Embracing the Discomfort of Diversity
A reflection on the value of discomfort in experiencing worship outside our familiar cultural context.
About 7 years ago I attended my first World Christian Gathering on Indigenous Peoples (WCGIP). It was hosted by the Native Hawaiian community on the main island. At that time I was the pastor of the Christian Indian Center in Denver, CO, and we were just beginning to learn about and explore the concept of contextualized worship. This conference was unlike any Christian conference I had ever been to. The delegates were from tribes, peoples and cultures all around the globe. Each evening we would gather, and one group at a time would lead us in worship. At most Christian conferences with such a large and diverse group of participants the emphasis is usually on finding a worship style and format that is most comfortable for everyone. If new songs are introduced or a different language used, then those songs or languages are repeated session after session until everyone has a good level of familiarity and comfort with it.
But that was not the case here. Every evening the worship was led by a different tribal group. Each night a different language, different instruments, different styles of dress and different demeanor and dances were used and offered up as worship. No two nights were the same and the overriding feeling was NOT one of comfort. In fact, I found myself frequently feeling uncomfortable, awkward and even out of place. But the longer I reflected on those feeling the more I began to appreciate them. I mean if worship is truly us coming before God, should we not feel awkward, out of place, uncomfortable and even a little fearful? We are weak, imperfect, sinful people coming before the all-powerful and perfect LORD of heaven and earth. This is not a 'comfortable' interaction. I also noticed as the worship sessions passed that I was gaining a larger understanding of God and his character than I normally had. The Maori people, from New Zealand, led us in worship with their 'hakas' which are loud warrior presentations/displays meant to intimidate their enemies. These hakas had been contextualized and now were used to express the might and power of God. The Native Hawaiians led us in hula and taught dances that were created and offered up to God as worship. The Hawaiian islands are incredibly beautiful and the Native Hawaiians have a spirit of peace about them. Their hula is extremely gently and beautiful and is performed by people with grace and poise. The Native Americans then came forward and led us in worship that at times was loud and with pounding drums and at other times was gentle and softly led by the music of a flute. They offered up their worship to the Creator and their music resembled the ever changing vastness of creation; clashing thunder storms, gentle flowing brooks, beautiful soaring birds and pounding herds of buffalo. And on and on it went. Every night was a different look into the vastness of God's character, led by a different tribe from a different culture and in a different language. The longer I allowed myself to soak in this environment, the more I realized how small I had begun to make God. By making my primary concern that of being comfortable in worship I was diminishing the characteristics of God that I did not understand or that made me uncomfortable. In other words, the smaller I made God, the more comfortable I felt around him. And now, being in an environment that was not comfortable and that emphasized the characteristics of God which I did not understand, I was a feeling more fearful but beginning to see God much bigger and clearer.
In the book of Proverbs, Solomon tells that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. I think as Christians we tend to forget this and shy away from religious experiences that make us fearful. In the Gospel of Mark we see the story of Jesus in the boat with his disciples. He is asleep in the stern when a large storm comes up. The boat takes on water, and the disciples fear it is going to sink. They wake up Jesus and ask him to help. Jesus unexpectedly speaks to the wind and the waves and tells them to calm down. Even more unexpectedly, nature listens to him and the wind stops blowing and the sea calms. At this, we are told, the disciples were terrified and said to one another "Who is this, even the wind and the waves obey him." It is good to be afraid of God. We should be afraid of God. He is perfect, holy, all-powerful, the creator of Heaven and earth and LORD of all. We are weak, sinful and unable to control our environment or even ourselves. We are the rebellious creation of the LORD almighty. Yet he loves us so much that he sacrificed his own son that we might have relationship with him. Going before God is something that should be done with a great deal of humility and a certain amount of fear and trembling.
Because of this, it makes me cringe when I see the church embrace values of assimilation and conformity. I remember hearing once, on Christian radio, about a study done on mega-churches. The study concluded that one thing that mega-churches do well is to bring diverse people together. This conclusion made me laugh as that was not my typical experience as a Navajo man when I attended mega-churches. Yes, the study is right and they do gather together large groups of people and often times with varying colors of skin. But as a Navajo man I have never attended a mega-church that affirmed my peoples unique contribution to the body of Christ. A few weeks after I returned from the WCGIP conference in Hawaii I attended another conference at a mega-church here in the US. This particular church has many resources and thousands of members and really sees itself as a resource church. During the entire conference I heard over and over about how much my small congregation needed the resources and expertise of this mega-church. This was immediately right after seeing a mosaic of God's character portrayed in the varying styles of worship by people and cultures from all over the world. And now this mega-church was attempting to get me excited about the option of exporting their worship style and teaching to my community in Denver and even back on the reservation. Instead of exciting me, this broke by heart and made me feel completely insignificant in their eyes. I recall thinking, does the leadership of this church even know who I am, and do they have any idea how much they need our 20 member Navajo church in Denver?
This mega-church did have outreaches into many communities and neighborhoods around their city, and exported their programs throughout the world, but the overall feel of the congregation was that they used assimilation and conformity to keep the peace and hold the community together. It seemed that they were bound by their style of worship, common language and middle class life style and values. I do not believe that this church would pass the 'Tower of Babel' test. In other words, if the people all embraced different languages, cultures and worship styles, I do not think their congregation would last and eventually their people would be scattered across the land. I believe that the body of Christ is the reverse, as well as the completion, of what God started at the Tower of Babel. At Babel, the people had one language and culture and gathered around the purpose of survival and building their tower. But God came and confused their language and as a result they were scattered about the face of the earth and never finished their tower. In Acts chapter 2, we see the first church was started with people from all over the known world. God could have called and formed this first Christian community by enabling everyone to understand Hebrew. Instead, he enabled everyone to hear the Gospel in their own language. I think God wanted to affirm the diversity of cultures and languages that he created at Babel. And I think he wanted his Church to know that they were bound, not by language, culture or world view; but solely by the blood of Jesus Christ. I think God wanted his church to be uncomfortable and to understand how big he really is.
So I cringe every time I see the church embrace values of assimilation and conformity. I remember hearing once on Christian radio about a study done on mega-churches. The study concluded that for all of their faults, one thing that mega-churches do well is to bring diverse people together. I had to laugh to myself and thought that the pastors and members of these churches were going to be in for a big surprise when they got to Heaven. Sure, mega-churches bring together large groups of people and often times with varying colors of skin. But they do NOT bring together people of different cultures, tribes or languages. The mega-churches that I have experience with are all in English, have about a 70-90 minute service and worship is led by a contemporary praise band with an occasional 'ethnic' song thrown into the mix. These churches are generally middle-class and typically are predominantly white with a smattering of African-American, Hispanics ad Asians. They seem to focus on and embrace assimilation and conformity to keep the peace and hold the community together s they are generally bound by their style of worship, language, middle class life style, values and appreciation for a 'good show'. I do not believe that most mega-churches would pass the 'Tower of Babel' test. In other words, if the people all embraced different languages and cultures, I do not think these churches would last and their people would be scattered across the land. I believe that the church is the reverse and also the completion of what God started at the Tower of Babel. At Babel, the people were gathered around one language, culture and the purpose of survival and building their tower. God confused their language and scattered the about the face of the earth. In Acts chapter 2, we see the first church was started with people from all over the known world. God could have called and formed this first Christian community by enabling everyone to understand Hebrew. But instead he enabled his disciples to speak in varying languages. I think he wanted to affirm the diversity of cultures that he created at Babel. I think God wanted this first Church to understand how big he really is. And I think he wanted them to know that they were bound, not by language, culture or world view; but by the blood of Jesus Christ. I think he wanted them to be uncomfortable.