"Belonging" in Worship

Seeing Youth as Partners, Resources, and Assets

As we work to create multicultural communities and worship, we must at some point talk about belonging and what it means to be part of our community. What does it mean to belong to our group, our tribe? More important, perhaps, is the question “What makes a person feel that they belong?”

Mwenda Ntarangwi addressed the question of belonging as part of a plenary session at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s symposium on worship in January 2015. If you were there and heard him speak, I hope this is a helpful reminder; for all of us may it spark some further conversations. (Other participants in the plenary were Nicholas Wolterstorff, Kathy Smith (see article p. 10), and David Bailey. You can view the whole plenary online at tinyurl.com/symposiumplenary.)

While this article focuses on youth, you could exchange “youth” for a particular socio-economic group, people with disabilities, people of a different background, and so on. —JB

Psychologists tell us that for people to belong, to feel part of a community or group, they need to have a sense of membership in the group or community. They need the opportunity to have influence in the group, to experience a certain level of integration within the group as well as the fulfillment of their needs, and to feel a shared emotional connection with other members of the group.

Convinced that one of the goals of worship is to create a community of people who have a sense of belonging and ownership, we have to constantly reflect and ask ourselves who we tend to leave out. Often our communities and societies are organized in ways that lead some people to not feel like they belong because they lack membership, influence, integration, fulfillment, and connection in our worship spaces and processes. As a means through which we connect and relate to God, worship succeeds when we recognize that we as cultural beings use our own cultural lenses and practices to communicate with God and interpret God’s expectations of our lives. We feel more comfortable carrying out that communication, be it through prayer, song, lamentation, or repentance, in our “heart language.”

Worship is an expression of intimacy with God, and our language does factor in greatly in shaping that intimacy. My professional work has given me opportunities to work with youth, and I want to use youth as a specific category that exemplifies how worship might be an exercise of exclusion. Let me share some examples of young people who have felt disconnected from their communities in various ways and then try to offer some responses as to what they tell us about exclusion and worship.

Three Stories

Nonduduzo Ndlovu is a young woman from Swaziland and a Mastercard Scholar at the University of Pretoria. When reflecting about her experiences as a young person in her own culture, she notes: “In Swazi culture, when elders are having a meeting or a discussion, the young ones are not allowed to be part of that discussion. If they allow you in, they will warn you not to say anything. They say that discussions among elders are too stressful and boring for the young” (Ndlovu 2014, see sidebar). How will she contribute to her community upon graduation? How does she get a sense of belonging? Would she be allowed to participate fully in worship?

Julius Owino (Juliani) is a young man who grew up in Dandora, a low-income residential area in Nairobi, Kenya. For him, “growing up as a ghetto boy, gospel music was just Sunday music and never made sense the rest of the other six days. The music that dominated the gospel fraternity at the time was about Sunday things that seemed disconnected not only from the general but also from his individual daily realities. So it was common to hear someone at church often saying ‘praise God’ but he/she slept hungry; ‘Let us praise God’ but he/she was being oppressed at home, or ‘Let us praise God’ but he/she had nothing. What kind of God is this who seemed to only want one side of life, Juliani often wondered” (Ntarangwi, see sidebar p. 18). How could he connect with this kind of God?

I grew up in a part of Kenya where the Methodist Church planted its roots. My grandparents were among the very first converts to Christianity, and so I grew up surrounded by Christians. The prevailing thoughts on African culture at the time led those earlier converts and missionaries to seek total separation from local culture. As I mention above, people make sense of their lives, interpret God’s identity, and communicate through their cultural lenses. So to expect that these converts would embrace a totally new culture was to expect the impossible. There was the school culture and the home culture competing with this new Christian culture. As a result, we lived in two worlds—the world expressed through Christian faith and that of the everyday that we navigated in schools and at home.

I was an intellectually curious young person, but at the time we did not have a tradition or even space for asking questions about our Christian faith. Indeed, intellectual curiosity and deep questioning of matters of faith did not augur well within our Christian community. If you asked questions you quickly became a candidate for intense prayer because it was assumed that the devil had gotten the better part of you. All one needed to do to deal with these questions was to have more faith. One thing that puzzled me as a young Christian, for instance, was the concept of the Holy Spirit. When translated into Kimeru, my first language, the Holy Spirit became Kirundu Umutheru, which literally means “a clean shadow.” I constantly wondered about the power of a shadow and its ability to connect me to God. But I could not ask that kind of a question because I knew there was no place for such questioning.

Addressing the Challenge

These three stories give us examples of three forms of exclusion that are tied to worship in its different forms: age, social relevance of the gospel, and cultural relevance of the language used to share concepts. Many young people, as shown in the examples above, feel like they do not belong fully in their communities and, by extension, in worship. Quite often youth are seen as a problem; they are considered participants in programs designed and directed by others, and as beneficiaries of programs. What are some ways we can address this challenge?

The first step, I believe, is to acknowledge that such a disconnect does exist. Second, we have to realize that we are incomplete without the participation of every member of our community or congregation. Such a realization forces us to avoid adding people to already-decided programs. And third, we have to realize that adding different people or groups is just an input; allowing them to shape worship is the output.

One church in Nairobi chose in its strategic plan to change the way it allocated resources, moving away from a focus on activities to a focus on people. It divided up its resources into three parts to be allocated to children, youth, and adult ministries. These allocations would then go to worship, discipleship, missions, and building physical structures for each category. Convinced that such a move would engage all members of the congregation fruitfully, the church elders were committed to a new practice of inclusivity. This was tested when the church approved plans to build a new sanctuary and the youth asked why a new sanctuary was given priority when there was need for a youth center. The elders consulted and agreed to reprioritize the plans and instead of building a sanctuary for adult members of the congregation, they built a youth center. This is the kind of belonging that enhances full participation and investment of all members of the congregation.

References cited

Nonduduzo Ndlovu, “Scholar Nonduduzo Ndlovu Talks Dreams, Education and Achieving the Impossible,” tinyurl.com/mastercardscholar.

Mwenda Ntarangwi, The Street Is My Pulpit: Hip Hop and Christianity in Kenya (forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press).

Another way of making youth belong fully in your community is to tap into their creative energy. Give them tasks that allow them to not only use their talents and creativity but also help the rest of the community members understand what the youth are thinking and how they see their lives intersecting with their faith stories. How about giving youth a task to come up with a skit, a video, a song, or a painting that captures something important to them—and then share it with the congregation or community? Such a task allows them to develop and craft their story, to give voice and shape to their own experiences and aspirations.

One youth group was given such an opportunity by a congregation in an Anglican church close to Nairobi. It was asked to put together a Christmas story for the entire congregation in 2013. In the performance the youth selected different characters for the theme, including a farm manager and a lawyer. What was quite telling was not just the characters (who were outside the norm) but also that they were all females. What were the youth symbolically saying about faith and the nature of their social world through this story to a congregation with a clear patriarchal culture and where most of the leaders of the church are male?

Julius Owino is a hip hop artist with the stage name Juliani. I have been carrying out research on his work and know that he wants to make a difference in the community, besides his frustrations with Sunday music in his worship experiences. Not satisfied with the gospel music available at the time he was growing up, he decided to compose and perform gospel songs that made sense to him and his peers but were also relevant for all the days of the week, not just Sunday. He applies images and words in his songs that are recognizable by other youth.

Youth need to be partners, not just participants, in decision-making. . . . That way they will have a sense of membership, influence, integration, fulfillment, and connection. That is the beginning of reconciled worship.

In a song titled “Rimz and Timz” he says:

You don’t believe Christ was a DJ

Well he entered a church that had been turned into a market and turned tables

He has remixed my life now I have given evil spirits a notice

I don’t have rimz timz or bling bling but I have a relationship with the king of kings


And in his song titled “Friend Request,” he asks:

If God had a Facebook page

Would he accept friend requests from saints or prostitutes?

Would his wall be full of repentance or only gratitude?


(Lyrics for both songs used by permission)

Juliani is one of the most popular Christian hip hop artists in Kenya, and he has been able to traverse different cultural and socioeconomic boundaries with ease (http://www.reverbnation.com/juliani). His commitment to making his version of Christian music remain relevant to his audience members is what I think has kept him popular in an industry that has “one-song” stars. He is not just changing the words and delivery of the message to align with the realities of his target audience, he also wants to live out his faith in his everyday practices. For him, therefore, being a gospel artist means, “When you are invited to a show to perform, you show up on time, you don’t get drunk, and you don’t flirt with the girls.”

What do we learn from these interventions? We learn that it is important to allow youth to be full members of our communities and congregations. That they need to be partners, not just participants in decision-making; that they need to be resources for, not just beneficiaries of, programs put together on their behalf; and that they need to be seen as assets, not problems. That way they will have a sense of membership, influence, integration, fulfillment, and connection. That is the beginning of reconciled worship.

Mwenda Ntarangwi is a cultural anthropologist and native of Kenya. He is executive director of the International Association for the Promotion of Christian Higher Education (IAPCHE), associate director of off-campus programs at Calvin College, and author or editor of eight books, including East African Hip Hop: Youth Culture and Globalization (University of Illinois, 2009).

Reformed Worship 116 © June 2015, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.