Tension at the Table: Challenges and Opportunities in Diverse Worship

The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World / InterVarsity Press

One of the greatest challenges of our generation is that people make choices based almost exclusively on preferences. We have hundreds of restaurant choices, and if we want to stay home we order online or call. The options are endless. And we view our Christian practices (church, podcast, worship) similarly. We navigate all the choices by means of personal preference. Picture someone who doesn’t like a certain TV show. If asked why, she might say it’s just not her thing. Insisting on multiethnic worship runs against the grain of that kind of personal preference. People might think African American worship or songs in Mandarin or Spanish are okay for some, but diverse worship just is not their thing. They may not understand that worship in community is more about us than about me. Conversations about worship are often contentious due to the energy behind people’s preferences. Like many of our faith practices (preaching, Scripture study, prayer and leadership), both biblical principles and cultural preferences are at play.

Insisting on multiethnic worship runs against the grain of personal preference.

Intentional multiethnic worship provides great challenges. It reflects our culture of preferences; there is a lot of variety, and individuals have many choices depending on the service they choose (or even within services). But it can also be countercultural because sometimes one specific dish is served. Imagine a group of friends deciding what to do for lunch. In the past, places with limited menus were the only option. Then, as Americans became more open to other foods, menus became more diverse. Today, we can eat in community without having to share the same type of food. Sometimes, though, like at the Wednesday night small group at my home, only one dish is served. My husband and I always cook for our small group, which spends one hour around the table doing life, and one hour studying Scripture and praying. This ethnically diverse community eats whatever we serve them. Sometimes they have to ask what they are eating, because they are having Indian for the first time, but they still try it. We have not yet had a group member stop attending because of the variety of food or the fact that their preferences are not being met. We do have people with gluten and dairy allergies, so we are intentional about the food. But all are gracious guests who are open to our sriracha mayo chicken and kimchi rice, or chipotle rub chuletas (pork chops) or whatever happens to be on sale that week at the store.

The world is increasingly diverse, and the church has the opportunity to welcome worshipers. If we do not develop worship practices that resonate with a variety of people’s longings, we may lose more people. What are some opportunities we might have to welcome new people into our faith communities? Who is missing? Where is their potential for growth and inclusion? The three categories of people we should keep our eye on are unchurched, millennials and people of color.


Let’s consider the unchurched. The number of religiously unaffiliated people in our society is on the rise. Some have called this “the rise of the nones.” This is particularly pronounced among adults under thirty, a third of whom are unaffiliated. Yet, even though they are unaffiliated, two-thirds of them claim to be spiritual or to believe in God. They are not hostile to Christianity but not connected to a church. Certainly, most of us have acquaintances—whether on campus, in the workplace or the neighborhood—in this group. They generally believe faith-based communities are good for society but find them suspect because they do not reflect their cultural realities. They think religious organizations are too focused on money, power, politics and rules, so looking for a church does not interest them.


Age matters! Generational shifts in the church are being captured by organizations such as the Barna Millennials Project, dedicated to research in the area of the next generation of Christians. The Barna research echoes the research from the Public Religion Research Institute, which notes that white Christians make up only 25 percent of younger Americans, but nearly 70 percent of older Americans are white Christians. “That’s a remarkable demographic change.” For the majority church there is a huge opportunity to engage our young people if we make our worship spaces relevant to their everyday.

People of color

The face of Christianity is diversifying. In addition to the unchurched and millennials, the church is becoming more diverse. This may be why so much church planting is happening in diverse communities. While the white community is becoming less religious, people of color are not. You can see that by looking at the aggregated data from surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, which states that one-fifth of all white Americans consider themselves unaffiliated—up 5 percent from 2007—but the numbers of unaffiliated blacks and Hispanics have not risen. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, over half of young American Christians (ages 18 to 29) are people of color. What an incredible opportunity we have to reshape worship for the increasingly diverse church. I’ve consulted with older white congregations in urban settings who have a desire to worship in ways that captivate their Asian immigrant refugees. I’ve also worked with African American congregations who are seeking to respond to the wave of first-generation Central Americans in their neighborhood. The world is moving from everywhere to everywhere, which is seen daily in print articles and TV coverage of current events.

The US church has spent decades fighting worship wars, which focus on things that may be less relevant given the current challenges and opportunities. When we talk about the need for our young people to connect to tradition and legacy (which I believe is critical), we need to examine our assumptions about demographics and the values of young people and their connectedness to the church. The church is and always has been a global faith, but in the past much of the worship-wars conversation has been dominated by Western voices and leadership. But in this new generation a majority of our future leaders will be nonwhite and non-Western. Maybe it’s time to broaden the conversation.

While consumerism and individual preferences in worship is a problem, we must imagine a new church reflective of the people who will be present, and allow that image to shape our conversations. Our unprecedented access to the cultures and circumstances of communities around the world has given us the ability to better connect to the global church. The same amount of energy and focused critique that has been given to the worship wars needs to be transferred to our need to connect across cultures.

Sandra Maria Van Opstal (MDiv, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is a Chicago-born, second-generation Latina and a leading practitioner of multiethnic worship. A preacher, trainer, liturgist, and activist, she is passionate about creating atmospheres that mobilize for reconciliation and justice. She served as the worship director for the Urbana Student Missions Conference and has led worship for the Willow Creek Association, the Christian Community Development Association, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the Evangelical Covenant Church, and the Evangelical Immigration Table. Sandra regularly consults as both a worship leader and a mission trainer with Christian colleges, conferences, and local churches, and she serves on the board of Evangelicals 4 Justice. She and her husband, Karl, minister at Grace and Peace Community in Chicago, and she is the author of The Mission of Worship. This excerpt was taken from The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World, Copyright (c) 2016 by Sandra Maria Van Opstal. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.

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