It was so easy for so long—so natural that we did it almost without thinking. Worship, that is.
Jerusalem was our home, not only geographically but culturally. And so we were at home with everything. Including worship. It was a reflection of us, of our people, and of our culture. We spoke the same language, sang the same rhythms, danced the same dances.
Until the Parthians came. And with them the Medes and Elamites, the Mesopotamians, and all the rest. At first it was only occasionally, sporadically, almost accidentally. But then it was regularly, intentionally, invitation-ally. They came, speaking different languages, playing different instruments, clasping dancing-arms in ways we never knew. What was going on here?
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: "Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all
And we found them sitting and dwelling and worshiping among us.
Suddenly what was "natural" for us was no longer natural for "us," at least not all of us. And what was natural for "them" was not naturally a part of us. Yet we knew that if we truly believed the pentecostal work was "living and active" among God's people today, we were going to learn what John's Revelation of the "kingdom of God among you" meant for our inner-city church:
. . . with your blood you purchased
people for God
from every tribe and language and
people and nation—
The pentecostal Spirit was calling us to change. Because "us" was no longer what "us" used to be.
So it happened. Not, of course, in Jerusalem, but in the midst of our once homogeneous, now heterogeneous community. We began to recognize, and even bless, the diversity, the differences, among God's people.
Our city was Grand Rapids, Michigan. The cultures were Dutch American and African American, with some Latin American and Asian American as well. But the differences can be found between Dutch Americans and Polish Americans, between German Americans and Generic Americans—between any groups where distinctions are known and uniquenesses are preserved, even unconsciously.
We found ourselves, a historical Dutch-American congregation, worshiping among a now predominantly African-American people who, if it is true that "we are all one in Christ Jesus," deserved to worship freely even as we worshiped freely. We could have insisted that we wanted to protect a certain cultural expression of worship. But that does not seem to be God's primary agenda in the city.
How, then, have we begun to change? Through a process that continues—a slow, long, joyful, agonizing, painful, and, to say the least, stretching process. The list that follows includes some of the steps our congregation took in that process. Actually, they are more like paths than steps—sometimes long, rocky and difficult; at other times wrong, painful, and stupid; and once in a while right and good. And they are all leading, we hope, to a Reformed, yet necessarily non-Dutch, style of worship that allows us all to worship not only with hearts and ears and voices but through cultural diversity as well.
We learned from members of other cultures.
We began occasionally to sing songs from the other cultures, using the cultural diversity of the 1987 Psalter Hymnal, as well as other songs from African-American hymnals and worship. We tried our best to learn and appreciate music in another tradition.
Initially the problems seemed obvious to some. We looked and sounded, they argued, as ridiculous as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir trying to perform rap. To the black spirituals we clapped on the on-beat, rather than the off. In place of the unrestrained shouts of joy characteristic of Latin Americans, we orchestrated quiet four-part harmony. Our Korean and Japanese tunes sounded more classic European than contemporary Asian.
But still the singing was a beginning. In spite of our abuse of the cultures, members of other cultures were still gentle and encouraging—and present—with us.
We soon began grabbing opportunities to ask members from particular cultures to teach us. An African American from the South told us that "Standin' in the Need of Prayer" should be sung not like a jolly carol, but slowly, almost mournfully, as if we were slaves desperately feeling the need of God's presence. A Latin
American family taught us that adding a mandolin, even once in a great while, added brand-new life and flavor to Latin hymnody. Through sensitive accompaniment (using non-Anglo chords), an Asian American member produced sound that brought us closer to our brothers and sisters in China.
We began to appreciate; we began to enjoy.
We taught each other about the differences in our styles of music and worship.
We realized that black spirituals, more effectively than the music from the European continent, helped us sing of pain and despair, of the God who "swung lo" rather than the God who is always the omnipotent, wise one (the "Anglo-looking" God of power and rule). We learned of the importance of drums in African traditions, of physical expressions of worship in African and Latin traditions, of quiet and reverence in European traditions.
Through the teaching, we found ourselves needing to learn from other traditions, while other traditions learned from still others (African Americans commented on their appreciation for some controlled worship; Dutch Americans were thankful for more freedom than they had known before).
Through a conscious renewal of our minds, our worship too was broadened.
Together we learned new music.
We sang songs that were new to all of the cultures—"cross-over songs" they are sometimes called. "Praise songs" are the most obvious example of this type of music (see RW20). These songs, which arise from the global evangelical and sometimes charismatic community, were new to everyone. Thus, we were lost together on them—or better, found joy and meaning singing in common what might otherwise be divisive.
We aimed for diversity in our leadership.
We recognized the importance of having diverse cultures represented on the committees and ministries that shaped worship. We attempted to appoint strong and vocal members of other cultural groups to give leadership to worship and to voice concerns that caught our narrowness.
At times perhaps too daringly. A teenager from the community, in and out of correctional facilities and writing "rap" throughout his experience, jived and jammed in ways that only those who knew him could understand. A new Gospel Choir, usually more Dutch than African in membership, bumped more than swayed, and crossed theological lines ("Just pray it and He'll give it").
But a church cannot change and play it safe. A historically Dutch church is not multicultural when it sings "There Is a Balm in Gilead" as if it should have been "There Is a Balm in Amsterdam." Multicultural does not mean "including the cultural elements that we can appreciate." Multicultural will necessarily mean including elements that we do not appreciate, that will not be "natural" for us.
And so we took risks. Sometimes embarrassingly. Sometimes joyfully. Almost always all too cautiously. But with the risks came change. And with the change came the opportunity for members from the "community" to offer themselves in worship, and for the rest of us to learn from them, however imperfectly.
We sought, and continue to seek, to employ gifted people from other cultures.
This has not always succeeded. A pastor, because he is African American, is not necessarily stereotypically "African American" (nor should he be). The same is true of musicians. Our gospel choir, after a year with a charismatic, young musician, was then led by another African American who almost always chose "southern white gospel" songs and led them like dirges. Also, our attempts to use guitarists or drummers (a significant musical element in many African-American churches) at times have had stellar results, and at other times terrible.
Yet a Dutch-American church does not teach itself how to bridge the cultures. We are taught. And if we have failed at significant times in significant ways, it indicates that we do not always easily make transitions and that we have much to learn.
We lived, as a church, by grace.
In the midst of our liturgical sins and musical miscues, on the occasion of one-moment foibles and year-long mistakes, we believe that not only we as individuals, but also we as a church, live by the grace of God. In the midst of our joys and celebrationsó during times when the sanctuary has literally shaken with the power of the Spirit and danced with salvific joy—this grace has been the gift of God to us all.
We have not yet "arrived." It may be, in fact, that we are taking wrong paths or traveling at wrong speeds. Some would say that we at times look embarrassingly and disgustingly intoxicated. Perhaps.
There is, however, another side. As the Spirit through Peter says:
Listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. it's only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all
And through that outpouring we are, joyfully, being changed.