“This worship is so distracting.” Ironic and surprising, it never occurred to me that in the very act of worshipping God, the worst parts of my heart would be revealed. Judgmentalism. Ignorance. Even my own cooked up version cultural imperialism, complete with my Asian American preferences. And all this from someone leading in ministry and accustomed to multi-ethnicity and diversity.
Connecting the Dots: Worship and #blacklivesmatter
Throughout this year, the #blacklivesmatter movement has highlighted systemic issues of injustice while also raising urgent questions and concerns that we must address together. The loss of life has pained me, and the issues that have emerged have catapulted me on a journey of reconciliation. I have marched with activists and communities in Austin, prayed for God’s justice to renew our land and mourned with others over the senseless loss of life. All of these activities suggest that I stand together with my Black friends and for the cause of justice. But my move to LA revealed otherwise.
One recent Sunday, when I was visiting a church and worshipping in community, my focus subtly turned from God’s glory to my comfort. Seamlessly and without circumstance, this change was not even noticed at first. It was unmeasured, unquestioned and remarkably ordinary. Then, as quickly as that mental switch had occurred, I found myself entertaining thoughts both familiar and foreign to me: “This worship is so distracting.” “How come they can’t play some other songs?” “Maybe I should go somewhere else.”
Cloaked in the shadows of my heart, I soon came to realize that I did not appreciate certain expressions of worship. As someone committed to a biblical vision of diversity, this was both ironic and difficult for me to accept. I didn’t like seeing myself as someone perpetuating marginalization. Ultimately, though, it didn’t matter that I believed myself to be respectful and appreciative of other forms of worship. In that moment, all my convenient and self-realized niceties were exposed. And there beside them laid a seedbed for injustice, racism and disunity. How did I get here?
Worship: Disintegration or Prophetic Witness?
The tendency to make sense of the world pushes us to categorize differences. Chinese/Korean, Black/White, Vegetable/Fruit. Whether in worship or in life, it’s human, and it’s normal. (For some solid reading on this, check out Christena Cleveland’s book, Disunity in Christ.)
Categorizing, however, rarely stands alone. It latches onto other thought patterns, like meaning-making or jumping to unfair assumptions, and becomes a powerful source of disintegration. In worship, when I choose to disassociate from the unfamiliar and gravitate towards my “normal,” I am asserting that my style is better and more authentic. At this point, worship becomes self-centered. And anytime worship becomes self-centered, it reinforces corporate disintegration, not just through our (non) participation of praise but also between our lives and in the ways we view each other as less-than.
Our churches must not succumb to the disintegrating tyranny of self-centered worship. Instead, we must begin to see Sundays as an opportunity for us to participate in the familiar and unfamiliar patterns of worship.* Diverse worship is a source for transformation. It is an invitation to enjoy our differences and acknowledge the beauty, pain and redemption that are captured within our unique worship styles. Diverse worship is also an act of prophetic witness. It bears testimony to the day when #blacklivesmatter is no longer chanted, when microaggressions are no longer experienced and when systemic injustices are no longer in power. Diverse worship points to the day when God’s kingdom has come and Christ has renewed all things and all peoples.
But what about that distracting song?
“Still, that worship is distracting.” Granted, maybe that worship is genuinely distracting. Not every form of worship glorifies God (e.g. the golden calf was clearly not a good idea). But what if that distracting worship was actually a foretaste of God’s kingdom? What if it revealed that our cultural styles of worship were more than something to be consumed? What if that distracting worship served as a signpost for God’s very heart for “a multitude of people…from all tribes, tongues and nations”? (Rev. 5:9, 7:9). Worship is a litmus test for our actual values for multi-ethnicity and racial reconciliation. As you invite His Spirit to search your heart, I hope you will discover, like I have, that there is much room to grow. The journey of racial reconciliation is always an ongoing, iterative process, and worship serves as a means to creatively pursue it in community.
The Fruits of Diverse Worship
Engaging in diverse worship transcends my preferences for church. It is a call to recognize my myopic entitlement, to die to my self-preservation and to glorify God through the different gifts of worship. It is a call to listen for the voice of God resonating out of every culture around me. It is a call to see beyond my world and into the world of others, where #blacklivesmatter. To engage in diverse worship is to answer the call for reconciliation and to see the other as infinitely valuable and worthy in Christ.
- InterVarsity Video, Diverse Worship Matters
- Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ
- Michael C. Hawn, Gather Into One
*While worship in its full sense involves a lifestyle, I am primarily writing to address worship in song.