The Cultural Iceberg & TCKs

Imagine going through life without a core set of beliefs to help you navigate the world and understand yourself.

by Megan Pooler, Youth Compass Missionary to Europe

I recently accepted a full-time overseas ministry position with YouthCompass, a ministry of Youth for Christ International, that serves third culture kids and their families. A third culture kid (TCK) spends their developmental years in a country, or countries, other than their parents’ home country. These are often children of employees of multi-national corporations, diplomats or other expatriates. TCKs learn some aspects of their parents’ culture (culture #1) while also adopting elements of the culture they live in (#2), creating their own unique third culture.

Clearly, culture is key to the lives of these teens, but what is culture? How does it affect TCKs?

Culture can be described as an iceberg. What we see above the surface — foods, holidays, art and language — is a mere 10% of the iceberg. The rules, expectations and attitudes that shape our societies exist beneath the surface. Our values and beliefs dwell down at the base of the iceberg, forming the foundation of how we view the world. The cultural iceberg shapes our understanding of our identity as individuals within a community.

TCKs don’t have one solid cultural iceberg. Have you seen the Disney movie Moana? In the middle of her journey across the ocean, these weird coconut creatures attack her. Their ship is a top-heavy conglomeration of wood scraps and tropical paraphernalia. This is the image in my mind of a TCK’s culture — a raft instead of an iceberg. They can blend in with the top 10% of whatever culture they’re in, choosing elements they like or that help them adapt to their environment. TCKs have an incredible, multi-cultural lifestyle that creates a large, top-heavy raft. While they have a relationship with many cultures, they don’t fully belong to any one culture. They lack the shared values and beliefs of culture that create the stability of an iceberg. As a result, TCKs struggle with knowing where they belong and how to define their identity.

Imagine going through life without a core set of beliefs to help you navigate the world and understand yourself. Without knowing that God created you to be loved by him and to have a purpose. The Gospel resides in the deepest part of the iceberg and influences every aspect of our lives. Most TCKs aren’t exposed to the Good News of Jesus. Not only do they have to find their identity in a cultural hodge-podge, they also have to do so without Jesus.

If you like numbers, here’s a fun fact: if TCKs and their families were counted as a country, they would be the 5th largest nation in the world, with a population of more than 230 million.

These are the students you and I have the potential to reach! Through our ministry with YouthCompass, we are offering these students a place to belong, where they can establish relationships with other students like them and with adult role models. We share the love of Jesus because “God has reconciled the world to himself in Christ…and given us the message of reconciliation. We are, therefore, Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” that everyone find their ultimate place of belonging in him (2 Corinthians 5:19-20).


About the Author:

Megan Pooler is preparing to work with Youth Compass in Europe.  Since she began living and working with exchange students, she has been interested in international youth ministry. She is passionate about helping youth find their identity in Christ, grow confidence, and find their purpose in this beautiful world. She is looking forward to bringing her love of books, food, and learning about others to her ministry with international students.