Entrust Equipping Leaders
How can I contextualize myself to a new culture?
March 17, 2023
How can I adapt myself to a new culture? How can I learn what I may not even be aware of about myself and my perspectives? How might I know when to adapt and when to simply celebrate the differences? And how can I be sure I'm serving as a bridge and not a wall to people in that new place?
Guest Jerry Wells lived and served in Romania for nearly three decades. Learn from his experiences and wise observations about culture, thinking biblically and celebrating our differences.

Links and resources

Jerry's Entrust Equipping Leaders article: https://www.entrust4.org/post/contextual-ministry-personal-lessons-and-practices

Entrust: https://www.entrust4.org

[00:00:02] Jerry Wells: My way is not necessarily the right way. My way is just my way. So think through things before rushing to judgment and also try to think through them biblically
[00:00:22] Todd Randall: When we enter new cultures to serve God, how can we adapt ourselves to those cultures today? Laurie Lynd continues conversation with a new guest, Jerry Wells. Jerry lived and served in Romania for about 20 years serving with Entrust,  training pastors and church leaders. So let's join Laurie and our guest, Jerry Wells.
[00:00:45] Laurie Lind: Well, I'm so glad to be able to welcome Jerry Wells to Entrust Equipping Leaders today.  We go back a ways, but we've had quite different experiences. And so Jerry, I know you have a wealth of knowledge for us about contextualization and contextualizing ourselves to some extent. Would you start out by telling us a bit about yourself in particularly in relation to cross cultural experiences along the way. 
[00:01:17] Jerry Wells: For 10 years, I served as a pastor in the U.S. before going to Romania. In that I moved into Romania in 1988, it was a communist country and I went in as a university student. The revolution came along a year and a half later and that opened up new freedoms for the country and for me, Whereas I'd gone in with a mandate of three, maybe four years. I wound up staying 28 years and I lived inclusion a polka in the region known as Transylvania. I worked in leadership training and evangelical denominations and in an evangelical renewal movement in the Romanian Orthodox Church beyond the borders of Romania. I also had ministry in each of the five countries that borders with Romania Moldova, Ukraine, Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria. Wonderful years and wonderful experiences with wonderful people.
[00:02:19] Laurie Lind:  That is a lot of different cultures and backgrounds of people you worked with and lived amongst. And if I might add, I think you entered the country as a single man. But somewhere along the way, I think that status may have changed.
[00:02:34] Jerry Wells: That's exactly right. And quite frankly had I been married, certainly had, I had Children. I never would have gone into Romania when I went into, into that country. The conditions under Ceausescu's rule. Um They were, they were very bad. I did marry because I stayed on that much longer. The Lord put me together with a lovely Romanian woman And we married in the late 1990s.
[00:03:05] Laurie Lind: So I think two, you've got so cross cultural experience even in your home, haven't you?
[00:03:12] Jerry Wells: That's exactly right. I'm the only one who is not in part or in whole Romanian. My wife is fully Romanian and our daughters are half Romanian and half American. I'm the lone ranger, full American. I
[00:03:30] Laurie Lind: can only imagine that could be an entire different conversation about marrying cross culturally, which many people have done. And I think that brings a whole array of learning and adjusting and so on, but we'll stick, will stick to the concept of ministry in particular. So, as you were living in Romania and working with people from other cultures too, what are some things you learned about yourself? Maybe that surprised you.
[00:03:58] Jerry Wells: Good question. One thing that surprised me was my ability to adapt to hardship and disappointment. And that was, that was a pleasant surprise. I know I have to give God the credit. Apart from his grace, I could have never stood up to things like had emergency surgery and a communist hospital are a very, very large security breakdown that could have threatened my presence in the country and the very lives and freedom of the people that I came to serve. So that was one thing that sort of surprised me that I was able to, to work through those and to have grace to go through those. Another was an ability to alter my own perspective in some areas. I came to realize there that others with less formal training and experience than I often knew the Bible and knew the Lord more intimately than people like myself. I found out they were already more advanced in some very basic areas of the Christian life, like commitment to ministry and commitment to building the church of Jesus Christ and discipline. So for a few areas, if not more, that surprised me.
[00:05:29] Laurie Lind: What did you discover about yourself that you realized might need to change a little bit to better serve the people around you?
[00:05:39] Jerry Wells: Well, I just mentioned a couple of big things now, I think I need to mention the small things I found out that I needed to make some changes in how I deal with some of the small things. Often it's the little things that trip us up instead of the big things. And that's, that's true for me. For instance, I tend to be rigid and he said in my own ways, and I had to confront punctuality or lack thereof in Romania, punctuality does not mean godliness. Even though I might have thought that before I went to Romania America tends to be punctual there. Except among us, I tend to be too punctual. Probably Romanians are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Punctuality does not equate with spirituality. And sometimes the less punctual or the more spiritual I proved myself to be quite unsparing ritual in the early going, trying to deal with the lack of punctuality and the people that I worked with. And then uh I began to make some changes and thank the Lord for that. Another change that I needed to, to, to deal with was patient ministry I had come in out of a background of ministry when I felt like I had to hit the ground running. I had to go all out. I had to see rapid results. That was true of my early going in Romania. As I knew, I only had a mandate of three, maybe four years before the conditions in the communist environment would force me out. But then those three or four years extended into 28 years. And I realized that my perspective on pace and ministry needed to change. Uh Some of the most important things can't be done quickly. They take time, they take involvement with people, they take relationship and building on things. So pace and ministry was another thing that I saw I needed to change. And one thing sort of a mechanical thing was teaching style. We entrust make, make an emphasis of discussion, thoughtful guided socratic discussion, sometimes it's called. But the whole Romanian educational system is built on formal education lecture style. So I had to learn to balance um the lecture with the discussion. At first, I did more lecture. That was what they were familiar with gradually I built into more discussion. So these were some of the things that I needed to change, how to, how to deal with the smaller things. My pace and ministry and my teaching style and the training.
[00:08:45] Laurie Lind: We do think okay. These are things I'm discovering about myself, my perspective, my understanding of how to teach or how, how life functions, how quickly, um, how do we determine? I need to change these things about myself or maybe not. I mean, even when I lived overseas, I lived in Austria and then in Czechoslovakia, I often wondered, well, some things are different but are they right or wrong? I mean, do I need to change this or is this okay about myself or how I fit in here? How do we make those determinations of? Um I need to learn to be less punctual or I don't need to worry about that so much.
[00:09:30] Jerry Wells: That is another really good question. I think most of us need to make a realization that we may or may not have made. And that is my way is not necessarily the right way. My way is just my way. Um That may not be the way others have my way is not necessarily the right way unless it happens to be the biblical way. And the Bible says that is the way. So it helps to try to think through things before rushing to judgment when we come up against practice. And another culture that challenges our own practice in that particular area. Take time to think through things before making a quick judgment. Think about the premises behind the way they do it and the way we do it and think about the results that come from the way we do it. So think through things before rushing to judgment and also try to think through them biblically. So very often, many of the things that we have thought to be biblical, we've simply taken them for granted because that's the way we've always done them all our lives and they may or may not be biblical. Let me give you just a very simple but concrete example. I grew up in a church denomination where we had Sunday morning services that lasted 45 minutes, 45 minutes. Well, I gradually in America was able to be adapted to services that lasted up to an hour, A whole hour. But then I went to Romania and found it very often church services there lasted three hours, three hours. So which is right? 45 minutes, one hour, three hours. None of the above is necessarily right. The question is, which fits our culture. So culture, cultural differences need to be filtered and it really helps if we can realize that our way is not necessarily the right way. It's just our way. And if we can think through those differences that we find if we can think them through and evaluate them biblically, those are things that helped me as I adapted in Romania.
[00:12:08] Laurie Lind: You know, I'll share a quick one too. I remember living in the Czech Republic in church, people would sit to sing and stand to pray. And I grew up where we were sitting down when we prayed and we stood up to sing and that was just different to me. Well, that was kind of an easy one to figure out. Like, doesn't really matter if I'm sitting or standing when I'm praying or singing, it's just different and both have, they're both fine. So that was something that wasn't so hard to adapt to in my own adaptation to that culture. There were other things that were much harder, of course. But speaking of that, um and this question isn't necessarily on my list, but I really do want to ask this. You said that Romanians and I'm sure others were used to a teaching style that was much more authoritarian lecture, almost, maybe wrote and memorization, whether in school or perhaps even in church or Bible studies. And then you'd mentioned and trust has this value of discussion and thoughtful Socratic type of thinking together, that's quite a different mindset. How do we determine whether it's a good idea to introduce a whole new way of learning to a people of a certain culture?
[00:13:30] Jerry Wells: That is a good question also and one that I may not have much in the way of answer for. But I think one thing we definitely need to do is to motivate God's people to think biblically and to think Christian Lee um people in the culture you were in and the culture I was in have been left in a situation where they let the authority figures, thank for them. Obviously, the communist authority figures decided everything for the country. But also the teachers in Romania, they were the authorities, they knew everything and the students simply had to take copious notes and regurgitate everything they heard. This to me is not um education. And if we're doing that kind of thing in Christian circles, we're not really doing Christian education. We want to train mature believers who can think mature Lee and think about the Bible, mature Lee in order to do that, they have to get away from simply taking notes from authorities and reproducing those notes, they need to think through issues, guided discussion, thoughtful guided discussion forces students to think through issues and to think biblically. So I think Lori that we, we must somehow to some degree introduce guided thoughtful discussion with those that we're working with that may vary according to the cultural context. But I think it can be done. And I did see that Romanians adapted quite well. They are prone to be talkers, they like to converse. But in a a teaching situation, they are prone to sit quietly. However, once they got a little bit of an appetite through, for this through experience, they took to it quite well.
[00:15:45] Laurie Lind: Even in, in those cultures, once they kind of discovered, they might have a voice and they might learn from one another as well. There seems to be a way that almost any culture finds the value and we can look back to Jesus and see he often just promoted discussion amongst the disciples as well. So there are some basis for making those helping make those adjustments amongst whom we live.
[00:16:11] Jerry Wells: And you have made a very good point and argument for a discussion that was the main part of jesus' ministry method. And we would tend to think that Jesus was somewhat super cultural in the way he approached things including his teaching method.
[00:16:30] Laurie Lind: It all bears a lot of thought though. Definitely and carefulness and sensitivity, which brings me to the article that you wrote for us, which is wonderful. I want to urge our listeners to read uh Jerry Wells article on our website and I'll put that link in the show notes. Um You talked about the value of humility in contextualizing ourselves to new environments. Why is humility valuable or how does it help us contextualize?
[00:16:58] Jerry Wells: Very simply, humility is important because God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble. God is opposed to the proud and actually, people are opposed to the proud. Pride builds walls. Pride keeps people away from us. No one likes to be around a proud person. No one wants a relationship with a proud person. Humor builds bridges and that's one way of experiencing the humility that will help us in ministry as well as in life, the ability to laugh and to laugh at ourselves, even laughing at ourselves. Shows that we're human. We make mistakes it shows that we're humble, we can laugh at ourselves. I did relate a story that turned out to be pretty funny there in the, in the article I wrote, but I thought of another story that wasn't quite so humorous, but one that, that illustrates this thing of discoveries in terms of contextual ization. When I went to Romania, I had to engage in a language year at the university. I had to take their formal language training in Romanian, ostensibly to gain a basis for which to study for a university degree. Because I went in as a university student, I was in a class that had eight other students, four Greek girls, four Palestinian boys. Uh Normally there is some degree of suspicion between Palestinians and Americans, or at least in our minds, we think there could be barriers and suspicions. But an amazing thing happened at the end of the first semester, I left in mid December to go back to the United States for Christmas holidays. And I happened to leave and fly out of Germany about the same time that another flight flew out of Germany had never reached destination. It was blown up by a terrorist bomb over Lockerbie Scotland. I came back later and later in January to resume my studies in that language year. Actually, I came back late. I was already acculturated in my in lack of punctuality in Romania. I came back late for second cement when I appeared um coming toward the class in the hallway, the Palestinian boys were outside the door. They looked down, they saw me and they erupted. They were ecstatic. They thought I was coming back late because I would never come back late. They thought that I had been in that plane that went down over Scotland. And this says that somehow there had been a bond built, a relationship established between an American and four Palestinians that transcended cultures and transcended national differences. And it was such a lesson to me not to let cultural and national barriers stand in the way of relationships so often, what could be a national barrier doesn't really represent what is true at the human level person to person. So none of us should ever let preconceptions or misconceptions block our relationships. But the issue is we need to spend time with people and share life with people, work with our students in the classes in the sessions, but also outside of the sessions in life. And another thing that's really helpful in all of this is to let other people help us. When I was coming down ill with acute appendicitis. In that first year in Romania, I happen to live in a housing facility in which a young medical school graduate also lived. That man with whom I had begun a relationship came to me in my sickness. He took my vital signs, he diagnosed me. He told me I was on the verge of dying if I didn't get to an emergency room quickly, he almost forced me to go down to this emergency room. Parentheses. I had vowed before I went into Romania, I would never go into a Romanian hospital. I would take the first train out of the country and go to Vienna and go into a hospital in Austria. I was confronted with a situation where my life was hanging in the balance. But because of a Romanian and I take a non Christian friend, I wound up getting what I needed. Even though it was tough. Barriers, don't need to be barriers. We don't need to let those stand in the way. Another story that's also not a humorous story had to do with a meeting of a church service. And during that meeting, a woman engaged in what I would say is an unbiblical practice. Another man from another church had been invited to be guest speaker in that service. His church was from a different denomination. He took note quite um quite distinctly of what that woman had done earlier in the service. And when he got up to speak, he took that as his opportunity to correct her unbiblical practice. It did not go over well, it didn't go over well with the leaders of the church to which he had been invited. It didn't go over well to the people that he spoke to his message after that was very good. It may not have even been heard because of the barrier he created at the outset. He wasn't wrong in his belief. He would not have been wrong. I don't think in trying to correct it with the right people at the right time in the right way. I think it was self defeating and how he did what he did not in what he did. We need to be careful in adapting to, to a new culture that we do not do something that builds barriers. We want to build bridges.
[00:24:14] Laurie Lind: So a lot of people who are listening to us maybe don't live in a different culture or overseas, but they're still working with people who, well, we all are somewhat, have a little bit of a difference in culture just because of who we are and what family we grew up in or which part of which country and so on. So as we're working with people, especially if we're training and equipping people, which is what and trust is all about what might be some ways that we can identify that we've just hit a cultural difference. And then what are some things we might do to handle that?
[00:24:51] Jerry Wells: Actually, for me returning to America was like coming back to a new culture, a new country, almost the impact of social media, new terminology, different values. So I've experienced confronting some aspects of our American culture, which is my native culture. But as a somewhat new culture, some things that I have dealt with in that context of mine that may apply to Americans and who have always been in an American context are things like, don't rush to give up your values or to judge the new values. Don't rush to give up your practices or to judge the practices that are new to you are different from you. I think the emphasis I would make on that is don't rush, don't be too quick to come to conclusions and make judgments. But listen and ask questions about what you're about, what you're experiencing, try to gain understanding of other people and where they're coming from.
[00:26:10] Laurie Lind: I'm wondering, is it ever possible to almost over contextualize oneself? And I had given you the example if, if I was, I'm a, I'm a older than middle aged Scandinavian background woman. If I was to go to the inner city, try to work with teenagers, for example. Okay, I'm not ever going to really think or act or perceive the world like uh I don't know some inner city teenager obviously and who would I think I was and they would be to like, okay, that lady is crazy if she's trying to be like be like us. So where's the, how do we, I don't quite know how to ask this but do we ever over contextualized or are there times when it's kind of silly or not even a good idea to contextualize who we
[00:27:00] Jerry Wells: are? Laurie, I doubt that we can over contextualize, but I think we can wrongly contextualize. Maybe some of the ways you've hinted at and what you said are areas in which we wrongly contextualize. We don't have to uh duplicate all of the practices of the people around us and the ones that we work with. I think we need to avoid artificiality and certainly we need to avoid unbiblical practices. But we, we can't try to be who we are not. And if we try to imitate say the youth culture, and when we're a generation to older than that youth culture, I think that smells of artificiality and won't be received altogether. Well, so we need to be authentic. We need to be ourselves but to be ourselves in the Lord. And that includes valuing and loving people, love crosses so many barriers, build such good bridges. If we really love people were using a language that is universal and people will respond to that language. Of course, wrongly, contextualizing would be being unbiblical. We don't want to be biblical. So we want to follow the Bible, the Bible and we want to trust people and having said that, I think we ought to just dive into the culture that we are now with or we are now working with. We ought to try to get to know those people, their language, their history, their literature, and other aspects of who they are and why they are who they are get to know them immerse yourself in their culture but avoid wrongly intellectualizing. So
[00:29:08] Laurie Lind: back to entrust a little bit, we're all about training and equipping leaders to serve well in the context of the local church. And what dangers might there be in people of one culture? Say yourself as an American be showing up in Romania for example and trying to train leaders in various church denominations in Romania. Like might you inadvertently convey some things or teach some things that really don't fit that culture or aren't the best for those people you're seeking to train
[00:29:45] Jerry Wells: like it or not. We do tend to bring our own baggage wherever we go. So when we go into a new culture, we do bring our own baggage and that colors our teaching and our training often and consequently, we could be passing on say Western style and Western models rather than one that really fits their culture. So, so there are dangers that you recognize just in the question that you posed. What we probably need to do is try to evaluate ourselves. And this is somewhat repetitious in terms of what we've already been through in our interview, but try to come to grips with who we are and who they are, what our culture is and what their culture is. Also, we need to evaluate just what we want to impart and sometimes things like models in ministry are not specifically what we want to impart we want to impart principles and values biblical principles and biblical values so that they can make their own models, their own constructs in their own cultures, whether that's in terms of how they disciple or in terms of what music they sing. At the same time, I think it's well worth saying that no, no less than the Apostle Paul said he tried to be all things to all people. We want to try to acculturated and contextualized as best as possible with the people that we work with. But we want to be thoroughly biblical in the process. And of course, the Apostle Paul was thoroughly biblical in how he approached his ministry.
[00:31:41] Laurie Lind: In your article that you wrote again, everybody needs to read that article. But you did say towards the end that through your years in Romania, you really came to appreciate the beautiful diversity of Jesus church. I love that. How can we celebrate our cultural differences? And at the same time, I understand, you know, how to serve one another well, and how to kind of come together in the midst of our differences in the church.
[00:32:09] Jerry Wells: I think we really need to understand that we don't need to renounce our cultural differences. Unity doesn't depend on culture, the unity that we have only through culture is not true unity. Certainly, it's not true unity among Christians. So we don't have to renounce all our cultural differences. But at the same time time, it's good to be open minded to what is culturally different in the target culture, the culture to which we have come. And um that can be so beautiful and helpful and meaningful. It's never been a part of my culture, but it's a part of their culture and I can learn from it. I can grow from it. I can adapt from it. So we need to be a learner. As we approach a new culture. We need to let that new culture be a teacher. Obviously, again, not the absolutely authoritative teacher but a teacher from which we can learn and grow. We need to approach a new culture with the idea, I have things to grow through my contact and involvement with people in this culture. And we do, I had a lot to learn. Still do.
[00:33:36] Todd Randall: You've been listening to Entrust Equipping Leaders and a conversation between host Laurie Lynd and today's guest, Jerry Wells. Be sure to read Jerry's article about contextualizing ourselves to new cultures. The link is in your show notes and if you missed it, do go back to our previous episode with Dr Craig Ott of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, full of insights about developing intercultural competency. Next time we dive into an academic topic with real life implications for teachers and educators:  constructivism. Make sure you hit the subscribe button on this podcast, so you don't miss any upcoming episodes