Have-you ever tried to picture what the great wedding banquet of the Lamb will be like? Those three images—of wedding, banquet, and Lamb—are poetic metaphors of what lies "beyond the Jordan," to use another metaphor. Every time we meet for worship, we anticipate another time when we will begin a worship service that will be so perfectly planned and carried out that we won't want it to end. And it won't. Scripture is full of poetic language that gives us hints and glimpses of what eternal life is all about. It will be more wonderful than any earthly language can describe. We'll be home.
Some of us are pretty much "at home" with our own way of worshiping in our own time and place here on earth. But once we start picturing who might be around the table with us eternally, we get a wide-ranging and diverse list of people. People from all times and places. People very different from us. What if one of our brothers or sisters from a different time or place, perhaps a different race or culture, came to worship with us next Sunday? Would he or she be "at home" with us here on earth too?
Some may remember the 1967 movie "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," which dealt with a relatively new issue in middle-class North American culture—mixed-race marriage. What an uncomfortable time for those parents, who had to contemplate the potential of an interracial marriage for their daughter! He was different, not "one of us." He was from "them." How could he be united with their flesh and blood?
Most of us feel a similar discomfort when we contemplate interracial and intercultural congregations. Yet if we truly want to anticipate that heavenly banquet in our earthly worship, shouldn't we seek and welcome diversity—especially those of us who worship in neighborhoods that are multiracial communities? There will be no "us" and "them" at the supper of the Lamb. These concerns came into sharper focus for me recently when I attended a denominational consultation on intercultural ministry. The purpose of the meeting was to identify the issues involved in intercultural ministry in North America and to explore implications of those issues, particularly those associated with worship in relationship to various cultures. I was asked to prepare three worship times for the twenty people who came from many different places— geographically, culturally, and liturgically. The focus for the worship times was first to celebrate community, then diversity, and then unity.
I knew that whatever plans I made would reflect my own culture. But I also wanted the worship to reflect some of the diverse gifts that are now available to all North American Christians from around the world.
God blessed those times of worship, which reflected my efforts at diversity in song and style, even though, as someone with a different background wrote later in a summary of the consultation, "Most of this worship was still very much in the verbal Euro/American tradition." No doubt if he had planned the worship, it would have been quite different and would have reflected the non-European-based culture he represented. Some aspects of that worship probably would have made other people at the conference squirm. They might have detected that the worship he led, reflecting a different culture, also came layered with influences from a different religion. It's hard to separate religion and culture.
The truth is that elements we use in worship are often connected at some level to non-Christian roots—perhaps a song, a ceremony, even a day (Easter, for example). At first the problem is acute, but over centuries we accommodate or reform. It's not difficult to point to songs, instruments, or movements we use in worship that were influenced by something from our culture tied at some level to non-Christian practices.
In our former mission strategies to cultures beyond our own, we modeled worship shaped by our own history and culture, not the cultural patterns of the communities to whom we ministered. Our fear of syncretism led to a wholesale rejection of cultures influenced by other religious traditions. Many different cultural groups—Native Americans and Koreans, for example—were taught to adopt Euro/American patterns of worship.
At the consultation we learned firsthand what impact that emphasis had on these peoples. One of the members of our group both grieved over the loss of his cultural roots when he became a Christian and at the same time resisted any recovery of them, having become convinced that the missionaries' model was the best Christian model.
Of course, "our" majority culture is thoroughly Christian, isn't it? No hints of syncretism in our worship, right? How quick we are to spot syncretism in cultures other than our own; how slow we are to recognize the beam in our own eye! How blind we sometimes appear to those from other cultures, now mature in their own faith communities! At the consultation we were all asking hard questions.
Celebrating Our Differences
We've often heard that "you can't take it with you." There are things we won't take with us. We'll leave behind a lot of theological and denominational and liturgical distinctions that fall short of the mark of perfect understanding. But make no mistake. We will bring something with us to the heavenly places: "People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations" (Rev. 21:26). Those words in John's Revelation simply echo Isaiah 60, a chapter with an even fuller poetic image of what it will be like to live in the city of the Lord. We will come as we are, as people of different times and places, from different races and cultures. The differences won't be erased. They will be celebrated! Then we will join with Paul in joyful confession that nothing—not cultural, not historical, not even theological differences—is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Our consultation merely started a process that needs much more reflection, not only at a denominational level but at the congregational level as well. Some small groups today keep an empty chair in the room to remind everyone present that the circle is not complete. Churches conscious of their calling to draw others to Christ are also encouraged to have some room for them. But we need more than physical space in order to welcome people from our communities who are not like us. "They" need to know that "we" are one with them. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek. That unity will start to happen when we open our hearts to receive diverse gifts of worship from diverse times and places that might change the way we have been worshiping.
When we worship with saints on earth who come increasingly "from every tribe and language and people and nation," we should expect that worship to reflect the gifts that come from those diverse places and peoples. Every people needs to treasure the time and place in which they have been placed and to place the claims of Christ on that time and place, not rejecting our cultures, but becoming partners with Christ in redeeming the times. If we have the will, God will show us the way.