Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Cultural Identity and Reentry in Short-Term Student Missionaries

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Cultural Identity and Reentry in Short-Term Student Missionaries

Article excerpt

This study explores the relationship between cross cultural reentry and cultural identity in college student participants in short-term international mission trips. Twenty undergraduate students from a Christian college participated in focus groups discussing the question, "How did your experiences on your trip(s) influence your view of your home culture?" The discussion transcripts were coded, and analyzed according to (a) frequency, the number of times a theme was addressed; (b) extensiveness, the number of people who discussed a theme; and (c) intensity, the emotional strength of a response (Krueger, 1998). Negative reactions to home culture were the most frequent, extensive, and intense themes, followed by themes related to cultural awareness and personal growth. Other themes addressed adjustment and positive reactions to home culture. The findings imply that participants in short-term mission trips experience challenges to cultural identity, characterized by negative reactions. Recommendations for sending missions agencies are provided.


For centuries, missionaries have traveled around the world sharing the news of salvation and bringing humanitarian aid to millions of people. Over the last 20 years, missiologists have noted a dramatic increase in the number of short-term mission projects, due partially to technological advances and improved accessibility to air travel (Belay, 1996; Jeffery, 2001; Schroeder, 1995). The rise in popularity is so great that the decades of the 1980s and 1990s are known as the era of the "short-term mission boom" (Jeffery, 2001; Schroeder, 1995). Interestingly, the internet search engine,, yields 19,100 results for the search term "short-term mission trips." Many high school youth groups and Christian schools host yearly international trips which offer opportunities for evangelism and service. Short-term mission trips are becoming an important aspect of post-secondary Christian education. Thousands of American, Christian college students participate in school sanctioned or required international mission projects (Tuttle, 2000).

International trips are unique in that they involve a series of transitions: cross cultural immersion, adjustment to foreign culture and readjustment to home culture. In the middle of the last century, psychologists began studying the effects of cultural transition (McClintock & Davis, 1958) and over the years, research has shown that the cultural transition process is associated with changes in values, communication style, goals, relationships, and worldview (Belay, 1996; Guan & Dodder, 2001; Raschio, 1987; Uehara, 1986). Recent work has focused on how cultural transitions influence identity (Guan & Dodder, 2001; Sussman, 2000, 2001, 2002). The current study was designed to further explore how cross cultural exposure influences the cultural identity of short-term student mission participants.

Cultural Transitions and Reentry

Cultural transitions involve a series of major adjustments. An individual leaves the familiarity of his or her home to immerse in a foreign environment that requires a different way of life and a new way of viewing the world. The traveler faces the multiple demands of adapting to different roles, a new daily routine, an unfamiliar set of social norms, and an altered global perspective. Each piece of the cultural transition process involves a unique set of challenges and adjustments. Reentry, the final phase of cultural transition, is the process of re-adjusting to the home culture upon return (Adler, 1981). Multiple studies have indicated that travelers report higher levels of distress during reentry than during the initial cultural adaptation to another country (Adler, 1981; Moore, Van Jones, & Austin, 1988; Sussman, 2000). This experience is surprising to many travelers who happily anticipate reunions with loved ones and the return to the comfort and familiarity of home. …

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