Help - they’re different from me!

Nicky Lock

One of the questions I am frequently asked is “how do we deal with xxxxx type of people in our church?”  The type of person or group of persons is usually someone who does not fit the cultural norm of the church the person comes from – somebody like a young single Mum, an alcoholic, a migrant who struggles with English.  The question usually arises out of a genuine concern of how to be helpful and caring to an individual or a group of people, but people are concerned of getting it wrong, of not being helpful or making some kind of a cultural blunder. These are valid questions when dealing with people who are different from us – how do we work out if we are doing the right thing or not? When I first came to Australia 25 years ago I struggled with the etiquette of how to invite people to my home – what was expected at certain times of day in terms of the appropriate food to serve and whether to expect return invitations or not.

Asking the question is an indication that people are taking one of the first steps in being culturally aware – not expecting that how we usually behave is automatically going to be helpful and attempting to act in a way that will be more familiar to the other person. Additionally, we need to recognise and be able to articulate what set of values we do operate from, since this will help us to be more sensitive to difference. Churches can have a range of unconscious biases in the language that is used and behaviour that can alienate those who do not fit the dominant paradigm – my 50 year old single friend constantly feels excluded by the family focused language of the morning service we both attend. Being aware of the assumptions that form the basis of how we see the world assists us with pre-empting those kinds of unintended cultural blunders.

However, I sometimes wonder if something more fundamental is going on when these questions are asked. I have noticed that the question often relates to how to relate to persons who could be seen to be breaking our Christian moral code – a young couple who are living together though not married, someone who regularly uses marijuana for recreation, or even someone whose Christian theology is different to ours.  

When facing such a values clash, we need to know our own value system and acknowledge clearly to ourselves that it exists. This will help in dealing with the difference in values between us and the other person, and help us with the decision about whether we are going to tackle the difference head on.

Counsellors are expected to be “non-judgemental” and use the following set of steps to allow for the other person to express their position without feeling judged by us:

Steps to dealing with value conflicts

• Recognise the conflict

• Check out whether your values are being challenged

• Do not simply set out to change the other person’s values to your own.

• Try to join with the person and see the issue from their viewpoint

• When there is real conflict of values ask ‘can I put my own values to one side in order to engage with this person in a meaningful relationship or not?’

This process can be particularly difficult if we feel we want to challenge someone about their behaviour and how it fits with a Christian way of living.

Loving our neighbour despite our differences is an age old phenomenon. But by noticing them, not turning away when their culture and their predicament threatens our neat lives, finding out what they really need and providing that, is a great start.