The Myth of “Normal” Worship

Facing the assumptions we bring to church
The Myth of “Normal” Worship
Image: BRIGHTSIDE CREATIVE / LIGHTSTOCK.COM

Peanut butter and jelly is a delicious American creation. Having grown up in America, I’ve regularly enjoyed it. It’s also extremely efficient. Don’t have time to make lunch? PB&J. Out of groceries? PB&J. Need some quick protein while writing a book on multiethnic worship? PB&J. It’s normal for us to find peanut butter in our kitchen. But to what extent can we say it’s normal? Consider the following story from Being White by Paula Harris and Doug Schaupp:

Every year the state sends an educational tester to [Holly’s] classroom. The first year, almost all of the kids in Holly’s class failed the basic academic test for kindergarten. They could not follow sequences. Their vocabulary was inadequate. The report came back concluding that the kids all needed special ed.

Holly’s observation was, “This is a fairly average class. Maybe one or two could use some special tutoring, but most of the kids are normal. Some are very smart.” So she asked the tester to return. As the test was repeated, Holly learned that to measure sequencing the white evaluator had asked each kid to explain the stages of making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. This should be fairly simple for a five-year-old, but they all failed. Why? What was happening?

Holly realized, None of these kids eat PB&J; they eat burritos and tamales for lunch. They’re all Latino. “Why don’t you ask them what are the stages of making a burrito?” she suggested. All the kids but one passed this test. They passed easily, explaining clearly and sequentially how to make a burrito. That year they stayed out of special ed.

PB&J may be the most delicious cultural food that exists, but the fact is that the test assumed all American children would know how to describe its creation because it’s so normal. When the church invites others to the table in worship, what assumptions do we make about what is and is not normal?

Normal Worship

Normal is something that occurs naturally: a pattern for how things should be. We use the word normal to describe not only what is but what should be natural for everyone. We are comforted by normal. We assimilate to normal. There is a lot of power in naming something as normative.

In the case of the PB&J kids, the assumption that they naturally should be able to describe how a PB&J sandwich is made limited how their intelligence was evaluated. Basically, PB&J is “normal,” but arepas and spicy rice cakes are “ethnic.” This similarly happens in the church.

Sandra Maria Van Opstal

Sandra Maria Van Opstal is a TCW advisor. A pastor at Grace and Peace Community in Chicago, she is the author of The Next Worship and The Mission of Worship. A liturgist and activist, she frequently consults, speaks, and writes on topics of racial identity and global mission. You can connect with Sandra on Twitter at @sandravanopstal.

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Church; Diversity; Ethnicity; Music; Worship
Today's Christian Woman, January 6, 2016
Posted January 6, 2016

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