As we prepared for the assignment overseas, we received a great deal of training. We spent a week at the headquarters of World Relief learning about Filipino culture. What was valued? What was taboo? How was time handled? What relationships were important? What message does it send if you refuse to eat something offered to you? What gestures are impolite? We had a lot of preparation before we landed in Manila.
Even though prepared, we still experienced culture shock the first few months. It went something like this: fear as we landed in a huge city in the middle of the night on the backend of a typhoon. Excitement as we arrived in the camp and took in all the new sights and sounds. Weariness as routine eventually replaced the newness. Rejection about four months in when brieflyly we disliked everything about the country and culture. Finally, we settled in and enjoyed many of the aspects of Filipino culture. The afternoon siesta time was one we fully embraced and had trouble giving up!
The thing is, we when came back to the U.S. after two years, we didn’t get any preparation on what to expect. After all, we were going back to our “real” country, back to our “normal” lives, right? Why would we need any preparation on what to expect? Potato chips, that’s why.
Do you know how many different kinds of potato chips are in the average grocery store aisle? I hadn’t noticed before I lived in in the camp. We drove to Kentucky for a wedding and stopped at a grocery store to grab some snacks. Jeff stayed in the car as I wandered up and down the chip aisle, eventually returning to the car empty-handed. I couldn’t choose!
That was just one tiny example of reverse culture shock. We were blindsided by how difficult it was to go back to “normal” after what we had experienced in the Philippines. In just two years the supermarkets had evolved into superstores. The first time I ordered a small drink at Wendy’s and was handed a “medium” cup, I tried to give it back thinking it had been a mistake. It wasn’t; serving sizes had expanded. Stores in malls were crammed with so much stuff--and it all looked the same.
Dealing with the coronavirus restrictions played out much like culture shock for me. That rush of fear at the beginning as we scrambled to get our church services online in a few days. Excitement the next few weeks as we explored new ways to get God’s message online, especially through special services like Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. A new phone that took better videos—a new computer that made videos more quickly so we weren't up all night. Then the last couple of weeks thinking, “Okay, Sunday’s coming, what are we going to do this week?” as it all became routine.
I began thinking of Jeff and my reverse culture shock when we came back to the U.S. as the United Methodist Church organization began talking about resuming in-person church services. It’s going to be a lot more difficult and different than we think it is. It’s going to look a lot different and probably not offer the comfort some of us think it will. It will require thought and preparation—as individuals and as a church. It will require compromise and sacrifice—as individuals and as a church. It will evolve just as the early church evolved to adjust to changing times and conditions.
As we read about the early church in Acts 2:42-47 we realize that Jesus did not leave a blueprint for a proper church building. He didn’t leave a detailed guide to planning a well-ordered worship service. He didn’t leave a step-by-step curriculum to follow to lead people to salvation. He didn’t recommend having a specific amount of fellowship time between services or devoting X amount of time to share joys and concerns before letting a leader pray. He didn’t say to pass the plate or take communion in a certain way.
The first disciples had to deal with constraints and circumstances they encountered as the church grew. I’d invite us all to check what our motivations are for wanting to return to having services in our sanctuaries. To think about how it might be different and consider what we might be willing to sacrifice in order to worship together—as individuals and as a church. To think about what we're currently doing online that we might want to keep doing.
The first disciples were a group of people who loved Jesus, wanted to share the gospel with others, and spend time in praise, prayer, thanksgiving, and worship. I hope those of us who are his disciples today want to do the same.
to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
Acts 2:42 NIV