6 Lessons from a New Missionary

From Chick-fil-a cravings to aching loneliness, a missionary's first months on the field are full of surprises. Photo by Robert Johnson / TEAM

It has been six months since my wife, Jenny, and I boarded a plane in Chicago and moved to Guatemala City. Our lives have changed dramatically since then.

In the last year, we both stepped away from full-time jobs, liquidated everything we owned, and said good-bye to the place we called home for the seven years. We left behind the best friends we have ever made. And we did so while Jenny was six months pregnant. It’s been a wild ride.

We’ve learned a lot of lessons in six months about missionary life. Here are some of them. And we confess, we’ll continue to wrestle with them as we learn them over and over again.

1. Culture Shock is Real
I always thought culture shock was for people who moved to the desert in Africa, or the jungles of South America. I mean, Guatemala City has a Wal-Mart, how can there be culture shock there?

But culture includes much more than food, clothing, music and traditions. Culture is this sort of ambiguous substance that shapes how people think and feel. The differences are often very small, but their apparent smallness doesn’t change their significance.

For example, when a Guatemalan walks into a room, he greets everyone in the room personally. When he leaves at the end of an event or workday, he says good-bye to everyone personally. This is a small thing. But if I walk into a room and just issue a blanket “Hey, everybody,” people will probably think I’m rude. Every time I walk into a room, I make an effort to individually greet everyone.

The words we use, the jokes, how we process emotions, ideas, what we value and don’t value, how we work, how we play — all are nuanced from culture to culture. When you move from one culture to another, it’s like jumping from a hot tub into a cold pool.

2. Doubt Is Everywhere
I never expected this one. I’m sure most missionaries go through this. After all of the emotion and festivities of moving away and saying good-bye, you wake up one morning and think to yourself, “Uh oh, what did I just do?” Doubt is everywhere. Did I move into the right house? What will people think about me? Am I actually accomplishing anything? Why am I here in the first place?

It is amazing the amount of doubt that goes into just an ordinary day. I am a very confident and decisive person, and I even grew up in Latin America. But moving to another country will beat the man-made confidence out of just about anyone.*

3. Walking By Faith Is Hard
I don’t like to admit it, but I have rarely actually felt the need to walk by faith. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have the need; I have the need and it is enormous. However, I have never felt so far outside of my own comfort zone that I was grasping for something that made me feel stable or secure. In most ministry contexts, I have too heavily relied on my abilities or strengths. When you move to another country, it feels like your abilities and strengths are neutralized.

All of a sudden, I felt an enormous pressure to trust that God would use my stumbling efforts. It is a pressure that I should have felt a long time ago. My talents or abilities, apart from the grace of God, produce nothing for eternity. When I previously would rely on talents or abilities, it was mostly to give myself a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment. I felt like I had plans, or stability or vision. But here, we wake up every morning and have to trust that God has the ideas for our day already planned out. Walking by faith is painful, but it is a good pain.

4. The Things You Miss Are Funny
I miss carpet. I know it seems odd, but carpet has always given me a sense of home. Carpet doesn’t make sense in a Guatemalan climate, so there is no carpet.

We also miss Walgreens. There’s no similar convenience store in Guatemala. You have to go to a grocery store. Jenny misses licorice. She also misses Chick-fil-A, Chipotle and Diet Coke. I think you can see the theme.

5. A Sense of Belonging Has Never Felt So Important
I wasn’t able to live in community most of my life, having moved around a lot. Jenny grew up in the same town until college. Both of us were able to settle down in the Chicago area for the past few years, where we fully experienced community. We had people around us we cared deeply about who cared deeply about us. For one of the first times in my life, I didn’t feel like an outsider.

Moving to another country means you have to start all over. You move to a place where people already have their family traditions, groups of friends, plans for the weekend. We see the importance of feeling like you belong.

Slowly but surely, God is shaping a little community for us. To quote  our director at TEAM, “One of the first things that God says in all of the Bible is, ‘It is not good for man to be alone.’” We have felt the truth of that statement.

6. Everything Is an Adventure
When you move to another country, absolutely everything is an adventure. Probably the first seven times we left the house, we got lost. We’ve found doctors in another country. We’ve had a baby in another country. We’ve filled out immigration papers, had to get passports for our baby. We’ve had to discover where we will shop, where will we eat, where will we go see a movie.

We’d be lying if we said the past six months haven’t been tough. However, God has used them to chisel away those calcified corners of our hearts that keep us from hearing his voice and trusting him. God has used them to confirm our giftings, strengths and even our weaknesses, and  to shape and form us into the kind of Christ-followers He wants us to be.

*Tip: When you go to encourage a new missionary, remind them of why they are there in the first place. It may sound silly, but I can assure you that new missionaries wrestle with the “why” questions.

Do you want to start your own missions journey? Use our free readiness guide to discover your strengths and see where you still need to grow!

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About the author

Justin Burkholder

Justin Burkholder and his wife, Jenny, serve with TEAM in Guatemala City, making disciples and gathering them as churches. Justin serves as the regional executive director for the Americas. He grew up as a missionary kid in Mexico City. Jenny grew up in northeast Ohio playing any sport she possibly could. They have three daughters, Isabella, Olivia and Zoey.


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  • What a great article! I plan to share it with other newbies. Thanks, Justin!

    Tell Jenny that “Coca Cola Light” (at least here in Mexico) is almost the same as American Diet-Coke. Some claim it is much better! Is it available in Guate?

    As a new missionary, I used to think of myself as a cartoon character having new adventures every day. Remind me to tell you how I offered lemonade to the man who was robbing my neighbor’s house in broad daylight–two days in a row!

  • It’s nice to see people obeying Jesus when he tells us to sell our possessions(matthew 19, luke 12). I hope these people don’t get entangled in so called “culture” because in colossians it calls that empty deceit and traditions of men that aren’t in accordance with Christ.

    • Thank you, Charles, for your thoughtful response. There are parts of any culture that do indeed run counter to God’s design, and TEAM missionaries have written previously about how they seek to impact those cultures. Of course, any missionary must recognize the uniquenesses of their host culture and learn how to interact with them in ways that both honor God and the people they are serving.

  • Thanks for the openness of this.. powerful insight to any missionary work for Christians… God Bless

  • You have explained culture shock so well, literally took my experiences and gave them words. Great article and so reassuring to know I’m not alone:)

  • Thank you so much for this. I’m applying for long-term service and have started to wonder about things like this. Thanks for being real & I pray the Lord blesses your ministry!

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