An American in North Wales
As an American, I am accustomed to people asking me how I’ve come to Wales. I won’t repeat the story here except to say that my family and I came in November 2008 to take part in a church-planting effort in the town of Abergele, a popular holiday and retirement area. While we had visited North Wales before and already knew of a few other churches in the area, we arrived relatively unfamiliar with the Christian landscape in Wales and with very few friends anywhere in Britain.
A warm welcome
Considering our lack of familiarity with North Wales, the first thing that comes to mind in reflecting on our time here is the warm welcome we received from fellow believers. While it is true enough that Christianity in general has declined in the UK, from our perspective this in some ways has led to a stronger bond among Christian people in general. I expected that others would view me as an outsider when I came to Wales but most Christians we met received us warmly and seemed glad to have us here! And this warm welcome began with the ministers themselves. As the member of a fraternal that now counts four Americans among its number, I would say that the acceptance and fellowship we have experienced within that group has been an invaluable source of help and encouragement for us all.
Beyond a warm welcome however, we often give thanks for the strong friendships that we enjoy. Since our arrival, we have been teamed up with another American family with whom we share good fellowship and upon whose support we know we can always depend. But a further blessing has come as we have developed friendships with other pastors and their families around North Wales. Distance prevents us from meeting very often but these relationships have been worth the effort! Family life can present unique challenges and doing so while navigating the sometimes-rocky waters of cultural adjustment adds another layer of complexity. Being able to observe and ask questions of fellow Christians bringing up their own families in a culture foreign to us but familiar to them has helped to shed much light and unravel many mysteries for us! And we trust that discussing family and ministry issues from slightly different vantage points has had a sharpening effect on all of us.
Some may be surprised to learn that moving to the UK would require ‘cultural adjustment’ for an American. We have had it easy compared to others we know who have gone to places such as Cambodia, Zambia, and Papua New Guinea. But moving to North Wales did require adjustment on our part. Beyond the many lifestyle adjustments (such as learning to make an acceptable pot of tea!), we also found it necessary to make subtle alterations to our approach to ministry. As anyone would, we came from the US with our own set of cultural biases as well as a further collection of biases particular to the Christian sub-culture from which we came. It was sometimes surprising to discover that what we had always considered to be ‘the way things ought to be’ was not nearly as essential as we had assumed! Serving in a new culture required us to re-think and re-prioritise our life and ministry in many different areas, and this was a good thing for us.
Of course, some priorities don’t change: the authority of God’s word for life and ministry, the vital importance of the gospel and the centrality of the local church, to name a few. But as we apply those priorities in changing situations, many of our applications in secondary matters will be forced to change if we want to be effective as servants of Christ in a fallen world. As one American friend who serves elsewhere in Europe put it to me recently, ‘Every pastor should spend some time in cross-cultural ministry’. The process of thinking through biblical priorities as they apply to differing cultures is a valuable experience for anyone, although one need not necessarily go abroad to experience it.
A new culture
I do think that this adjustment process is something we have in common with many believers with whom we have contact here in Wales and in the rest of the UK. The difference is that, while we chose to enter a different cultural setting, believers here have had a new culture forced upon them! This ‘new culture’ of which I speak has very little to do with nationality or ethnicity, however. I am referring to the massive cultural shift with regards to religion and spiritual matters that has taken place over the last 50 years or more. While in the UK, I have experienced a small degree of culture shock – the frustration, disorientation, anxiety, defensiveness, etc. that occurs when one leaves his comfort zone. I believe I see similar signs of culture shock among some believers I have met as well. It is difficult living in a society hostile to Christian truth, but the New Testament was originally written to believers in exactly that situation. We must remember that all Christians, regardless of the country in which they reside, are actually ‘pilgrims and exiles’ whose true home is heaven (1 Peter 2:14; Phil. 3:20).
This leads me to another aspect of our experience as Americans coming to minister in the UK. As you probably know, the US is still a very religious nation and evangelical Christianity has retained a measure of influence in society there. When we came to the UK, it was apparent that the situation was very different to back home. In a strange way, however, it was somewhat refreshing. Prior to moving to Wales we had lived in the American South, sometimes known as the Bible Belt, where virtually everyone claims to be a Christian and knows enough to ‘believe in Jesus’ and claim identification with a local church. Talk about confusion! Evangelism can be a tricky matter when everyone is already ‘saved’. Here, even taking into account nominal Christians within Anglicanism or even from the chapels, there are fewer people claiming to be Christians. This being the case, there is all the more opportunity for believers truly to shine as lights in the world. Living in what many have called a post-Christian society might seem daunting, but we must ask ourselves the questions, ‘Can God help me to be a Christian in this kind of society?’ and ‘Is the gospel powerful enough to save even postmodern pagans?’ Coming to the UK means we must wrestle with questions like these in a way we might not have back home. What an adventure! And we are thankful for the opportunity to labour alongside so many of our brothers and sisters here who long to see the gospel advance in these challenging days. Thank you so much for welcoming us to work with you!
Steve McLean is the pastor of Rhuddlan Evangelical Church.