How can your church liturgy meaningfully connect across the cultures of your congregation? Whether you have Anglo, Black, Latino, Asian, or mixed-race congregants, the practices you include to sing the gospel, read the gospel, and teach the gospel should be an invitation to worship God at the intersection of our faith and diverse cultures.
A multicultural liturgy does not mean that you just sprinkle in a sampling of different practices and cultures around the world. There’s no depth or authenticity to that. Rather, think about the main ethnicities that are present within your community, the main folks who are participate in your church, and have their cultures reflected. Connect with your own local community, not simply a generic multicultural community. Be committed to multiculturalism that is local to you. How do you do that with authentic effectiveness?
1) Build a Multicultural Team
Ensure that the people upfront on Sunday proportionately reflect the ethnic makeup of your congregation and even, by extension, your community. If you live in a community that is seventy percent Asian, for example, your leadership, including the people who lead in musical worship, should be roughly seventy percent Asian. If you are in a community that is seventy percent Anglo, your music leaders, staff, and elders should be about seventy percent Anglo. That’s not something to be ashamed of. If by contrast you are in a predominantly Black or brown community and your leadership is all White, that is a problem.
David A. Anderson in Multicultural Ministry Handbook writes, “On Sunday mornings, people must see others that look like them or they will feel like outsiders . . . When people identify others like themselves in our church, they know they are not alone and the church is indeed a place for them . . . What merit is there when a Chinese family walks into a church only to feel unwelcomed and underrepresented in the body of Christ? If there is a large population of Chinese in my local area and I am not reaching out to them in ministry or relationship, I am missing an opportunity for our church to reflect the image of God.”
The model of Acts 6:1-7 challenges us to value diverse leadership that reflects our community and our people. In the church in Jerusalem, Greek-speaking Jewish widows were not being taken care of. A central problem was that no one in the Jerusalem church leadership shared the ethnic background or native language of these widows. To correct this, the church empowered seven Greek-speaking Jewish deacons to care for this community of Greek widows.
What can we learn from this passage? Each of us contextualizes most naturally to our own context. Moreover, seeing leaders of our same ethnic roots upfront communicates the church’s commitment to care for the diverse range of its people. Again, think about the ethnicities in your church and how your leadership team might need to expand.
2) Create an Atmosphere of Diverse Worship Expression
Sing songs and pray in different languages. Have a variety of clothing styles and Bible translations represented as well in your liturgy.
If you have Spanish-speaking congregants, a song should be sung in Spanish not only by a Spanish-speaker but by multiple Spanish-speakers. These Spanish speakers, in turn, need to be dialoguing with the rest of the church leadership weekly about how to better reach and engage their church’s Spanish-speakers; what is working on a Sunday morning and what isn’t; what feels culturally in-step and what feels culturally insensitive. When a Spanish-speaking worship leader is singing upfront, it’s not simply to perform a song in Spanish. Rather, time should be dedicated to educate non-Spanish speakers about the song, its theology, the music style, and why this song is important for their congregation to sing together.
The same could be said about praying in Spanish or reading the Bible in a Spanish translation. Liturgy in the different languages of your congregation shouldn’t be merely a checklist for diversity, but rather a core initiative to unify your congregation together. Normalize teaching people, “We are going to sing this song, read this translation, and pray in this language as part of our worship to God this morning.”
Perhaps you’re wondering, “What about separate services?” I’ve never been a proponent for separate language services. It feels like another form of segregation within the body of Christ. People who participate in these different services rarely end up rubbing shoulders with one another. They don’t worship together through song or through taking the sacraments together. They rarely if ever eat together or have opportunities to fellowship and connect. Instead, we need to find creative ways to serve our different demographics without alienating them from each other.
If you don’t yet have staff of color who can lead in multicultural expressions of worship, a first practical step is to have your current worship team learn how to play and sing songs from other cultures. This requires intentional study and practice. Meet one on one with congregants of different ethnic backgrounds, and ask them what songs they’d like to hear led during a Sunday gathering.
Your team could pay a worship leader of color from another church staff for a consult. You could also contract a worship leader of another ethnic background to regularly lead your church in worship through other languages and cultural expressions. If you only contract an outside leader once, your efforts have not moved beyond tokenism. Singing a song one time in another language is a one-off program element; it’s not effective transformational change.
3) Create Rhythms That Are Authentic to Your Church
At our church, Hope Community Church, we’ve been experimenting with a blended model. We have a growing number of Spanish-speaking immigrants in our church, many of whom are from Guatemala. We all worship together through song and prayer to begin the service. Then we have a fellowship break, and the Spanish-speakers regroup in another room to hear the sermon taught in Spanish by two local Guatemalan pastors (a husband and wife). After the sermon, this group rejoins the rest of the body for communion and final prayer all together.
It’s by no means a perfect model, but we’ve found it to work well for the moment as it allows our people to interact and worship with each other as much as possible. My husband, Aaron, is a Spanish-speaker as well, and we are hoping in the future for him to be able to preach sermons in Spanish, or even alternate between English and Spanish sermons each week. This would allow our English-speakers to have an experience in a church where they are not centered, which is a good thing too.
Again, David A. Anderson is instructive here: “Some of the biggest hindrances to multicultural ministry are the structures in place that keep churches from being more flexible.” For churches pursuing a multicultural makeup, my exhortation is this: Embrace variety in your liturgy and be willing to try new things. Figure out how to become more flexible in the way a worship service is conducted so you can grow in your ability to invite diversity and promote inclusion. The triune God is a nonnegotiable, but what language you sing in or how long you pray should never be a deal breaker.
How difficult is it to authentically transition toward a more flexible structure of liturgy, and what is the cost? When it comes to multicultural liturgies, we must be committed to true and lasting change, which requires the long view. We will never be able to achieve cultural flourishing in the church if it is nothing more than a checkmark for diversity. It is only when we commit to showcasing the power of unifying in worship before the Lord Almighty as a multicultural body—and being willing to suffer real change and cost—that we will know our efforts are authentic.For churches pursuing a multicultural makeup, my exhortation is this: Embrace variety in your liturgy and be willing to try new things. Click To Tweet
Reflective Questions for Your Church’s Deepening Multicultural Liturgy:
- How accurately do the cultural backgrounds of folks on stage reflect the ethnic demographics of your people?
- What are the main languages spoken in your community and congregation? How often are those languages represented in your church liturgy, e.g., in the sermon, Scripture readings, songs, and prayers?
- Does your liturgy help create different cultural experiences?
- What kinds of cultural stories are told during the service? Is there space for testimonies?
 IBID, p. 19.