Multicultural Leadership in Worship: Sharing Power Among Cultures

Being a multicultural church means more than singing global songs. It means that the people who plan worship, lead worship, and make decisions come from many cultures and ethnic groups.

When church planters Charles and Glenda S. Brown started The Crossing Baptist Church in Mesquite, Texas, all their worship leaders were white. Yet, Glenda says, “God sent Hispanics, African Americans, singles, and racially mixed families to The Crossing. Some brought friends and many stayed.”

She noticed, however, that even after guests from other cultures became members of The Crossing, they would say “your church” instead of “our church.” That’s why the church decided to explore and develop leaders for multicultural intergenerational worship.

“Our original plan was to invite in leaders from various cultural groups for conferences at our church. The Spirit redirected us to connect with churches and ask them to host events. That was scary for me. Would people from our church attend an all-day conference at a black church? God said, ‘Trust me.’ God asked, ‘Have you ever sat under an African American leader or shared a meal with an African American group? No? Well, look what I’m doing!’” Brown says.

She and others say that for worship to become truly multicultural, congregations must live through the discomfort of sharing power.

Trade places

Trading places or reversing roles may push worshipers outside their comfort zones. Before a drumming event at a bilingual Episcopal church, Glenda Brown recalls wondering, “Will my Baptist brothers and sisters feel comfortable there?”

Besides having events at other churches, The Crossing staged a series of dinners in which each of its major cultural or generational groups took responsibility for a meal.

“Attending events at other churches facilitated our learning about other cultures, heart languages, and styles in a way that staying at our home church never would have. During the dinners at our church, we asked people to answer questions that would elicit memories and value statements from those around the table. We didn't need many questions. Our people loved learning about one another's traditions and values. They began asking about things they wanted to know.

“We have begun to see more ownership from our ‘minority' worshippers and more acceptance from the founding Anglo worshippers. Our worship leadership is growing in diversity, and choir members of all musical levels and styles are affirmed and welcomed,” she says.

St. Michael Catholic Church in Milwaukee was already using English, Hmong, Lao, and Spanish languages in worship before its year of exploring new ways to worship. “The Hmong group is now our largest cultural group here. In our workshops, they realized they wanted to have an entire mass in Hmong, including bowing at different parts of that mass—so everyone could have the experience of being a stranger in a strange land,” says Barbara Tracey, liturgy and music coordinator at St. Michael and nearby St. Rose.

Ask to be taught

Experiencing worship in someone else’s language reveals how much you don’t know about their culture. The need to learn stays constant in multicultural congregations.

“Multicultural worship is constantly changing and evolving as people become more Americanized. A Lao man recently said buenos dias to me. I asked where he learned that. He said, ‘In the factory I work with Spanish speakers.’

“Funerals are challenging. Which cultural practices should be kept, adapted, or discarded when the person who died is Christian but many family members are shamanic or Buddhist? I have really good people I work with who are very generous with me with their time. But there still are times when I thought I had figured it out and find out that’s not true,” Tracey says.

Resurrection Lutheran Church in Oakland, California, has welcomed so many immigrants that the congregation is now more than 60 percent African. Most came as Christians, yet their customs may be quite different from the worshipers they join.

Resurrection’s pastor, Lucy Kolin, says, “I try to be a learning pastor, not just a teaching pastor. I ask to be taught. I want to know when I say or do something that’s culturally inappropriate in their culture. I tell them I won’t get mad. It’s taken awhile but they do tell me now.

“I remember going with a Tanzanian lay member on a hospital visit to a woman who’d given birth. There were several aunties and other relatives in her room. Everyone wanted to give their chair to me. I kept saying, ‘No, it’s fine. I’ll stand.’

“Twice the new mother said to me, ‘Pastor, sit down.’ I was trying to respect the elder relatives. The third time the new mother asked me to sit, she explained, ‘At home, if someone doesn’t sit down, it means they’re in a hurry.’ I told her, ‘Thanks for telling me.’ Here I’d thought I was being courteous!”

Focus on renewing worship together

Unspoken assumptions often thwart a multicultural congregation’s ability to share power in planning and leading worship. Pressing through to those assumptions can help members renew worship together.

Lucy Kolin often travels to churches in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda or hosts East African clergy. These cross cultural conversations revealed that, in some settings, pastors expect and are expected to take charge of all aspects of worship. “People are surprised that lay people can read, pray, or write prayers. At Resurrection, we’ve learned it takes several asks to show you really want someone to not only come to a worship planning committee—but also to present ideas and help decide,” she says.

Barbara Tracey pointed out something her multicultural youth choir members hadn’t noticed. Every day they negotiate multiple identities, maybe American at school, Lao at home, Catholic at church, grandchild of a Buddhist, translator for parents who don’t speak English well, yet expected to defer to their elders.

“They make those shifts without thinking. Being explicit about the desire to renew our worship changed how we think about being intentional about praying together. It made them much more aware of the uniqueness of our praying together in all these languages. Our using many languages isn’t an in-between step to move everyone into English—because to have ‘others’ join in your way of praying is to belong to the body of Christ in a very deep way, especially for new immigrants,” she says.

When Worship Practices Cross Cultures

Resurrection Lutheran Church in Oakland, California, has incorporated the East African church worship practices of churching, thank offerings, and inviting the entire congregation to weddings.

Pastor Lucy Kolin explains that churching is a simple ritual to welcome back a mother the first time she brings her new baby to church. “As we’ve given thanks for a safe delivery and new life, our whole church has become aware of higher mortality in countries where a healthy pregnancy, birth, and child are not so guaranteed. So we pray and advocate for better prenatal care for women around the world,” she says.

East Africans make thank offerings after births, healing, or being reunited after waiting years for a relative to get a visa. They come before the congregation at the end of the regular offering to give a testimony and make a special offering to a general or special fund. Others who want to share in the joy come up and put in money. Kolin gives a prayer to mark the occasion. “This beautiful practice of giving thanks publicly has been a valuable addition to our community. Now people who didn’t grow up in East Africa are making thank offerings,” she says.

As Resurrection Lutheran members began exploring each other’s cultural practices, someone asked about weddings in East Africa. “It came out that when Africans get married, everyone is invited to the wedding. It’s understood that economics may preclude you from inviting everyone to the celebration with food, but you want everyone to come to the church wedding and pray for you,” Kolin says.

Glenda S. Brown says that reading Eric Law’s book The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb helped her understand a worship dynamic at The Crossing Baptist Church in Mesquite, Texas.

“Law suggests that the dominant culture, Anglo in our church, comes to worship by the way of the cross. Even before other cultures came, we struggled to ‘die to ourselves and offer ourselves in sacrificial worship.’  According to Law, in multicultural congregations, the non-powerful cultures come to worship by way of the resurrection.

“We see this when we look around, especially at times when we feel a unique move of the Spirit in our service. The worshipers struggling with unemployment, family discord, health issues, or addictions are the ones who are most expressive in worship. Knowing their stories and seeing their freedom in worship has helped me to understand how each of us needs also to come to worship through the hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” she says.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the congregations of St. Michael and St. Rose join for all-parish Easter worship. Given all the languages, Barbara Tracey wondered how to do the long Passion readings. Then she realized that Latino members came from countries with a Via Crucis tradition, where they act out all the Stations of the Cross.

“They had all the costumes already. We asked them to act it out while we read in English. At first it was all Latinos acting. After awhile, white folks joined in. Then one year Jesus was black. Then a Hmong young man who’d grown up in the church said, ‘I will play Jesus if you need me,’” Tracey says.

The Via Crucis involves about 60 people in drama, mime, and reading. It begins on Palm Sunday outside the church, where everyone gets a palm frond. Jesus, disciples, and Roman soldiers are part of the Palm Sunday procession. When worshipers come inside the sanctuary, Pilate appears in the 1890s Gothic choir loft. “It’s very powerful to see that diversity,” Tracey adds.

Learn More

Try these suggestions from a Calvin Symposium on Worship seminar on becoming a more multicultural church:

  • Look for bicultural people in your congregation and make friends with them and their friends.
  • Unless you’re willing to make friends different than you, don’t expect your congregation to sing songs from other cultures.
  • Connect with international students. Ask about their faith traditions.
  • The places in your community with the greatest poverty may also have the greatest diversity.
  • Send an intern to a conference or week-long intensive sponsored by International Council of Ethnodoxologists or Institute for Worship Studies.
  • Focus on how visuals speak: Take down the lobby photos of 150 years of white male ministers. Use communion table coverings from different countries.

Read and discuss a book together:

Listen to past Calvin Symposium on Worship presentations on multicultural worship and mentoring congregational members to become worship leaders. Listen to Gerardo Marti’s July 6, 2011, “Have You Seen Our Gospel Choir?” lecture at Calvin College.

Read related stories and conversations on multilingual worship and indigenous worship.

Start a Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, worship, education, or outreach ministry meeting. These questions will help your church explore how to share power among cultural groups:

  • Your church or community may include international students, refugees, or other immigrants who came to you as Christians. How might you ask them to share their worship traditions or rituals for confession, forgiveness, communion, or faith milestones?
  • Describe the cultural variety you’ve seen in how or whether children are seen, heard, or asked to lead or participate in worship. Which values might account for these varied expectations or behaviors?
  • Has someone ever told you that you’d done or said something culturally inappropriate? Have you ever clued in a person who’s been culturally inappropriate? How can you infuse grace into these difficult conversations?

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