and still do. Blessings.

  • Funny, I found this page and topic now. I chose to come back to this site after using it in our first 6 month back in re-entry. Now we have been home past 2 years and tomorrow I meet with some elders of our church to discuss and explain to them why our family left our sending church (our church of over 20 years!) We had so much hurt, confusion, and overall disconnect with them. It was actually emotionally painful and sometimes physically disturbing to attend church on Sundays. I stopped doing it after the first 12-16 months and just visited some other churches in hopes that we would find a new place soon. My husband continued to attend on Sundays but only the Sunday school and for over a year we were split up as a family on Sunday mornings.
    We are now back together on Sundays and so far we are able to stomach our new church home. I felt a blessing sung over me “I have a Newsong to sing” and have begun singing once again on Sundays.
    It hurt, it’s been disappointing, it was very, very hard to leave. I was very, very hard to continue to stay there. And, yes, all of the reasons above have rung true.

    thanks for sharing your hearts with me

  • Do churches ever read any of this? Are they even interested in how their members or attendees may be struggling after spending time abroad? Or is their focus blinkered to getting on with the day to day club activities? It isn’t only returners who have some of the struggles mentioned above, yet the churches seem disinterested.

  • How to keep the gospel alive in our life during reentry? Coming back to home church, sadly, the gospel was barely being preached, comparing to the church in host country.

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