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Sandra Van Opstal on Multicultural Millennials in Worship

You might be surprised to learn what matters in worship to multicultural millennials in this urban Chicago church.

Sandra Maria Van Opstal is executive pastor at Grace and Peace Community Church in Chicago, Illinois. As a trainer, liturgist and activist, she is passionate about reconciliation and justice. She has directed worship for the Urbana Student Missions Conference, the Willow Creek Association and the Christian Community Development Association. Her books are The Mission of Worship and The Next Worship. In this edited conversation, she talks about worship that reaches multicultural youth and young adults.

How would you describe your congregation?

We’re intergenerational and multiclass in a black brown context in northwest Chicago. Most are people in their 30s, Latino extended families or youth aged 12 through 20, who come without parents. Most Grace and Peace people grew up or live within three miles of the church, mainly in the Hermosa and Humboldt Park neighborhoods, which have second and third generation Puerto Ricans, first and second generation Mexicans, and African Americans. Our services are primarily in English with some bilingual aspects in communion, worship and prayer.

What trends do you want to uplift or downplay in multicultural worship?

I often see multicultural worship that reflects more appropriation than appreciation. Like consuming tacos and using urban slang, young churches often seek to be inclusive in identical ways to the culture at large. Churches that think “multiethnic is cool” can become like shoppers at Pier 1 Imports—looking for that Turkish lamp or framed Chinese character that will make their home look “ethnic.”

It’s appropriation when you consume a culture, like using a spoken word video or serving pan dulce [sweet bread] for communion or singing a gospel song— without knowing the story or narrative of the community that produced the music and prayers. It’s appreciation when you relate those cultural artifacts to the current reality, both the beauty and struggle of the community that produced them.

What’s another multicultural worship trend?

Generational disconnect. I constantly read about or hear from first generation churches—whether African American, Afro-Caribbean, Latino or Asian American—that their young people don’t connect with their worship. New church planters within those minority communities slogan themselves as “not your grandma’s church” to distinguish themselves from the past generation. The positive is that young leaders want to shape the church. They want to create liturgies that speak for and to their peers. They are invested in change. The negative is the loss of legacy, heritage and history in their worship.

What has worked best for your church to reach and engage multicultural youth in worship?

Grace_kidsWe try to welcome them as they are and build from there. We ask them to serve as greeters, ushers and tithe collectors. We want them to see the church as their house. We learn from them by asking what they enjoy about worship, both visuals and spaces. We pay attention to lyrics they share on social media and Spotify lists. When church youth babysit our son, I ask what they are listening to in general and Christian music. I try to be a student of the content and style of their music, because it gives me clues to their spiritual longings.

All this is important because their worship experience is central to their theology. Much of what they learn about God is formed in worship. Most young people are disinterested in reading books, articles or blog posts that are too long. Everything is about the “sound bite.” This has meant a generation that is less informed about Scripture. Worship then becomes critical.

Do you do much with hip hop, black or Latino music in worship?

This is where the generational divide impacts worship. Our older people like coritos [short praise choruses], but our younger people prefer Elevation and Hillsong. We have a constant conversation in our congregation about cultural forms of worship. Do we force youth to return to “their legacy and heritage,” give them what they want or create something new? We have to ask this about every area of discipleship, not just music.

Even though our millennials like the same lyrics as you’d find in white subcultures, the lyrics mean something different in their daily context. The way the song is led and our sound is completely different—more emotion and movement, heavier bass, extra percussion. Young people are always being told what they should like. They feel welcome here, because we allow them as sound teams to mix sounds to their preference, such as when a musician leads a song in a free flowing style that may go on for 15 minutes.

How else do you “meet millennials where they are” in worship?

We invite youth and young adults to use color, lighting, art and other visuals to create our worship space. Our prayers and sermons include examples meaningful to them, like Black Lives Matter, violence, the struggle for good education in our community and parents who’ve been deported. I often use Vine videos or images I’ve seen on their Facebook, Instagram or Twitter accounts. For a Colossians 3 sermon on greed, I brought in a roll of $20 bills and a roll of condoms to illustrate the passage. I said, “If this makes you squeamish, that’s why we have problems with sex and money. If church isn’t a safe place to talk about these things, then where will our young people we get their ideas?”

Is everything aimed at the millennials?

No. We’re trying to create worship spaces that empower all generations to contribute. We want to give each generation and group an experience of the other. During Advent, we might do contemporary Christian music, gospel songs, hymns and heritage songs, like coritos and parranda songs. Parrandas are the Puerto Rican equivalent of going Christmas caroling. You go around to different houses, sing traditional carols and they feed you.

We preach to the entire congregation by including many representative examples in a given week, like “in our workplaces…at school…if we’re married…if you’re single.” But I never say, “Now, young people, when you….”

What’s visually distinctive or distinctively urban about your worship?

We meet at Grace and Peace Community Center in the same fellowship hall used for afterschool programs and food pantries. It’s a blank space, so we drop white cloth down two walls and hang pictures. For every sermon series, I work with creative artists in our church on graphics for our website and slides. For a series on the Book of Ruth, we used Hebrew characters for the name Ruth and had the English word “redeemed” underneath. We put down rugs with a vaguely Middle Eastern design in our entryway. A suburban or rural church might have used wheat sheaves, but we’re urban. So we used blankets, because Ruth slipped under Boaz’s cloak while he was sleeping on the threshing floor.

During Advent we used wooden pallets and lights, along with charcoal drawing of different facial expressions of people who would have been there responding to the birth of Christ. We use what we do in our urban space because it’s free. It makes us creative.

Why did you and your husband name your son Justo?

His name, Justo Alejandro, means "just defender of mankind." His namesake is Justo Gonzalez, one of the most influential theologians and historians in my life. From him I learned that how you understand scripture is shaped by your cultural and socioeconomic location. My often-different perspective in theology and practice is shaped by growing up in the margins. As a Latina, I created spaces of worship that expressed my cultural values of familia (hospitality) and community (solidarity).  It empowered me to realize that, as a woman of color, I do more than add representational diversity to the room. I add distinct value that was missing when my community’s voice and experience—whether gender, ethnic, socioeconomic or “foreigner”—was not present. In my ministry, I have always been an activist and mobilizer for justice, so naming our son Justo was meaningful.

At the 2016 Calvin Symposium on Worship, Sandra Van Opstal will present on worship leaders as pastoral musicians, the “best contemporary worship music you may not know” and her forthcoming book, The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World.