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Call It Worship

A Conversation About Cultural Diversity and Worship

It’s in the news. It’s in our politics. It’s in our streets. And increasingly, it’s in our churches: diversity—or, more specifically, conflict over the ethnic, racial, and cultural differences that mark “us” as “us” and “them” as “them,” those who are “in” and those who are “out.”

This conflict traces the still-sensitive scars of the so-called “worship wars” and tests the strength of sometimes fragile cease-fires. Whether or not we’ve learned from those recent and ongoing challenges about musical style preferences, this challenge of diversity continues to emerge. When worship itself is the site of both the conflict and (we hope) the solution, what are we to do?

In recent years there has been a turn toward thinking about how to engage difference and diversity within congregational worship. A number of recent books and articles (including some in Reformed Worship) have tried to tackle the question of how to make congregational worship more diverse and why that might be important. Because community worship practices are not one-size-fits-all, it’s critical for us to keep diversifying the voices and experiences that are shaping the conversation.

In this edited conversation, Angie Hong and Adam Perez discuss the “state of the question” for multicultural worship and the everyday issues surrounding ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity in worship.

Conversation

Adam: When you lead worship at diverse events, I imagine you have a lot of people coming up to you afterward and asking how they can take what you do at the conference and translate it to their local context. What do these worshipers and worship leaders say about their interest in diversifying their worship? Why do they want to do it?

Angie: I believe that when people attend a conference and experience worship that looks like “the city,” or worship that reflects a vision of Revelation 7 with every tribe and tongue singing together, they walk away feeling energized and passionate about creating this same worship experience back at home. This energy is encouraging in that North America is growing more diverse, and people want to really understand what this means for the future of worshiping together. Even our suburbs are growing in diversity at a rapid rate, and if we desire to maintain the vitality of the church and do good outreach, we will need to start facilitating conversations and practices around these diversities. Worship leaders and pastors often approach me in this attitude of anticipation and desire. It’s exciting.

Adam: So worship leaders come to it inspired by both the biblical witness on one hand and the neighborhood witness on the other. With these rationales in mind, why do you think it is important to worship with an intentional awareness of and hospitality toward diversity?

Angie: Part of worshiping in a more diverse way is to include different languages and traditions that go beyond a unifying, global, or celebratory moment. However, feel-good vibes alone don’t capture the much deeper Scriptural and theological reasons for attending to diversity in worship.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul used inclusive language to address a very diverse community of Jews and Gentiles. His letter reiterates the importance of no longer being strangers and aliens to each other, and it emphasizes reordering their lives as co-citizens with the saints and members of the same household of God. We too live in a day and age where there are invisible boundaries—and a very visible border wall—that seek to separate us from each other. When we live separately from one another, we lose sight of our neighbors and forget about them, their stories, and their deepest longings. When we forget about our neighbors completely, we become insular and exclusionary churches, oblivious to the invisible divisions it creates and enforces. I once visited a Jewish woman who lived in a newly built Jewish settlement in Palestine (settlements are basically wealthy suburbs in the middle of historically Palestinian neighborhoods). When we asked her about her Palestinian neighbors, she sternly said, “They do their thing and we do our thing. Our philosophy around them is ‘respect, but suspect.’ We have fences that separate our olive trees from theirs.” She was quite honest about her opinion of her neighbors. Locally, I have been involved with an organization called DurhamCares. This organization did a city-wide church survey and found that these churches, many of which were in the same neighborhood, were doing the same kind of missions and service work. So two churches could be doing homeless ministries when the work would be more effective if they pooled their resources and worked alongside one another. DurhamCares desires for these churches to engage in work together in the city instead of working in silos, but the silos exist because we attend segregated churches, and our work has therefore become segregated.

I believe our proximity to each other is our only hope of tearing down walls and invisible boundaries, and I strongly believe that worship leaders must bear witness to the church and to the world that there can be unity in Christ.

Adam: When you consult with persons and churches, what are some of the most common questions you get about multicultural worship, and how do you respond?

“Multicultural worship” is a descriptor commonly used to indicate the presence of a variety of cultures in worship (see RW 116). Naming it is an attempt to unmask and address the cultural differences that exist within our orders of worship and in our congregations (Kathy Black’s Culturally-Conscious Worship [Chalice Press, 2000] is meant to do the same). Some use the phrase “culturally diverse worship” to try to sidestep the problems associated with multiculturality and to affirm each culture as equally valid in a community where each group involved accepts cultural diversity as the norm for worship practices. Similarly, the phrase “diverse worship” has been used to highlight intentionality in including nonwhite and non-Western worship practices in both culturally/ethnically diverse communities and in “monocultural” nonwhite communities. As with “multicultural,” “multiethnic” (see RW 83) or “multiracial” worship seeks to highlight the points of difference that are intentionally being considered: ethnicity and race. For some, though, the term “multicultural” (or “multiethnic” or “multiracial”) has become a veil for the forces that keep one culture dominant and others on the margin. Instead of a structure wherein the dominant and the marginal are equal partners in imagining a new community, the dominant culture remains the default or “normal” structure within which “multi” elements are included.
—Adam Perez

Angie: Here are the two most common questions I get about multicultural worship:

How can I do worship where diversity is not in my context?

Let’s examine this question. Do you have men, women, and children at your church? That is a diversity of age and gender. Do you have people from different denominational backgrounds? That is a diversity of theologies. Do you have people who are able-bodied and other-bodied? That is a diversity of ability. I think our churches are more diverse than we think. The next word is “context.” How can we bring out diverse expressions of worship within our context? When people see contextualized diversity, they witness hearts and minds open to embracing other types of diversities, including race and ethnicity. The most recent example of this was a young woman who approached me at a conference and told me that she was at a church that was 99 percent white and in a suburban/rural community. I asked her if all the people on her worship team felt as if their voices were being heard—as in, did they feel as if their particular expressions of worship were represented in the worship life of the church? She thought about it for a second, then answered, “Come to think of it, we have a majority of men on our worship team, and women only sing the slow and pretty songs. We also have some people who like hymns and some who really like contemporary rock songs.” I told her that gender diversity alone was a big starting point! Once the culture around worship was a posture of welcoming different kinds of people, that same posture would spread to other areas. It’s quite intentional and yet organic at the same time.

How can I do worship where diversity is not in my context?

How can I diversify the music in my worship service?

Perhaps I can shed light on this answer through my early years of being a worship leader tasked with diversifying worship.

About five years ago Durham was experiencing a huge population boom because of all the technology jobs and the lower cost of living. There were on average about forty people moving to Durham every week. As a result, many new churches were planted to meet this need, many of them wanted to be urban and diverse, but many of the staffs of these churches were homogeneous. The first idea to attract a diverse crowd, and a well-intentioned one at that, was to hire a “person of color” to lead worship. This important and difficult task was delegated to worship leaders who often had little or no training on how to do this and were only being paid part time [wages]. I was one of those hires. I really thought I could accomplish this task, but it was exhausting work, and at the end of the day I felt so much pressure to be the sole agent of change. I worked full time on part-time pay, gathering songs in different languages and styles, coordinating a diverse worship music team with diverse ways of communicating and working together, and running rehearsals and schedules. It was exhausting and only led to burnout.

Starting with hiring a person of color to carry out the value of diversity alone runs the risk of tokenizing the person and becoming mere entertainment, playing into consumption of worship, and it could fail to accomplish true diversity in worship. There is also a lack of structural support from staff members, many of whom don’t know how to advise or manage this situation well. I consult with many churches about this, and I advise them to start with diversifying their leadership and elders instead. This is evidence that diversity is a core value built into the DNA of the church. Diversify the types of Bible studies, sermon illustrations, and images during worship and in the life of the church. This is evidence that there are intentional efforts by the entire church to care about the things that affect many people of color in this day and age. Out of this structure will emerge diverse worship practices and songs, and all of this will be more effective than merely hearing a gospel song or trying to sing in another language for a few minutes on a Sunday.

Adam: Your experience sounds all too familiar to me. I couldn’t count the number of times a song has been chosen for worship because it has a Spanish component and I get an email asking if I’ll lead it. That’s a much different task from, for example, asking me ahead of time to participate in the planning and choosing of songs regardless of who leads it. You’re suggesting that moving toward diversity in worship may be somewhat counterintuitive: instead of starting with music, start with encouraging diversity within the church on an organizational level and then over time a more diverse worshiping community can emerge. I can see how it would be a real gift to provide a breadth of opportunities for deep engagement with diverse stories and perspectives. Encountering difference and diversity takes a ton of time and care—and often struggle—that we don’t have during the Sunday morning service. In a way, the worship service is the face of the community—a surface level—but the kind of diversity that we should be pursuing is more than skin deep. The change is from thinking of diversity as an expression to diversity as formation. I already feel a measure of relief from the burden that is often put on us worship leaders to do diversity on behalf of the whole church community.

Changing gears a little bit here: I’ve noticed that in discussions about multicultural worship practices in the US, the dominant voices are Hispanic/Latinx American and African American. How can listening to more voices like yours, an Asian American woman’s, deepen and broaden the conversation?

Angie: We have to understand first that Asia is very big. Reducing the expressions and styles of worship from the many different countries, traditions, and histories in all of Asia into one essential style is impossible. It would be too tempting to overgeneralize and stereotype. Then you have the [so-called] hyphenated “-American,” which adds another complex layer since the experiences of Asian Americans are diverse in themselves. And this is not just for Asian Americans. I once heard someone ask a prominent black preacher what the black community thought about a particular issue. He replied, “It’s not the black community. It’s black communities.” It is increasingly complicated to simplify a whole racial or ethnic group’s experience into one story or worship style. This brings up a larger question: Why do we even feel the need to identify and define different races in worship?

For instance, I was on a worship team for a national conference. I was encouraged to lead in the way that was “authentic” to my identity, but I felt increasingly pressured to lead in a more “purely” Korean way. My team leader said that because there were very few Asian American worship leaders, I needed to represent my people well and be the model for all other aspiring Asian American leaders. I was given this opportunity to define what it meant to be an Asian American worship leader. I instantly felt the pressure to represent all Asian Americans. Throughout the conference, I got the sense that the songs that I had to offer were not “Korean” enough, and the team leader called a friend from Korea to supply a song for me to perform. I was given thirty minutes to learn this song that I had never heard before and to lead people in worship “authentically” with it from the stage. I felt like a puppet or a Barbie doll. Worst of all, I felt like I wasn’t Korean enough, like somehow I had failed in representing all Asian Americans through my leadership. It took me a while to recover from that experience. Looking back, I now realize that I was exploited, used, and exotified. I felt the need to fill the racialized box of “Asian” because the white, African American, and Latino boxes had been checked with their distinct genres and styles. I wondered how many black worship leaders had been hired at majority white churches to bring a charismatic gospel experience, or to exhort and sing in a certain way. How many Latinx worship leaders had been hired only to sing in Spanish and use the popular rhythms and styles associated with Latin American musics? This practice is grossly unfair, puts a lot of pressure on the worship leader to perform in a certain way, and is very ungodly.

So I believe this question of “What is Asian American worship?” is a great gift to the church. It brings these racial dynamics into the light in terms of understanding race as a human construct. Instead, we want to inspire godly imagination and creativity in all possibilities of genres and styles that come out of multiple diverse communities. I do not feel that anyone has to define what is Asian American about worship, least of all me! It is an impossible task, because it is a racializing task, which is not of God.

Adam: That is really challenging, Angie. When you say it like that, it seems so apparent how the racialization of culture in general is imprinted on our approaches to and perspectives on worship in particular (whether or not the worship in our churches is intentionally diverse). This tension seems deeply ingrained in how we attempt to achieve greater diversity in our local contexts through visual and musical elements. When we think of music, for example, and to which communities a song belongs or what people group the song represents to us, we’ve already essentialized a whole diverse group of people in some way. How do we avoid this kind of essentialization in worship?

Angie: I think looking to Paul’s letters to the early churches and the conflicts experienced in those communities can be helpful. Ephesians begins with a hymn of praise, a gift from Paul to a diverse church, and towards the end of the letter he encourages this same community to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts” (5:19, NRSV). When we offer up our songs and hymns to each other as a gift in proximity to each other, we band as a resistance against those dividing walls. We offer an alternative narrative in this aspect that emphasizes the deeply Christian virtues of hospitality and grace that empowers all God’s people.

Adam: I have found that the conversation about expressing diversity in worship is often drawn from Revelation 7, where “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (7:9, NRSV) are represented. Though many communities are challenged by and enjoy a great breadth of ethnic, racial, linguistic, and national diversity, Revelation seems to present a really challenging task on this side of the eschaton! Thinking through Paul and the letter to the Ephesians seems to be more possible than trying to (re)create Revelation’s eschatological vision, especially when it comes to practical tasks like choosing music and prayers that are reflective of the church local and global.

As you look ahead toward your ongoing work as a leader, what do you see in the future for the conversation and practice around “multicultural” or diverse worship?

Angie: One element will be to think through how Paul’s letters to the early worshiping communities can help us to avoid the pressures we put on local worship leaders to replicate and perform what Revelation presents. Ephesians encourages us to receive one another’s songs and hymns of praise and cherish them as gifts and to be creative by sharing your own newly written songs. How can our churches provide worship leaders the space and time in their schedule to write their own songs or facilitate songwriting groups that collaboratively reflect the needs and issues of their local contexts regardless of which markers of “diversity” they represent?

In my own leadership and practice, I am thinking about how to facilitate liturgies and worship that are radically inclusive, as the body of Christ was fully intended to be. In many ways, it should just be called “worship.”

Resources for Further Reading: