Why sing songs in Swahili in our worship service when the majority language is English? This is a good question!
When you imagine what worship will be like at the end of time what language do you imagine singing in? Revelation 7 envisages that worshipers will come from every nation, tribe, people and language. “Multicultural worship is not our idea, but God’s. It is firmly rooted in God’s heart. And we believe that if worship is not diverse, it is dangerous.” This quote comes from the book, Worship Together by Josh Davis and Nikki Lerner, which the staff read together during the pandemic.
If we merely sing in our own language, it might narrow our vision to imagine everyone will be like us and sing like us in the throne room. If worship is not diverse it can be dangerous since it assumes people should only worship according to their own cultural preference. This can suffocate the gracious, abundant presence of the triune God and our view of who God is. “Diversity is rooted in the creative activity of God…. It is my conviction that only in this immense and grand variety could we begin to capture the character, grace, and glory of God” (Cross-Cultural Conflict by Duane Elmer).
At the beginning of the pandemic, the worship team and council reflected on Ian Collinge’s spectrum for multicultural worship (see diagram) and realized that many of the worship choices we made reflected an Inherited mode of worship where songs were selected from one ethnic center and all other cultures had to assimilate to this. At best, we were allowing space for other cultures to sing for us (Inclusive), but the full participation of Integrated or Innovative worship was challenging. In BES, we embarked on an intentional journey of building relationships so that an authentic worshiping community was being fostered rather than simply a worship experience.
During the pandemic, the BES worship was restructured so that people from different cultures were partnered to build relationships together and commit to learning each other’s songs. From this, a multicultural songbook is being collated of songs that are important from each culture represented in our congregation. Currently we have songs in Nepali, Indonesian, Swahili, English, Kinyarwanda, Farsi, French, Korean and Xhosa. Occasionally there are opportunities to innovate new songs together such as the song “Sema na” which is a blend of English and Kiswahili and was a lament song based on Habakkuk 3:17-18 used during Advent 2020.
A key feature of COS worship has been our PRISM services where we focus on participation from across many cultures. Unfortunately, the current covid restraints prevent us worshipping together in this prismatic beauty. So, occasionally, we will invite some of our worship leaders from BES to lead our SES service as a way of demonstrating we remain together on this journey. We hope that moving out of our comfort zones will stretch us culturally and liturgically as we process together toward the throne room.