Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Falling in Love with the Differences

Written by: on January 31, 2019

This post is lovingly dedicated to those who took the time to love me during my early cross cultural days. I am forever humbled and changed by your hospitality and friendship.

There are so many posts I could write inspired by Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map. I could write about how when I read it for the first time a couple of years back there were so many ‘aha’ moments that it led me to shift my plan to study semiotics for my doctoral work, to studying global perspectives. I could write about the vulnerability I feel reading such an important work and finding my own country and culture minimally mentioned. This is exasperated by a common alignment of Canadian and American culture, when the one thing Canadians virtually universally agree upon is that we are not American. (A decent argument could be made that much or our cultural identity is forged by negation.) As Meyer points out, “(i)t is th(e) relative positioning that determines how people view one another”[1] rather than where on each scale they fall. I do understand that most of the time we will fall near each other. I could also explore that this book was written for a business context and there may be some necessary caveats if it is mobilized for a church context. I gesture to these other routes because they also matter deeply to me. Instead I will follow Meyer’s lead and trace how I came to realise how important a role understanding culture plays in loving God’s world and where I find a useful beginning in a church context.

It was about ten years ago now that a restlessness took root in my heart. Having grown up in rural southern Ontario, and never having moved more than an hour and half from home, my international experience was limited to a few school trips and the handful of international friends I had made at seminary. While I had done some work on unpacking and understanding my own subjectivity, I fully confess I privileged my culture as normative. When I felt God invite me to pray for His heart for the world, I was completely unprepared for what lay ahead.

My family and I moved to a remote city in Australia in 2010 in order for my husband to pursue further education. It took so much work just to get sorted to leave, that I had done relatively little to prepare to arrive—though my mom had spent considerable time researching the many things that might kill me. Upon arrival, the most obvious difference was the intense heat. What I would learn, is how much influence environment has on culture. The heat shaped clothing, pace of life, common activities and even when the shops would open and close.

At first I felt the need to defend myself. Early comments that felt sexist led me to be on the defensive and I spent far too much time trying to explain why I am the way I am than listening. Meyer’s advice would have proven helpful then, and has been my starting point in subsequent experiences: “When interacting with someone from another culture, try to watch more, listen more, and speak less.”[2] Looking back I would imagine I came across as rather intense to the relatively laid back locals. Perhaps it is natural to begin by noticing all that is different in a new place, but as I have learned it is important to wonder curiously about the differences rather than approach them critically. “If you go into every interaction assuming that culture doesn’t matter, your default mechanism will be to view others through your own cultural lens and to judge or misjudge them accordingly.”[3] I learned that some of what I understood as sexist or hierarchical systems persisted more out of a laid back nature that hadn’t been highly motivated to critique tradition than out of a deliberate decision to reject change (though certainly that existed as well.)

Once I overcame the challenge of finding work in a place where resumes and applications were expected to be prepared outlining numerically how my experience matched the search criteria rather than the essay style I’d become accustomed to, I began pastoring in a local church. I was blessed to have a lead pastor who had the patience to help me navigate the cultural differences. I learned about the history of the nation and the specific area. I (finally) listened. I listened to the stories of the relationship between the church and culture, between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and the rest of Australians, between the North and the South. We talked over ‘proper’ coffee and Tim Tam biscuits rather than the familiar perked coffee and doughnuts from back home. Trust was built; “(a)ffective trust (which) arises from feelings of emotional closeness, empathy, friendship.”[4] This was the space where I finally found connection. Lingering coffees and unhurried conversations in some shade in the midst of the warm tropical outdoors. As a pastor, this wasn’t much of a stretch, but it became my strategy for engaging the many different cultures I would encounter. I would hypothesise, that though cultures vary in whether trust is built based on task performance or relationship[5] , building trust is the natural place to begin in a ministry context and that forging relationships is always valuable as it is a universally Christian value.

Early on I was extremely blessed by a group of Indonesian students who were open to helping with our small Children’s ministry. For the five years I was there, this ministry was led by an ongoing collection of Australians and Indonesians. This new cultural difference increased the beauty and difficulty of ministering. Listening carefully to those for whom English was not their primary language required more patience and determination. In a church context one of the gifts we share is scripture. As “(o)ne productive way to start putting trust deposits in the bank is by building on common interests”[6] , Bible study is a unifying experience. One benefit was that all the cultures I worked with had scripture in their own language so we could all share a starting point. Unhurried discussion, filled with curiosity led to richer understandings of scripture and deeper relationships, highlighting the significant value of intercultural dialogue. We also prepared for ministry and did ministry together which forged common experiences, again increasing trust. Even before I read Meyer, I understood that “(m)ulticultural teams need low-context processes”[7] which includes space for debriefing and reflection.

I continue to reflect upon and learn from intercultural friendships and experiences, but all of them have led me to understand myself more clearly and more humbly and I trust we are all so much richer for those relationships. The words of St. Francis seem a poignant closing: “O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.”[8]

1. Erin Meyer, The Culture Map (New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2014), 22.
2. Ibid. 27.
3. Ibid. 13.
4. Ibid. 168.
5. Ibid. 171.
6. Ibid. 178.
7. Ibid. 55.
8. St Francis of Assisi, The Peace Prayer. https://www.loyolapress.com/our-catholic-faith/prayer/traditional-catholic-prayers/saints-prayers/peace-prayer-of-saint-francis Accessed January 31, 2019.

About the Author

Jenn Burnett

Jenn is lead pastor at The Well church in Kelowna. She longs to see the body of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit and contending for unity across difference. She also loves rugby, the outdoors, the colour orange and the chaos that goes with raising 4 kids.

10 responses to “Falling in Love with the Differences”

  1. Hi Jenn. Just like you, seeing the diversity in cultures and how they view and interpret the world gives us a glimpse of God’s character. If we are all made in God’s image, and that image is reflected back to us in different ways, then it’s our aim and pleasure to pick up on things. Of course, much of culture is marred by sin, but I still enjoy the thrill of getting to know people from other cultures as they share things I would otherwise miss.

    I know Erin Meyer didn’t cover this, but it would be interesting to me at least, to discover if there is a cultural map like hers out there but is superimposed on 8 theological points, i.e., Eschatology, View of Scripture, Free Will/Determinism, etc. What could we discover, say in Africa where the Holy Spirit seems to be more recognized as a source of power, healing, etc. by believers and compare that with North American believer’s priority of small group Bible study. I wonder how culture affects expressions of worship? Or could it be the other way around? Which has more influence? Or can we even say that? Just some random thoughts.

    • Jenn Burnett says:

      Oh that would be a fascinating study indeed! It’s interesting you mention Africa for the Holy Spirit, because I’ve actually really appreciated the teaching and its availability that comes out of Bethel in Redding, California—though at times have felt the need to filter out the politics. (We don’t have nearly the political emphasis America does up here and I confess I don’t know what to do with it.) It would likely be interesting to put those same maps over our own nations. Now I’m curious….

  2. Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    You have such an amazing life story Jenn. Thank you for sharing it with us all in this cohort. I also appreciate how you used Scripture as the cross cultural “equalizer” that everyone could gather around.

  3. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Jenn, Great thought provoking post! I am so glad you were blessed with a patient lead pastor to help you process through cultural differences over “proper coffee and Tim Tam biscuits” (I am not sure what these are but they sound very interesting!) I have found I always try to find an indigenous trusted guide to help me navigate cultural waters. I have found these patient guides supremely helpful when I have and continue to navigate cultural difference across gender, ethnicity, and language divides. That is, someone I can ask all of my awkward short, white, male, English speaking cultural questions to. I agree with the other good looking Harry in that I continue to look for indigenous guides to help with theological divides. Thanks again for your well presented thoughts.

  4. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Excellent post, Jenn. You have focused on a key word that I have been studying for organizational health and multicultural experience…trust. I believe it is foundational and is not quickly attained. You describe the process so well: relational intent, slow pacing, listening, dialogue. Slowing down to consider the other requires a different rhythm of life for many of us. I hope this study will cause adaptive change in me so I reflect what you have described.

  5. Mary Mims says:

    Jenn, you have had some amazing experiences with other cultures. Even though you didn’t have Meyer’s book at the time, you have had OJT (on the job training). Although we have read these books, we will still have to put these theories into practice. Thank God for the head start!

  6. Nancy VanderRoest says:

    Hey, Jenn, great post! I loved the statement about your mom ‘researching the things that might kill you’ in Australia. Sounds like a typical mom-thing to me! lol. I also appreciated your comment that ‘this new cultural difference increased the beauty of difficulty of ministering.’ I agree that language barriers and differing ideas can create both difficulties as well as amazing gifts. Thanks for sharing your story, Jenn. You are a gifted writer, my friend!

  7. Mel Davies says:

    Hi Jenn, as you know while I was in Australia I thought I was sensitive to other cultures being that I had been involved with missions work for a while and exposed to many nationalities. However now that I am actually living in North America I realize how much I have felt like I need to defend myself and compare my own culture. It takes time to learn and grow and I am so grateful that I finally understand a little of what it is like to actually live in another country. I have extra respect for those who move somewhere that have an entirely different language and culture.

    Bless ya mate.

  8. Tri Maitland says:

    Hi Jenn,
    Yes I remember that intensity….! And the mellowing. But most of all I remember the beauty of developing trust, the fruit of gentle but persisting curiousity, valuing and seeing the strengths in others.
    I love how you reflect, your honesty and eloquence, your willingness to own your development. I find these aspects of your story inspirational.

  9. Harm Rombeek says:

    Hi, Jenn. Interesting to the experiences of the next generation. Your Dad a d I certainly had a cultural shock when we arrived in Canada. Our shock was nothing compared to our parents however, youth has a way of absorbing shocks. As I get older I’m also finding that it’s easier to see the differences, to laud the differences we like than to integrate the real differences that have been highlighted by our culture’s history and biases. We often tend to ignore them, to our loss. We find them in our own lives and large instances in the Old Testament and more recent history.
    Keep up the good work.

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