Conversing on Culture in Worship

6 comments Written on September 17th, 2011     
Filed under: Better Together, Culture, Multicultural
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Today’s post is written by Jo Anne Taylor, Director of Music and Worship at Bethlehem Covenant Church in Minneapolis, MN.

I have a friend whose e-mail signature includes Revelation 7:9-10:

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

Maybe that seems like an awfully long e-mail signature to you, but it is my friend’s dream of what worship should be: every nation, tribe, people, and language praising God together. I’m one of those people who think God wants us to start rehearsing for this kind of worship now, here on earth. But how do we go about that, especially if we come from a homogeneous cultural setting?

When one of the Better Together members asked, “Does anybody serve in a multi-ethnic congregation … and if so, how is that reflected in your worship services?” it reminded me of a question that has bothered me for a long time: how can a dominant-culture leader authentically serve a congregation that includes a variety of minority cultures, especially when that leader has had no experience living as a minority?

So this week, I’ve asked Jelani Greenidge to help me get the conversation started. Our prayer is that you will engage with us, and that together, we can begin to figure out how to encourage worship that is culturally authentic, and pleasing to God.

Jelani, what is your dream for multi-ethnic, multi-cultural worship? How can we move toward worship that honors the many cultures represented in any congregation?

Well Jo Anne, in the spirit of finding common ground, I can say with certainty that we already agree on a few things, like for example that Rev. 7:9-10 is way too long for an email signature (imagine that in the Amplified version? yikes).

I also agree that if that’s what our worship will look like in heaven, and we consider our congregational gatherings to be a sort of earthly choir rehearsal to prepare us, then we ought to start practicing that multicultural, multi-ethnic dimension now.

But still it’s a little different. The inherent tension in this idea of “on earth as it is in heaven” comes from the fact that heaven and earth aren’t exactly in the same area code. There is so much that we don’t know about what heaven is like, how can we possibly anticipate this with any kind of specificity?

It’s like premarital counseling. Premarital counseling is good, and often necessary, but insufficient compared to actual life experience. How could I possibly, by sitting through a series of counseling sessions, accurately understand or anticipate what it would be like to be married? Like the apostle Paul in 1 Cor 13, I could see a little bit… dimly. But there was really no way for us to fully understand or appreciate it until we were actually in it. In that sense, being married (or having kids, for that matter) is not something you can totally figure out ahead of time, but something that you just do, and with faith and humility, figure out as you go.

This marriage analogy seems especially salient when you’re talking about multi-ethnic church worship, because in the few chances I’ve had to counsel others who are considering entering into interracial marriages, one of the foundational truths I’ve always leaned on is the idea that when you’re talking about marriage and culture, every marriage is intercultural. Everyone has their own personal diversity wheel that informs a sense of who they are, and they bring that into all of their relationships.

This is also true of churches and church ministries. Every church is multicultural to some extent, whether it’s in age, denominational backgrounds, family sizes, or personality differences. The relevant question for us is, what dimensions of diversity are being represented in our worship services, especially with regard to our worship music?

You asked, “how can a dominant-culture leader authentically serve a congregation that includes a variety of minority cultures, especially when that leader has had no experience living as a minority?”  A good place to start is in breaking down what the dominant culture consists of, because there probably is a lot of diversity just within that cultural designation. Culture is race and ethnicity, but it’s also place of origin, family structure, culinary tradition, professional background, etc.

Jo Anne: The lenses we use to see the world, in other words?

Jelani: Exactly.  Consider that the term “White” is a social construct, and that many of the ethnicities now considered White went through a period where they were excluded. Then ask yourself, what are the cultural dimensions in our congregation that we as leaders don’t represent personally?

Jo Anne: Some congregations are working intentionally to be more inclusive as they plan and lead worship. To see how North Park University works toward ethnic diversity in its Chapel planning, for example, click here. I keep thinking about the idea that the Covenant started out as an immigrant church. And we still are, in many respects, it’s just that we represent more people groups now than we ever have before.

Jelani: Definitely true, and it’s like what Efrem Smith said… just when we think we’ve escaped our immigrant heritage, here comes another group to remind us where we’ve come from.

Jo Anne: Frankly, I worry that I am going to inadvertently say or do something that someone from another culture may find offensive. One of my seminary professors was fond of saying, “the gospel will always offend, but we don’t have to add to that offense!” Yet I know that taking this risk is necessary if dialogue is ever going to begin, and effective multi-cultural ministry can ever become the norm.

Jelani: I also think that cultural understanding and competency is not a binary thing, where you either have it or you don’t. It comes in waves and layers. So once as a leadership you have identified a couple of areas where your worship ministry (I’m focusing on music here, but the same can be said about other art forms) could have some of its boundaries pushed out a little, you gain some insight, and you make a few changes, and then you observe, and then you keep tweaking and watching and praying and listening and dreaming until one day you look up and you marvel at how far God has taken you. It’s a never-ending process.

Jo Anne: I am eager to hear from others on this topic, too. Shall we invite them into our conversation?

Jelani: Absolutely… what do you all think?

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6 comments “Conversing on Culture in Worship”

Jo Anne and Jelani,
Thanks for getting this very important conversation started. From my perspective multicultural worship is so much more than the worship itself. I serve a congregation in Stockholm,Sweden with over 50 nations representing our worship constituency. It’s a community that gathers about 450 people each Sunday for worship. No, it’s not a mega-church…but it is a genunine community that seeks to reflect the love of Christ.
We sing the same songs you do. (maybe a few more ethnically specific songs). We pray in the same way you do, we preach in the same way that you do. (trying to be aware and sensitive to the ways people may respond to illustrations we use) And for some reason, people not only choose to be a part of this community…they experience like I do- Revelation 7.
So what’s the secret to developing a multicultural ministry? God knows I’m no authority, but I do believe we need to be intentional about it -if the demographics of our communities make it possible!
If the demographic’s aren’t multi-cultural- focus on the demographics God has entrusted to you. But don’t try to do multi-cultural ministry if the pre-existing community doesn’t have the heart for it. Start with the heart of the pre-existing worshipping community…and if you think the Gospel needs to transform the heart of your community, then get together with others to pray for transformation, to talk about transformation, and then to act on it once God gives you your sense of direction. Be ready to fail over and over and over again. And realize if it’s not messy, it’s probably not multi-cultural.
Fundamentally, I think mutli-cultural worship has so much more to do with community life than it does with the act of worship itself. From my experience, multicultural worship is simply an outgrowth, the fruit of all the other stuff you do to build genuine relationships. It has more to do with all the stuff you do between Sundays, all you do to break down walls of class, race, gender bias, and other mattters that Jelani raises.
Once those barriers are broken down, the congregation, starts to tolerate each other, then they start to like each other, then they grow to love and respect each other. And then they begin to see and taste the vision of Revelation 7.
The hard part, is that the job is never done. We need to intentionally work at it week after week. We preach and teach the themes of Revelation 7 ad-nauseum. And when we are done…we preach and teach it again.
Why do people come and stay? Not all do! Some will simply say, “this kind of community is not for me, this kind of worship gathering is not for me.” So be it! But if you ask people who do come and stay they will tell you- something happened in their hearts to show them a bigger picture of life as God intends it, and it’s a deeply satisfying picture.
I am interested in learning from others experience. Particularly, break through experiences that have served to connect people under the banner of Christ. All for now.

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Ok, first, AWESOME topic!

Frankly, my favorite part was when you said: “Every church is multicultural to some extent, whether it’s in age, denominational backgrounds, family sizes, or personality differences. The relevant question for us is, what dimensions of diversity are being represented in our worship services, especially with regard to our worship music?”

On some level, you could almost treat every person as their own unique micro-culture, but I think this part of the diversity of our churches tends to be overlooked because of the racial issues our country still struggles with.  Our church is becoming more blended culturally with a large variety of denominational backgrounds mixing into a pretty solid core of old-school swedish covenanters.  Add in the fact that we have a huge age range (birth to 90’s) and at least three distinct worship cultures, and it’s made for some interesting issues.  Now, we do tend to, ethnically speaking, be more monolithic, but even that is starting to change a little bit with a few Indian families, a few asian families, and even a few black families.

The challenge has presented itself mostly in our ability to create worship gatherings that reflect the diversity of age and denominational backgrounds.  Some of the ex-catholics are pretty sensitive about liturgy that might sound like what they came from, whereas others would really appreciate it.  Some are petrified of anything smacking of “postmodernism” while others would prefer it.

As Andy Stanley says though, this isn’t a problem to be solved, but rather a tension to be managed.  The way we see it, it’s about cultures learning to co-exist (managing tension) with limited resources rather than trying to “convert” each other’s preferences (solving the problem).  Honestly, it’s a daily struggle.  But I’m pretty sure we’re not unique in this at all.

My two cents; cheers.

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WONDERFUL article, thanks to both of you- and beautiful responses so far, really solid truths in my opinion!

May I add that another “gorilla in the room” one rarely hears about in such discussions that of SUBculture.

As new believers come to faith in Jesus and/or lapsed Christians (or merely church-goers) come to saving faith and seek authentic discipleship you often find a wide spectrum of all the issues raised so far (race, class, ethnicity, denominational and other differences) but you also begin to see (especially re. younger people) very different subcultural styles where appreciation of not only music or worship styles but one’s general approach to the arts (and I mean broad artS) may be quite different than those who have long been in the majority in a given local church.

This, my friends, can be a minefield of growth or a “hill to die on”. Pay attention to that area as well when you consider music and the larger issue of worship and other art forms.

And may God give us a grace we’re willing to share. Blessed are the flexible in matters other than salvation through and the lordship of Jesus Christ.

No young(er) people no worries… and no future.

I think (as I’m pushing 60 in a couple years) grace is very key to loving in true community- and the subcultures will of course continue to spring up. I suppose we can build a bridge or a moat.

How we respond to subcultures are in my view, rather connected to issues of ethnic, racial and class division.

Provincialism is no gift of the Spirit. Love on the other hand… 🙂

Ha, and now I’ve said far too much… -Glenn

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On July 20, 2014 our church is holding a worship service, “Looks Like Heaven”. An effort to bring multiple cultures and ethnicities together.   I am excited that I came across this conversation.  3 years later, its still very relevant. We asked several local churches to participate but the response has been disappointedly low. But we are moving ahead and faithfully planning for an amazing day.

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May God bless your efforts to encourage people toward looking, thinking, and behaving more and more like the Kingdom of God, Roz!

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