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  • Tony and Esther Chuang

The Beauty of Multicultural Worship

"The Poor Invited to the Feast" from Jesus Mafa Series

A few years ago, I started asking the question, "when all the nations come together to worship God in heaven, what would that look like?" At that time, I was attending a multiethnic church but the worship was monocultural, representing mainly a contemporary white-American culture. I struggled with it and asked, "is this what our worship should look like when there are multiple ethnicities in our church body?"

This made me study in depth the relationship between culture and worship during my doctorate of worship studies. The majority of the scholarly work taught me one thing: multicultural worship is the ideal worship when the nations come together.

So what is multicultural worship? Multicultural worship is when multiple cultures are celebrated and multiple cultural elements are utilized in the worship. This celebration of diverse cultures could be done by using visual art, musical forms and styles, languages, stories, testimonies, instruments, dance, drama, communion elements, prayers, and gestures that reflect diverse cultures.

The more I studied, I realized that multicultural worship is not just for multiethnic churches, but is for any church. Even if there is only one ethnic group in the church body, multicultural worship will enrich the church service.

So why should we do multicultural worship in our churches?

1) Multicultural worship reminds us that God loves people of all cultures. God showed his steadfast love and faithfulness toward the nations (Psalm 117). His heart for the nations is shown throughout Scripture, and if God loves all peoples and all cultures, the church should show that love in our worship services.

2) Multicultural worship shows that God welcomes diverse cultural gifts. C. Michael Hawn in Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally writes that Revelation 21:24, 26 shows how God welcomes the cultural gifts of the nations into the Holy City, a place of perfect worship in the coming Kingdom of God. If God welcomes the cultural gifts of the nations, the church should also welcome the diverse cultural gifts of all people.

3) Multicultural worship gives us a glimpse to worship in heaven. We see in Revelation 7:9–17, a great multitude “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (7:9) worshiping God in heaven. When this group of multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual Christians worships God, the worship would inevitably be multicultural. Meaning, the people would bring their own cultures, customs, and cultural expressions to worship and glorify God. This multicultural worshiping community in heaven is a community we look forward to joining one day.

4) Multicultural worship was part of the church from the beginning of church history. The church was born on the day of Pentecost when God was worshiped in multiple languages, spoken by "Jews from every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:5). Soon after when the Christian church began to take place in the 30s and 40s of 1st C Palestine, the worship was multicultural. The early Christians drew from Jewish roots and Greek ideas, took the cultural symbols of the Greco-Roman era, such as the meal practice and water washing, and formed them into early Christian worship. When Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal in 313, the liturgy of the church became more stylized and formal, but the liturgy continued to be multicultural, adapting to the surrounding region's culture. This adaptation of the liturgy to various cultures lasted until the 16th C when the Council of Trent made the Roman rite the uniformed liturgical rite of the Western church. It wasn't until the 1960s, with the Second Vatican Council, that liturgical diversity was affirmed once again in the Western church. Now both the Protestant church and the Western church could worship God with their multicultural gifts.

5) Multicultural worship enriches the global church. Multicultural worship reminds us that every culture has something to share with other cultures. The American church has something to receive from the African church, the Asian church, the European church, and vice versa. Through cross-cultural sharing, our worship experience is enriched.

6) Multicultural worship reminds us that we are part of the global church. We are often stuck on focusing on "my self," "my church," and "my country." But when we worship God using the cultural expressions of others, we are reminded that we are part of something bigger, the global body of Christ. And when we sing songs from the global church–since songs are the prayers of the people–we are praying with the global body of Christ.

7) Multicultural worship is an act of loving our neighbor. When we incorporate multiple cultural elements in our worship, we don't become ethnocentric (thinking that my culture's values and ways are the best). Rather, by embracing the many cultures around us, we show that we love our neighbors.

8) Multicultural worship allows people from those cultures to worship God using their heart language. When we sing in Korean, it will be a foreign language for many at Savior. But for me, that is my heart language. Although I am Korean-American, when we see an artwork of a Korean Jesus or sing worship songs in Korean, my heart is stirred in a way that white-American worship cannot. I feel more closely connected to God as I speak to Him in my heart language.

Multicultural worship is not only beautiful but biblical as well. However, I am not saying that your church must celebrate multicultural worship every week. I understand the reality. But if your church is not doing multicultural worship at all, you can start by introducing a worship song from a different culture and/or language in your service. You can sing the song showing Christian artwork from that culture. You can also share the theology behind singing songs from other cultures.

As Soong-Chan Rah writes in Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, the purpose of multicultural worship is to “honor the presence of God in different cultures . . . [and] to see God at work in all cultures, not just in one.” My prayer is that the Church continues to honor God's presence in all cultures, love others by embracing their cultures, and love the God of all nations.

Written by Dr. Esther Shin Chuang

*This post is adapted from her blog post originally published on Church of the Savior's Website.

*Picture is "The Poor Invited to the Feast" from the Jesus Mafa Images in Vanderbilt University Archives. Jesus Mafa Series is a series of artwork by Cameroon artists depicting the life of Jesus in the context of Africa.

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