The challenge of liturgy in multicultural congregations

The liturgy which is followed during multicultural services of worship or other gatherings of multicultural fellowship, can make or break the intercultural ministry. Continues prayerful discussions, planning and monitoring of liturgy should therefore be high on the agenda of multicultural ministries. Liturgical decisions or policy should not be left to individual leaders of services of worship or other fellowship gatherings. All leaders should have a clear understanding and commitment to the outcomes set for the liturgy when Christians gather to meet in different settings. The challenge here is to be sensitive not only to ethnic cultures, but also to other culture groups (generational, class etc.) and “world cultures” (modernism/ post modernism/ globalisation/ post Christendom) which affect the participants in worship in different ways.

The ideal is that representatives of different cultures in a congregation should be involved in the development of liturgies. Their contributions are critical to identify, clarify or evaluate liturgical rituals and practices. Without knowing it, well meaning liturgical leaders may offend or confuse people from another cultural background due to a lack of knowledge, understanding or sensitivity.

Some outcomes for the liturgy in multicultural congregations:

Liturgy should focus all the participants upon God

It seems obvious that liturgy should assist members of the congregation to focus on God, but in practise this is not always the case. Unsuitable or unpractical liturgies for worshippers from different cultural backgrounds, may hinder them to focus on God. If liturgies do not enhance a “safe space” where the worshippers experience inclusiveness, acceptance and appreciation, other feelings of exclusion, inferiority and exposure may distract them from a focus on God. The opposite is also a danger when the desire to ensure warmness and closeness among people of different cultures, may, contrary to the intention, replace God at the centre of worship and source of all goodness.

Liturgy should assist people to trust and experience the triune God as the source and example of true reconciliation, peace, fellowship, support and empowerment. Liturgy should not only assist the participants to “see, hear and experience” one another, but to live as a multicultural group from God as the source of life. The aim of liturgy is to help people of different backgrounds to face one another and to face God together for worship and help.   This is true for services of worship, but also for smaller meetings when Christians form different cultures meet for Bible study, teaching, dialogue or meetings.

Liturgy should guide and help people to embrace and celebrate diversity in worship styles

Liturgy should reflect the culture of the people participating in the event. Liturgy should for example includes language, prayer and preaching styles, music, hymns, symbols and worship traditions of the different groups participating in the event.

Liturgy should involve people of different cultures

Multicultural worship and ministry will not gain its fullest potential if worship leaders and other functionaries at gatherings, do not reflect the diversity in the congregation. People representing the different cultures in the congregation should be involved in the liturgy on a regular base wherever possible.

 Meaningful liturgy for different settings should make the congregation independent of charismatic leaders to ensure meaningful worship and meetings of people of different cultures.

It is short sighted to develop multicultural worship and ministries around gifted leaders who have the commitment and skills to hold the community together and guide them to meaningful ministries. The future of multicultural worship and communities is too important to leave it up to the charisma of a few people.

Detailed liturgy developed for different contexts can keep multicultural communities together in times of change of leadership or crises and help all to focus on God for assistance and guidance. No special gifts are necessary because the liturgy will guide the leader to involve the congregation in meaningful and culture sensitive worship and the congregation will not be anxious with new leadership because they are used to the liturgy.

It is important to emphasise that liturgy focuses on the form and flow of the events. The form is recognised and upheld by the leaders and congregation, but the content of the liturgy will be different every time. In a sense the liturgy itself becomes the leader of the gathering and not the leaders of the event.

Liturgy should help vulnerable people to feel safe in the gathering

People who do not know other people and their culture very well, usually experience some anxiety or uneasiness in their presence. They are scared that their ignorance of the others and their customs may be exposed in public or that they may be asked to do things which do not come naturally to them.

Liturgy should create a safe space for such people where they can participate in the event as part of a larger group without being singled out or exposed as an individual. When the liturgy requires ordinary members of the congregation to get involved, it is usually beter to involve them all as part of one group or in smaller (affinity) groups rather than individuals.

In order to be effective, the basic liturgy for different gatherings of members of multicultural congregations should not change regularly. Every time the participants come together they know what to expect in terms of the overall structure and flow of the event. This knowledge creates a sense of safety and comfort.

Some examples of liturgies to be developed

Liturgies for different services of worship, for example:

  • Normal Sunday service
  • Holy Communion
  • Youth/children services
    • Liturgies for prayer meetings and Bible Studies
    • Liturgies for official meetings: Session; Committee
    • Liturgies for Sunday school and catechumen
    • Liturgies for structured dialogue between people of different cultures
    • Liturgy during conflict solving processes.

Some important things to keep in mind when designing multicultural liturgies, are:

Make “instructions” part of the liturgy

In a multicultural community we cannot assume that all members have a shared context and therefore understand the symbols, meaning and values behind each element and action in a liturgy. More explanation for the symbols or actions are needed for them to make sense of it.

Make brief clear explanations or behavioural instructions part of the “text” of the liturgies.

Use repetition when encountering “new content” in the course of the liturgy

Although the form of the liturgy may remain basically the same for specific gatherings, the participants may encounter “new content” in the course of the liturgy. They may be asked to sing an unfamiliar song in another language; dance from another tradition or pray in a certain way. It may be meaningful if the liturgy guides the participants to repeat the new content immediately or later in the proceedings in order to help them master or get used to it. The ideal is that the comfort level of people unfamiliar with it must increase in the course of the gathering.

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