Every year after the holidays, the “returns and exchanges” lines are epic. People stand in line to take back gifts that may be duplicates, don’t fit, or frankly they don’t like. I’ve also received gifts like those in the past, but I made a commitment a few years back never to return anything that someone gave me unless it didn’t fit. This discipline of acceptance has allowed me to broaden my preferences and learn to like new things.
I’ve learned that this discipline can affect other areas of my life as well. For example, most of us are guided by strong preferences when it comes to worship and liturgy. But when it comes to worship, we need to carefully consider how quickly we reject things outside of our preference in the following areas:
- It’s not my size. We each have our own favorite songs, artists, and Pandora playlists. We are perfectly happy with the worship we have selected. Like a comfortable pair of jeans, we like the way they fit.
- It’s not my favorite. We often don’t know how to appreciate or engage in other forms of worship that go beyond our preferences.
What might be keeping you from receiving the gifts of worship from other Christians? What might church communities from different ethnic and cultural back-grounds have to teach you? What might God want to expose you to through worship with the global church?
An Eternal Celebration
One day all the nations of the earth will display their cultural gifts in worship to the King of Glory. Here is the grand finale of the epic story of God and his people:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared . . . I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever” . . . I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the earth will enter the city in all their glory . . . And all the nations will bring their glory and honor into the city. (Revelation 21:1, 3–4, 22–24, 26; emphasis added)
In the end, there is no longer the need to pursue justice, and there is no longer a mission to the nations. There is only the worship of God with the beloved community that consists of “a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language” (Revelation 7:9). This breathtaking global family will be present in all of its beauty. The kings and the nations will bring their glorious gifts into the city of God. There will be sounds, smells, movement, and colors that point to the creative nature of God and his diverse people. We are called to celebrate all of the God-given gifts that communities bring in worship.
The Gift of a Different Perspective
I’ve experienced a foretaste of this as I’ve led worship during InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Urbana conferences. Urbana is a triennial conference that, since 1947, has gathered around 20,000 young adults from hundreds of countries to mobilize them for global missions. In 2009, as Urbana’s Director of Worship, I invited the group to worship using a song called “Magdan Lik,” which was gifted to us by some of my friends at St. Samaans Church in Mokattam village (nicknamed “Garbage City”) just outside Cairo, Egypt. My friends who live there undergo tremendous persecution as a religiously and socio-economically marginalized community. The faith I saw them exhibit under difficult conditions is powerfully expressed in the words of the song that, translated into English, say: “I proclaim that Jesus is the only King of my life. My heart is singing to Christ. With the sound of praises will I be a witness to him. And my prayers will be heard. All my life and my goals are for Jesus. And till he comes back, I will wait to see him in his glory. I sing joyfully, ‘Glory to you!’ Hallelujah!”
I had been so profoundly changed by my partnership with Egyptian Coptic Christians that I wanted to expose American Christians to their faith and compassion. I also wanted the students to hear the Arabic language being used to worship Jesus. Too often we associate certain sounds, rhythms, and images with being “unchristian” when really they are just “un-Western.” Hearing the language and rhythms and seeing the actual Arabic characters on the screen was a teaching moment for many attendees and a healing moment for many Arabic speakers who had long felt alienated by the American church. Multiethnic worship helps us connect our lives with the lives of Christians in a completely different context in order to learn what it might be like to tell God, “All my life is yours” in the midst of persecution and poverty.
In 2012, I had the opportunity to travel to Swaziland to meet caregivers who were tending to neighbors who had HIV. They traveled far distances and risked their own health to share the gospel of Christ in word and deed. We shadowed and interviewed them, and we worshiped with them for days. On one of our day trips, some local teens taught me a song called “Siyabonga Yesu.” They shared with me the meaning and melody of the song. As they taught it to me, the women in nearby homes began to sing with them—stirring soup and singing, hanging laundry and singing, caring for a neighbor and singing:
Siyabonga Jesu (We thank you Jesus)
Wahamba nathi, Siyabonga (You walked with us, Lord we thank You)
I asked if I could record the song because I would need to practice the harmonies and clicking sounds (which are not natural to Westerners) for hours. Sharing a moment of worship on that cold rainy day—where the women we had watched walk for hours sang, “You walked with us, Lord we thank you”—was etched in my memory forever!
When I share that song with congregations, I bring to them a moment of profound worship that I shared with sisters who live their faith in a different reality than mine.
The first time I heard “Revelation Song,” I saw how this beautiful, beloved, and diverse community would look. I closed my eyes and I heard it, but it was not only English I heard. The words and biblical image required a rearrangement of the song to include the many voices of my global friends—the lovely chaos of overlapping harmonies and languages singing the words of . My hope that we will see these types of communities here motivates me to work with communities in developing spaces of worship that are a foretaste of the kingdom in its fullness. Can you imagine it? Can you hear the singing?
(English:) Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord, God Almighty.
Who was and is and is to come.
(Spanish:) Santo, santo, santo, Dios todopoderoso
Quien fue, quien es y quien vendrá
(French:) Saint, oui saint, trois fois saint, Est le Seigneur tout-puissant
Qui est, qui était et qui revient,
(Mandarin:) 聖哉, 聖哉, 聖哉 (Shèng zāi, shèng zāi, shèng zāi)
全歸主至聖全能 (quán guī zhu zhì shèng quán néng)
昨今不變亦永不變 (zuó jīn bù biàn yì yong bù biàn)
The Gift of Learning from Others
Multicultural worship is not simply about enjoying global music; it’s about communion, connection, and solidarity in the story of God’s people. How will you expand your own understanding of worship? How will you receive and celebrate the worship gifts of others? Consider these ways you can personally grow in this area:
1. Start with your relationships. Do you know Christians from other cultural backgrounds? If so, learn from them. Ask about their church experiences (sermons, baptisms, Lord’s Supper, and worship).
2. Visit a church of a different ethnic background with your family. Start with friendships and/or a connection to a different ethnic group through denominational ties or a missions trip.
3. Practice personally. Learn a worship song from one of your friends or church visits that you can utilize in prayer. Check out some of the following resources to learn songs:
4. Share with others. Talk with the members of your church community and worship pastor about what you’ve learned from your experience.
No Refunds of Exchanges
Just picture God’s global, multiethnic, multilingual community described in Revelation sharing their gifts with one another. Imagine if the church now was like a family that willingly received gifts from others, trusting that the color would indeed look good. Imagine if the church now was a family that courageously gave gifts without the fear of rejection.
Our motto should be “No refunds or exchanges.” The glimpse of the kingdom to come in Revelation inspires us to experience this reality now! Our prayers for God’s kingdom to come invite us to practice both receiving the gifts of others and also bringing our own gifts of worship to join in with believers all over the world.
Sandra Maria Van Opstal, a second-generation Latina, is an author, speaker, and urban pastor. In her 15 years with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Sandra mobilized thousands of college students for God’s mission of reconciliation and justice in the world. Her new book, The Mission of Worship, explores urbana worship and how this leads to knowing God in a fuller sense. In addition to her national speaking, training, and writing, she serves as the Associate Pastor of Grace and Peace Community Church in Chicago. You can follow her on Twitter at @sandravanopstal.