“It is no longer a question of whether we like or want diversity. The church is diverse. And congregational worship should reflect the diversity of God’s people, even if a local congregation itself is not diverse.”[i]
I don’t know quite what to do with this statement from author/pastor/worship leader Sandra Maria Van Opstal. I agree completely that “congregational worship should reflect the diversity of God’s people.” I am praying, thinking about, hoping for, and working toward greater diversity in the congregation where I am the lead pastor. I am visiting with pastors who serve in multiethnic contexts. I am listening to non-white people in ministry to hear their perspectives. I have heard perspectives of whites all my life and I am one. I am trying to see through the eyes of others.
So, I agree with Van Opstal, don’t I?
I think I do. I then think about the little church my family visited in Penhook, VA a few years ago. When we walked into this rural congregation in a quaint, inviting country sanctuary with our adopted black children, the church was instantly integrated. Prior to that it was a group of white people worshiping God together. It is highly unlikely that non-white people are there very often; maybe only when we show up. They were extremely hospitable to us.
How would that church’s worship reflect the diversity of God’s people?
Maybe, as a part of their communal prayer life, they could focus on the worship of Christians in other parts of the world, say Namibia, or Bolivia, or Vietnam. Believers in those places look very different than those in Penhook. Those country folk in Virginia could expand their sense of God’s people by praying for believers. Maybe there are other ways they could reflect that diversity.
However, there is a particular cultural timbre in southern Virginia. Should that be compromised in worship so that the church goers have a greater sense of God in the world? Maybe the answer is yes. But one culture is not superior to another. God can be glorified in the warp and woof of life on the farms that make up Penhook. The people who live there will most likely hear God when God speaks in ways they can understand. That speaking by God begins in worship that is done in familiar cultural expression.
This is challenging for me because one of the foundations of my own faith is the willingness to plunge into the unfamiliar and the uncomfortable. I don’t believe a person can grow in Christ until he or she willingly gives up his/her tastes and preferences and fully (even if temporarily) enters another’s cultural world. I think those white, rural worshipers should do partnership ministry which would involve trips to Ethiopia or Bolivia, or at least to the sections of Roanoke, VA dominated by African Americans. Just as I recognize their need for worship in familiar language, I also see their need for new experiences. In the new experiences, we grow into a bigger sense of just how big God is.
It is both. We need times when church feels like church (in our own understanding of church). And we need to see church happen in ways we never could have imagined and in people who are new (and maybe strange) to us. I’ve only just begun my engagement with Van Opstal’s ideas, but I have to say, I am very excited to read her book as a part of my Sabbatical journey and as a part of my exploration of the possibilities of developing our congregation as a multi-ethnic church.