Worshiping Christ in a Culturally Diverse World

Worshiping Christ in a Culturally Diverse World

The world's cultural makeup is changing at a rapid pace, and the church cannot afford to be left behind.

Accepting Diversity

From the rhythmic drums of a small church in East Africa to the orchestra at a large congregation in Olathe, Kansas, Nazarenes worship in some of the most diverse ways possible. Nazarenes have a global representation in 162 world areas and 180 languages of worship. We are a culturally diverse bunch, a reflection of God's creation in the fullest, and a testament to what awaits us in eternity.

I will never forget the fall Sunday morning when I stepped into a worship service for the first time in the United States. It was at a small town church in the Southeastern part of North Dakota.  A week earlier, I attended my last worship service at Central Church of the Nazarene in Nairobi, Kenya, before departing for the United States to begin a new youth ministry. At the end of the worship service, I was shocked at the stark difference between the two churches. They not only had different song selections; they also differed in the manner of service participation.

I once thought of worship in very narrow, homogenous terms. My perceptions about worship would change less than three months later when I found myself deeply immersed into the new style of worship in Lamoure, North Dakota.  I had accepted diversity in worship, and more than that, I was being blessed by it.

Keeping the Ultimate Goal in Mind

The main goal of worship is to express our utmost adoration and reverence to God, because He deserves it. Through worship, we interact communally with God, and we wait with hope for God to communicate with us. J. Oswald Sanders once said that “in the act of worship, God communicates His presence to His people.” Warren Wiersbe in Real Worship: Playground, Battle Ground, or Holy Ground adds that through worship, we “radiate the glory of God” to a world that is in desperate need of something different.

As Christianity spreads to every corner of the world, it continues to encounter numerous diverse cultures along the way. There are several elements of culture that are permanent.  Even as people convert to Christianity, they tend to retain elements of their own culture, eventually incorporating them into their Christian practices.  Tom Beaudoin asserts that “we express our religious interests, dreams, fears, hopes, and desires through…culture.” Sometimes this is inadvertent, but the goal of ascribing “worth-ship” to our God remains consistent.

Changing cultural expressions can produce tension; however, tensions in worship services are not unique to multicultural congregations. Homogenous small-town churches experience their own tensions, including generational divides. Many mega churches and city churches have opted to solve such tensions by separating language groups, ethnic groups, and age groups into different worship segments, in order to avoid alienating any of their worshippers.

But we must always remain mindful of the ultimate vision for worship expressed in Scripture, where “every nation, tribe, people, and language, [will be] standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9). By segregating ourselves during worship here on earth, are we really doing service to the eventual experience in heaven?

Embracing Diversity in Worship

Diversity in worship is a true reflection of the image of God. He is the author of diversity. In Psalm 86:9, the psalmist reminds us that "all the nations you have made will come and worship before you, Lord; they will bring glory to your name." God delights in worship. The disjointed voices in a cramped mud-walled church in a remote village in Western Kenya bring as sweet an aroma to God's nostrils as the cadenced voices of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir.  The "shouting for joy to God" proclaimed in Psalm 100 is directed to the whole earth.   

Diversity in worship is beneficial to the church. Jesus Christ has sent the church to the whole world, breaking down barriers that only God can break. Diversity in worship edifies and enriches the body of Christ.

At Risen Lamb Church of the Nazarene in Kansas City, Kansas, we have incorporated Kiswahili and Spanish songs in our Sunday worship services. We have also blended hymns and traditional gospel songs into the service without segregating our worshipers. As a result, our typical worship services have reflected a unity that many who worship with us for the first time find pleasant. We seek to reflect one body, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God, as Paul describes in Ephesians 4:4-6.

Worship should be a place that tears down walls and breaks down barriers.

The beauty of diversity in worship is attainable as an earthly reality, and not just a heavenly hope, even if we have to exercise creativity to do so.  

Creative Adaptation in Worship

Neighborhoods change and so do churches in those neighborhoods. A predominantly English-speaking congregation may suddenly find itself in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood. Such changes demand that we contextualize worship to meet the needs of the new neighbors of our churches.

Contextualization may mean adding a second language to our worship, conducting Bible studies and programs in other languages, singing in different languages, or simply conducting multilingual services. In my own worship experiences in Africa, I often saw churches use multiple languages during one worship service.

While serving as a missionary in Ethiopia, my father once used a total of five translators in the same service. While the sermon might have been unusually long, every tongue represented was ministered to in a language that they could understand.

Most believers will readily admit a preference for diversity in worship. Those who have visited our congregation have expressed the wish that their congregations would also reflect more diversity. This is where conversations regarding diversity can begin.

The world’s cultural makeup is changing at a rapid pace, and the church cannot afford to be left behind. We do not want to wake up suddenly and realize that our neighborhoods have changed without us. It is not enough simply to have admiration for the diverse church around the corner. Jesus Christ’s Great Commission demands that we reach beyond racial and ethnic boundaries.

Diversity is not a new phenomenon. It weaves throughout scripture from Genesis to Revelation. 1 John 4:18 reminds us that “there is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” We should be driven towards those who are different from us because of Christ’s perfect love that resides in us. Diversity in worship will only enhance our present experience of God, while preparing us for our ultimate experience of God together when “all nations” worship before the throne.

Philip Friday is an African-born pastor who serves as lead pastor of Risen Lamb International Church of the Nazarene in Kansas City, Kansas.

Holiness Today, Nov/Dec 2017