Angie Hong on Imagining Worship as an Egalitarian Zone

Christian worship services can support or contradict the biblical vision of the church as one body with many parts. Here’s how corporate worship can help worshipers practice equity across lines of gender, race, ability, socioeconomics, and sexuality.

Angie Hong is a worship leader, speaker, and writer dedicated to exploring the lines of reconciliation, worship, and identity. She is pursuing an MDiv at Duke Divinity School and speaks regularly at conferences and retreats. In this edited conversation, she talks about how to imagine and practice worship so that all have equal voice and equal agency.

Why did you coin the phrase “worship as an egalitarian zone”?

I read three things that made me think about what worship could be. One was a prayer for our country by the late R. Maurice Boyd, pastor of The City Church in New York City. I also follow the work of journalist Patton Dodd, who highlighted income gaps and justice work in San Antonio, Texas. And in their book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, two economists explain that successful nations have inclusive political and economic institutions.

In different ways, these three influences helped me see that you can only have an inclusive institution if you are proximate to the people around you and you set laws with, not for everyone. The rich cannot be separate from the poor. So I started wondering how churches can create egalitarian zones that reduce the income gap; create flourishing, thriving, diverse communities that actually alleviate poverty; and glorify the name of Jesus through worship.

Do you have non-church examples of egalitarian zones?

The two best examples are public libraries and public parks. My library card and your library card give us free and equal access to the education and enjoyment of knowledge through books and media. The Parkscore Project recently ranked Washington, DC, as third in the nation for equal park access. It revealed that 97 percent of low-income residents and 97 percent of high-income residents live within a ten-minute walk of a public park. In other words, public libraries and public parks are places where people from all walks of life have equal access to everything. Everyone is equal there.

Local churches used to be egalitarian zones, especially immigrant churches, like the Korean congregation where I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. But now urbanization and competition from other sources of community have changed many churches into more insular places that exclude others in a changing world. For example, as someone born in the US to Korean immigrants, I’ve always been aware of my otherness. But I didn’t realize my otherness in the faith until I joined a white Presbyterian church and felt more racism than I’d experienced till then.

Is “worship as an egalitarian zone” just a different way of saying, as so many churches do, that all are welcome?

Not exactly. I’m interested in how churches can create the same conditions that allowed two very different people—Jairus, a ruler in the synagogue, and the unnamed women “with the issue of blood”—to approach Jesus in the same place.

Many churches today say that all are welcome, but they don’t seek out the proximity to get to know the people who don’t feel welcome. You have to get to know people at their points of pain to realize how they feel excluded. How does “all rise” feel to someone in a wheelchair, . . . or “turn to page 61” to someone who can’t read, . . . or “corsages for all mothers” to couples dealing with miscarriages?

What’s an example of an egalitarian zone worship practice?

The eucharist can be a powerful example. I’ve been in churches where groups of people come forward to stand in circles around the communion table, and everyone serves each other.

In Durham, North Carolina, I helped plant a multiethnic church called CityWell. The church neighborhood is 40 percent Latinx, so we became a sanctuary congregation for immigrants facing unjust deportation, such as Samuel Oliver-Bruno, a pastor. He lived at and worshiped with our church for eleven months. We sometimes replace communion bread with tortillas in honor of Samuel. We also invite people to not do communion if they don’t want to and receive a blessing instead.

How else might churches change worship practices to promote proximity and presence?

Think about the opening words of your worship services and who says them. Consider the voices you are centering and lifting up. Ask who is being boxed out. Who is allowed to read Scripture, preach, or give testimonies? At CityWell we wanted to accommodate everyone, so we didn’t come out as an affirming church. We learned that our silence was very painful to LGBTQ+ people in our congregation.

So we decided to continually make the margins the center. At CityWell that also means integrating people with disabilities, Spanish speakers, and women. There’s a man with Down syndrome on our worship team rotation. He doesn’t have the best singing voice, but he has great stage presence because he is so obviously worshiping.

Our services also include an open mic for testimony time. Structuring this time can be tricky because sometimes it’s beautiful but sometimes it’s painful. We also ask people to preach or share their stories in worship, such as “Here’s how I follow Jesus as a person in constant poverty and hunger, . . . or who grew up learning American Sign Language because my parents were hard of hearing, . . . or as a queer black Christian in the South.”

What first steps can relatively homogenous churches take to become more diverse in an egalitarian way?

Ask or require worship leaders and other church leaders to take racial equity training, so they learn how to educate and integrate without escalating. Talk about racism in sermons. Look for the diversity that’s already in your church and include those voices. If I, as a person of color, come into your context and see openness to women or other generations in leadership or conversation about issues that I, as a person of color, care about—then I know you might be open to me and maybe even an idea from me.

How can a church witness this vision to people who would never enter a church?

Bear witness by donating and volunteering in contexts not run by a church, such as parks, schools, and food pantries. Provide opportunities for friendships in settings where all are treated as people with equal value and equal agency, such as Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. You can also recreate zones outside church walls for church activities so others can observe and maybe join you. This could be beer and hymns or bourbon and Bible study at bars; book clubs in coffee shops and bookstores; or cookouts and potlucks at parks. When Samuel Oliver-Bruno was arrested at the ICE office, we held a church service there. We lit candles, sang, prayed, and passed the peace, though we didn’t serve communion. It was an opportunity for unchurched people to see what a church service is like.

LEARN MORE

Read Angie Hong’s essay “Equals at the Table.” Check out “Race, Class, and the Kingdom of God,” a video-based curriculum for churches, or Cultural Intelligence Center’s faith-based assessments. Start an inclusive small group for adults with a range of abilities by using Together, a digital Bible study curriculum. Read Church Forsaken: Practicing Presence in Neglected Neighborhoods by Jonathan Brooks.

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