Sandra Van Opstal on The Next Worship

While some U.S. politicians play on fears about ethnic minorities, changing demographic trends actually offer churches a huge opportunity to create new forms of worship.

Sandra Maria Van Opstal is executive pastor at the 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, Willow Creek Association and Christian Community Development Association. In this edited conversation, she talks about her new book, The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World.

As North American churches think ahead to what their congregations will be like in 15 years, what should they be considering?

In The Next Worship, I explain that our communities are becoming younger, browner and less connected to churches. Pew Research Center findings and U.S. Census Bureau projections predict that by 2044, the population will be majority non-white. Latinos will be the largest ethnic group by far. Already in 2014, among children under age five living in the U.S., 50.2 percent were from so-called racial minority groups. By and large, ethnic minority populations are younger than white ones.

We need to pay attention to these demographic trends in the larger society. If, 15 years from now, our churches look the same as now, then we are missing an incredible opportunity. 

And what is that opportunity?

It’s actually two opportunities. The first is to witness to people who are not of Christian faith. The second is to experience the richness of the global church, to taste and see that the Lord is good through the gifts he gives us through others.

Is this increasing diversity mainly an urban phenomenon?

No, it’s happening in smaller towns too. It’s very rare anymore to find a community of people that does not have some connection with people from other ethnic backgrounds. This is partly because of where the government is placing refugees. Many Hmong, Laotian and North African refugees are placed in cities such as St. Louis, Minneapolis and Atlanta. Even as professionals, they work in whatever jobs they can as they learn English. We may overlook them because they are in service industries or working in factories. And, wherever you have agriculture, let’s face it, you’ll find Latinos. Language and class distinctions often prevent us from seeing or engaging with people not like us.

What is an excellent reason for choosing to make worship more diverse?

Embodiment of the reconciliation! I don’t think the main purpose of diverse worship is developing a diverse church—although, if you have that opportunity, do it. It’s more than just hospitality. Diverse worship allows us to stand in solidarity and experience mutuality so that we experience a fuller picture of God. This allows us to live into the reality that we are “one new humanity” (Eph. 2:15). 

We also engage in diverse forms of worship to intentionally form our congregation. We want to take them from what they already know about God and his mission to a deeper discipleship that is awake to the global family. We want to raise awareness of the church as “one body” (Eph. 4).

So, know why you want more diverse worship. Figure out what that would look like in your structure, and involve the necessary decision makers, which might be the pastor and elder board or a longtime volunteer organist.

What are less good ideas for choosing to make worship more diverse?

I’ve seen terrible ideas. You go to a conference and experience a music style, song or worship practice from another culture. You think, “Wow, that music is so lively!” or “Wouldn’t it be neat to sing in Korean?” So you try to replicate it in your church. But you have no process to introduce new things. You mimic it without sharing the story and community from which this music or practice comes. Then you check it off your list and think, “There, we’ve done Martin Luther King Day or World Mission Sunday.” You’ve just appropriated another culture’s gifts, but you haven’t interpreted those gifts or created transcendent space for experiencing God’s heart for the world.

What first steps can a church take to understand how its culture influences its worship—especially the non-musical parts of worship? 

All worship is in some way located in culture. Everything in worship, from how congregants are greeted at the door to Lord’s Supper observance to the benediction, is rooted in culture. I have a whole appendix on how each culture focuses on an attribute of God’s character that comes out of its lived experience as a community. Also, different worship elements are more important in different denominational traditions. Some traditions center on the sermon, others on the worship and prayer ministry. Once you understand the cultural influence on what you once thought of as “just normal worship,” then you can get into the who, what, when, where, how and why of making worship more multicultural. You may find out that a particular community can teach your church what you desperately need.

What’s an authentic way to practice multicultural hospitality, solidarity and mutuality in a mostly homogenous congregation?

Start by showing hospitality to people who are present yet underrepresented in your worship. Our church has two Korean-American congregants, both in leadership. So we sometimes sing in Korean, but not because we think lots of Koreans will start coming. Given the reality of who lives in our neighborhood, that’s not going to happen. We sing in Korean to extend hospitality to those members.

To stand in solidarity with Christians in other communities and around the world, look first to your relationships. Say you are trying to help your congregation connect with God’s heart for the world. Maybe you really hit it off with someone at a worship symposium or conference. You ask that person to teach you a song and send you an MP3. When you share that song with your congregation, you invite them into the story, like “We are singing ‘Salaam (Peace)’ to stand in solidarity with Middle Eastern brothers and sisters who face discrimination and persecution because of their Christian faith.”

Hospitality and solidarity lead to mutuality, the willingness to be led by another so we can experience God’s richness through them. You can practice mutuality as you worship with neighboring churches whose worship complements yours. Maybe your congregants go through storms and need help to worship amid hardship. Learning from people of color who have learned how to simultaneously live in lament and joy will deepen your worship.

We embody reconciliation through practicing hospitality, solidarity and mutuality in worship. The first time I participated in singing “Revelation Song” by Jennie Lee Riddle in multiple languages, I saw how this beautiful beloved community would look.

Okay, that does sound beautiful, but it’s probably not easy to achieve …

It isn’t. It’s not merely changing music style or language. Cultures have different ideas of what it means to “lead” people in worship. And then you throw in gender differences! In the book, I get into the details of how to lead, share leadership, follow and invite cross-culturally. I share experiences and anxieties from many worship leaders, including times that I’ve fallen flat on my face. The chapter on cultural change has strategies and stories about respecting generational and ethnic legacies and dealing with fears about worship changes.

What other multicultural worship planning tools and resources does your new book offer?

Each chapter has stories and case studies and ends with a summary of key concepts and with discussion questions and a prayer. There’s a whole chapter on the pros and cons of the most widely used models for multicultural worship. The nine appendices offer lists, tables, tips and examples of cultural values, where to find music, orders of service, worship components, songs for crossing cultures, how to teach language songs, and more. This book is not only for worship leaders. It’s also for pastors and congregants who want to imagine what worship can look like and grow more deeply in their biblical understanding.

Anything else you want to say about The Next Worship?

Friends tell me it’s a quick read, great for people who tend to read only the length of a blog post or article. Each chapter is self-explaining, so you can read chapters in any order. If you only want to read the chapter on multiethnic worship models, you could do it.

LEARN MORE

Read The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World. Check out Sandra Maria Van Opstal’s website, her Worship Leader article “Anthems of Solidarity and Mutuality” and videos

 

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