IS CROSS CULTURAL WORSHIP AUTHENTIC?
One of the questions that has come up several times in the course of my training churches in cross cultural ministry is in the area of worship. Once I had a white pastor say to me, whose church was in an African American neighborhood, “we do lots of ministry in the community, but so far we can’t get any African Americans to come to worship with us.”
I asked the pastor to describe his worship style or culture to me. He agreed that essentially it was a traditional type white or Anglo service, they hadn’t changed anything. I asked him if he thought about adapting the style of the music, of bringing in some African American musicians. I didn’t get around to asking him about the style or content of his preaching. He asked me, “why would we change the style of our worship, wouldn’t that be unauthentic (he probably said, “inauthentic”) and therefore patronizing?”
I confess the question set me back for a moment. After all, here he was in a racially changing neighborhood and he wanted to be cross cultural. He was asking us for help in that regard, yet in the way he asked the question I got the feeling that he didn’t really want to change very much to cross ethnic lines.
Before I give you my response let me assure you that I don’t believe there is only one way black people worship, or should worship. Certainly there are African Americans who are Methodist, Episcopal, or grew up Catholic in their worship experiences. There are traditional type African American Presbyterians who have lived their whole lives in a type of “high church Presbyterianism” that is as rigid and particular in liturgy as any white Presbyterian has ever been. I even knew of one African American Covenanter type church in Alabama that only sang Psalms. However, you will notice the word “one.”
The vast majority of African Americans have been in Baptist and Pentecostal churches, and even the Methodists sway a little bit. In the black community there have been at times churches built on shades of color, and they often sought to put distance between the way they worshiped and the way darker skinned black folk worshiped. Shade of color, education, and class all played a part in that. How about theological conviction? Okay, I am sure there have been some that out of conscience sought a more literary, cerebral, and liturgical form of worship. Certainly black fundamentalist Bible Church congregations were pretty consistent in being more focused on Bible learning than emotional in their worship.
I confess I am a learner and admirer of the formation of what is a fairly consistent style of black worship in this country. It is very pervasive, and all one has to do is go to a “Gospel” service on a military post to observe it. It is attractive, engaging, and what may be called “cross-over” as people all over the world are drawn to it. My wife has been in several African American Gospel groups on trips to France, Germany, Japan, and Kenya and has seen the evidence of this. I confess I believe worship ought to be wholistic, and engage the heart and emotions, as well as the head. Showing emotion in worship is not the same as out of control emotionalism.
Having said these things I think my answer to the question that pastor asked me should be amplified by saying it would be silly to attempt to be cross cultural unless you are open to change. It should also be reassuring that our primary tool in being successful in cross cultural ministry is love, revealed in humility and loyalty. If you are convinced your worship style is the only Biblical style and therefore cannot be changed, then if you want to reach other ethnicities you had best find ways they can access it and make it their own.
What I did say to him was, “are you married?” He admitted that he was. I said, “have you ever done anything for your wife that you didn’t want to do, but did it because she wanted you to do it; was that patronizing?” I think he got the point. Love gives us a flexibility we never thought we could have, not to sin, but to win the hearts of others in authentic relationship. We all give up something to cross cultural lines, but together we gain so much more.