Universal Cultures of Worship
By Vaughn Thompson
“Multiculturalism has failed.” In reading articles about cultural efforts in European countries over the past decade, there seems to be a consensus that a multicultural political philosophy for societies has caused more division than unity. “Multiculturalism is ultimately doomed to failure. In championing difference over cohesion, it fails to provide a central moral and cultural standard,” says Rakib Ehsan, a Spiked [Internet magazine] columnist in Britain. What can we, the Church, learn from this? If it doesn’t work for them, how can it work for the Church?
In multicultural worship discussions I have been involved in for almost 20 years, there seems to be a lot of good intentions lacking in fruit. It’s not uncommon to hear Revelation references that speak of that Day to come when we will all worship together. I love the image. I, too, long for that Day. But what in the world do we do until then with so much tension and division?
Our world is experiencing a lot of friction in the area of race relations. It’s not only affecting our cities but also the Church. I agree we need to listen and learn from one another. But I also believe that the Church needs to lead the public discourse on unity. This is our story. This is the Gospel: for God so loved the world. I believe it’s important for the Church to celebrate diversity, but in this day and age, I believe it’s more important to focus on unity. Let the multiculturalism projects in Europe be an example that you can fail when you “champion difference over cohesion.” So what is the Church’s “central moral and cultural standard?” Well, we have one thing going for us that they didn’t—the X-factor.
I want to suggest three cultures to consider using when creating sacred spaces for multicultural worship.
CULTURE OF SERVANTHOOD
Remember when the disciples were arguing about who was going to be the greatest in the kingdom? Jesus spoke a phrase that probably dropped their jaws and sent chills up their spines at the same time. “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Mt 23:11). When we assume the position of servant, this cross-culturally communicates value to those you are serving. This is a language. Think about that. Servanthood is a universal language. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Phil 2:3). Leadership is not about how many follow you, but about how many you are willing to serve. You want to facilitate multicultural worship? Learn this culture!
CULTURE OF SACRIFICE
Mary and Martha have been talked about a lot in worship circles. We often refer to the powerful image of Mary at the feet of Jesus and the contrast of Martha in the kitchen—worshiping God in contrast to working for God. We’ve heard many times how we need to be like Mary and give priority to Christ. However, what has been life-changing in the way I approach leading multicultural worship is to consider Martha as the model. Martha? Really? But Mary chose what was better, right? Exactly!
The scripture in Luke 10 describes how Martha opened up her home to Jesus. Martha prepared the meal and according to the text was “distracted by all the preparations that needed to be made.” So if Mary was worshiping, then it seems logical to me that Martha was the one responsible for creating the space for Mary to sit at His feet. Martha was the worship leader. She created an environment for Mary to have a moment. That is our job—to create sacred spaces for people to have Mary Moments.
Our weeks are filled with rehearsals, planning, praying, practicing and administrating to serve the sacred space of meeting. I tell our teams “thank you” all the time for serving, because in order to say yes to this, they had to say no to a lot of other things. Serving is sacrifice. Cultivate this spirit in your teams. Let the cultural norm of sacrifice for the other fill your church. Again, this is language that is understood cross-culturally. Learn to sing their songs. Learn to sing in their language as well. This culture of sacrifice will build bridges of relationships and trust. Also learn from Martha’s attitude and Jesus’ gentle rebuke: This is not about you, Martha. This is about the moment. We must integrate this culture of sacrifice.
CULTURE OF SACRED SPACE
The moment Mary had was a sacred moment if there ever was one. She was immortalized in Scripture and had Jesus literally validate her moment of sacred space. There is no debate here that Mary chose what was better, which also means that Martha didn’t. Here is a personal revelation that changed my heart to serve in worship.
The stage that we lead worship from every week is the worst seat in the house. This is not a platform for stars. It’s a place of servants. This is not where we shine. This is where we sacrifice, selflessly giving up our moment at the feet of Jesus to let others have the best seat in the house. But here is the catch. If Mary chose what was better, and she did, then so should we. And if we can’t occupy the best seat in the house while we are serving, then we need to be sure to sit at His feet before we get there. We must occupy sacred space on our own time so we can serve others.
When I was waiting tables to put myself through seminary, I remember our trainer said, “Remember when you are serving that this is their night out, not yours.” They made sure that we ate before we started our shift. Imagine how ridiculous it would be for me to serve a customer their food and then proceed to sit down and eat with them? You can help others eat a lot better when you aren’t starving yourself. Make sure your weekends are about others sitting at the feet of Jesus. Create a culture of procuring sacred space before you get to your services.
CHRIST AT THE CENTER
Multiculturalism may have failed as a political policy in some areas of the world, but it does not have to fail as a worship philosophy in the Church. The job of the worship servant is to facilitate the meeting of the many and the One. The unifying principle is Christ, our common denominator. Yes, we need to learn other cultures and integrate cultural experiences into our music, our decor, our staff representation, and all that. But I promise you that these three cultures I described will cross cultures. Be free of the burden to be all things to all people. No one can do that. The responsibility of multicultural worship is the responsibility of THE Church… not our local church.
The Church is a symphony, and the diversity amongst us is what makes beautiful harmony. We need to discover our uniqueness, listen, and learn from other cultures—absolutely. But the particulars of what that looks like varies from church to church. All these well-intentioned efforts will seem disingenuous and contrived if we don’t get the spirit of them right. We can’t sing in every language and have every musical style covered in every service. That’s absurd. But we can create sacred spaces that make many feel included, with Christ at the center.
I believe we should move the multicultural worship discussion further from a focus on varied expression and closer to a focus on the spirit on inclusion by using these universal cultures of sacrifice, servanthood, and sacred spaces. Let’s be the answer to Jesus’ prayer request…God make us one!