Five things every new IC pastor should know
In October 2006, I moved my family, my wife and two elementary aged daughters to Bangkok, Thailand. We had taken an assignment with an international church to be their lead pastor. This would be our first overseas assignment; and while the initial agreement was three years, we completed five years. In this transition we left behind our country, both of our families, our relational network of friends, and the support of a loved church. We moved to an international, English-speaking, expatriate neighborhood north of Bangkok called Nichada Thani, comprised of almost a thousand families from every part of the globe. At the center of that community was the K-12 International School of Bangkok, the main attraction of this particular neighborhood. Completing the little “western English-speaking enclave” was a western style grocery, country club and even a Christian church. This was our new church, and as gracious, kind and generous as the people were, it was still radically different, causing disorienting stress.
We didn’t know how to shop, how to bank, how to pay our bills. It seemed like we didn’t know how to do anything. I had been pastoring fairly conservative, homogenous, white suburban churches in America. Nichada, and the church in it, was not conservative, far from homogenous and was “multi-everything:” multi-ethnic, multilingual, multi-denominational and diverse economically, albeit primarily affluent. On the outside I was doing my best to pastor this dynamic church, while on the inside I was stressed by the cultural dissonance. In fact, the stress caused me to exhibit neurological and muscular symptoms in my first months. Culture shock diminishes one’s emotional and analytical resources because you are constantly making internal adjustments to the new culture. Culture shock drains you. Several times I would break down into tears wondering if taking my family halfway around the world was a mistake. This difficult transition, with its cultural dissonance, made us extremely vulnerable; if it weren’t for our faith and our church we wouldn’t have made it. Thankfully, my wife jumped into the life of the church; she got involved in outreach ministry and women’s bible study and in a few short months she made a healthy adjustment, making friends she expects will last a lifetime. However, it took me about nine months to go through the stages of transition and make a healthy adjustment.
With this experience in mind, I recently had the opportunity to survey and interview fifteen third culture Christians (TCCs) about their experience living as Christian expatriates, I was especially interested in their overall well-being, the role their international church played in their lives and identifying any spiritually formative opportunities. It was my hypothesis that typical expatriate characteristics like ‘high mobility’, and ‘cultural dissonance’ may have great potential for spiritual formation, as it did in my own experience.
Christian expatriates or TCCs may spend ten, fifteen, twenty or more years away from their home culture; living in far-away places and raising children in those places can be unsettling. No matter where you are, you’re a foreigner; and even when you visit your home country it doesn’t seem like home anymore. One’s culture offers a sense of identity but for the expatriate that identity erodes; they might think: “What culture do I belong to? I don’t fit into my home culture, nor do I fit in with my host culture.” Is there a third culture, an international or global culture? While there are no international passports, there is a third culture, but what does that mean for Christ-followers and for the churches they attend? This unsettling context surfaces some spiritually formative opportunities for TCCs, such as: cultural dissonance and its coloration to sanctification; work-family imbalances and our need for spiritually formative friendships; high mobility and the need for a short cycle of spiritual formation; as well as, ecumenicalism and the impact of an exposure to a greater breadth of Christian practice.
When asked about the impact of high mobility and constant transitions, one TCC said: “I get engaged more quickly.” Professional expatriates know that life happens quickly, much more so than in their home culture. They know their life is made up of a cultural dissonance and frequent transitions. ‘Dissonance’ is a music term referring to a lack of harmony, a conflict in musical notes. ‘Cultural dissonance’, is a term I’m using to describe the inner-conflict, or lack of harmony one experiences when ones beliefs, values and assumptions are being challenged. This can be experienced as a shift in cultural foundations or, at best, unsettled cultural foundations. Along with that comes a sense of urgency from frequent cycles of transition; combined, they create a clear opportunity for TCCs to be spiritually formed. Theologically speaking this dynamic is very similar to what is called a crisis of sanctification. That is any difficult unsettling circumstance, used by God, to expose one’s hidden idolatry and advance one’s spiritual growth; Abraham’s calling to offer up Isaac is an example of a ‘crisis of sanctification’ (Gen 22:1-19). I don’t mean to put forth that TCCs will experience a crisis of sanctification because of their overseas service, only that their context creates a rich environment for the Spirit to work through such a crisis.
Through my conversations with these TCCs, all of whom were regular attenders of their international church (ICs) and involved in its community and ministry; and through a survey of expatriate literature I identified five opportunities for TCC spiritual formation in the context of the IC:
1. The cultural dissonance that one experiences in any new culture creates an experience of uprooting, or being unsettled, in one’s beliefs, values, and assumptions. This lack of equilibrium at the level of one’s convictions initiates the will for inner change; that desire or will to change and learn opens one up for spiritual formation, and specifically greater receptivity to the Spirit’s work of sanctification.
2. Work-family imbalances are especially acute during the first several months of one’s transition in country. Both spouses experience heightened levels of stress; their typical schedule and family roles may be in flux. Additionally, a child’s transition in country will also weigh heavily upon their parent’s hearts and minds.
These typical stressors create an emotional vulnerability and possibly volatility, where family-work imbalances spillover: family to work and work to family.
Rebuilding a relational network of TCCs through the ICs small group ministry, or initiating spiritually formative friendships, will be supportive if not restorative for both spouses.
3. The third culture Christian community is one of high mobility; if a third or more of the congregation leaves each year it impacts the approach to spiritual formation. ICs should consider a strategy of spiritual formation that can be assimilated within nine months: offering greater depth and ministry equipping in subsequent years.
4. Related to the high mobility and turnover within the IC there is a tremendous opportunity to serve in leadership roles. Each year there will be a wave of openings to fill; bible teachers, community group leaders, worship leaders, deacons, elders, and leaders of various student and children’s ministries. IC pastors and staff need a model and process for identifying and equipping leaders throughout their community. Many TCCs confess the IC offered their first opportunity to take on such church leadership, and that it was a major contributor to their own Christian growth. Likewise these newly equipped leaders take that experience to their next country often reproducing what they learned.
5. TCCs will have a much greater experience with diversity of Christian practice. The IC can use this diversity as a means of spiritual formation, eclectically exploring different traditions. For example, a southern Baptist might not have any experience with the annual liturgical calendar, or if one has a high church background, they might not have experienced the structure of contemporary worship. Such exploration can open one up to greater growth and depth of practice. In “Streams of Living Water”, Richard Foster describes various traditions of the Christian faith; he rightly describes God’s Spirit as bursting forth a broad river of unconditional love for all peoples. ICs are uniquely positioned to leverage different traditions and Christian practices, and TCCs are more open to such ecumenical exploration when they are away from their home church.
It is incumbent upon IC pastors to embrace their ministry to TCCs; they have the opportunity to shape their spiritual formation during a time when these TCCs are likely to be open to the work of God’s Spirit. With vision, leadership and humility, IC pastors can develop and mobilize Christian leaders who will impact the world.
Author’s note: This article is edited from a research paper “Profile of a third culture Christian”, for a copy of the full paper email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bio: David Young, his wife Maryanne and two daughters live near Houston where Dave leads a C&MA church, and Maryanne works at Rice University. Dave studies leadership and global perspectives at George Fox Evangelical Seminary; his research is focused on spiritual formation in the context of the International church.