Servant Leadership in Multicultural Worship

By Jonathan Kindberg

It was the end of the conference’s “multicultural worship night” and Sofia was in tears. “This was so unjust!” I did my best to listen and be of comfort to this key Latina leader as my own heart was also in turmoil. What had begun with a well-intentioned desire to bring forward the worship styles from some of the African-American and Latino congregations in this conference’s network nearly had ended as a train wreck. What went wrong?

The host church for this event was a large suburban congregation with a growing heart for multicultural ministry. The lineup for the night was to be the worship team from the host congregation (we’ll call New Life Church), In the Vine Worship, the worship team from a predominantly African-American church and the worship team from Ministerios de Agua Viva, a small Latino church, made up of mostly youth and young adults. Each were given a slot for three or four songs in different parts of the service.

New Life Church’s band began the evening, then In the Vine played their set. By this time in the service there wasn’t much time left and the slot for Ministerios de Agua Viva, ended up getting pushed back and they were only able to play one of the three songs they had rehearsed. To make the situation worse they played an all Spanish song limited response from the mostly English speaking audience . The Ministerios de Agua Viva youth, for whom playing at such a big event was a big deal, were deeply disappointed and visibly crestfallen. Furthermore, the sound, which had worked well all night, began to misfire during their set: microphones didn’t work, the guitar volume dropped out, etc. Sofia, one of mentors for many of the youth in the band, saw a common dynamic playing itself out, one that she had experienced over and over as a Latina, both in church and in broader society: the experience of being left out and being last.

No one intended a train wreck. Quite the opposite! The night actually originated with a desire to welcome those from other cultures and musical styles. The resulting hurt to folks from a marginalized cultural background were largely due to unintentional and unconscious patterns. Furthermore, most in the audience and those involved in the planning likely were unaware (beyond a vague sense of awkwardness) that the night hadn’t gone well.

As Anglicans we have the privilege of being a part of a global worshipping family. We regularly crisscross with leaders from East Africa, Latin America and throughout the Global South. Furthermore, right here in our own neighborhoods our congregations are increasingly reflecting the incredible diversity of the nations.  How do we learn to worship together in ways that are mutually blessing and honoring? Let’s analyze this story as an example we can all learn from in what is the long and difficult road towards becoming and living out the reality of multicultural family or what the New Testament calls “household.”  It is important to note that  while this vignette could discourage us from pursuing multicultural expression in worship, rather it is more of a story of the difficulties that come along a road that leads to tremendous blessing and fruit. This was an important (and perhaps inevitable) step of a much longer journey. Because there diversity in the style of songs that evening, those in the audience from Latino and black cultural backgrounds could feel that this event was also “theirs.” They weren’t just observers that evening, but rather took a step towards becoming deeper participants in the work of this church network whereas in the past they may have really not seen the relevance in attending a conference of this nature.

This article is written for those who are convinced that multicultural household (and thus worship) is extremely vital and important so that everyone within our ministries and churches (especially those from disempowered cultural groups and people of color) feel that they fully belong and are a part of the family. We often aren’t aware of how much work this truly entails or how to do so in a practical way especially in the context of worship.

So, returning to our example, what were some of the dynamics that went into this multicultural worship night?

  1. The ordering of the bands in the service both reflected and reinforced a common racial “order” or social pyramid often found within broader society where certain groups are usually last. While this “pecking order” is clearly felt and experienced on a daily basis by people of color, many within the dominant culture are unaware of these dynamics.
  2. There are very different cultures around worship and worship ministry. In this specific scenario the musicians in the African-American worship team were mostly paid, highly trained musicians. The anglo-american musicians from the host church were also very highly trained musicians, though mostly volunteers, from a large suburban church with, comparatively, lots of resources. The Ministerio musicians were mostly self-trained 2nd generation Latino youth volunteers from a smaller congreagation. Playing at a larger event of this kind brought a heightened sense of expectation and excitement.  Though fully bilingual, they were much more comfortable and used to playing in Spanish-only settings and didn’t have much experience catering to a predominantly English speaking, dominant culture audience.
  3. There was very little existing relationship between the bands, worship leaders and the planners of the event making it more difficult to navigate the different expectations as well as on the spot changes in the service plan.
  4. Whether this was in fact what was happening or not the dynamic of the malfunctioning sound equipment was interpreted through the lens of previous experience by Sofia as discriminatory and a lack of concern and attention by the sound technicians from the host church.

What could be learned from this experience?

  1. A key element for making these kinds of events successful is humility and sacrifice on the part of all parties, but especially on the part of hosts and service planners, who tend to be from the dominant culture. To reverse the “ordering” found within the world so often, dominant culture leaders can lead the way in choosing to be last, both figuratively as well as practically in matters such as who goes first in a worship set, who leads a worship team, who chooses the songs, whose preferences come first, who leads out on a song, whose microphone is louder, etc. This kind of servant leadership sets the tone for others who can follow this example.
  2. It is very difficult to integrate well multiple bands with multiple cultures in one night. A single team, made up of musicians and leaders from different cultures is usually preferable to having multiple bands of multiple cultures though this usually takes more relational work ahead of time as well as more time in building relationships and planning rehearsals.
  3. Doing specific “multicultural” services or events can be (if done well) key stepping stones towards deeper “household” like dynamics, but they can also unintentionally reinforce worldly power relationships between different groups. It should be clear that the often unspoken reality is that that other “normal”  (or “non-multicultural events”) are just as “cultural.” They just tend to reflect the culture of the planners. In large events they thus tend to be dominant culture centric. In other words, most events if not done very intentionally, are done in a eurocentric, or culturally anglo way.

One more story: United Adoration had done four or five song-writing retreats and had begun to gain momentum. New songs were emerging, they were being sung in local congregations and momentum was growing. These songs and retreats were mostly being done in a Caucasian context and styles common to this church context. Then United Adoration took a leap of faith. How could we begin to also encourage the writing of songs for other cultures and contexts? Caminemos Juntos, ACNA’s Latino church planting network and conference, extended an invitation to host a songwriting retreat two days before one of their national conferences. With great joy and enthusiasm United Adoration accepted the invitation. Rather than coming in with all the answers and using a determined formula, the UA leaders came in with a learning spirit: “How can UA be a blessing to the Latino church? What are the unique gifts and challenges in this context?” were key questions asked of the group. A veteran and respected songwriting leader from the Latino community was invited in to help guide the group into this new terrain.  Many conversations and much time spent in relationship building ahead of time, before the retreat, was spent in building trust with him.

Ten Latino song writers lived together in community for two days, eating, praying, worshiping and eventually song writing together. What emerged was a project different than all the UA projects thus far, but one that has become a huge blessing to the UA community and to the Latino Anglican church throughout the Americas. (Click here to listen to this project.)  Now upcoming Spanish and Portuguese language retreats are being planned as part of the Provincial Assembly in Chicago this June and the Caminemos Juntos conference in Brazil in October.  What an encouraging step to truly having united adoration in the midst of the great blessing of diverse and different languages, tribes and nations!

Ven Espíritu

Read the Story and listen to the songs