Here’s a note that I received from a former youth group member at my church and my response. I thought it might be helpful for other folks to read – or to add any more comments in response to the student’s questions.
…The reason I am messaging you is because I have a question about leading worship services in many languages. I am a part of Resident’s Life this year in my dorm and am the leader of my team of 12 students, one to represent each floor in my dorm. We are in the process of planning an all-dorm worship night which we have done a few of in the past, but this time we are trying to incorporate diversity of languages in singing and in scripture reading, and praying styles. My question for you is how do you do this authentically and in a way that represents real cultures, people, and languages that are members of the community in a way that makes them feel included but also runs logistically smooth to an extent? I don’t want this to be something we just do because we “should” but because it is a real way to be inclusive of the (somewhat) diverse community that we live in- majority white with Spanish and Korean languages being the two other most represented. My team who is leading and in charge of this event is majority white and we are struggling with wanting to incorporate this form of appreciation for diversity in worship and not wanting to overstep or lead something in a way that would be offensive or divisive. If you have any thoughts for me they would be greatly appreciated. I know this sort of thing is extremely difficult and can easily fail but the Lord has put it on my heart to try to incorporate these conversation topics into our efforts to build community in a dorm that is focused on living for Christ and growing in unity and love for one another. Thank you for taking the time to read all of this and please let me know what you think, Thanks so much…
Thanks for writing and I find it encouraging that you are even asking these questions – you would be surprised how many people just crash into cultural walls without any sensitivity. I would encourage you and maybe your team to check out these videos made by InterVarsity that kind of address the whole idea of diverse worship in a very winsome manner. http://mem.intervarsity.org/mem/diverseworship
The next step would be to get some of the “non-white” folks in the conversation with you so that you are able to ask them for input. This is not just “tokenism” – it’s about relationship and giving away control. Tokenism happens when an all white leadership plans the songs and then asked a non-white person to sing with the team as a “token” of diversity. Reconciliation is about sharing the space and sharing the power. Is there a Hispanic or Korean campus group that you can connected with? Are there any local congregations from these cultures that you can connect with and ask to learn from? These are big steps, but a little step is to maybe just take the song We Fall Down by Chris Tomlin and sing it in several languages – just to affirm that these languages are part of the community.
You are right to not want to overtly offend, but there will be people who are offended (especially from the white mainstream) and there’s kind of no way to avoid that. The kingdom of God breaks down walls of division and that’s going to bother people who take comfort in their own safe spaces. There’s also a good chance you might offend some one who’s not white (maybe they think you are exploiting their culture). That’s to be expected as well. Trust in the Holy Spirit to break down relational barriers through healing worship and not in your ability to plan your way around conflict (speaking from experience).