How to Worship in Multicultural Congregations

Worship Matters

A multicultural worship service is a combination of different languages, features, symbols, and cultural distinctives. One chief characteristic of multicultural worship is variety of music, format, participants, style, visuals, and languages. Variety is unavoidable, for there must be a mixture and a proper blending of these qualities in a worship experience that seeks to serve people who come from various countries and cultural backgrounds.

As a pastor in a multicultural church, I am often asked these questions: Why do you have multicultural worship? How do you put together and conduct a multicultural worship service? How difficult or easy is it to plan, prepare, and conduct multicultural worship? This article explores these and other questions about multicultural worship.

Why Multicultural Worship?
A close look reveals that our world is becoming an increasingly interrelated community. Churches in metropolitan areas especially notice people from various countries and cultural backgrounds attending worship and becoming a part of the church community.

Immigration continues to increase. Immigrants come to our churches with something uniquely theirs: their culture. The common thinking is that immigrants should learn the ways and adapt to the culture of the country they immigrate to; however, this does not necessarily happen. Culture is an integral part of the life of an individual. Therefore, once immigrants become a part of a congregation, the congregation becomes multicultural whether members recognize it or not.

When worship leaders accept the fact that many United Methodist congregations are fast becoming multicultural, they should want to become more inclusive in the formulation of worship experiences. Multicultural worship is the only alternative if a congregation wants to include immigrant people and their culture in its life. Multicultural worship is also an excellent opportunity for worshipers to bond together.

Making the worship experience as multicultural as possible is not only right, it is also living out who we are called to be as God's people.

A positive trait of The United Methodist Church is its emphasis on inclusiveness. It makes a deliberate effort to recognize, affirm, and include in the life of the church people from every cultural background. This is one positive way of embodying the gospel. Since worship is a vital part of a congregation’s life, making the worship experience as multicultural as possible is not only right, it is also living out who we are called to be as God’s people.

Basic Elements of Multicultural Worship
Multicultural worship is challenging but rewarding work. To make successful multicultural worship happen, three basic elements require attention. They are language, cultural distinctives, and symbols and visuals. Without deviating from the guidelines of The United Methodist Book of Worship, it is possible to have a meaningful multicultural worship service simply by keeping these elements in mind. Let us look at each in turn.

  • Language
    Imagine worshiping in a foreign country in a language that is not your own. Your comfort level may be very low. Now imagine worshiping in a setting where you can speak, or at least understand, the language. The comfort level will be higher. Finally, imagine a worship setting in which your primary language is being used in small portions of the service. In this last scenario, you are likely to feel a deep sense of acceptance, and your comfort level will be higher.

    The first step to achieving a multicultural worship service, then, is to be as multilingual as possible. Providing translation is not simple, but the effort will make the service more meaningful to those worshipers whose native language is being spoken and heard.
  • Cultural Distinctives
    Each culture has distinctive ways of doing things in worship. This could be anything from standing during Scripture readings to praying out loud during the time of prayer. In some cultures, standing up during the Scripture reading is important as a gesture of reverence and respect. This may seem small and unimportant, but the inclusion of this small feature in a service gives it a touch of multiculturalism. People coming from a cultural background in which standing for the reading of Scripture is a feature of worship will feel affirmed and respected.
  • Symbols and Visuals
    Symbols and visuals include everything from flags to the kind of bread used for Holy Communion. I have observed that the hanging of flags can be a powerful means of showing respect and affirming the people the flags represent. Other symbols or visuals include the cross, banners, and pictures or objects that are distinctly important visuals or symbols for a specific cultural group.

With the three basic elements of multicultural worship in mind, let us explore in a step-by-step fashion how to put together a multicultural worship service. This process has worked well over the last few years in the multicultural context in which I minister.

Creating Multicultural Worship
Multicultural worship services do not just happen. A considerable amount of time and effort are needed to put together a successful and meaningful multicultural worship service. The process can be lengthy and tedious, but the rewards far outweigh the efforts.

  • Step 1: Form a Committee
    The first step is to form a committee that will work on the service. Committee members should come from as many cultural and language backgrounds as possible. Bear in mind that the more languages one includes, the more work there will be for all members of the committee.

    Each member of the committee must share the vision of being inclusive. Each must be sensitive to the needs and preferences of the other cultural groups represented. A coordinator should be appointed whose task is to head up the entire process, from the preparation stage to the actual worship service.
  • Step 2: Gather Ideas
    Using the Book of Worship as the basic guideline, the coordinator asks each committee member to offer insights about how the kind of worship service the committee is planning is conducted in his or her culture. The member describes the entire worship service, the format, the music, the preaching, and other features. It is important for the person to provide as much detail as possible, because this gives the committee a better sense of the overall scope and functioning of the service in the member's culture. A deeper understanding of worship in a particular cultural setting enables the committee to discern better how to plan the multicultural worship service. The ideas each member describes become the basic ingredients of the multicultural worship service.
  • Step 3: Select the Features of the Service
    After ideas have been gathered, the committee uses these insights to identify which features to include in the multicultural worship service under discussion. The remaining ideas are recorded for future use.

    Committee members accept the fact that not all of the ideas put forward by any one member can be included in the worship service being planned. However, in selecting ideas to use in the worship service, the committee should ensure that each cultural group in the congregation is equally represented. For example, music for the service could be chosen so that all of the cultural and language groups have an active part by presenting a special musical number, anthem, praise chorus, or hymn drawn from their culture. For a Communion service, one of the best ways to display a cultural symbol is to use breads representing the different cultures of those in worship. This may seem a small and insignificant gesture, but it is meaningful to the person who sees the bread from his or her culture used in the worship service.

    Select the theme, format, music, Scripture readings, preachers, and participants. The theme for the service may relate to the Scriptures or season. The format should be as sensitive to each cultural preference as possible. Try to choose hymns that are used in as many language groups as possible. If a specific hymn is not found in the hymnal of a particular language group, ask the committee member representing that language group to translate the words of the hymn so that it can also be included in the service. (Note: If the words are copyrighted, this will require permission from the copyright owner.)

    As mentioned earlier, each language group is asked to participate in the music component of the service. One effective way for language groups to participate together in providing the music for the service is to have a joint choir, composed of singers from different language or cultural groups. To make the choir even more multicultural, they could sing a song in a language different from their own. In the multicultural congregation I serve, we once had a joint choir composed of Korean, Filipino, and English-speaking members sing the “Hallelujah Chorus” in Spanish! Imagine the excitement and the special touch this brought to the rendition of this well-known anthem. Creativity is an important characteristic in the entire process of preparation.

    Select those who will provide leadership in the worship service. A rather large number of participants are needed in multicultural worship. The participants include choirs, musicians, Scripture readers, liturgists, acolytes, Communion servers, ushers, greeters, flag bearers, preachers, and translators. Select Scripture readings from the Lectionary or by preference of the preacher.

    The involvement of so many people in the service not only adds to the much-needed visual aspect of the service, but also encourages a spirit of participation and inclusion. Even in multicultural worship on a smaller scale, the need to involve many participants is important. One feature of such participation is that more people are given the opportunity to become actively involved in the life of the congregation. A guest preacher could be invited. He or she must have a commitment to be culturally sensitive and must be willing to prepare the sermon manuscript ahead of time for translation purposes. The committee must also decide which languages will be used in the worship service. In the congregation I serve, we prepare the bulletin in four languages.

    Decide which items in the service should be read together in different languages and which items should be read in just one language. Experience shows that items such as the call to worship, the opening prayer, the prayer of confession, and community responses are best read together. Scripture readings can be read in a particular language. There are two ways to do this: One is to choose a short passage that can be read in different languages at different times. Another way is to choose several passages, with each passage read in one language. Since each worshiper has a copy of the multilanguage bulletin, either method works.
  • STEP 4: Compose the Format of the Service
    After all the features have been selected, compose the format for the worship service. This involves placing each item or feature in logical sequence. In some cultures, it is very important for the sermon to be toward the end of the service. In other cultures, this may not be so. To avoid conflict, it is helpful to alternate where the sermon is placed from service to service. In one service, the sermon may be placed toward the end to affirm the preference of one cultural group. In the next service, a different format may be used to accommodate another group. Multicultural worship is not the worship of just one culture with other groups serving as spectators; rather, in a multicultural service, every cultural group is involved and represented. Not every aspect of a specific culture’s worship life will be represented in any one service; therefore, the congregation needs to be flexible and patient.

    Multicultural worship experiences are more successful, interesting and meaningful when they are as musical and visual as possible. Music is indeed a universal language.

    Symbols and visuals are other important tools. These, too, are universal. Imagine being in a service where you see many objects and symbols and hear a lot of music. Even if the language is somewhat unfamiliar or altogether foreign, the music and visuals will provide a sense of connection and appreciation. Making the service more musical and visual is enjoyable and encourages participation and involvement. For obvious reasons, sermons in such services tend to be short!
  • STEP 5: Prepare the Bulletin Translation
    Despite the time and effort required, it is important to have a multi-language bulletin.

    In my experience, it is relatively easy to translate spoken words. Written items, such as the call to worship, Communion liturgy, and prayers are not always easy to translate. The same is true for hymns and anthems. The rhythms and rhymes of music pieces can be a challenge to translators, but with patience and perseverance translation is possible.

    Cultural groups have Bibles and hymnals, so Scripture passages and common hymns do not present problems for translation. The most practical way to proceed is to prepare the bulletin in English first. Then, different committee members can translate the bulletin into the languages needed. Remember that translation of copyrighted materials requires the permission of the copyright owner.
  • STEP 6: Prepare the Final Layout
    Committee members give their translations of the bulletin to the coordinator who does the layout. Preparing the bulletin is a big part of planning the multicultural worship. As I mentioned, the congregation in which I serve has a four language bulletin. Each page in the bulletin has four columns, one for each language. The goal is to make the content of the bulletin align properly in each of the languages. The same content translated in one language may require more words than in another language. Therefore, aligning the sections of the bulletin in the different languages requires proficiency in a good word processing program.

    In addition to the actual liturgy, each column in the bulletin also includes instructions to help the worshiper know which sections of the liturgy are read together and which sections are read in one language only.
  • STEP 7: Prepare the Worship Space
    Preparation includes decorating the place of worship with the different cultural symbols and visuals the committee members have agreed to display. Each culture should be equally and properly represented. For example, if flags are displayed in the service, care should be taken that the flags are of the same size and that they are positioned in such a way that no one flag appears superior or inferior.

    The final preparation requires the participation of many people. A strong feature of having a large group of people work together is that they tend to bond. The time of preparation can be an occasion for fellowship and bonding as individuals share precious moments with one another.
  • STEP 8: Rehearse the Service
    Because of the complexity and the nature of the service, rehearsing is a must. It is helpful to have the rehearsal after the place of worship has been decorated. This provides the worship team with a better sense of how the space will look during the actual worship service. Everyone providing leadership in the worship service should be urged to attend the rehearsal. Again, this is another opportunity for the people from various cultural backgrounds to share moments of bonding.

    The coordinator prepares a guide, or notes, for the participants of the service to follow. It works best for the coordinator to write the notes and instructions in the bulletin each participant will use in the service. The coordinator then gives each participant a marked bulletin, making sure that the participant understands what his or her role is in the service.

    Another helpful item is a schematic diagram of the place of worship. The diagram indicates where each participant should sit or stand, and how he or she should move during the service.

    The key is to prepare rehearsal notes that are detailed and yet simple to follow. The goal of the rehearsal is to make the participants knowledgeable and comfortable as to what they will do, when, and where.


Conducting the Multicultural Worship Service
When it comes to conducting the actual worship service, excitement is always in the air. Different symbols decorate the place of worship; different people are eagerly waiting for the service to start; choirs are warming up; participants are in their costumes or beautiful dresses; and music is playing. There is a deep sense of excitement everywhere. Right away, the worship leadership feels that its efforts have been rewarded.

The moment the service starts with the first item, whether it is the call to worship, the introit, or the organ music, a sense of excitement is evident. That excitement is sustained throughout the service. To be sure, the sound of people reading and singing in different languages may be annoying to some, but powerful to others. As mentioned earlier, some languages require more words than others.  So, the sound of people reading when others have finished becomes common. Again, for some people this may seem chaotic, but the experience of worshiping together and hearing different languages can be a powerful tool to help people from different cultures relate to one another and experience worship together.

The preaching might be done in two ways: giving direct verbal translation from the pulpit or providing worshipers with a written translation. The advantage of direct verbal translation is that the worshiper’s attention is focused on the preacher; the disadvantage is that this process can be time consuming. The advantage of a written translation is that the sermon tends to be less time consuming. The disadvantage is that people tend to focus on their translation notes and not on the preacher. Again, the key here is to make the sermon as short and direct as possible.

As an extension of the worship experience, it is invaluable to host a fellowship meal following the service. The fellowship meal does not just serve to feed the people, although this is necessary; it also provides an excellent opportunity for the people to get to know one another. With this in mind, it is important to make sure that people from different cultural and language groups are represented at every table. There is a natural tendency for cultural groups to band together at one or more tables.

Multicultural worship is best complemented by a multicultural meal. Therefore, the fellowship meal should consist of a variety of foods from different cultural groups.

Multicultural worship is best complemented by a multicultural meal. Therefore, the fellowship meal should consist of a variety of foods from different cultural groups. On occasion, the different cultural groups can take turns hosting the meal. Each cultural group then has an opportunity to participate in a meaningful way.

At the end of a multicultural worship service and a fellowship meal, the worship committee and worship leaders have time to reflect. They realize that everything worked out well and that people were blessed because the entire planning process was followed faithfully. They recognize that the process was not easy, but that everyone gave it their best. With this realization comes a deep sense of satisfaction. Through the worship service not just one group of people but the whole worshiping community was served. Then, in each language and cultural background the worship leaders can say, “Hallelujah!” (By the way, that word is the same in every language and culture. Despite different spellings, the meaning is the same.)

 For Further Reading

We Are the Church Together: Cultural Diversity in Congregational Life
by Charles R. Foster and Theodore Brelsford (Harrisonburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996).

Worship Across Cultures: A Handbook by Kathy Black (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998).



Originally published in Worship Matters, vol. 2. Copyright © 1999 Discipleship Resources

Categories: Worship Matters