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Components of Sexism Interfere with Worship

Fifteen years ago Roberto Ghione was commissioned by God to start a church in Simi Valley, California, with a vision to bring people one step closer to God and spiritual growth. That is how New Hope Church was formed, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church, and currently has about 120 members.

This conversation was conducted by Jaime Lázaro in Spanish and translated to English. Read it in Spanish here.

Pastor Roberto Ghione, Argentinean by birth, immigrated to the United States many decades ago. Here, he obtained a certificate of Bible studies at the Baptist Bible Seminary in Fullerton, California. He is currently working on his masters of divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary.

On a hot summer day in California, we conducted this interview that included important contributions:

• When talking to Roberto Ghione, we discussed the use of materials in discipleship and how most of them don’t talk about worship. Is it necessary to include worship in Christian training texts?

• There are various components of sexism that don’t allow men to be touched by God during the time of worship. How can worshipers and pastors work through this cultural obstacle?

• Roberto mentions that pastors are constantly being challenged because they are in between two streams: one that represents the people who came as believers from Latin America and like a certain kind of older music, and the other stream that represents new believers who have grown up here with more contemporary songs.

Here is the interview:

Is the musical expression of worship important within your congregation?
Yes, it is definitely important.

Are you careful with what happens during worship?
We mean to be careful, but being a pastor without musical training can make this difficult to do. All pastors may not agree with me, but it would be good for pastors to study a bit of music. I say this because we are lacking good musicians. I’m not saying there aren’t good ones, but in relationship to the number of evangelical churches, I think we need more. In our case, all of our musicians are volunteers that put a lot of effort into coming and rehearsing every week. They rehearse once a week, and perform twice a week. They have a lot of passion and everything, but it is my duty as a pastor to teach them everything about praise and worship, so that we can walk together. When I talk to the worship leaders, I let them know they are ministering with music from the moment they walk on stage, and that I minister with the Word.

Do you place the same level of importance on the time of worship as the sermon?
Yes we do. I must admit that sometimes, we spend more time on the sermon, because worship lasts for 30 minutes and the sermon lasts for 45 minutes. In the past, we have devoted more time to worship, but that was because we had a couple that had a gift and vast repertoire, and was able to minister for 45 minutes. During the vigils that we have once a month, we dedicate much more time to musical worship, because it flows between the processes of worship and prayer.

Have you had problems with worshipers?
We think that our enemy is always targeting us. Every person that goes up on stage in a place visible to an entire congregation, be it of 20 people or thousands, will always be exposed. I think we must work with these people in a special way, warn them of the risks, and walk them through the process of continual discipleship. There is a huge difference between an usher falling into sin, and a worshiper that has fallen into sin. A worshiper carries more responsibility because they can influence the environment. I am currently working with two new leaders that have never done this before; up until now, these individuals have only been assistants. I look for ways to provide seminars, workshops, and to take volunteers to a seminary of worship in another town, because they are young people who want to be involved. They are musicians that want to learn.

Do you interpret music according to age groups, or is it the same for everyone?
I realized that most of the adults disagreed with the wave of contemporary worship music. As a result, we have begun to include one to two hymns every Sunday. Now we will begin to include something new, which is a song in English, because we have a lot high school and college students. The people that were once children have grown up, and are now in their twenties and in college. This youth that we have, even though they speak English, prefer the services in Spanish. I recently went to Miami to visit a new church and I was shocked to see second-generation Cubans, Colombians, and Venezuelans that loved to sing during the time of worship. Even though they were born here, they were exposed to their parents’ culture and language, and so they love to listen to and sing Spanish music.

With what disposition do people arrive at the church: to receive or to give?
Honestly, most people come with the desire to receive. I think we should teach a lot in this area. I think this is a task that should not be discontinued. I see this as a reflection of who we are. We came to this country in search of something, obviously a job. That is the same philosophy that we see in the church, especially for those who converted in their native countries. If we don’t teach them the correct way, they will continue to do this, unless they are exceptionally mature individuals that learned to go to church to serve and worship.

What impact does worship have on people?
I think any effect relies on them learning to depend more on God. Also, that they grow in communion as they learn to worship. Devotional life generates a change—something new that is incorporated into their lives.

As a pastor, how do you get the worship experience on Sunday to transform into an everyday experience?
It is a bit of a challenge because of the excuses that people sometimes have, such as, “I was working late,” “I had to do this and that,” “I was very tired,” etc. So, they only make time for God on Sundays, with the exception of the people who have gone through discipleship. I mention discipleship, because even though that isn’t the main theme of this interview, I consider it to be very important for new believers. To my surprise, I have noticed that much of the material for discipleship excludes the point of worship.

Do you consider worship without discipleship to be false?
I think that discipleship is an important guide for a person to learn to worship. I am talking about integral discipleship, not the kind that takes a few easy church or doctrinal steps to complete, from classic materials like Vida Abundante, Nueva Vida, etc. These don’t talk about worship. I try to teach people worship, so that they can understand that they can worship in other ways besides singing. What do people always say? “I don’t sing well, not even in the shower. God did not give me the ability to sing, nor can I play instruments.” These are the excuses that often come up. To make matters worse, people think that they can only worship if they sing well or play an instrument.

Do you think a large number of people believe that they can only worship in the temple?
Maybe, but this is beginning to change in my church.

But is it a common denominator?
I have seen it as a common denominator, yes. We have been changing this through the use of small groups, houses of prayer, and discipleship. The school of discipleship is very important. I think all churches should provide this service as a process of discipleship. I always ask the small groups to worship God in prayer, a capella, and through reading, because we have records of the old church worshiping through reading. In the time of Ezra, we see this kind of worship, not necessarily through preaching, but through readings that led to worship.

Do you think sung worship is a more expressive way of doing it?
That’s right, but I don’t think it is the only way of doing it.

How do you think Latinos picture God?
I think it depends a lot on their backgrounds. There are some people that imagine him in a Michelangelo painting, like an old man with a white beard in the heavens, far away. Some important factors are the influences from their parents, their upbringing, and their culture, all of which alter the way they see the Father. For example, a person has become a Christian, but he or she had a judicial father.

Could this person view God the same way?
Unfortunately, yes, when we speak of God as our father. They have no issues when we refer to him as Holy Spirit or Jesus, but there is a struggle that takes place when we refer to him as father.

Have you seen cultural obstacles for men to overcome when it comes to emotionally expressing themselves to God during worship?
Oh yes, definitely. Who are the first to come to the altar during prayer? We always see that women are the first to go to the altar. It isn’t until the second calling that men come forward.

Is sexism an obstacle that stops men from receiving blessings?
Definitely yes. I have seen this both in Latin America and here. I have had to learn to work through this. Inviting women to preach at my church has caused a decline in our attendance. I now emphasize that female preachers are like the daughters of Philip in the book of Acts. Those women were also preachers. This isn’t about worship, but I think that there is a lot of sexism present in the church.

Do you think that the church promotes sexism by referring to God as a male being?
Perhaps, but it depends a lot on the pastor, who is responsible for leading, preaching, and teaching. I remember recently, a famous preacher whose husband was also a well-known preacher came and began to present God from a completely feminine perspective. I found her approach shocking and disastrous. On the other hand, I believe in balance. I describe God as neither female nor male. I don’t think we need to sexualize theology. I don’t find the need to give God a gender.

I also see that the Word teaches a patriarchal culture that scorns women. Can this be influencing our people?
Yes, this is definitely true in those who teach, like pastors and teachers.

Do you think that emotions are important in the time of worship?
They are important in the sense that they appear, because we are emotional. Emotions will definitely arise, because we have the ability to be emotional. Jesus got emotional when he saw Jerusalem. He also felt a mixture of compassion and sadness when Lazarus passed. But that should not be the main focus. There is nothing wrong with not going to the altar every Sunday. Emotions are always present, which is why I can’t judge people based on them.

I understand that emotions are important, but how can you make sure you don’t overemphasize emotions during the time of worship?
It is a true challenge for leaders of worship and pastors to find a balance. That is where I come back to the need to educate, train, and prepare both the worship leaders and pastors, so that they can also help others.

When a person worships at home or in the church, is it their heart that changes or the heart of God?
There is a process of transformation that occurs within a person, but we also touch the heart of God. There is no doubt about that. We see many of these expressions in the book of Psalms.

Who is the main beneficiary during the time of worship, God or the worshiper?
I think we are the main beneficiaries. God loves to be worshiped, but I think we are the ones who benefit.

Do you view God as a being that says, “How lovely it is that my people worship me,” or is he someone that is among his people as they worship?
God loves to be worshiped, but he also knows what is good for his children. He doesn’t need worship, but he knows that it allows us to grow. We are drawn closer to him and are filled with his presence when we worship.

So, God enjoys it because it benefits us?
That’s how I see it, because he does everything for our benefit. Even when he disciplines us, though you may not like it, it is done because he loves us. We are his creation and he is always thinking about us.

There are people who have no interest in understanding the Bible, but they like what they feel when they worship, so they conform to that. Does that bring a transformative effect?
The key to keep this from happening is to teach worship.

I say this because some people say, “I come to feel…”
Yeah, they do. And if they don’t feel anything, they blame it on the leaders. “I left without feeling anything, so it is probably their fault.”

Have you heard any comments in this regard?
Oh, of course. For example, the people that criticize us for having new songs, say, “I didn’t know any of those new songs that you brought in today, so I feel empty.”

So, how is it that the person next to them did feel with their entire heart?
It is so controversial, because a person comes with the mentality of worshiping as they used to; that is why as pastors, we are constantly challenged by these demands. Many believers who come from Latin America demand old songs to be played. A few weeks ago, our worship band found itself having to use these older songs because they were in the process of changing their leaders. We used well-known songs for a long time, and more people sang along. This supported the argument of those who were opposed to new music. But what also happened, which many people ignored, was that the youth weren’t singing along.

Have you had bad experiences with worshipers, in or out of your church?
Not bad experiences, but we have had some differences that needed to be talked through. Thank God I have had mutual and respectful relationships with them. Years ago, I organized many concerts, but I am not doing that as much anymore because I am more focused on small groups and discipleship.

Do you think that worshipers help congregations grow?
Yes, of course, but only if it is done with good intentions and a willingness to work with the pastoral team.

Is worship an outreach tool?
Definitely, but the important thing is for there to be teamwork between the pastor and the worship leader, because if not, there can be a division in the church. It is a constant challenge; both people need to talk to the congregation in order to properly minister. I have had a worship leader with a great repertoire that knew a lot and could quickly connect with God. But this is harder to do with inexperienced worship leaders. I am a ‘series preacher,’ and I have noticed that people connect well with this. There is nothing wrong with single part sermons, but I try to do series of sermons that are all connected. I use an overarching theme with subgroups. That is when I can coordinate something with the worship leader. It is a time where songs can be repeated, even though I have had leaders that refuse to repeat songs. I remember a time when, if we didn’t play a song that was on the top 10 of the Christian radio station every single Sunday, then we were doing something wrong. (It is interesting how much influence the radio can have.)

Do you think that the fame and popularity that some worshipers have has turned them into celebrities in our community?
Sometimes. I just read something about how praise and worship has two stages: before Marcos Witt, and after Marcos Witt. I don’t know what before Marcos Witt was like because I’m a little too young to remember.

I am referring to how worshipers are exalted for their talent by the media. It makes people follow them as they would a Hollywood star. What do you think?
That is why worship leaders incorporate songs with arrangements that are identical to the original, in order to sound just like that famous “worshiper.”

So, by doing this they are promoting the worshiper, right?
We could say yes and no. There are circumstances where this could be positive. There are famous worshipers that do a great job and have left a legacy at the churches they visited, but there are others who haven’t.

Ideally, this would help the church even more, right?
Now, more than ever, we have seen a boom of songwriters. I wonder what is motivating them. Is it to present their songs or their voice and to sell their product, or to be an instrument of God?