In 2010, we moved from The Netherlands to Germany. Now, these are neighboring countries in Europe, so you’d think the differences would be small.
First of all, there’s a difference in language. In The Netherlands (also known as Holland) we speak Dutch. In Germany, they speak German. The two languages are related, meaning if you both speak slowly you can understand about half of what the other person is saying, but it’s easy to make embarrassing mistakes. One example: the German word ‘schlimm’ means ‘bad.’. The Dutch word ‘slim’ (which is pronounced almost the same way) means ‘smart’. Yeah, that’s a big difference.
But there’s also a big cultural difference. The Dutch are individualistic (much like the Americans actually), in general anti-authority, a bit rebellious, and quite modern/liberal. The Germans on the contrary value the group above the individual, are very respectful of authority (obedient even), and much more conservative. Neighbors, yes, but distinctly different.
When I started doing youth work in Germany, these differences became important. I couldn’t approach youth work the same way as I had in The Netherlands; I needed to adapt to the culture I was in. Part of that culture was language. We were living about 30 miles north of Munich, in Bavaria. People don’t speak German here: they speak Bavarian. It’s not an ‘accent’, like someone from the Deep South would have, it’s a different language. And it’s really hard to learn; the only way is to immerse yourself in the culture and language and learn by doing and practicing. And so I did.
When we left after three years, I could understand Bavarian for the most part and spoke it enough to communicate well. But there were still times when I needed someone to translate what was said into ‘normal’ German. Even then, I’d need a dictionary at times. Luckily the teens and the other youth leaders were patient and willing to translate whenever necessary.
There were many times when I was frustrated though. I spoke German relatively well: why couldn’t they just switch to German when I was there? It’s the official language, they all learn it and speak it in school.
But that’s not how it works.
When you want to reach people, communicate with them on a deeper level, you have to learn their language, not the other way around. If I wanted to work with these teens, I had to do it in Bavarian, not in German (or Dutch). I had to learn their culture instead of expecting them to adapt to mine. And Bavarian culture is distinctive, even within Germany. They have many traditions that they’re very proud of, like the Bavarian dresses and ‘Lederhosen’ (leather pants). The picture in this post is from our summer camp (that’s me in the front row, completely at the right)which had ‘Bavaria’ as a theme. All the teens had these clothes at home and they wear them regularly, for instance at holidays or weddings and such.
In 2013 we moved a little north of Albany, New York. Another language, another culture. Once again, I find myself learning the language and the culture to be able to work with the teens here. I already spoke English and luckily there’s no second language here (unless you count Spanish, which I speak enough to get by anyways). But there’s still a cultural issue.
I didn’t grow up here. I didn’t go to school here. I come from a different country, a different political system, different customs and habits. The Netherlands may be heavily influenced by American TV and movies, but it’s still at its core very, very different. But it’s me who has to adapt, not the teens or leaders I work with. Sure, I share some anecdotes about Holland every now and then, or teach them a little about my culture. But at the end of the day, if I want to connect with them and be able to share Jesus with them, I need to speak their language, know their culture, not the other way around.
It’s us who need to adapt.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from doing youth ministry in different countries, it’s this: language matters. Culture matters. And it’s us who need to adapt.
Teens have their own language and their own culture. If we want to truly connect with them, we need to stop expecting them to adapt to our culture. We need to immerse ourselves in theirs and adapt.
They don’t speak church language, so we need to learn to translate these words and concepts into their language.
They don’t ‘get’ references to movies and TV series from way before their time (yes, you should stop using The Matrix…just saying), so we need to use examples from their culture.
They don’t grow up with the Bible like many of us did, so we shouldn’t assume they have any Biblical knowledge whatsoever.
They are post-Christian, post-post-modern and that’s the reality we should address, not the modern, Christian reality of our youth (I’m addressing Americans here specifically, since I already grew up postmodern and post-Christian in Europe…)
They have a different language than we do, have different meanings for the same words (respect, truth, God, to name a few) and we need to learn theirs (by the way: this doesn’t mean you should, like, try to speak teen, and, like, you know, make a fool out of yourself…)
To summarize: we need to find them where they are, physically and metaphorically, and walk alongside them, not expect them to find us and walk beside us in our journey. Big difference.
I saw this video pop up on a friend’s Facebook feed and it shows exactly what I mean. Here’s this hearing girl who learns ASL and immerses herself in deaf culture, so she can serve deaf people. She adapted to them, not the other way around. God bless her.
How have you adapted to the language and the culture of the teens you serve? Where is there still friction and what could you do to adapt even more to their reality?