The Next Worship, Sandra Maria Van Opstal (foreword by Mark Labberton). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.
Summary: Using the language of an international table, this book gives both theological basis and practical help in leading Christian communities into multi-cultural and multi-lingual worship led by empowered multi-ethnic worship teams.
It does not seem so long ago when we were hearing of “worship wars” that consisted of conflicts between those who favored traditional (i.e. hymns) worship with choirs, piano and organ and those who favored contemporary music with guitars, keyboards, and percussion. While some churches are still wrestling with these different styles, the culture has moved on as the world has come to our neighborhoods. South Asians, Chinese and Koreans, African Americans, Latinos, and people from Middle Eastern countries all live in my neighborhood, have restaurants in our community, and at least sometimes turn up in our church.
Sandra Van Opstal uses the analogy of food to help us understand that our forms of worship are just as “ethnic” as those of other groups. We may consider PB & J to just be “food” but for many it is “American” food. For those who are from Mexico, what we consider Mexican food is just “food.” Similarly “normal” worship looks very different in very different cultural contexts. If our hope is that our churches begin to look like our communities, it means that we begin to worship in ways that are more “normal” for others, that say, “this is your table, too.”
She tells the stories of churches who have made these transitions. For those from Columbus, she features my good friend Katelin Hansen, and the multi-cultural worship she leads at The Church for All Peoples on the south side of Columbus. Many know Katelin for her blog, By Their Strange Fruit, which focuses on racial reconciliation and issues of justice. Sandra features the work Katelin and many other worship leaders are doing in bringing together leaders from different cultural backgrounds and intentionally leading their churches into solidarity in worship with the different cultures in their neighborhood, and around the world.
Transitioning to this style of worship isn’t easy. Van Opstal charts the process from the first steps of reconciliation to hospitality (“we welcome you”), to solidarity (“we stand with you”), to mutuality (“we need you”). She traces the different options in worship that may be pursued. She discusses different types of worship teams, from monocultural teams with a strong leader who does all the planning to multi-cultural teams with shared planning and leadership. She outlines four models of multi-ethnic worship from Acknowledgement (a dominant style with hints of others) to Blended (the equal representation of two or more styles) to Fusion (mixing styles or creating original music) and Collaborative Rotation (where leaders and teams are rotated and host worship in their own cultural style).
Van Opstal, who herself has led worship in a variety of settings from Urbana Missions Conferences and the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students World Assembly (where I’ve seen her in action) to mainline churches talks about the different elements that go into a worship service and how she works with teams in planning. More than this, she talks about the challenging work of culture change and discerning how to work sensitively with different groups. She writes helpfully about avoiding “whiplash” where so many styles and languages are introduced at once that people are bewildered.
What I appreciated throughout was the model Van Opstal gives of honesty, vulnerability, and self-understanding. She writes at one point in chapter two:
“Let’s face it, my Mandarin stinks! I’d rather sing in Spanish. I’d prefer to pray in English. I really like to move during worship, which would likely be a distraction in many of the churches or college chapels I visit. Crosscultural worship is just what it sounds like: we are crossing over (a bridge) to another way of doing things, which creatures of habit rarely like to do. As Spencer Perkins, the late reconciliation leader and coauthor of More Than Equals, used to say, “Bridge building hurts!” Not only are we crossing a bridge, we are also acting as a bridge for other people to cross, which means we are always getting stepped on. It takes commitment and intentionality; it’s a decision to act. . . .”
I would commend this book for any Christian community from student fellowships to established congregations (particularly in neighborhoods of changing demographics). It offers very practical help for those who lead worship (and be prepared for challenges to the Cult of the Worship Leader!) but should also be read by pastoral teams and church leadership preparing to wade in these waters. For such groups, each chapter includes discussion questions. There are also nine appendices at the end covering everything from worship movements and artists to various order of service examples to practical help in teaching a language song.
This book is real. It is inspiring. And it is tremendously practical, reflecting the author’s wide ranging experience in leading and coaching others to lead multi-ethnic worship. Some of the experiences I’ve had when I’ve observed her leadership have been “foretastes of heaven” as one begins to see what it will be like to worship with the nations of the earth. I can’t help but think that such foretastes are one of most compelling testimonies of the greatness and grace of our global God. My hope is that through this book, the nations will rejoice!