Potholes, Detours, and Hazards

The Challenges of Unity in a Multicultural Worship Setting

Tucked into a neighborhood of middle class homes in Denver where South Race Street makes a diagonal intersection with East Cornell Avenue sits a 1960s-style building covered by a low-hanging shake roof. For 30 years, a vibrant congregation filled the pews on Sundays, engaging various generations in worship and experimenting with newer styles of outreach and music. Then, 20 years ago, the congregation voted to accept an opportunity to merge with another church in order to plant a ministry in a newer part of the Denver metro area that had few worship options.

Not everyone went along with the merger. Some felt called to stay in that long red brick building and in that neighborhood. It was a sad separation and hard going for some years as the aging congregation tried to rebuild the church. A few new members came and some passed on. Eager for more life to resonate in their building, the church was happy to open the doors and share their space when a group of Chinese believers asked to hold their worship services in the basement.

The Chinese Christian Assembly in Denver (CCAID) was a tightly connected community of people born in China and reborn in the United States when they came to know Jesus. Brought together by newly found faith, by language, and by loneliness for a far-away home, they forged strong friendships, enjoying meals and games together and raising their children as cousins. They were thankful to find a convenient location for their outreach ministry events and for worship.

Things went along smoothly at 3000 S. Race Street. The small group of Anglo believers continued worshiping in their own comfortable style upstairs while the Chinese believers stayed equally comfortable worshiping downstairs—until one day when someone asked a question aloud. It wasn’t a new question; people in both groups had been pondering it in their own hearts, and a few had whispered it to each other. But finally someone put the simple words together, “Why don’t we worship together?”

And so one Sunday morning everyone stayed upstairs, filed into the pews, sat down together, and worshiped the same God in the same space. It wasn’t a “love at first sight” kind of relationship; there were so many differences between them. But they had experienced an unforgettable taste of kingdom unity and there was enough mutual attraction and curiosity to keep getting to know each other. Little by little, the two congregations leaned in toward each other until, on October 7, 2012, in a celebration that included the baptism of one adult believer, the two congregations merged into one and became Hillcrest Christian Church.

It seemed like a storybook ending, and everyone wanted to say, “and they lived happily ever after.” But, of course, it was really just the beginning of a brand-new story—one with its own joys and challenges.

The joys are obvious to Christians who take seriously their baptismal promises of being reborn into the family of God. In Christ each individual is a new creation, and, perhaps more significant, each one now belongs to the inseparable body of Christ. In Christ we are one. The intentional act of merging two organized congregations into one, bringing together a variety of individuals, cultures, languages, and ages, is a participation in the renewing work of the Spirit bringing wholeness to this fractured world. What could be more joyous than that?

The challenges are equally obvious to believers who know that though the new creation is truly coming it is not yet here. We want to believe that good intentions for multicultural worship and our mutual love for Christ will cover all the differences and disagreements. But it isn’t so. Even when people genuinely try to work and worship as one community of faith, the challenges can be overwhelming and can impede the development of a unified body.

It is far too simple to say that Hillcrest merged only two groups together. There are people of Anglo descent and people of Chinese descent, but there are also extroverts and introverts, artists and engineers, traditionalists and explorers in both groups. Among the Anglos there are people from various cultural backgrounds, and the Chinese group represents even greater diversity of ethnic clans, languages, and geographic backgrounds. The diversity expands exponentially when one considers the wide spread of ages. The church has a growing number of young children belonging to young parents, over a dozen youth, a large ministry to college-age students, a group of middle-aged adults who are mostly Chinese, and elderly who are mostly Anglo.

The intentional act of merging two organized congregations into one, bringing together a variety of individuals, cultures, languages, and ages, is a participation in the renewing work of the Spirit bringing wholeness to this fractured world. What could be more joyous than that?

Each of these groups has its own values, language, vision, and world view, i.e., each group listed above has its own culture, making Hillcrest truly multicultural, not simply duocultural. The challenge of merging into one unified worshiping body is complex and complicated. It has been tempting to simplify the issues into a more manageable system by suggesting broad-stroke characteristics of the two ethnic groups (Anglo and Chinese) and finding compromises to bring those groups together.

Unfortunately, generalizing the characteristics of a group of people leads to stubbornness and to stereotyping. Each group defends their worship habits simply by saying, “That’s the American/Chinese way,” ending the discussion. Leaders are tempted to view the congregation not as a collection of uniquely made individuals but as two basic categories, each with stereotypical habits and preferences.

In a friendly conversation, one of the Asian leaders pressed for a certain worship idea, saying, “It’s the Asian way.” I answered, “But my Korean friend did exactly the opposite in her church.” The Chinese leader quickly replied, “OK, but it is the Chinese way.” Knowing we shared a trusting relationship, I teasingly replied, “Really? All one billion Chinese feel the same way about this?”

We laughed, admitting that generalizing each group’s tendencies helped simplify the challenges but ignored the complex reality of the collection of people gathered together as Hillcrest Christian Church. One person’s preference doesn’t represent an entire culture, and a cultural stereotype cannot express the unique features of the individuals within that cultural group.

The past two years have revealed other specific challenges; some were expected and some came as surprises. Hillcrest decided to tread gently into these challenges by planning just one combined service at the end of each month. The other three services would still be held in separate spaces, in the “heart languages” of the two groups.

Practical challenges weren’t surprising. Everyone knew that using two languages in worship would demand creativity and patience. But no one knew just how much work was needed to translate between Mandarin and English, either ahead of time for printed material or during the worship service. Worship planners quickly discovered that preparing the PowerPoint with song lyrics in English and Mandarin, and sometimes adding Pinyin, required many more steps and more skill to accurately have the right words on the screen at the same time. Music leaders realized that they needed more time to recruit singers of both languages and plan what verses or choruses would be sung in which language.

Another practical challenge of merged worship was deciding what style of worship to adopt: the Anglo style, the Chinese style, a mixture of both, or a style that was new to everyone. Whose songs would be sung? Whose liturgical form would be followed?

Questions about language and liturgy weren’t just practical challenges. They represented deeply held values that many members didn’t even know they cared about until another option interrupted their assumptions. While everyone agreed it was important to worship in a language that the members understood, it wasn’t always apparent which language that was. Some of the Chinese leaders felt that it was important to worship in the language of the culture that they had adopted. After all, they studied in English, worked in English, and used English in daily life. More important, their American-born children understood English better than Mandarin. Other Chinese leaders believed that it was important to be able to express the gospel message in Mandarin, particularly in their missional outreach to local university students from China.

Everyone has a different tipping point at which the combination of languages switches from the beautiful symphony of God’s multilingual family to a cacophony of noisy babble that distracts and disorients worshipers. Hillcrest continues to search for the right balance in their multilingual services.

A surprising challenge arose in a conversation about Scripture and worship. The Anglos saw the entire worship liturgy as an opportunity to sing, pray, recite, and preach Scripture and theology, while the Chinese preferred that most of the service time be reserved for a sermon that explained the text in a verse-by-verse manner. Not understanding each other led to some posturing about who valued Scripture more highly, but the truth was that both groups believed God’s Word was central to the Sunday gathering; they simply chose to express their common value in different forms.

Another unexpected challenge was the place of the offering in the worship service. Both congregations agreed on the values of generosity and good stewardship. The Anglos were used to passing a plate in the middle of the worship service as an act of worship, but the Chinese saw this public collection as showy and pushy. In their opinion, the offering should be collected in a quiet, unassuming way, preferably outside of the actual worship service.

Perhaps the greatest challenge at this stage of the merging congregations is the fatigue that sets in among leaders, volunteers, and members who have been experimenting and working toward a unified multicultural church. Many are tired of ongoing change. Life never seems to have a chance to settle and rest before people move on to tackle the next challenge. It’s not that anyone is pushing for ongoing change, it just continues to arrive uninvited, requiring more attention and energy than is available.

Some are tired of the extra work. Eager hands jumped in with bursts of energy in the early stages, but the tasks of worship planning and production have not subsided. Many are tired of the effort that it takes to continually live outside one’s own comfort zone, not fully understanding the others’ intentions, cultural practices, and language.

It’s exhausting work to follow through on Christ’s call for unity in the church. Whatever the context, whether healing from disruption, pursuing racial reconciliation, trying to understand each other’s generational quirks, or merging two congregations with diverse ethnicities and languages, the challenges often seem insurmountable.

Should we be surprised by this? Not when we read of the Apostle Paul’s struggles to bring unity to the fledgling churches of the first century, such as in 2 Corinthians 1. Yet in the midst of heartbreaking pressures and disappointments, Paul calls the church to hope. “We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do” (2 Cor. 4:8, The Message).

Every believer trying to live out Christ’s prayer to the Father that his people “would be brought to complete unity . . . ” (John 17:23) has also heard Jesus’ fair warning to the disciples, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). Hillcrest Christian Church’s journey toward unity continues to wander through these predicted times of trouble and discouragement.

But just as real are the words of Christ to his followers: “Take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:35) and the prayer of Jesus to his father, “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name—so that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11).

Rev. Joy Engelsman is a multivocational pastor in the Christian Reformed Church. She preaches frequently in Denver-area congregations, provides ministry coaching throughout North America, and serves as a missionary with Youth for Christ/Africa developing staff and leaders.

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