Embracing the Discomfort of Diversity
By Mark Charles
About seven years ago I attended my first World Christian Gathering on Indigenous Peoples (WCGIP). It was hosted by the Native Hawaiian community on the main island of Hawaii. At that time, I was the pastor of the Christian Indian Center in Denver, Colorado, and we were just beginning to learn about and explore the concept of contextualized worship.
This conference was unlike any Christian conference I had ever been to. The delegates were from tribes, peoples, and cultures all around the globe. Each evening we would gather, and one group at a time would lead the worship. At most Christian conferences with such a large and diverse group of participants, the emphasis is generally on finding and creating a worship style and format that is comfortable for most everyone. If new songs are introduced or a different language used, then those songs or languages are repeated session after session until everyone has a good level of familiarity and comfort with it.
Stepping out of the comfort zone
But that was not the case here. Every evening the worship was led by a different tribal group. Each night different languages, instruments, styles of dress, and dances were used and offered up as worship. No two nights were the same and the overriding feeling was not one of comfort. In fact, I found myself frequently feeling uncomfortable, awkward, and even out of place. But the longer I reflected on those feelings, the more I began to appreciate them. I mean, if worship is truly us coming before God, should we not feel awkward, out of place, uncomfortable and, even, a little fearful? We are weak, imperfect, sinful people, coming before the all-powerful and perfect Lord of heaven and earth. This is not and should not be a comfortable' interaction.
I also noticed, as the worship sessions passed, that I was gaining a larger understanding of God and his character than I had had before. The Maori people, from New Zealand, led us in worship with their “hakas,” which are loud warrior presentations/displays meant to intimidate their enemies. These hakas had been contextualized and now were used to express the might and power of God.
The Native Hawaiians led us in hula and taught us their dances that were created and offered up to God as worship. The Hawaiian Islands are incredibly beautiful and the Native Hawaiians have a spirit of peace and ”aloha” about them. Their hula is extremely gentle and beautiful and is performed by their people with grace and poise.
The Native Americans then came forward and led us in worship that at times was loud and with pounding drums and at other times was gentle and softly led by the music of a flute. They offered up their worship to the Creator and their music resembled the ever-changing vastness of creation — clashing thunder storms, gentle flowing brooks, beautiful soaring birds, and pounding herds of buffalo.
And on and on it went.
Seeing the vastness of God anew
Every night was a different look into the vastness of God's character, led by a different tribe from a different culture and in a different language. The longer I allowed myself to soak in this environment, the more I realized how small I had begun to make God. By making my primary concern that of being comfortable in worship, I was diminishing the characteristics of God that I did not understand or that made me uncomfortable. I had learned that the smaller I made God, the more comfortable I could feel around him. And now, being in an environment that was not comfortable and that emphasized the characteristics of God which I did not understand, I was a feeling more fearful but beginning to see God much bigger and clearer.
In the book of Proverbs, Solomon tells that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” I think, as Christians, we tend to forget this and shy away from religious experiences that make us fearful. In the Gospel of Mark, we read the story of Jesus in the boat with his disciples. He is asleep in the stern when a large storm comes up. The boat takes on water, and the disciples fear the boat will sink. They wake up Jesus and ask him to help. Jesus unexpectedly speaks to the wind and the waves, telling them to calm down. Even more unexpectedly, nature listens to him and the wind stops blowing and the sea calms. At this, we are told; the disciples were “terrified” and said to one another, "Who is this, even the wind and the waves obey him?"
It is good to be afraid of God. We should be afraid of God. He is perfect, holy, and all-powerful. He is the creator of heaven and earth and the Lord of all. We are weak, sinful, and unable to control our environment or even ourselves. We are the rebellious creation of the Lord almighty. Yet he loves us so much that he sacrificed his own son that we might have relationship with him. Going before God is something that should be done with a great deal of humility and a certain amount of fear and trembling.
The hazard of assimilation
Because of this, it makes me cringe when I see the church embrace values of assimilation and conformity. I remember hearing once, on Christian radio, about a study done on mega-churches. The study concluded that one thing that mega-churches do well is to bring diverse people together. This conclusion made me smile to myself, because that was not my typical experience as a Navajo man when I’ve attended mega-churches. Yes, the study is right to a point in that mega-churches do gather together large groups of people and often times with varying colors of skin. But as a Navajo man, I have never attended a mega-church that affirmed my people’s unique contribution to the body of Christ.
A few weeks after I returned from the WCGIP conference in Hawaii, I attended another conference at a mega-church closer to home. This particular church has many resources and thousands of members and really sees itself as a resource church.
During this conference, I heard over and over about how much my small congregation needed the resources and expertise of this mega-church. (This was immediately after seeing a mosaic of God's character portrayed in the varying styles of worship by people and cultures from all over the world.) Now this mega-church was attempting to get me excited about the option of exporting their worship style and teaching to our diverse and unique communities in Denver, and even back to our reservation.
Instead of exciting me, this broke by heart and made me feel completely insignificant in their eyes. I recall thinking, Does the leadership of this church even know who I am, and do they have any idea how much they need our 20-member Navajo congregation in Denver?
This mega-church did have outreaches into many communities and neighborhoods around its city, and it exported programs throughout the world. But the overall feel of the congregation was that they used assimilation and conformity to keep the peace and hold the community together. It seemed that they were united by their style of worship, common language, and middle-class life style and values. I do not believe that this church would pass the “Tower of Babel” test. In other words, if the people all embraced different languages, cultures, and worship styles, I do not think their congregation would last; eventually their people would end up scattered across the land.
Overturning the Tower of Babel
I believe that the body of Christ is the reverse, as well as the completion, of what God started at the Tower of Babel. At Babel, the people had one language and culture and gathered around the purpose of survival and building their tower. But God came and confused their language. As a result, they were scattered about the face of the earth and never finished their project.
In Acts, chapter 2, we see that the first church was started with people from all over the known world. God could have easily called and formed this first Christian community by enabling everyone to understand one language. Instead, he enabled everyone to hear the Gospel in their own language. I think God wanted to affirm the diversity of cultures and languages that he created at Babel. And I think he wanted his Church to know that they were bound, not by language, culture or worldview; but solely by the blood of Jesus Christ. I think God wanted his church to be uncomfortable, and in that discomfort, to understand how big he really is.
Mark Charles (Navajo) is a speaker, writer, and consultant on Native American/indigenous peoples issues. He works with numerous tribes and indigenous communities in the United States and around the world on how best to hold onto indigenous cultures, languages, world views and educational models while living in highly Western and assimilated environments. Charles is a graduate of UCLA and supports his family working as a computer consultant and a speaker. He moved with his family to the Navajo reservation in 2004. They lived for three years on a sheep camp in a traditional Hogan, and currently live in Fort Defiance, Arizona.
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