A little background info:
· We are in Spain at the invitation of a Spanish evangelical church (Spanish Pentecostal)
· The congregation is 50% native Spaniard, 50% immigrant (mostly South American)... total church attendance averages 100-150 / Sunday.
· The pastor is native Spaniard
· The church is literally split down the middle by the cultural norms… immigrants sit on the left side of the middle aisle, Spaniards sit on the right side.
· We have been involved with this church and have lived in this town for a little over one year.
When we arrived at this church (our visa is by invitation from the church), on our first Sunday in town, we sat on the left side. No one told us to sit there. In fact, we were met at the door and warmly greeted. Then we were told to sit wherever we wanted to. We sat on the left because that is where we sit relative to our home church in the USA. We just gravitated there. We had no idea that in doing so, we had ‘chosen correctly’ since we are immigrants. We were later alerted to this fact by someone who literally said, “Great job! You chose the right side to sit on. All immigrants sit on the left.” Wow.
The left side/immigrant side is very obviously different from the right side/Spaniard side. The left side is very vocal, very 'charismatic' - hands in the air, lots of Amen and Hallelujah and Gloria a Dios during the prayers and the preaching. Prayer is loud and all spoken at once on the left side, whereas the right side is silent prayer with a very occasional whispered word or two. During the singing portion of the service (lasts one hour), the left side is loud, clapping, hands up, crying. The left side stands and sings, some raised hands, pretty reserved.
Early on, I (Laurie) was asked to join in with two women’s bible study groups. I was invited to be involved by a Brazilian woman. The pastor encouraged my involvement, saying that the main two women who lead the effort are great at being very involved and keeping the groups together and meeting, but they are not very deep in their knowledge of Scripture or in the maturity of their faith walk. In his opinion, they lacked discipleship and study and needed a more mature woman to pair up with the effort. Both of these women are Brazilian immigrants. Side note here... I only mention nationality because the culture plays a big factor in the situation, NOT because I have anything against people from Brazil. On the contrary, I have many Brazilian friends and love them all. But the cultural view point is key here, so I mention it.
During Sunday worship one week (a year ago), the pastor asked these two Brazilian women to come to the front of the church. He recognized them in front of the congregation as women who have been very involved in leading the effort to build bible study groups/home cell groups, meeting with women outside of the church building each week, praying with women in the community, evangelizing, etc. He publically thanked them for their efforts as leaders in front of the congregation. Then he called upon the congregation to pray for their leadership. He and a few key leaders/elders in the church (all Spaniards) laid hands upon the two women and prayed for them, for their leadership, and for their ministry to women. This step proved to be an accidental cultural catastrophe later.
The cultural differences have been very evident from the beginning. Because I have a vehicle and I can drive (not common among women), I have been the designated driver for one of the bible study meetings each week. We meet in Campillos, a town 45 minutes away from our church, one of the MANY towns in Spain with no evangelical presence. We have a cell group that meets each Thursday for at least two hours. This drive time has proven to be valuable time for me to ask questions and get to know the other ladies in the car. More often than not, the Brazilians talk about what is 'wrong' with the church here. Their worldview and culture clash head-on with the Spanish culture. Form and meaning are constantly at battle. In their opinion, this church is called Pentecostal, but it IS NOT Pentecostal… they are not following the rules, they do not speak in tongues, they are not disciplining church members who break commandments, they are too laid back and passive, they don’t take anything seriously enough, etc. They also feel that the pastor is too soft and not a strong leader. (PS... most of you reading this would also never label this church as 'Pentecostal' because of your own worldview regarding that denomination. To put it in perspective for you, this church in Spain looks very much like 100+ people in a contemporary service at any main stream denominational church in the USA.)
I try to use stories of the church in Peru and the church in the USA and how ‘Pentecostal’ looks different in every place. For that matter, every denominational name has looked vastly different in each country I have been to or worked in. I try to gently point them toward those ah-ha thoughts and teachable moments and I try to teach culture and worldview lessons along the way. On several occasions, a couple of the Brazilian woman have asked more questions and seemed to be catching on that there might be something to this whole worldview thing and that maybe their expectations of what church should be are different than what Spanish expectations might be. Lightbulb moments when I think that some connections are being made. But, for the most part, their own worldview always seems to win out and we go right back to square one within a week or two, back to the confusion and their wanting the church to fit into their ideas of what church should be.
A side note to this would be that we have a reasonably large contingency of Nicaraguans in the church. They don’t seem to have this same viewpoint. Although they are also coming from a Latin-type church model and they talk of the legalism and the problems with their churches back home, they are very pleased with the church situation here. They are happy to be out from under the oppressive authority and legalism that characterized their churches in Nicaragua. For them, the Spanish model is liberating. On occasion, a couple of these women has kindly-but-sternly disagreed with one or two of the Brazilians regarding their views.
In May of this year, I was expected to be at a leader’s meeting with the pastor to discuss the cell group ministry. I did not consider myself a leader. I was never named as a leader. I had intentionally taken a learner position to my first year in-country. I only teach if asked to teach and I only give my opinion when specifically asked. Even the pastor had not ever referred to me as a leader or asked me to take a leadership role. I was asked to help shepherd and disciple the two leader ladies as they worked to build these cell groups.
I tried to politely say that I did not consider myself a leader, that the leadership was on the shoulders of the two Brazilian women. I felt like I was walking on shaky ground… I don’t see myself as a leader, but these women were expecting me to be in the leader’s meeting. I wasn’t sure where I stood or how to handle this. I knew that I would see the pastor during the week, so I decided to take a wait-and-see stance.
When I did see the pastor, he asked if I had been told about the meeting. I explained to him that I had not ever been named as a leader, per se, and that I didn’t want to step on any toes regarding a leadership role. But he asked that I be there to give my account of how the ministry was progressing.
The meeting was a Clash of the Titans war zone within two minutes. The pastor asked how the ministry was progressing. The Ladies began to give glowing reports of their ministry, putting great emphasis on one cell group and how it had grown from a handful of participants to having 18 in the room last week. (Side note: That particular group is almost exclusively Brazilian and very fluid.) I was at the meeting when 18 were present. The pastor asked about who these 18 people were, and The Ladies proudly shared who they were. That particular meeting brought several new people to the group, many of whom were 17-24 year olds from both genders, not just women. The Ladies were very pleased. (Quantity seems to define quality for them, but that is an observation on my part.)
The pastor was very displeased with the fact that boys/men were in the women’s bible study. Even more so, he was upset that ‘youth’ were in the women’s bible study. In Spain, youth is defined by the ages of 16-30 or marriage, whichever comes first. He was concerned that if youth were in the cell group, the women would hold back on their concerns and prayer requests and relationship building. In Spain, adults do not share concerns and problems with 'children'. He told The Ladies that they were not following the goals that he had set for the women’s cell groups, and that they needed to stop inviting youth and boys to meetings. They also needed to concern themselves with going deeper with the regulars instead of always trying to fill up the room.
Major clash for The Ladies. They became enraged and an angry verbal battle ensued. The pastor was visibly stunned by their behavior. They told him that he had ‘no right to talk to them in that way and to tell them what to do with their ministry; that he had made them leaders and given them authority over this.’ They attacked the pastor for quite a while. On several occasions, both sides tried to call me in to the battle, but I continued to play the ‘I’m a learner card’ and say that I didn’t understand enough of the culture to be able to answer intelligently. I did say that I felt that The Ladies and the pastor had a problem with misunderstood expectations and cultural ideas surrounding what a cell group ministry looks like.
Honestly, I have never been so uncomfortable in my life. I was (and still am) so stuck in the middle. I have a great relationship with the pastor and I am officially here at his request and invitation. I understand his vision. We meet weekly for coffee and coaching. On the other hand, I participate in these cell groups with The Ladies. They have been my link to building relationships with immigrants here. They are key people in the immigrant community.
During the next week, I was super distraught. The more I thought about it, the more I believed that there was a serious issue with the understanding of the definition of leadership in the two cultures involved. Billy and I discussed it and decided to meet with the pastor to share with him what we believed to be the issue.
The pastor told me that he was really shocked by The Ladies' response to the meeting that day, and their lack of adherence to his goals for the cell groups. He shared that he just couldn’t understand what went wrong. We shared with him that in Peru (prefacing that Peru is not Brazil, but maybe there is a correlation), leadership is highly coveted. And women in leadership is almost unheard of. The church is a very man-driven political-type system. Women are mostly to be quiet followers and servants. The people who do rise into leadership positions (men) rise because of their financial power, their political pull, or their higher education. Usually, only very dominant, strict, powerful people are given leadership positions within the church. Once they do become leaders, they are untouchable. They hold great power. They are on equal footing with the pastor, in some instances they have more power than the pastor.
The more I thought about it, the more I believed that this is what occurred with The Ladies. When the pastor acknowledged them in front of the church as leaders, he unknowingly bestowed power upon them in their worldview. He believed that he was giving them a public pat on the back and a blessing. But in their eyes, he made them powerful women, equal to him. I was also becoming convinced that the other Brazilians, and possibly other immigrants viewed the pastor’s move as a promotion of these women to high leadership, as well.
Poor pastor! He sat there with his mouth on the floor. He could not believe what he heard us saying. Worse yet, he saw no way to fix it.
Little by little, we have been working together with the pastor to find ways to understand the cultural divide in this multicultural church setting and figure out how to work with that. Understanding why we might misunderstand each other is key. It is a challange, to say the least. But not an uncommon one. In almost every country in Europe, the church is becoming more and more multicultural in nature. Migration and immigrant influence in the churches is now the norm, not the exception. How these cultural waters are navigated may be the key to how the Church functions (or doesn't) in a post-Christian Europe where the church is fighting to stay alive. Finding ways to understand and work with the multicultural congregation is proving to be an essential skill for The Body.
How does this shape my role here in Spain?
How do I proceed in this multicultural situation??? That's the question. And the answer right now... lots of prayer and patience, lots of asking questions and clarifying, lots of modeling the ways that I learn about culture and strive to understand, and lots of sitting in the middle of the uncomfortableness that misunderstanding brings and knowing that there is a lot of learning still to be done.
Pray for multicultural churches everywhere! As Europe sees more and more immigration, we are going to see more and more need for cultural awareness and understanding in The Body.
Who am I? In my USA life, I was a teacher in Texas for 15 years. I was also a professional photographer, a Southern Living / Martha Stewart wannabe, a soccer mom, and a short term mission team coordinator / intern director for missions in Mexico... you name it, I probably tried it!
In 2006, my husband Billy and I became cross-cultural workers (CCWs) with TMS Global. For five years, we served in three rural Quechua Wanca villages in the Andes of Peru. And when I say rural, I mean RURAL - like no potty! We have three incredible children... two adult boys who live in Texas, and the Sarah (14) lives with us in whatever country we are serving. I'm still teaching, still taking photos, still leading teams and mentoring, I just do it all in full-time service now! And I'm working hard at giving Southern Living and Martha Stewart a run for their money! I spent my days in Peru learning to live a Quechua lifestyle in a rustic adobe house - cooking Peruvian foods, sewing with Quechua women, raising my chickens and goats and pigs, and planting my gardens. Now I live my life in small town Spain, serving other cross-cultural workers and immigrant peoples, writing, and trying to figure out what life looks like for a Texas girl serving Christ in Southern Europe. Life in His service is AWESOME! I'm happy to share it with you here... Enjoy!