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There is an untapped seam of wonderful worship resources very easily and freely available to all if we widen our cultural horizons, writes Margaret Gibbs

We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues…

This is the ecstatic response of a diverse group of bystanders to the events of the first Pentecost. The descent of Holy Spirit drove a rather mono-cultural group of men to abandon the safety of four walls and go rushing outside. They were transformed from their disabling fear and suspicion into vessels willing to empty themselves in order to be filled with new forms of expression, designed specifically to engage a very different set of people. A great counter-lockdown story!

Is this kind of Holy Spirit transformation still being worked out among us in our worship and outreach today? 
Without intentionality, church life naturally leans towards the known and familiar. Having been prevented from worshipping together for so long in lockdown, we each need and even deserve a bit of the familiar comfort blanket these days, right? Or should we rather pursue Holy Spirit-style risks in choosing the elements of our worship, with the majority sacrificially putting aside its expectations and preferences in favour of the few or the new?

The long-term and painful prevention of live singing did made space for many to learn how easy it is to share links to so many different kinds of music, prayers, images and preaching, especially in these days of social media. So why not move on from seeing this only as a holding strategy to asking folks from different groups or backgrounds to continue to share their favourites for inclusion in worship and outreach, online or live? In the last 18 months we’ve all learned how to manage the IT better than before, whatever our starting point. Let’s make sure we get into social media groups that are wider than our own demographic or interests. It’s a revelation to find out what other people listen to and enjoy and a win-win to include and thereby affirm it in corporate worship.

UK society is so much more diverse than it was 20 years ago, even if our churches don’t always reflect this. Using different languages for prayer and scripture reading, gladly tuning our ears to various accents and styles, making sure a wide range of people are up front or on screen, varying worship music, incidental music, film clips and illustrative images; all these things have become easier as a by-product of lockdown.  

So then, is every culture or group now part of our fellowship regularly (not tokenistic-ally) represented in the choice of music, images and other elements chosen? What about those who are not present yet but can be found outside the door? Why not also include some of their cultural expressions, prophetically, to make them too feel at home on the day they appear. May they think, ‘I was expected. These are my kind of people!’ Otherwise visitors will quickly feel, ‘This is not meant for me’, even if we assumed it was.

Majority groups are notoriously unaware of the prevalence of their cultural expressions in worship, assuming them to be neutral. There can even be a subliminal message that these forms prevail because they are in fact ‘better’, rather than only reflecting the preferences of those making most of the decisions. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been asked in UK churches if I learned the ‘lingo’ when living abroad or the assumption that every unrecognised musical instrument is a ’bongo’. That these languages are repositories of immense depths of cultural wisdom, and those instruments capable of tonal and rhythmic complexities undreamed of in the Western tradition, are not generally implied by this kind of question, however well meant. Suffice it to say that there is an untapped seam of wonderful worship resources very easily and freely available to all if we widen our cultural horizons. 

A step further takes us to the revolutionary inspiration of intentionally seeking out worship resources from parts of the globe where, unlike here, the church is actually growing fast, often despite being in a minority. What can they be doing that is working so well? Applying sacrificial Pentecost principles? We have much to learn and so much more to enjoy.

On an even more serious note, it was also during the lockdowns that we were jolted into remembering how prevalent prejudice and racism still are in this world. We have understood, belatedly, that it is not enough for churches to aim to be inclusive, welcoming and hospitable to all, but also to combat prejudice, and especially racism, actively.  Believe it or not our worship choices as well as our teaching can and do support, advance or hinder this message. They can reveal us to be blinkered, unimaginative and unthinkingly uniform, or encourage everyone towards becoming true world Christians, even, and perhaps more urgently, in cases where our particular church group or community is fairly homogeneous. 

Taste and see that the Lord is good. And for the best of health, be sure to include the whole range of flavours.

Margaret Gibbs is the minister of Perry Rise Baptist Church in London. She was previously the BMS World Mission Team Leader for Asia.

Margaret trained in ethnomusicology, specialising in Javanese and central African music, and has led worship at the Baptist Assembly. 

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