Worship as a Cultural Expression of Latino People

Introduction

Each culture has a specific form of worship. Each culture shows part of its own identity in the way it worships and relates to God.

Worship can be seen as a sacred form of communication with God through which we express our deepest emotions. We adore evoking the past and at the same time projecting ourselves into the future. As Hispanic people we have multiple memories, many of them painful, and at the same time we have high hopes for the future. And we reflect all of this when we worship God, thanking God for what he has done in our lives, but especially projecting ourselves into a glorious future as God walks with us on the journey.

In this article I want to express that when the Hispanic people adore God, they are not only raising songs to Almighty God; they are also expressing a feeling that arises from the bottom of the hearts of a community that is diverse, joyful, and grateful, yet at the same time full of conflicts and painful memories. Yes, when we worship, we express who we are as a culture.

Sing Joyfully to God, Inhabitants of All the Earth

Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.
      Worship the Lord with gladness;
      come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the LORD is God.
      It is he who made us, and we are his;
      we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
      and his courts with praise;
      give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
      his faithfulness continues through all generations.
—Psalm 100

Life is reflected in the way we worship God.

The great variety of traditions, customs, and origins among Latino people is manifested in every aspect of our daily lives, and of course music as a cultural legacy is a very important part of our Latino expression.

In different Latin American countries one sees rhythms such as salsa, merengue, bachata, ranchera, cumbia, pasillos, bolero, samba, lambada, vallenato, danzones, rumba, chachachá, and in the last decades, genres such as reggaeton, hip-hop, and Mexican corridos.

Within the diversity of the Hispanic community, there are representatives of the Black, Indigenous, mestizo, and white races. Each group has its particularities and its specific way of worshiping God.

Likewise, the Roman Catholic legacy has allowed shrines to be considered as sacred places where good behavior and continued reverence must be prioritized. However, that same legacy of Catholicism has brought various forms of syncretism in ways of praying and worshiping or in combining certain pagan practices and rites with praise of God.

But the introduction of Protestantism in Latin America, especially the exuberant form that has developed in the last decades, opened up yet other possibilities for our community to express itself while worshiping God.

Praise God in the Sanctuary

Praise the LORD.

Praise God in his sanctuary;
      praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
      praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
      praise him with the harp and lyre,
praise him with timbrel and dancing,
      praise him with the strings and pipe,
praise him with the clash of cymbals,
      praise him with resounding cymbals.

Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.

Praise the Lord.
—Psalm 150

The way we praise God is part of our immense cultural variety and reflects a diverse and joyful community. Our life of worship is something that comes from the innermost part of our being. Trying to impose certain styles of worship on Latino believers is like trying to remove part of their identity.

However, Pentecostalism has developed a very exclusive form of worship that requires great movements, dances, jumps, turns, and bodily demonstrations under the affirmation that this is the way the Holy Spirit moves in the midst of congregations. Many believers in Latin America have adopted this form of worship because Pentecostalism represents the branch of Christianity furthest from Catholicism, and therefore for many it represents the opportunity for true, comprehensive change.

For many, worship is a time in which they evoke the pains they have experienced in the past and recognize that the power of God has worked in their lives; therefore tears appear in their eyes. Their responses change as the congregation sings various songs to the Lord.

If we understand that worship is prostrating the heart before God, we can understand that for many people in our community, the heart has been crushed by their difficult pasts, by wars, persecutions, pain, and memories that they now try to heal through music dedicated to praising God. This praise has been embodied in the contemporary music of singers such as Marcos Witt and Danilo Montero. They and others like them have become media figures; thousands follow them and buy their songs. It is also not uncommon to hear mariachi music used in worship in a predominantly Mexican church or merengue music in a Caribbean church. Undoubtedly, the instruments used also reflect a cultural aspect reflected in every detail of worship.

Postmodernism has also greatly influenced the way in which some churches, especially large ones, use lights, sound, smoke, and other effects to further captivate their parishioners with a sensitive and emotional experience.

Extol the Lord at All Times

      “I will extol the LORD at all times; his praise will always be on my lips” (Psalm 34:1).

Is God the God only of white folk as some think Buddha is of Asians, Muhammad of Arabs, or Pachama of the Aymara? No!

Jesus Christ came from the heavens to break down barriers of separation and form one people from all peoples. That vision can be seen at the end of time in Revelation 7:9: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”

Jesus is our Lord, too. But because the life of worship is something that comes from the innermost part of our being, it cannot look the same as it does for other cultures.

So what does this mean for Latinos?

Latino cultures tend to be emotionally expressive. Therefore, when we worship God, we do not do it only with our lips. We need to clap, raise hands, and sometimes move our bodies as a way to express what we are feeling. The understanding is that the deeper the experience of the love of God is in the life of each person, the more their emotionality will be manifested in worship.

If you ask a Latino who heads to church on a Sunday morning, “What are you going to do there in the congregation?”, the answer will be, “I am going to worship.” But surely if you ask what that means, perhaps many would not know how to explain it.

What does joy mean to a Latino? It’s not just an internal, spiritual experience, but an external, sensory experience. If you don’t clap, raise your hands, or move, you surely have no joy or are not experiencing the same joy as others during that special time.

We come from countries where carnivals, patron festivals, and fairs take place in each region, and all those traditions are part of the cultural legacy we often transmit. Therefore it is sometimes easy to see these kinds of expressions in the churches themselves in an attempt to transfer something from our countries of origin to the countries where we now live.

Our Contribution to Our New Contexts

As a diverse community full of rich cultural expressions, members of the Latino diaspora long to bring renewal to the new families of believers or denominations that we are a part of. We desire to share our joy in the worship of God. Because worship includes our whole being, we want to contribute the different expressions that correspond to our culture and that, in a well-directed way, are now dedicated to God.

Learning Reformed doctrine has allowed our community to further understand who we are as Christians and has helped us recognize the need for God, not ourselves, to be at the center of worship. This centeredness allows us to use forms of worship and consecration without losing our cultural or doctrinal identity.

We will continue to express everything within us—gratitude, trust, consecration, petitions, laments, weeping—from our Latin American perspective and under the conviction that God will ultimately make all peoples one, uniting around the throne to worship the one who lives and reigns forever, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Born in Cali, Colombia, Rev. Dr. John Harold Caicedo has M.Div. and D.Min. degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is pastor of the Iglesia Cristiana “El Sembrador” CRC in Fontana, California, and is president of the Christian Reformed Church’s Consejo Latino (Council of Latino Churches).