What’s the best way to foster unity across cultures in our churches? According to Sandra Maria Van Opstal, an experienced worship leader and trainer, the way we worship together sets the table for Christians to relate across ethnic and cultural boundaries. In The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World (InterVarsity Press), Van Opstal (MDiv, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) explores how worship traditions from different cultures can further the connection between local congregations and believers worldwide. Richard Clark, managing editor of Leadership Journal, spoke with Van Opstal about enlarging the cultural and stylistic boundaries of worship.
How did you develop a passion for multicultural worship?
As a child, I attended a Catholic parish with my mom, my grandmother, and eventually my whole family. Then, when I was a teenager, my father moved us to a Baptist church. And when I went away to college, I ended up at an urban, African American church.
Looking back, I can see how each experience gave me a different foundation. My time in the Catholic Church gave me an appreciation for liturgy. In the Baptist church, I learned about making a personal decision for Jesus. And in the African American church, I was exposed to charismatic worship. In each case, I picked up a different sense of who God is and of the many ways we can worship him.
When did you first experience a conflict over worship styles?
Growing up in the 1980s, I can remember a generational conflict. The younger people were listening to more contemporary music. We wanted to bring some of that into the church, but the older folks wanted to continue singing out of the hymnal.
The lesson I took away is that people have strong preferences based on what they consider to be normal or good. It’s hard to see something different as just different rather than better or worse. It can’t just be that we favor a different style of instrumentation or a different worship environment. One of us has to be right, and the other has to be wrong.
In general, though, whether the conflict is generational or cultural, we have to be careful about the way we talk about change. Often, either out of immaturity or frustration, we give an impression of: “What we’re doing isn’t good. What we’re doing doesn’t work.” And that sets the tone. Instead, we should focus on: “What we have here is beautiful and valuable. But it’s not everything. So how do we create space for more?” We’re not erasing the old. We’re developing something new, which includes both what has been and what could be.
What steps should churches take to transition to multicultural worship?
First, you need to understand your own worship culture. If you’re going to create something new, you need to know where you currently stand. Every community has favorite songs or passages that express some essential message or theme. In African American churches, for instance, Psalm 139 is important because of the emphasis on being fearfully and wonderfully made (v. 14). The more you learn about African American history, the more you understand why there’s a continual need to draw from this passage.
Second, you need to know why you’re considering change. For what purpose should your worship be more diverse? Because you’ve merged with another church? Because your neighborhood is changing, and you want to show neighbors that they are welcome? Because you want to show solidarity with Syrian refugees or other branches of the global church? Whatever the reason, it’s important to cultivate a sense of mutuality. We want to communicate not only that we stand with you, but also that we need you, that we’re not complete without you.
From there, you want to find a mentor—ideally a local pastor. I used to bring in worship leaders from other churches to train my leaders and worship teams. Otherwise, books, CDs, and YouTube videos can assist with specifics.
Make sure that the leaders and stakeholders of the church are on board. Unless they are involved in the process and invested in the vision, conflict could result.
Let’s say you’re addressing a mainly white church in a mainly white community. Why should that church pursue multicultural worship?
More and more, there will be very few pockets of the country where we can say, “There’s no one like me around.” But whatever the racial or ethnic makeup of your church, multicultural worship is critical to the church’s discipleship. Worship leaders have a pastoral responsibility to help open the eyes of our congregations to the diversity that exists within God’s family. There’s a responsibility, yes, but it’s also a blessing and a benefit. It’s a way to acknowledge that we don’t have everything we need in our own community, and that we’re blessed by those who are different.
Hearing, for instance, the prayers, music, and testimonies of Egyptian Christians—who are a persecuted minority—connects you to them. It may even prepare you to experience persecution in your own context.
Multicultural worship makes us reflect on the experiences of our brothers and sisters. You may belong to a majority-white church. There may be no African Americans in your community. But if you begin worshiping with African American spirituals, you’re forced to ask, “Why are they singing those words?” “Why are they repeating themselves so often?” We step into someone else’s story through worship, and we seek God from a different vantage point. We take on their burdens of suffering, their joy, and their understanding of who God is.
How can churches do this with sensitivity and respect?
There’s a difference between appreciation and appropriation. Appropriation is consuming someone else’s product. It’s about singing a particular song because it’s “fun” or because it “spices up” our worship. It’s like telling Latino people, “I really like your tacos and salsa dancing, but I don’t want to care about your immigration story or your current reality.”
Appreciation is about connection—ideally through relationship, but at least through stepping into someone else’s story. It’s about saying, “I have Christian brothers and sisters living within a different reality, and while I may not know all the history or the politics, I know they’re made in God’s image, and I want to understand things from their perspective.”
Why do you rely on the Lord’s Table as a guiding metaphor for diverse worship?
The Lord’s Table is an image of unity. It’s where we all come together to remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It’s a place of intimacy. Those who come to the table are coming from different backgrounds and cultures, as was the case in the early church. Sharing a meal with someone is such an intimate thing. It’s an ideal image for meeting together across cultures. We’re at the table together, not just noticing each other or passing each other by.
What attitudes or habits prevent well-meaning Christians from fully embracing multicultural worship?
There’s an awkwardness at the beginning. It’s like learning a new language, and we feel weird. But the biggest issue is fear—from the congregation, the fear of trying something new or not being good at it. I was once hired to speak at a women’s conference where the organizers tried to persuade me not to talk about diverse worship the way I usually would. They said, “You work with young women in college, and they’re open to new experiences and ready for a challenge. But our women are over 50, and they come from white suburban backgrounds.”
And from the perspective of a worship leader, there’s a fear that the people will reject it. Giving someone a gift puts you in a vulnerable position, because you’re not sure how warmly it will be received.
But overall, people are more open than we give them credit for. It’s not so much that they’re unwilling; it’s that the process of guiding them can be unhelpful. We spring things on people, or we don’t explain them well. People are more open, but they need to be pastored through the experience.
Some would say that worship should be grounded in the Bible, not in any particular culture. How would you respond? And are there any nonnegotiable elements that need to be present, no matter the culture?
At least to some degree, all worship is cultural. German hymns came out of a German cultural expression. The prayers of the early church came out of the experience of persecution. There is no form of worship that isn’t rooted in a particular point in time. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
That said, there are common elements that every cultural expression of worship should have. The late theologian Robert Webber, in his book Worship Old and New, points to four features: an invitation to worship, a preaching of the Word, a celebration of the Lord’s Table, and a benediction or “sending” of some kind.
Worship should be God-centered. It should help us understand more about who God is, whatever the differences in content, form, and style. Of course we’ll have disputes. But worship should always be focused on God.
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