3 reasons why cross-cultural mission is hard

Meagan Stolk
Meagan Stolk, Master of Divinity student

From my early walk as a Christian, I had a desire to go and serve in another country. I was interested in multi-ethnic people groups and found that I got on easily with people from different cultures. Growing up in Wollongong, New South Wales, I remember that my mum often helped refugees from El Salvador. We also travelled to the Netherlands where my grandparents are from, so the desire to serve cross-culturally was inspired by my experiences from a young age.
In 2009, I was living and teaching in Melbourne and had the opportunity to go on a short-term mission trip with my church to a partner church in Cambodia. I went over on different occasions, initially as a general volunteer teaching English. Because of my teaching background, the church placed me with their Christian primary school to help with the English curriculum development. The children were learning English as a foreign language and I could see that the local teachers were lacking in resources.
What started out as short trips turned into me spending more than four years serving in Cambodia. The burden to go was placed heavily on my heart. I didn’t go with a mission organisation which meant that the member care support that many agencies offer was not available to me.
I learned so much from my time in Cambodia as I faced the reality that cross-cultural mission is hard.
Here’s three reasons why.
1. Your limitations
We can’t talk about limitations without addressing the first obvious one, language. This is a huge limitation for anyone serving cross-culturally especially if you are going to a place where English is not the main language. I didn’t go through formal language training like most missionaries, but I had to pick up the basics very quickly. Moving to a new place is hard enough, especially in big cities as you try to navigate your way around town, but it is even more challenging in a country where you don’t speak the language. This was a real struggle for me.
The second limitation is resource. Going over to Cambodia from the end of 2010, I had quit my job as a teacher in Melbourne so my financial situation was a big limitation going overseas. I was 50 per cent self-funded and the rest was supplemented by support from generous friends. Eventually in 2012, I accepted a job as a primary school teacher at the Logos International School. This paid position meant that I could stay longer in Cambodia.
There are so many more limitations I could mention, but these are the main ones that stood out to me. I found myself depending more and more on God as I was stretched and challenged. I learned that you can’t rely on your own skills, abilities, and resources alone; it’s only by fully relying on God for his leading and provision.
2. High turnover of friends
People were coming and going a lot so building friendships was challenging. There was always the anticipation that even though you would begin to connect with some people, they would eventually move on and leave you behind. All of my family and friends were back home in Australia, so as a single person serving overseas, I sometimes felt isolated.
Some of the ways I was enabled to overcome this challenge included:

  • Joining an expatriate Bible study group and being introduced to more people.
  • Being part of the supportive Logos school community.
  • Taking on a short leadership course as part of my professional development.
  • Seeking out counselling.
  • Living with other single expatriate women and doing life with them.

3. Seeing so many needs and not having the time to invest in meeting them
In the short four and a half years that I was in Cambodia, I saw a lot of needs not being met from the lack of education resources to the spiritual needs of the Cambodians. I felt frustrated that I couldn’t invest more time in helping out. I was heading towards burnout when I felt prompted to return home to Australia. God helped me to realise that while there were so many needs, I didn’t have to be the answer to all of them. In fact, I came to the understanding that if I wasn’t there, God was still at work and he could fill the needs with or without my presence. It’s a humbling realisation. In serving God, we can sometimes make the mistake of believing that we have to meet all of the needs. Admittedly, as someone who is eager to help and sometimes struggles to say “no”, I often put myself in a position where I take on more than I should. This is a clear path to burnout and a steep learning curve that I had to experience.
Prior to my leaving Cambodia in 2015, I was seeking direction for my life and ministry. One of my prayer supporters encouraged me to go to Bible college because they believed I should explore my gifts in writing and communication for ministry. For someone who was diagnosed with dyslexia from a young age, I would never say that writing is one of my strengths. I have a fear of failure when it comes to writing and Bible college seemed like the most daunting option. But the more I talked with my friends, the more they encouraged me. They told me about Richard Gibson, a lecturer who taught them at Moore and was now the principal at a Bible college in Brisbane. I eventually came across Brisbane School of Theology’s website and was really drawn to the vision statement “know God’s word; take it to the world”. I saw they offered Isaiah and Aid & Development and that sparked my interest even more.
Now as a Master of Divinity student, studying and living full-time on campus, I’ve had to let go of the identity of being a teacher and a missionary. As a student, simply being a learner leaves me feeling vulnerable in the sense that I can’t hide behind my previous roles as a teacher or a missionary. My fear of failure is magnified as I wrestle with dyslexia in the midst of assignments and research. But, this is where God has me for a time and I’m loving the community and the friendships I have formed. I’m content that while I can’t meet the needs overseas right now, I’m able to contribute and meet the needs at my local church in the children’s ministry, which is a real privilege.
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