Themes from your Church & Reentry Stories

As I interact with people transitioning back to the US…the theme inevitably eventually comes up:  How to navigate fitting back into the church subculture.  And I hear yet another story not just about going to a service on Sunday mornings, but about trying to find a community to call your own.  {If you didn’t read Part 1 of this last week you can find it here.}

In listening to your stories about church and reentry…I feel like there are themes…here are some of them:

{side note:  this post is for those who consider themselves people of faith {or would like to even if they aren’t sure what that looks like for them anymore}.  If you are one of the many people in the repatriation process who do not feel faith is a large part of your life…feel free to skip this post.}

Now back to the themes heard in the stories of Church & Re-entry:

I hear exhaustion…  Especially in the first months of re-entry, you are more than tired.  You are completely and totally worn out…physically, emotionally, spiritually.  You are longing for church to be easy because you don’t know if you have energy to work at this very much.  Here is permission to invest at an energy level that life allows right now.

I hear grief…  in all of its stages.  I hear the loss of “the church experience” you’ve had in the past.  I hear the loss of the community you had on the field.  I hear the loss of friends you thought you were coming home to.  I hear the loss of identity.  I hear the loss of living in a place of constant adventure.  I hear the loss of dreams.  I hear the loss of the concept of who you thought God was.  I hear a loss of innocence.   All of this loss…  It is a part of your church experience right now…like it or not.  Sometimes attending a Sunday service can make the grief more intense.  Sometimes we can find kindred spirits by seeking out people who are also walking their own grief journey…even if it is a very different type of grief.

I hear pain…  deep pain coming from shattered dreams, broken relationships, betrayal on the field.  We are often walking around in deep emotional pain in those first months and years of re-entry.  Life just hurts.  All of the adjusting and grief…it just makes us feel uncomfortable.  We have this longing for the pain to go away.  We have this hope that church will somehow ease the pain.  I’m not sure it’s a realistic expectation in re-entry that church will always make us feel better.  Sometimes it makes the pain surface more.  That doesn’t mean attending church is bad…it just means it might feel hard.

Some of you have deep pain that has come out of experiences with a church or ministry context.  It may not have been the intentions of those who were a part of that community to bring pain into your life…but the reality is your heart has been badly wounded, and you are struggling.  I am sorry if that is a part of your story.  It really does make church complicated.  Maybe you need a break from church.  Here is permission to work with a wise therapist to find some healing and decide what level of church is right for you right now.

I hear fear…  We are scared.  We are scared we won’t be accepted.  We are scared we won’t make friends.  We are scared we will never feel close to God again.  We are scared we won’t like the new person we are becoming.  We are scared we will be hurt again by those in a “church” context.  We are afraid we will never stop feeling like this.  We are afraid of what people will think of us.  It can be helpful to write out what your fears might be about church in this season.  Once we see them on paper, they often aren’t so scary.  Fear protects us from things that aren’t safe…so please do look for a church environment that is safe for you…that feels healthy.  Please be courageous…don’t let the fear keep you from taking baby steps forward.

I hear pressure…   We feel pressure to find the perfect church right now.  We feel pressure to find perfect friends.  We feel pressure to be involved in serving right away.  We feel pressure to “have it all together” {or at least to wear an outfit that is remotely in style}.  Let go of the pressure….just take one small step towards finding a faith community.  Maybe you will attend somewhere for a while.  Maybe you will move on to somewhere else after you are a bit more settled.  I attended three different faith communities {at least I’ve lost count} before I settled on the one I am currently attending.

I hear loneliness…  You are longing for someone to connect with who gets your life, who will tell you: you are not alone.  You are longing for friends.  And it just seems so hard to make them.  We are hoping at church we might meet some friends.   It has been my experience that it takes longer to make friends as an adult when you are re-entering a world where many people have established lives.   Building friendships seems to be a long, slow process of making constant baby steps in that direction.  It has also helped to look for people who are also in transition, or who also love international things, or I have something in common with.  Sometimes these friendships are at church…and sometimes they are in other places.  Both are OK.

I hear shame…  Our stories from the field can be complicated.  They can be a mixed bag of successes and failures.  I hear in some stories a sense of failure.  Shame about what happened on the field.   Shame over current doubts about faith.  Shame makes it hard to embrace community.  If you feel like shame is a part of your life…there’s a whole long post about it here.

I hear cultural baggage…  Let’s face it, in any country…in any context…church is framed within that culture.  In re-entry, we are struggling to make sense of the US.  And in church…we are sorting out the US church subculture {a complicated thing in itself since even my friends not living through re-entry are trying to figure it out}.  Freedom can come when we acknowledge that church is another new culture we are transitioning to, that we have very little power to change that culture, and try to find ways to give grace to that culture and live within it {even if we don’t always agree with every part of it} in the same way we did in the culture we just moved from.

I hear unmet expectations…  even if we’re not coming home to the same place we left…we have expectations of what we think church will be like {or we would like it to be like}.  We don’t realize we have these expectations until they don’t get met…and then comes the hurt, anger, disillusionment.

I’m not sure why we have so many expectations about church…but we seem to have a lot!

  • We expect it to be like it was before we lived overseas {at least eventually}.
  • We expect sermons that will help us grow.
  • We expect to feel safe. 
  • We expect to have people to talk to on Sunday mornings. 
  • We expect worship music we like.
  • We expect people to treat us like normal people and not look at us differently for having worked overseas.
  • We expect people to know how to welcome us back and to ask good questions.
  • We expect a small group where we can make fast friends and really talk about how life is going.
  • We expect a pastor that understand all about living overseas even if he never has.
  • We expect to feel better about life after going on Sunday morning.  
  • We expect that we will have less culture shock in church than we do in the rest of life in the US.
  • We expect people to see things from a global perspective because they say they care about the world.  
  • We expect an outreach philosophy we agree with….or for others to care deeply about things we care deeply about.
  • If we’re single, we expect to meet our future spouse. {ok…maybe expect is too strong…but we wouldn’t mind}
  • If we have children, we expect a program our kid’s love.

Are these realistic expectations?  Some of them maybe.  Some of them aren’t.  But putting down on paper what your expectations of a church are {and perhaps what you are expecting from that ideal church you are looking for} might help you to sift through the realistic and unrealistic.  I wonder if some of our frustrations with church might come because we are expecting human people to do the superhuman.

I hear anger…  a lot of anger.  This one should be first on the list.  I think there’s often so much anger because of all the things I’ve already listed.  The grief, the pain, the unmet expectations.  We’re not sure why we’re angry, but things {even little things} can really frustrate us.  And sometimes church is the place that makes us most angry.  Some of this anger may not be all “church’s” fault…it’s probably a combination of a lot of re-entry stuff.  But it is a prominent emotion.  In the most loving way I can say it…your anger won’t get you very far in the process of connecting.   I have found over time it very helpful to develop a habit of re-framing my anger with empathy.  In saying this, I do not mean that all of your frustrations are not valid.  There are legit things to be frustrated about, but I have found that if I can find a way to have a compassionate heart towards the situation it can really help.  Maybe I am feeling frustrated because my church is not doing outreach in a way that I would do it.  When I feel frustrated, I have learned to make a conscious decision to re-frame it with empathy.  I remind myself that for this group, in this context, they are loving their world in the way they know best.  I remember that my different perspective comes from different life experiences, and had I not had those experiences…I might think about things in just the way they do.  I notice that the subculture that this church is a part of tends to hold this way of thinking…and so it would be natural for them to choose that posture.  Consciously choosing empathy does not mean I always agree 100% with what happens, but it helps me re-frame my frustration and continue to embrace my faith community so I can have companions on this faith journey.  It takes energy…but I find that empathy is much more life-giving than anger.  It builds bridges not walls.

I hear emotional wounds...  Stress and life overseas can take its toll on us.  I hear so often in your stories a longing to find healing and redemption for these wounds.  I am so happy you are looking for healing.  Church and community can help in that process, but church is often not equipped to be the experts in cross cultural ministry, re-entry, or healing from trauma.  It’s OK not to expect that from church.  Even if they love you deeply, they just might not be experts in those areas.  So…seek out the experts.  Find a counselor, coach, mental health professional.  Whatever that looks like for you.  Many of us have a need to talk about what happened overseas and make sense of it.   It may not be a realistic expectation that church can meet all our needs for debriefing experiences overseas.

I hear a wisdom forged in suffering…  In the same stories that I hear people struggling with their faith, I also hear a depth of faith and spiritual maturity that can only be forged in living through difficult situations, wrestling through, and coming out the other side.  There is a spiritual growth that often happens on the field that does not happen in the context of our home culture.  The challenge comes when we bring that growth back to fit into our former church experiences.  It makes us feel like we don’t fit.  It makes us feel like we aren’t sure about our faith.  It makes us feel angry.  I hear many of you finding new ways to continue on your faith journey.  Maybe your faith community on Sunday morning is a place you are able to connect, but you are also finding some other outside resources helpful.  Maybe that’s spiritual direction.  Maybe that’s a group from a friend’s church.  Maybe that’s a retreat center.  Maybe that’s volunteering with a para church organization.  Maybe that’s a community group.  Maybe that’s finding a particular faith tradition or denomination that is different from the one you have been a part of before.  Maybe that’s a group of former expats who meet for a weekly study.  A common theme in the stories of people who are feeling more settled back home is that they have expanded their idea of where their spiritual and community needs might be met to include both their local church and other contexts.

I hear cynicism...  Yes, I’m going to say it.  Sometimes when I hear your stories…I feel like there is not a lot of room for hope.  I have been there and lived in that place as well.   It is a constant struggle to fight the cynicism.  Re-entry is a season where it is helpful to recognize that we are predisposed to be critical and judgmental.  It’s part of culture shock.  But…it’s a battle worth fighting!!  Don’t let the cynicism win!

I hear a longing to feel loved…  I hear your heart wants to be in a place on Sunday that reminds you that God deeply loves you.  You want to feel and know in tangible ways {because these days it can be hard to believe}…that He is good, that He loves you, that He is fighting for you, that He has your best in mind.   If I could urge you towards some type of faith community, I would say look for and chase after the places, contexts, and people where you are reminded of these things!

I hear little success stories…  Rarely do I hear someone who is head over heals in love with every aspect of their church.  I’m not sure that’s a realistic expectation…especially for someone who has lived overseas.  What I do hear are little victories.  Little moments of connection.  A person you randomly met…who is helping you along your faith journey.  A group of people you happened into where you feel safe to be yourself.  A church where you feel you can attend on Sundays and leave feeling like God loves you in spite of the chaos.  It’s OK to celebrate the little moments where you feel connected in small ways to your community.  They are perhaps the more important ones!

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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.

5 CommentsLeave a comment

  • After living in Africa, I came home to move to a new city, and for the past two years the church “shopping” process has been very difficult for me. Add to the fact that I am a preacher’s kid, so I’ve never really had to look for a church, and that I’m in a bit of an identity crisis in this re-entry process. That being said, in the past few months I’ve started going to a church that I’m starting to get involved in, mainly because I actually know people there, which makes it easier to connect. I’ve definitely had trouble in my Bible Study of not connecting and getting frustrated with the issues and prayer requests shared, simply because they seem so trivial to me, which is so horribly self-righteous of me. The entire section on anger and empathy is exactly what I needed to hear. My frustration will build walls, not bridges. Thank you for being so honest and gracious in your writing. I’m grateful to have the freedom to feel these things and then work to move past them.

  • Thank you so much for the honestly, which has given me such clarity of my process and makes the process feel “normal” for the road I am walking currently. I feel like the previous commenter, Haley, in that I am so frustrated when I hear the prayer request or what I perceived as whining. What hit me really hard is realizing my expectation of the western church to have a global perspective on ministry.

    I’m at the church I currently attend because I feel so safe there, however fear rises up in me and I run from the thought of becoming a member. It’s this fear of feeling stuck, and if I join are they going to expect some miraculous stuff out of me, can I just be where I am & not be expected to work miracles just because I’ve been serving other nations…all this stuff goes through my head. Thank you for helping me understand myself. I will immediately put on my empathy hat versus wearing anger & judgement…honestly I didn’t realize I was negative but these articles have helped me understand how others from the typical western church would perceive me. I’m afraid I’ve made some mistakes already, and I pray our Father’s grace in this. I am so happy to finally have words to understand what feels like internal craziness!

  • Thank you so so much for this series. It’s been almost a year since I moved back to the US and after trying everything I knew to get connected in a church, I finally realized it’s not working out and I’m on to another one. I guess I expected it to be hard but was kind of hoping that at the year mark things would’ve settled down. Glad to know I’m not the only one who has struggled with this!

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