Worship in Diverse Cross-Cultural Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Gad Mpoyo

Since the 2016 election season, the topic of immigration has moved to the forefront of the national political debate as well as in the church. The changing demographic of the United States due to waves of migration is not longer an abstract phenomenon. The once majority culture is now becoming the minority culture.

As a pastor of Shalom International Ministry, a cross-cultural PC(USA) New Worshipping Community located in Clarkston, Georgia, a city once called by the New York Times “the most diverse square mile in the country,” I see this change in demographics and culture on a daily basis. For example, at Clarkston High School, students speak more than 77 languages; in my own context, 25 languages are spoken, and Shalom has members from 17 countries.

Photo from Shalom International Ministry Facebook page

People migrate for various reasons. For some, migration is driven by the search for better education. For others, migration provides oppressed peoples an opportunity to imagine a new future. As people migrate, they carry with them two forms of luggage. One is visible (i.e. suitcase or backpack), and the other is invisible. Inside this invisible luggage one will find culture, cuisine, language, fear, past trauma, and dreams, and interwoven throughout is their faith expressed in worship.

Clarkston is a microcosm of what America will look like in the coming years. This sounds like a very optimistic vision of a great future filled with unity in diversity, a future where everyone lives together in harmony. But it is worth pointing out that this new reality of diversity in culture and demographics poses new challenges not only in the political realm but also in our communities and churches.

When it comes to addressing issues of inclusiveness, power sharing, and justice, two questions arise in the church:

  • How can the church be church while offering worship that is authentic, contextual and just? By authentic, I mean true to our Judeo-Christian tradition; contextual, so that it reflects the reality of the people; and just, as it affirms the dignity and value of other human beings.
  • How can the worship and corporate life of our congregations be meaningful and inviting to people from diverse backgrounds and cultures, such as refugees or immigrants?

To address these questions, which are generated by the new reality of diversity in our communities and pews, and to live faithfully into our calling as the priesthood of all believers, there is a need for a paradigm shift in the way the majority culture relates to the minority cultures when it comes to worship.

A few years ago, I was approached by a Presbyterian minister whose church invested a lot of time and energy in welcoming and helping refugee families from Africa, including Congo. Her church responded to many needs of those refugee families, from buying furniture and kitchen utensils to tutoring the children, taking them to the social security office and medical appointments, orienting them to the new culture, and teaching the parents English, just to name a few. However, the minister and her congregation felt disappointed and could not understand why these families, though Christians, would neither attend the worship service nor participate in church activities. They would come to worship once or twice and then never came back. Since I come from the Democratic Republic of Congo and I work with refugee communities, this minister genuinely ask me to help her understand why there was lack of engagement from those refugee families.

On the one hand, I can empathize with this congregation. I can see the extent to which they invested resources in helping those families. On the other hand, the church’s encounters with the families seemed transactional rather than relational. They seemed to be driven by an expectation of some kind of return for their investment. Furthermore, there was a lack of understanding of the culture and notion of worship from the perspective of those refugee families.

Before jumping to conclusions and blaming the refugee families for not participating in worship, one needs to consider these questions: What is our worship planning process? Who is at the table? How did they get there? Who from our community is missing? Why are they missing? What power and cultural dynamics need to be reconsidered in order to reconceive worship planning in our own contexts as more than merely diverse but actually more just and equal?

As we reflect on these questions, I extend an invitation to each of us to take a deep breath, open our minds, eyes, and spirits, and put on the shoes of those refugee families – the ones who stopped attending services that were conducted in a language that was foreign to them; the ones who sat in pews attempting to follow a liturgy they could not understand. Who would want to continue coming to a service that does not speak to their own reality? As Jehu Hanciles once said, “Christ cannot be ‘the way’ if he does not know where you are coming from. Christ cannot be truth if he does not speak to your questions. Christ cannot be life if he does not know the circumstances you inhabit.” Is it not true that we, too, in our own contexts question why people do not come to church? I wonder if we are not falling into the same trap as it was in the case of my minister friend’s congregation.

As she and I continued the conversation, I expressed the need to understand worship from the African and, more specifically, the Congolese worldview. Worship among Congolese communities extends beyond the two or three hours that people gather. Worship is a way of life. This concept of worship is rooted in the African worldview, which states that there is little or no separation between the sacred and the secular. Based on this African worldview, to live is to worship, to worship is to live. Then, I expressed to her that if her congregation wants to be diverse, the leadership team would need to start inviting “the other” to the table in the planning process. Just as Christ welcome us all, no matter whether we come from the North, South, East, or West, so shall the table in our planning process be open to all. This is an act of justice.

I do not know how the conversation went between that congregation and those families, but this is a typical example that reminds us how the change in our demographics and culture affects our way of worship and pushes us to rethink the church’s call to be a priesthood of all believers. By welcoming everyone to the table, even the planning table, we see glimpses of the heavenly feast we will enjoy one day. In doing so, we are fulfilling God’s call to “make disciples of all nations.”

Elaine. Padilla; Peter C. Phan, contemporary Issues of Migration and Theology (New York: Palgrave Macmillan; 2013)

Woosung Calvin Choi, Preaching to Multiethnic Congregation: Positive marginality as a homiletical paradigm (New York: Peter Lang; 2015)

Gad Mpoyo is a founding pastor of Shalom International Ministry, a 1001 New Worshipping Community located in Clarkston GA. Shalom serves primarily immigrants and refugees from more than seven countries. He comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. His interest is on migration and how it is affecting the church.