I stood in the afternoon worship service yesterday, listening to the large worship team express their love for Jesus. They were young, they were loud, they were emotional. The singers were backed up by a full band of several guitars, bass, keyboard, and electronic drums. They each had their own microphone, as did the drummer. They swayed from side to side as they rejoiced in the Lord, and many members of the congregation did the same. The leader was the most enthusiastic of all as he implored the people, through his vocals as well as his lengthy prayers and exhortations between songs, to enter in to the presence of God.
The equipment used by this worship team contained many familiar names, such as Fender, Yamaha, Ibanez, and Roland. The sound was mixed back in the booth through a digital mixing board, and the song lyrics were projected on both the front wall and the rear, allowing everyone to clearly see what they were singing. The problem for my wife and I was that the circles and squiggles we were staring at on the screen were not decipherable to us, although everyone else knew what the symbols meant. The reason we didn’t understand was simple; we spoke English, and the words on the screen were either Burmese, Chin, or Cho.
You see, this worship team and congregation were refugees from Burma (Myanmar) who use our church facilities every Sunday afternoon. They are a multi-generational church that includes three languages in a typical worship set, providing a bit of a something for everybody to experience. Cho is the heart language of the mountain region where most of them came from, Chin is the language of the larger people block that they are often identified with, and Burmese, well, everyone understands Burmese. Everyone, except, of course, many of their children, who now only hear and use the English language.
As the worship and missions pastor of our small church, I’ve spent a significant amount of time with these wonderful folks over the past two years. I’ve watched them grow in numbers. I’ve watched them grow spiritually. I’ve even watched their worship team grow from a small number of singers backed by one or two instruments into a full-blown stage-filling team that looks somewhat like an ethnic version of what you would find at a large contemporary Christian worship gathering. And there is the problem I’m wrestling with, and the reason for this article.
God has so wonderfully sent the nations among us and provided us with unprecedented opportunities to reach out and make disciples. At the same time that we’re racing to take advantage of these opportunities, do we bear some responsibility to help our new brothers and sisters to not only avoid being conformed to the image of the world, but also to avoid being conformed to the image of contemporary Christian pop culture?
Don’t misunderstand me, as a worship pastor I’m always open to new ideas that would help our people engage with God in authentic worship. As a missions pastor though, I’m a little concerned that without some hands-on guidance, many refugee worship teams will think that they need to be what they see in contemporary Christian pop culture in order to please God in this land they now call home.
Is it really necessary to spend over $2,000 on a high-end keyboard, hoping someone in the church will learn to play it? Probably not, but they decided to buy one anyway.
I’ve watched as sincere but culturally naïve musicians return from a local big-box music store with a bass guitar and amp whose style and sound is more fit for a Metallica concert than a worship set.
While I still use a good old-fashioned Shure SM-58, with a chord no less, this group didn’t seem to feel complete until everyone on stage had wireless mics.
I’ve grown to love these folks and want them to thrive in their giftings, but I also abhor the idea that what they see modeled for them in the Christian culture media or at concerts or festivals is what they feel they must become in order to be legitimate. Come to think of it, isn’t that a pressure that many of us feel ourselves, even as members of the majority culture? Don’t we often wish that we had more people, more tools, more technology, so we can see ourselves as having arrived?
I know I fight that pressure, and if you’re serving in a typical small, older, or declining church setting, then you know that the prospects for change in the near future are minimal. What we must do, what we should hope we can model for refugee worshippers, is that worship is meant to be all about Jesus, not us. It’s not about the size of our band, it’s about the longing of our heart for Jesus as we lead people into his presence. It’s not about conforming to a culture-driven example of how to form a team, it’s about forming a Christ-focused worship ministry with whatever we have to work with, and believing that God is pleased with what we offer him.
I pray that my friends who speak and sing in Burmese, Chin, and Cho can find ways to lead their congregation in authentic worship that honors Christ in a form that reflects their culture well. I pray that those of us who are in positions of influence in their lives can do the same. God willing, and I know he is, the result will be more worship of the worthy one, and less worship of worship.