“In reality, all congregations are ethnic.” – Sandra Maria Van Opstal
In her new book, The Next Worship, Sandra Maria Van Opstal challenges worshipers and worship leaders to a new understanding of how to glorify God in our diverse world. She asks the questions, “When the church invites others to the table in worship, what assumptions do we make about what is and is not normal?” and “What happens when a diverse church glorifies the global God?” These questions (and the other questions she raises) are much needed questions to be discussed, as the people of the world (and the church alike) can often seem to have grown increasingly polarized from one another. Primarly, we get stuck in a narrow perspective of who are God is and who we are as His church. We tend to think that everyone thinks and acts like we do and we even fantasize about a God who looks like us! We forget that the church down the street (let alone across the globe!) can have significantly different approaches to worship that we do and as a result, we tend to insist upon others “doing church” or “doing life” the way that we do. This problem, in itself, reveals our need for a God who is other and has created a vastly diverse Creation to reflect His image. For this reason and others, Van Opstal’s book is timely and needed.
The church where we worship, Greenwood Community Church in Greenwood Village, Colorado, is increasingly waking up to these questions, as we seek to be formed as a body of Christ-followers that invites men and women (and children and youth and the elderly) from every tongue, tribe, and nation into a unified corporate expression of the worship of Jesus Christ. This is no easy task, as the potential divisions are endless. The devil, who seeks only to “steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10) has been creating divisions since the beginning. And, Melkor sang a new melody of discord in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth origin, the devil has continued to sow discord in the world to this day. It is for this reason that Paul warned the church in Rome, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.” (Romans 16:17-18). In this way, to watch out for this division is really the first step among many.
The problem, after all, is not God’s. Instead, His children have continued to make a mess of his creation after millennia of the Good Father providing His children with gifts. As Frank Burch Brown argues, this warrants an approach that is both inclusive and discerning. (Note that discerning does not, here, mean non-inclusive). In his book, Inclusive Yet Discerning, Brown writes, “The mere fact that God’s created beings use very different languages in prayer and praise is presumably no problem for God, of course. We can safely assume that God, who is said to know all of us better than we know ourselves, has no personal need of translators. The problem is ours. The very moment we tell the whole world we want to praise God together, we must necessarily rely on our own language, culture, and concept of God. But that may be alienating rather than inviting, and it threatens to undercut the experience we are most hoping to share—the experience of being united in praise of God. How can we even know whether we are all praising the same God, given that we are speaking different languages and may have rather different ideas of God to begin with?” – Frank Burch Brown
So, how can we know if we are praising the same God? The starting (and finish) line is found in the greatest commandments ever given: loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). And, as you might recall, we are given a stern warning in Scripture of the consequences of loving God and hating our brother or sister. As we seek to remember Christ at the table in our churches and our homes, may we diligently pursue a posture of love for our Global God and His children of every tongue, tribe, and nation!