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The past weeks had been hectic and stressful for Zhang. She had lost track of how many goodbyes, hugs and farewell gifts had been exchanged, tears had fallen and ‘remember the time when… stories” had been shared. She would miss this place that had become her home over the past 5 years, where she had found a new family, a spiritual family in her church,  

Now she stood at the airport ready to begin her long trip home. Looking at the same two suitcases she had arrived with 5 years ago, it occurred to her how much had changed – the contents of her suitcases had changed; she had changed and grown in so many ways, intellectually, professionally, emotionally and spiritually. And now a new adventure lay ahead of her.

Zhang is one of more than 1.5 million international students in North America – and almost 5 million international students  worldwide.

Many, like Zhang, are from countries that have few Christians, some from places where Christian witness is restricted or even forbidden.  

Imagine what could happen when one of these internationals becomes a follower of Christ while abroad and then returns to their country.

Imagine the impact they can have on their own people – their family, friends, work and society – They are like the Ethiopian eunuch who journeyed to Jerusalem – met the Lord through Philip on the Gaza road, and then returned to Ethiopia as a follower of Christ.  Even today the church in Ethiopia traces its roots back to this one international traveler.

Now, for international students returning to their home country, it is not only a time of opportunities but also a time of challenges, especially if they return as Christians, which is exactly what  Zhang experienced:

Zhang had come to faith in Christ her sophomore year and faithfully attended church and fellowship meetings. In addition, Zhang had grown as a leader as well and had facilitated a midweek prayer meeting. Now that she had found a great job and returned to East Asia, she was excited to be home, be closer to family and hoped she could share her faith with them. 

The first weeks were glorious –  eating the many foods she had missed while being overseas and shopping for clothes in sizes that fit her petite build. She enjoyed meeting old friends, but while they had been in touch via social media, she quickly realized that their life was busy and that they couldn’t relate to her experiences overseas. Her parents encouraged her to make new friends.  Well, they were hoping for a ‘special’ friend for her and even hinted at some eligible young men. Zhang missed her fellowship and looked for Christian friends.

She found a church and started attending services. The services were long. No, really long. And the music was old fashioned. Hearing the scriptures and praying in Chinese felt foreign. It was hard to make friends at church. People seemed to be reserved and not very welcoming. On top of that, work was a bear. Zhang had expected to work long and hard hours, but 10-12 hours, 6 days a week? She felt she didn’t have a life apart from work.
Her parents were concerned about Zhang’s health and insisted she needed to rest as much as possible and that church was too long and a bother. Within 6 months, Zhang felt disillusioned, exhausted and alone and eventually stopped going to church altogether – and her life became no different from those around her.



What are some of the factors that Zhang struggles with upon her return? What others would you add?

Let’s take a closer look at the challenges Zhang faced. Zhang encountered what is known as reverse culture shock which is common for people who return after an extended time away from their home culture.  

Many students expect to experience culture shock when they arrive in North America, – but not when returning home.

The dissonance and displacement they experience when returning, is the result of several factors:
– new attitudes and values acquired overseas;
– parental and societal expectations
– and changes their friends, families and society have undergone in their absence.
The specifics and length of the adjustment process varies for each individual, but many experience what Zhang did.

Like her, students are generally very excited to be back in their own country and others may be equally delighted to have them back.

Friends and family will welcome them but soon lose interest in the stories about life overseas, and students painfully realize that others are not particularly interested in what happened to them, and would much rather prefer to talk about their own lives. These returnees may even feel like outsiders – a foreigner in their own country.  

Disappointment, disillusionment and struggles tend to emerge.Their country is different from how they remembered it (the pollution may be worse; the pace more hurried and hectic; etc.) In addition, they have to adjust to adult life, working long hours and juggling daily responsibilities and family expectations. They begin to feel irritated with others and impatient with their own inability to do things as well or as quickly as they hoped for. Resentment, loneliness, disorientation and even a sense of helplessness may pervade.

Students need to find a new fit to life at home. They will need to reflect on their situation and make adjustments. And if they became believers overseas, they will need to find a way to integrate their Christian faith with parental and societal expectations, and to cope with pressures.  

The readjustment process is complex and can vary from one person to the next, but we can identify three key elements that will help our international friends in their transition, so that they will not simply survive, but thrive, connect with the body of Christ locally, continue to grow in the Lord and be equipped for the challenges and opportunities ahead.

The first key element is the support of like minded believers who will journey with them. Ming had such Christian friends.

Having come to faith in her junior year, Ming, like Zhang, was regularly involved in an international student fellowship and a local church. She grew in her faith and leadership skills. Like Zhang, Ming accepted a job in East Asia and soon found out that she was expected to work 10+ hours a day, including weekends. She tried to negotiate to have at least Sundays off but was unsuccessful. Ming also found it difficult to make friends and get used to worship services at her local church. She too felt exhausted and alone but not entirely taken by surprise.
She pushed through, because prior to returning home, she had met with a Christian friend and together they had discussed the challenges she might encounter back home and how to respond to them. They continued to chat regularly, and Ming appreciated having a friend to talk to and pray with; someone who helped her pray about and discern how to share her faith and how to navigate the difficult situation at work.

In addition, she got connected with a group of Christian returnees who understood and supported each other.  In time, Ming found a new job that paid less but had a more balanced schedule which allowed her to attend church regularly and even get involved in a bible study.

We can be such friends, prayer partners and sounding boards. We don’t need to have all the answers, but we can explore relevant questions together. Here are some practical suggestions:

First, use the case studies in this video and discuss the reality of reverse culture shock.

Second, explore ways your returning friend has changed and what aspects of the host culture they have embraced or come to enjoy that are not part of their home culture.  

They may have gotten used to simple habits such as being able to wear casual clothes instead of dressing up or come to appreciate small courtesies of everyday interactions as the comment of one returnee to East Asia illustrates: “Everyone seems angry, and no one smiles or greets one another on the street. Even if they bump into you, there is no acknowledgment or apology.”  

Ask your friend: Look at this example and discuss: “Have you experienced feeling taken aback by something on a recent visit home? How have you changed?”

Third, discuss family and societal responsibilities and pressure. Families have invested huge amounts of money into the education of their children and international students are aware of the sacrifices that their parents and often the entire family have made to help them. They may even be the first to have studied overseas and their family expects that they look and act in a way successful people in the culture look and act like. This includes how they spend their time and their money and whom they will marry. In many cultures, single women in particular, will be pressured heavily by parents and family to find a suitable husband – one that shares their Socio-economic status but not necessarily their faith –  to get married and to have children.  

A good question to consider with your returning friend is: What do your parents expect in regards to marriage, choice of friends, lifestyle and work?

Fourth, as seen in our case studies, the work environment can be extremely difficult as well. In addition to long hours at work, returnees may need to be ready to face corruption and bribery in the workplace. Many in business positions are expected to participate in questionable practices: heavy drinking to entertain and win over clients, and sometimes even partake of company “perks,” including engaging with prostitutes.  The workplace and society may present daily moral challenges, and returnees need to plan how to navigate these challenges.

Ask your friend: What work challenges do you anticipate in your culture? What moral quandaries may arise?

The second key element for successful reentry and thriving as a disciple back home is to develop a strong spiritual foundation and culturally relevant faith. Here are several ways we can help them.

To begin with, It is of utmost importance that we view international students as partners and train and encourage them to grow in their faith and leadership instead of ministering to them in a way that allows them to remain passive and potentially focused and dependent on the love they experience from the Christian community instead of the love and wisdom of the triune God. They must develop a personal vibrant relationship to Christ to face culturally-based adjustments and spiritual challenges.

Furthermore,, They must also develop a culturally relevant faith. Successful reentry prep starts as soon as an international student becomes a believer. As we study the word together, we can ask the question: “How would this be applied in your culture?” As we train them skills like sharing the Gospel, leading a bible  study, etc., we can ask: “What would be an appropriate way to do ….. at home?” They may not have an answer right away, but we can plant seeds of envisioning themselves as believers in their own culture.

As seen in the examples of Zhang and Ming, finding a church or a group of believers back home is a process that can be very challenging and usually takes time. Worshipping in their home culture and language can feel foreign and unattractive (if they have only prayed and read the Bible in English). We can and should encourage students to start praying and reading the Scriptures in their own language even while overseas. They should also experience a church in their native language and culture while studying overseas to at least get a taste of what it is like to worship with those who share their cultural background.

In addition, many will have no idea of the history of the church in their country, let alone the state of the church there presently. This is especially important when they are returning to a country that does not allow for freedom of religion or may even persecute Christians. We can encourage our friends to do some research on the church in their country and/or visit a local church the next time they visit home and tell us about it.

The third and final key element to help with a successful reentry is to stay in touch and be patient. Send regular emails or messages but don’t get discouraged if they do not respond immediately. Share about your life and ask about theirs. Arrange for a voice or video chat using Whatsapp or Viber. Be a companion on their journey; don’t make decisions for them but listen prayerfully. Pray with and for them and trust the Lord’s work in their life.

In conclusion, all these reentry difficulties we discussed may feel daunting and overwhelming, but their impact can be minimized by some advance reflection and preparation. Our friendship and support can help them to stay focused and we can remind them that the Lord is with them and calling them to new and amazing opportunities for missions and the transformative message of the Gospel in the places they are returning to. They are returning to their countries as leaders and have the potential to influence social and economic structures with the love, truth and justice of the Gospel. Some are returning to places where the unreached, marginalized people in urban centers across the world need the love of Christ and the just structures advocated in the Scriptures.

Some are returning to countries that restrict access of foreigners in general and foreign missionaries in specific.  All of these provide exciting opportunities for returnees to serve the Lord and engage in his Great Commission. And we are invited to partner with them during their time overseas and their time of transition.

Who will you journey with as they prepare to return? Your partnership and friendship with a few can have profound Kingdom impact.  

Preparing Your Disciples to Return Home


Reverse culture shock, expectations of family and society, disappointments—these are just a few of the challenges that await students upon return to their home country. How will you prepare your students for all the unknowns that lie ahead? Heidi shares clear practical tips and discussion topics to help you through the process.

Reverse culture shock, expectations of family and society, disappointments—these are just a few of the challenges that await students upon return to their home country. How will you prepare your students for all the unknowns that lie ahead? Heidi shares clear practical tips and discussion topics to help you through the process.