Diversity in Worship
By David Williams “Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people. He said in a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water’” (Rev 14:6-7)
The call for diversity and worship is at the heart of Adventist mission. It includes people of every nation (ethnicity), tribe (culture), language, and people (race). Today, by God’s grace, Seventh-day Adventist Church is the most racially diverse religious group in the United States, according to Pew Research, 2015. In 2016, US News & World Report found Andrews University to be tied 2nd in the US for campus ethnic diversity and tied 7th in highest percentage of international students.
None of this is to say we have it all figured out. Multicultural worship is challenging. We need to critically think and actively pray to know how to lead such worship. Katherine Phillips writes in the Scientific American, “Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not” (“How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” 2004).
I am the pastor for worship at an historically White congregation in South Bend, Indiana. We have experienced a major multicultural shift in our parish, as we now have many Africans, American Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Europeans, and American Whites (all of which are ethnicities—and technically speaking, all part of one race!). While much of the conversation about culture focuses on ethnicity, it is also important to consider the cultures of age groups. My church is not only multicultural, but also multi-generational. In a church of about 200-250 in attendance, we may have anywhere from 30-50 small children present at the Children’s Story. This can lead to quite a lot of noise during the worship service! It also results in much frustration by many. Too often, church members will do and say little things that lead a person to feel unworthy or like they don’t belong, such as: “We never had a problem getting our children to sit through church,” or even just a glare when a child screams.
A week ago Sabbath, the noise during the service was almost unbearable for many. It was a tender issue, but our pastor addressed the diversity of our church in a loving manner. Yesterday at church, he invited two couples with small children to the platform to share with the church what it is like to worship with small children, and asked what the church could do to help. This gesture helped the young parents feel welcome and a part of the church family.
In similar fashion, we make judgments about the “other” in a myriad of other ways, such as musical choices, preaching style, skin color, etc. When people judge, others feel like they aren’t good enough and don’t belong. This is shame. Angst and shame are too common as we attempt to worship in a multicultural and multi-generational environment.
I wish to encourage our pastors and worship leaders to cultivate love in your congregation. Avoid judgments and seek inclusivity. Hearts are tender and seek your kindness. While we certainly need the Holy Spirit, we also need to learn how to improve our ministries.
I wish to encourage all pastors, elders, and musicians to attend our Music & Worship Conference this April, 20-22, on the campus of Andrews University. Our theme is “We Are One: Cultivating Diverse Community through Christian Worship.” It is my prayer, as we plan this conference, that worship leaders will learn skills that will cultivate inclusivity, safety, and love. Ultimately, I pray that it will equip leaders to continue to fulfill our mandate to gather into one, all God’s children, to Worship Him!