In Christ There Is No East or West: Ideas for embracing diversity in worship

North American communities are dotted with evidence that we are no longer primarily a biracial culture. People from other nations can be found in apartment buildings, schools, grocery stores, malls, and recreational venues. But too few of them are entering their local churches. Because culture is a strong component of any group’s sense of cohesiveness and community, most churches are primarily monocultural.

The book of Acts, however, demonstrates that multicultural fellowship is both possible and  rewarding!

The church at Antioch included prophets and teachers from a variety of different educational, racial, linguistic, cultural, and economic backgrounds: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch), and Saul (Acts 13:1). Try to imagine the sense of togetherness, reciprocity and mutual self-esteem (yes, and the disagreements) that characterized this early record of fellowship in Christ. What bound them together was their common allegiance to and trust in Jesus Christ.

That same loyalty is beginning to be pledged and demonstrated in some present-day North American communities as well. After all, God has united us all in Jesus. Christ has brought us peace. He has broken down the walls that separated us and created a single people out of many races. He has destroyed the antagonism between us and made us members of God’s family (see Eph. 2:11-22). Together we are being built with all other believers into a dwelling where God himself lives by his Spirit

Welcoming Ways

We have been engrafted to God’s ekklesia, God’s true household. Now we, in turn, are to welcome others. How can we make our churches’ life and programs accessible and inviting for those from other cultures? Here are some practical tips for worship leaders:

  • Allow extra time to locate the Scripture text or the designated hymn. International visitors may also appreciate additional moments to review and reflect on the text or lyrics just sung or read.
  • Enunciate clearly and repeat instructions comfortably. Be aware that participating in a worship service can be a daunting test of new language skills.
  • Pause between points of the service to allow visitors adequate time to keep pace.
  • Include lyrics and music of the main anthem in the bulletin. Trying to learn new songs when only the lyrics of praise songs are displayed via transparency can be frustrating.
  • Include music from other cultures in the service, along with translations of texts.
  • Include bilingual hymns in the service. Some hymnbooks, while retaining English as the prominent language, also add one or two stanzas in another language (Spanish, French, or transliterations of some Asian languages such as Japanese, Chinese, or Korean).
  • Invite people from ethnic minorities to take leadership roles in worship.
  • Use sermon illustrations that draw from a variety of cultures.
  • Enhance communication in selected aspects of the service through appropriate use of drama or mime, dialogue, music, art, story. Employ thoughtfully the resources from the global church.
  • Consider that the centrality of the pulpit in the theology of Western churches since the Reformation may hinder non-Westerners in becoming acclimated to our communities of faith. Allow for a greater sense of involvement by all worshipers by reducing the visual distance between minister or worship leader and congregation.
Challenges

Congregations that have experienced something of the beauty of cross-cultural fellowship in worship can attest to its challenges. Language and cultural background are significant means of communicating and making sense of life. It takes work, therefore, to build lasting and satisfying multicultural relationships. Perhaps it does not happen as often as it needs to because churches tend to view their work as the only thing worthy of time and effort. The temptation is to suggest that visitors simply become “like us” in order to minimize the challenges of building relationships across cultures. In so doing we risk losing the God-created wonder and diversity of life in the body of Christ.

It takes diligent, intentional effort to invite internationals to become part of a church that has been historically monocultural. Because North American society generally does not encourage authentic, mutual and committed relationships across racial or cultural lines, we must work hard to counter an “isolationist” view and encourage cross-cultural fellowship. We must commit to God our intentions and pray for God’s help to avoid the distractions and temptations of self-centeredness, discouragement, and our inherent unwillingness to initiate worthwhile change.

Possibilities

How do churches move from a commitment to cross-cultural fellowship to practical action? Some churches have experimented with beginning experiences of fellowship by pairing with a church whose members come from a different ethnic group than its own. One Illinois church shares its facilities with its Spanish-speaking sister congregation. Both congregations hold worship services simultaneously in different parts of the facility each Sunday, but at least quarterly, all come together for a combined service using the gifts, worship leaders, and languages of both congregations.

Other churches simply make their facilities available to congregations of another ethnic group. While these churches try to generate experiences of unity through occasional social activities or special programs, they may find it a struggle to cultivate genuine fellowship.

Still other churches, recognizing that doctrinal similarities can foster a sense of unity, have sought to implement mergers with congregations that share essential theological agreement.

The International Mission Center of Gwinett County’s Metro Baptist Association and the Georgia Baptist Convention is one answer to overwhelming requests for meeting places by fledgling ethnic churches. The Center allows new congregations to meet in facilities that fit their worship or other program needs better than those of a nonchurch facility (such as a hotel or school), while keeping the financial burden to a minimum.

Here is another suggestion for your congregation to consider. Encourage visitors or new members who are not part of the ethnic majority in the church to participate in the life of the congregation at three levels: household (small, home-based groups who meet regularly), language fellowship (joining for worship those who share a common language), and large group (Sunday worship or special celebrations). A multicultural church in eastern Pennsylvania, for example, holds separate language services twice each month and bilingual services on alternating Sundays.

Conclusion

Because cross-cultural ministry has been a missing dimension of much of our discipleship, we may feel inadequate for the demands that “internationalization” will bring. Nevertheless, let us work and pray that all the peoples of our world come to fear the Lord God and know him. Let us appreciate that God may be prompting us to take specific steps that will result in opening our churches to genuine cross-cultural fellowship in Christ. These will be households of faith in which God delights to dwell by his Spirit.

“When all is said and done, when we finally stand before God, we will have brought with us all the glory and honor of the nations (Rev. 21:16). Meanwhile we need each other. We all walk by faith and see through a glass darkly, for we are all standing at the place where our practice meets the presence of God; where the saints of all ages struggled to see the way” (William A. Dyrness, Invitation to Cross Cultural Theology, p. 168).

The process will not occur quickly, but under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, more and more churches will resemble the worship gatherings of Antioch (Acts 13) or of heaven (Rev. 7). Worshipers of every tribe, language, people, and nation will gather with one heart to celebrate the singular greatness of God.

Excerpt

Jing, from China, was invited to a church’s Advent musical program. This was her first visit to a church of any kind. Unaware of the outreach focus to women that included tea after the performance, she expressed surprise that “this church is only for women.”

While Amjad, a Pakistani, was pursuing theological studies in the United States, he participated in an international Christian fellowship (house group). In his opinion, “every divinity student should be required to participate in something like this.”

Increasingly, Alejandro and his wife, Liliana, who were from Mexico, felt disinclined to join in the programs of their English-speaking congregation. They were welcomed warmly at the beginning and occasionally invited for dinner by a friend or two. But as new believers, their hunger for God, for real fellowship, and for avenues of meaningful service often went unmet, and they became frustrated. They still try to participate in the English worship service regularly, but have found in a Spanish-speaking church plant a group that really needs and values them.

”It is helpful [in Korea] that the church members really try to include newcomers in all the meetings. Sometimes it is excessive. However, in the American church, even though I wrote my name and address on the visitor’s list, I never got anything about that church. Maybe it seems like they don’t want to bother me. But they don’t give me any motivation.” Kyu and his wife, Inkeown, tried one other American church before settling in a Korean-speaking congregation that was not of their denominational preference.

Internationalize Your Congregation

  • Compile a demographic study of your congregation, including information about members’ experiences outside North America.
  • Compile a demographic study of your church’s neighborhood and community.
  • Cultivate a partnership with a parachurch ministry already serving internationals in your community such as SIM-USA’s Ethnic Focus Ministry or International Students, Inc.
  • Implement an international Sunday complete with sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of international participants’ backgrounds.
  • Invite internationals to share their Christian life testimonies.
  • Develop a short-term missions project or sister church relationship outside North America.
  • Develop a sister church relationship with a group from another ethnic community.
  • Pray corporately for a region of the world in each worship or midweek service.
  • Learn songs from other cultures.
  • Subscribe to “The Church Around the World” inserts from Tyndale House Publishers (630-668-8300) for inclusion in worship bulletins or newsletter.
  • Develop a friendship partner ministry with international students in the local university or community college.
  • Investigate hosting a “Christmas House” under the auspices of the Southern Baptist or Presbyterian Church (USA) programs for international students during winter break.

Readers’ Theater Litany

Reader 1:
Lord, it’s all changing.
It’s happening so fast.
It’s different, so different.

Reader 2:
We know you said, “Go into all nations,”
but this is different.
Lord, you didn’t say you were going
to send
all the nations to us, did you?
It was easy to send in our mission
dollars
so missionaries could go over there.
But Lord, people from those nations are
coming here into our towns.

They are changing our schools.
They are changing our grocery stores.
They are changing our neighborhoods,
and now they are joining us in our
churches!

Reader 3:
They’re different from us.
They look different.
They speak a different language.
They think about different things.
Or are we the ones who are different?

Pause

Reader 1:
Lord, help us take off our self-centered
glasses.
Help us see other people from your
perspective.
Whether we are yellow or black, brown
or white,
remind us again that we’re all welcome
and loved by you.

Reader 2:
Open our eyes to see your cross
and then hear your words again.

Reader 4:
Children, I forgive you
for your selfishness,
for your prejudice,
for your lack of concern,
for your human weaknesses.
I love you and will always love you
as much as I love all those people
moving into your lives.

Reader 3:
Fill my heart with your kindness and
compassion, Lord.
Let me see people with your eyes.
Let me receive them as you receive
them.

May I serve and touch others as you
touch me.

Scripture Reading from Isaiah 56:1-8

Reader 1:
Now it makes sense.
People say that the world is shrinking.
The nations are not just “over there.”
I look and I see them, your creation,
here on my doorstep—in my classes,
in my group.

Reader 2:
If the schools can open their doors to all,
if the grocery stores can open their
shelves to all,
if neighborhoods are opening their
doors to all,
then how much more will we open the
doors of your church
to accept one another!

All readers:
For in Christ we are being built
together
to become a dwelling in which God
lives by his Spirit.
Scott Hawkins

For Further Reading

  • Atlanta Constitution. “Sharing Their Sanctuary.” 22 January, 2001. (www.accessatlanta.com/partners/ajc/epaper/editions/today/local_news_a3b6ec50f630a013005c.html)
  • Dyrness, William A. Invitation to Cross Cultural Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992.
  • InterVarsity Press has published several useful resources for those seeking both theological understanding and practical suggestions, including Where the Nations Meet , Stephen Rhodes; Diverse Worship, Pedrito Maynard-Reid; One New People, Manuel Ortiz; and God’s Global Mosaic, Paul-Gordon Chandler.
  • Motyer, J. A. The Prophecy of Israel. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1999. His commentary on the text of Isaiah 54:4, 6-8 is instructive.
  • Peacework. “Domestic Sister Churches: Pairing Congregations of Different Racial/Ethnic Backgrounds.” Cambridge, Mass.: American Friends Service Committee.
  • Presbyterians Today. “The Church of Many Colors.” Oct.-Nov. 1996.
  • SIM-USA/Ethnic Ministries. Terrill Nelson, “Exploring Issues of Communicating Christ in Ethnic Ministries in America.” Self-published monograph on the need to develop a theology amidst ethnic diversity. Contact Terrill Nelson at 1465 N. Stoodard Ave., Wheaton, IL 60187 or terrillnel@aol.com.
  • The Christian Ministry. May-June, 1995, p. 19.
  • Tirabassi, Maren C. and Kathy Wonson Eddy. Gifts of Many Cultures: Worship Resources for the Global Community. United Church Press. See especially the section on source notes, pp. 236-258.

__________
For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.

Scott Hawkins (shawkins@duke.edu) is campus minister with International Students, Inc., at Duke University, Durham, N.C. He is a certified educator in the Presbyterian Church (USA).