I remember my first real experience of culture shock. I was standing on the ramp out of Birmingham New Street station down to Stephenson Street. It may not even be there anymore. It was its usual busy self, people swarming around me to get in or out of New Street, opening and closing the doors to McDonalds. I don't know why it hit me just then, but seeing that mass of people brought home the fact that there were as many people living in the greater Birmingham area as there were in the entire Republic of Ireland at the time. It took a moment or two to sink in, and I think that was when I realized I was living somewhere different as opposed to just visiting. Yes, I'd been to London many times before, a much bigger city, but the scale of it never hit me, even when I flew into Heathrow on a clear night and could see the lights stretching for miles into the distance. I later learned, when I moved to the US, that when you visit a country, you see things but don't absorb them the way you do when you move there. You don't need to learn them the same way on a brief visit.
That year in Birmingham did so much to open my eyes to a different way of doing things. After growing up within the Methodist church in Ireland, I was serving at an Anglican (Episcopal) church, with 3 services each Sunday, including Evensong, a whole new experience for me. Thankfully, when the Vicar was away and I had opportunity to lead worship, Ken, one of the Readers, was available with a much better singing voice than mine to lead that service! The whole concept of processing into worship was new to me too. Along side all the local new things, as part of that year I had three conferences with Time For God as my host/placing organization, and there were people from across the world as part of that experience, which began a lifelong relationship with that organization. More on TFG another day, but those cross-cultural experiences were such a valuable tool to put in my kit for later years.
When I arrived in Longbridge, and again, years later, when I arrived in Williamsburg here in the US, for different reasons, there was much anticipation of my arrival. I was the new lad, the one from "across the water, probably sounds different", and much excitement on my part too. On both occasions, I had a lot of learning to do: what's a balti? (hint - delicious!) what's the best bus/train into the city? how does the health service work here? why are the light switches upside-down in America? what is Evensong? On both occasions I had to be humble, ask a lot of questions and soak up a huge amount of unspoken information about the way things were done.
(L) St John the Baptist Parish Church, Longbridge, UK. (R) Williamsburg United Methodist Church, Williamsburg, VA, USA
Both moves were massive cultural changes for me, and yet, the culture of the church, of welcoming the new lad, wanting to serve the local community, wanting to make Jesus known in the local and the world, didn't change. Every church I have served has had it's own culture to learn, and within it, a set of sub-cultures. Each community too has had it's own local culture to absorb, learn, understand. Navigating them has been fun, challenging, and at times, confusing, but to make an impact, one thing that I've come to understand as crucial in youth ministry is time. Commit to being there, both on a day to day basis, and for the long term. I still remember the conversation over pizza in Williamsburg after a year or two when one of the students told me "we thought you'd have left by now". You can't absorb the local culture in a few months, it takes years. I'd even go so far as to say you never stop learning the local culture, and as you absorb more of it, you will change. Culture is one of those things that both stays the same and also changes.
To finish, I'll leave you with two quotes about culture that echo regularly through my mind. Both shape my approach to ministry and life:
"Culture? It's the way we do things around here."
"It's not wrong, it's different."
The first is purported to be the answer the Rev Derek Worlock, late Archbishop of Liverpool got from an unnamed Liverpudlian when asked for a definition of the word culture. The second keeps popping up during cross-cultural training for incoming volunteers with Time For God, who bring their cultures from around the world to the UK every year to serve local communities across the country. Just because someone uses a different method to do the same thing doesn't mean it's wrong.
These 25 years have opened my eyes to so many cultures, some for longer periods than others. I'm grateful for all of them, particularly the ones that prompted reflection, change and growth in me.