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Kai Ton Chau on Worship and Culture Worldwide

Kai Ton Chau teaches Calvin University students to articulate different cultural values so they can discuss and appreciate diverse forms of Christian worship. You can do something similar in your school, church, or worship context to build cultural intelligence among Christians.

Kai Ton Chau is a resource development specialist at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) and associate editor of Reformed Worship. He has degrees in choral conducting, international business, and worship. In this edited conversation, he talks about how to recognize cultural values in Christian worship.

What is the purpose of your online Worship and Culture Worldwide course?

Calvin University requires every graduate to take a cross-cultural engagement (CCE) course so that each student engages in a culture "significantly different from one's own." Calvin offers several CCE courses each term. Worship and Culture Worldwide helps students explore the beauty of the worldwide body of Christ and learn about and appreciate cultural differences in worship practices. 

CICW director John Witvliet came up with the course idea just before the pandemic. He and I cotaught the first one in early 2020 to prepare students to participate more deeply in the annual Calvin Symposium on Worship. Since then I've taught it as an intensive fifteen-day summer course and as a half-semester course spread out over eight weeks. So far, it is the only CCE course that is entirely online and asynchronous—which makes it easy for students in many time zones to fit into their schedules.

What kinds of diversity have you seen among your Worship and Culture Worldwide students?

It's a typical Calvin demographic—almost all college-age students, the majority American, with a smaller number of international students. They are mostly juniors and seniors so are later in their college careers. They come from a variety of majors and church backgrounds, including Roman Catholic, charismatic, evangelical, and Reformed. 

One of my first assignments is for students to write about the worship community they grew up in. If they're not regular churchgoers, I ask them to describe a worship experience on campus, such as weekday chapel. Most students are familiar with only one Christian tradition. Some say, "I'd never been to another church until I came to Calvin."

How do you give students the language to recognize various cultural values? 

This course is meant to be a self-discovery, so first I help students assess their cultural orientation, such as whether their values are more collective or individual. Our textbook, Understanding Us & Them: Interpersonal Cultural Intelligence for Community Building, provides the vocabulary of cultural studies and has self-discovery activities. The textbook author, Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim, is associate dean for diversity and inclusion at Calvin University and is a CICW collaborating partner

Students also take the CQ assessment offered by The CQ Center, which uses a ten-dimension model for explaining cultural clusters. In one assignment, students choose four countries and learn about their cultural values using Hofstede's six-dimension model for describing national cultures. Many students choose their own culture as a baseline to compare with their other choices. I use Julia Middleton's "Core & Flex" model to further explain Dykstra-Pruim's concept about individual identity versus prevailing cultural values. 

So do you think of culture as mainly defined by ethnicity or nationality?

No. I also want to emphasize the many microcultures based on age, political orientation, and socioeconomics. Students have said that the language of cultures and subcultures helps them interact with different people at church, such as Gen Z, millennials, and baby boomers. It helps people understand, for example, why, in an intergenerational church choir, the older people want to hang around after rehearsal but younger people want to arrive and leave on time.

How do your students learn to identify their own cultural worship practices, listen and talk with someone whose cultural worship practices are different, and engage in a worship culture quite different from their own? 

Since this is a class about self-discovery, I refer to myself as the course facilitator rather than the instructor because it's up to you what you learn. Students can choose from so many online options, such as Calvin Symposium on Worship videos, podcasts, and worship services and Global Psalm Gallery songs. They can access CICW interviews with leaders from African, Asian, Hispanic, Black, and Indigenous Christian traditions as well as leaders in disabilities ministries and other contextualized worship

The syllabus recommends a weekly rhythm of prerecorded devotions and short lectures, assigned readings and TED Talks, online options, posting and responding in a discussion forum, and writing short learning/reflection papers. But students are free to do all their coursework on their free day if that fits their schedule better.

Which insights stick with you from students' final papers?

I've taught this to more than 100 students. So few have ever attended a service that uses other languages. They've mostly been to white American churches where English is the norm. So watching a symposium worship service gives them an experience of worship in other languages or other cultures. For example, Irish Christians speak English, but their worship reflects a different culture. Students note that even if the whole service is in a language they don't know, they can understand at least some of it, because of the bodily movements of the priest and people or dramatic gestures during scripture reading or sermons.

They appreciate how the course gives them language to describe different cultures and apply it to worship. American students sometimes discover that they'd seen another culture as inefficient, slow to decide, and lacking in short-term results. They learn that the other culture prioritizes relationship building over efficiency. Also, even with America's individualistic culture, some American families have more collectivistic values. One student was so excited by all she'd learned in Worship and Culture Worldwide that she wanted to implement a similar course in her congregation and spread it to other churches.

Did you notice anything unique among international students' reflections?

Several have written something like this: "I speak four languages. I grew up in Asia or Africa and am very culturally competent, but Calvin wouldn't give me a CCE exemption. I didn't expect to get much out of this class, but now I can see how other cultures see us. This course gave me the language and more sensitivity to adjust more successfully in worshiping with other people."

How might church or school leaders build appreciation for cross-cultural engagement with worship in other contexts?

The key thing is to remember that the Church—with a capital C—is worldwide and covers the last 2,000 years and many years to come. Besides looking at worship in the here and now, you can also look at worship in the worldwide and historic church. Then you can ask, "How do our liturgy and worship fit into the broad 'capital C' Church?" 

They can start with Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim's Understanding Us & Them textbook and the links I've already mentioned. And the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship website is full of amazing free resources, including the Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture.


Kai Ton Chau recommends subscribing to the new Diversity and Inclusion for All podcast by Calvin University professors Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim, Will Katerberg, and Eric Washington. He also suggests watching Julia Middleton’s TEDx Talk on cultural intelligence and this Forbes article on Erin Meyer's book The Culture Map.