One Body: Planning and Leading Cross-Cultural Worship

Scripture describes and envisions the Church, from its beginnings through to its culmination in the eschaton, as an inclusive, diverse community of people who follow Jesus. The Body of Christ was born in “Pentecostal polyphony.”[1] Acts 2 records the linguistic miracle in which those who would found the first churches “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:4 NRSV) And in Revelation 7, we read a vision of the future into which God is drawing us:

"After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, 'Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!'" (Rev. 7:9, 10 NRSV)

While those past and future scenes are obviously atypical, they’re also archetypical and paradigmatic, revealing the kind of inclusive community God intends the Church to be. And there is no better time for cultivating such a community than when a congregation gathers to worship God together. Here are a few suggestions for making the most of the opportunity to worship cross-culturally in unity.

1.     When choosing congregational songs for worship, think beyond reflecting the current diversity of the congregation. I realize that even just singing in the languages and cultural musics of those already present would be revolutionary for many churches. And that’s a great place to start, but it’s also unnecessarily limiting. Try also singing songs that resonate with the cultures represented in the neighborhood around the church building but not yet among those who gather for worship. And try singing songs from churches in parts of the world not represented in the local congregation. These practices can be powerful acts of solidarity with our neighbors and the global Church alike. And they are one way to not only affirm who we presently are but also cultivate who we are becoming. A resource like New Songs of Celebration Render: Congregational Song in the Twenty-First Century can be helpful. One added benefit of singing music that is not fully familiar to any participants is that it places gathered worshippers from all cultural backgrounds on equal footing as we learn together.[2]

2.     When attempting to lead worship cross-culturally, don’t overlook those in your congregation who are most naturally equipped for this particular task: children. Children have the advantage of not having to unlearn years of one cultural formation before they can adapt. They learn language quickly. They are generally much less inhibited than adults. And they hopefully haven’t yet learned to fear failure. So if you want to teach a song in an unfamiliar language, especially one that may involve unfamiliar practices, like intentional movement (or dance)—not common in most Adventist congregations—ask children to help you. It’s a great opportunity to involve the younger members of your community. And you may be surprised at how effectively they can lead. An added benefit of worship led by children, from a musical standpoint, is that the natural range of a child’s voice falls within the comfortable range for most adults (in their respective octaves). Songs that children can easily sing are musically more accessible for everyone.

3.     When planning cross-cultural worship, it’s essential to collaborate with a multi-cultural team. It’s difficult to have an effective cross-cultural worship service on Sabbath morning that was planned by a monocultural team on Wednesday evening. Moreover, planning practices afford a significant opportunity to cultivate diversity at a profound organizational level. If a community can learn to make decisions together, to genuinely share authority, then public worship practices will become a joyful way to reinforce existing, healthy relationships. There is no doubt that worshipping together can serve a transformative role in the way we cultivate diverse community. But this is most true when a diversity of voices are not only celebrated on the platform but prioritized when few are watching and the microphones are not yet turned on.

       [1] This language belongs to Jeremy S. Begbie, who unpacks the idea in Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 269-70.

       [2] For an excellent discussion on the benefits of cross-cultural singing and central principles that should guide it’s practice, see C. Michael Hawn, Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 1-31.