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The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World

A blog post is not place to do a lengthy book review, but I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to commend a resource to you: a new book entitled The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World. This book will benefit any worship leader who reads it. And every worship leader I know ought to read it.

If you assume that a book relating corporate worship and ethnic diversity does not affect you, then let me make the case that you must read it. Consider the future. And I don’t simply mean the 2055 projection from the Pew Research Center predicting when white people will comprise less than 50 percent of the U.S. population. I am also referring to the eternal promise of a multitude of people from every nation, tribe, people, and language (Revelation 7:9). Ethnic minority people have invested much of their lives learning how to navigate majority culture, and this book helps white people like me love our brothers and sisters in Christ by returning that favor.

In this book, Sandra Maria Van Opstal has written the best introduction for worship service planners and worship leaders who are waking up to the reality of diversity. Written with equal parts cultural intelligence, theological concern, and practical anecdotes, Van Opstal's book is a must-read for those in the field. Winsomely provocative, it will stimulate thinking and conversations long overdue for many majority-culture evangelicals.

Van Opstal often discusses food and dining throughout her book. These categories become generative metaphors by which to consider the various ways that a church’s corporate worship nourishes the souls of believers. In this paradigm, the worship wars become food fights, diverse service planning is menu planning, culture change is seen through the lens of hospitality, and worship leader training is viewed as Master Chef school. The writing is delightful, the topic is timely—did I mention that I like this book?

The book concludes with 30 pages of helpful resources for worship planners applying what they have learned. There is a cultural values continuum, examples of ethnically diverse worship movements and artists, examples of orders of service, and a bevy of songs recommendations. There are resources to help a church take its first tenuous steps toward diversity, and resources to help an established multi-ethnic church thrive.

Van Opstal is aware of other voices in the conversation about diversity in worship. In one place, she interacts with Gerardo Marti’s book, Worship Across the Racial Divide. Marti’s concern was to disabuse church leaders from viewing music as the singular answer to developing diverse congregations. Van Opstal grants this point, but argues “though multiethnic worship may not increase the statistical diversity of a congregation, it will communicate its values. Hospitality to and solidarity with people on the margins, and mutuality and connection with the global church are not means to an end but part of the kingdom work of God’s people” (111). This seemed right to me, while Marti’s point regarding the role of larger church culture outside the worship gathering still stands.

Predominantly white churches in a majority culture are often unaware of how their race has consequences for their lives. To use Andy Crouch’s metaphor, when you ride your bike with the wind at your back, you feel like a strong cyclist. You only notice the strong forces pushing you when you pedal against the wind. As a white, majority culture worship leader, I must fight the tendency to see myself as cultureless. I must fight a system that provides me with worldly resources, power, and opportunity; I must instead embrace the upside-down reality of the Kingdom of Christ. When our own cultural practices and ideologies become “just how things are,” we become blind to ways that we assume the Bible condones our preferences. Van Opstal challenges my fallen intuition and sends me back to God’s Word with new eyes.

Perhaps the book could have been improved by nuancing the different roles that worship leaders serve within different church traditions. The difference between, say, traditions which (1) consider leading congregational singing as diaconal ministry and those which (2) consider the worship leader as a prophetic/priestly role. I found myself unconvinced by the book’s exclusive championing of this second option. But this sort of conversation would have derailed Van Opstal's important goal: a cry in the wilderness declaring, “prepare diverse ways for the cosmic Lord of the global church.” Hear that cry and read this book.

Worship leaders pricked by the insights of this book would do well to take next steps to disabuse themselves of their monocultural situation. Busy pastors should at least familiarize themselves with the Summer 2015 9Marks Journal on Multi-Ethnic Churches. But consider also reading books like Divided by Faith and United by Faith, The Elusive Dream, and the global perspectives found in Worship and Mission for the Global Church, edited by James Krabill.

May the Lord use The Next Worship and other books like it to stir us from our complacency and drive us to recognize our need for him. Because no single culture is comprehensive enough to display all of God’s divine beauty, diversity helps us discover more about the God we worship. Let us go and discover more of him together.

Matthew Westerholm (@mwesterholm) ​lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Lisa, and their three sons. He serves as a worship pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church ​and a professor at Bethlehem College and Seminary.