What Missionaries Ought to Know about Uncompleted Transitions
Dr. Ronald Koteskey
article as a pdf
Talking about her director, a missionary said, “He has never lived on the
field for more than a few weeks at a time. Even when he is here over a summer,
he’s back and forth on weekends shuttling groups.”
She continued, “One thing that is adding to my problem is the fact that we
seem to travel back and forth to the USA about every two-three months
ourselves—so we never quite get used to one thing when we are doing an
entry/re-entry type of thing.”
Though these comments could be said about many missionaries today, they would
have rarely been said before the latter half of the twentieth century, and never
said at the beginning of it. Earlier missionaries simply did not change
cultures as frequently, so they got used to things and felt at home wherever
Changes have occurred during the last couple of centuries that have led to
many uncompleted transitions, to people changing cultures not knowing whether
they are both coming or going—because they are coming AND going. Some of the
changes have affected those serving cross-culturally.
A Transition Model
An intuitive model of what happens between people being fully involved in one
culture and their being fully involved in another is that there are three
- Leaving. The leaving stage begins when people first seriously
consider leaving where they are, and it ends when they actually walk out the
door on their way. Leaving often takes several months and sometimes years.
- In Transit. The transit stage of reentry begins when they leave
their houses in one culture, and it ends when they unpack their minds, not
just their suitcases, in the new culture. It may last only a few hours or
days, but it may also last several weeks or even longer.
- Entering. The entering stage begins when their minds are
unpacked, and it lasts until they are fully involved again in the new
culture. Just crossing the border into a different country does not mean
that they are integrated into that culture. It takes time and energy to
fully become part of the culture and become a part of social groups there
whether it is moving to a host country or returning to a passport country.
This often takes a full calendar year or even longer.
Transitions are completed only if people have time to complete the entering
stage and fully become a part of their host culture when they go or fully become
a part of their passport culture when they return.
The earliest missionaries took months to cross oceans or continents to reach
many other cultures. Ships under sail, wagons drawn by animals, and walking
were slow enough to make it impossible to go home for a few days or weeks. So
when people went, they stayed for years in their host culture. They did the
same when they returned to their passport cultures. Their transitions were
When William Carey and his family sailed nonstop from England to India in
1793, it took five months. Little had changed from the times the apostle Paul
served in the eastern Mediterranean (Acts 21).
Missionaries often went expecting to return many years later, if ever. The
threat of disease was so great that some people packed their luggage in coffins,
expecting to remain there until they died. They were not even thinking about
coming home when they went.
Uncompleted Transitions on Return to the Passport Country
The invention of engines to power ships on the ocean and locomotives on
railroads made crossing oceans and continents possible in weeks instead of
months. Missionaries could return to their passport countries for a “furlough,”
and they did, often staying for about a year. Soon it was common for them to
serve four years in their host country, then spend a year in their passport
country, and repeat this cycle for the rest of their lives.
Since it takes about a year to complete the entering stage, and the
missionaries were planning to return to their host country all that time, they
were entering and leaving at the same time. They were simultaneously in the
entering and leaving stages, not knowing whether they were coming or going. The
transitions into their passport countries were truncated. They never fully
reentered. Coming “home” for a one-year furlough was quite different from
coming home to stay.
Uncompleted Transitions into the Host Country
The invention of jet airplanes made it possible to cross oceans and
continents in hours instead of weeks or months. Short-term mission trips a week
or two long became common. The people leaving had no intention of fully
entering the host country because they remained in “vacation mode” while they
Even “career” missionaries anywhere in the world knew that they could get
“home” in hours, and they sometimes did. Some still fully entered their host
cultures and returned to their passport countries only for special events such
as weddings, funerals, and graduations. Others never fully entered their host
countries but lived in their two worlds successively, coming home every summer
for several weeks or months. They were never quite full time in either host or
passport country, but part-time in each.
Living in Two Worlds Simultaneously
The invention of the telegraph and telephone made communication possible, but
it was quite expensive, not available in many places, and or relatively poor
quality. However, the digital age came about the turn of the 21st century, and
its amenities were available most places missionaries served, inexpensive, and
of excellent quality. It made communication with people back “home”
commonplace. Some popular options became available.
- Email allows one to send written materials and images to someone’s
computer where it is available whenever the person checks the mail.
- Instant messaging allows two people to send and receive written messages
to each other live, while both are online
- Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) allows people to converse orally
while both are online, and they can even simultaneously see each other
visually if they both have webcams and a fast enough connection.
- Facebook allows people to post written information and images on their
page and allow their “friends” to access it.
- Twitter enables people to send short text messages to whoever wants to
receive them, often items about everyday life.
Today it is no longer necessary for people to travel back to their passport
cultures to keep up-to-date (even up to the minute) on what their friends are
doing back there. Information is posted on Facebook, in an email, or even
available as twitter on cell phones. No transitions need be completed because
people can live simultaneously in two or more cultures. This has both
advantages and parallel disadvantages.
- Living in two cultures is advantageous for projects involving “things”
such as constructing buildings, installing radio stations, and cataloging
- It is a plus for being available for assistance on making decisions, and
- It is an asset for in-and-out projects that do not involve learning the
language and the culture. People do not have to put in the years it takes
to learn these, so they can accomplish more in less time
- It is good for people who can keep up on issues in their passport
culture so that changing cultures on reentry is not as much of a shock as
when they had no contact with it for several years.
- Such a lifestyle is a hindrance for projects involving people, such as
building relationships, discipling, and mentoring.
- It is a minus for not letting someone get a time of rest from problems
while on assignment elsewhere. Furthermore, field directors who complained
about decisions by people far away making decisions without really
understanding may find themselves doing the same thing.
- It is a liability for people who do not understand the culture because
they may offend nationals by something as simple as using a gesture which is
a sign of approval in one culture but obscene in another.
- It is difficult for people who find themselves marginalized in both
cultures, not really fitting in with either. For years we have referred to
TCKs as growing up between cultures. These people are living between
cultures with lack of a clear identity in either.
Uncompleted transitions have good and bad points. They may not only give
people more of a sense of accomplishment for what they do but also give them a
feeling of a lack of identity because they don’t fit anywhere.