Global Worship: You Are What You Worship With
Why Christian Worship Should Reflect the Church's Global Identity
Have you ever considered that “you are what you worship with?” In other words, what Christians use to worship God with demonstrates something about their own identity. If God’s kingdom is inherently global, our worship should be as reflective of that fact as possible.
Many may be familiar with the old adage, “You are what you eat.” It’s the basic idea that the food that goes into your body directly impacts your overall health. Thoughtful Christian authors have taken this idea and applied it to the phenomenon of worship—“You are what you worship.” In other words, people end up taking on the characteristics of what they worship.
But, let’s take this Christian adaptation one step further. Perhaps it’s even apt to say, “You are what you worship with.” In other words, what Christians use to worship God with demonstrates something about their own identity. This may sound rather abstract and ethereal, but bear with me for a moment.
Contrary to the assumptions of many, Christianity today is not a Western and White phenomenon. By sheer numbers alone, the majority of people who call Jesus Lord and Savior are from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Not only that, but if conversion and population growth continue at their current rates, the number of Christians in Africa alone will eclipse the number of Christians of North America and Europe combined by 2050, according to Global Christianity scholar Philip Jenkins.
But this shouldn’t come as a surprise for people familiar with the Bible. The New Testament alone is replete with passages and verses that talk about the inherently global nature of the Christian faith. In fact, “global Christianity” is in many senses a tautology—an unnecessary repetition.
“After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands.” – Revelation 7:9
If Christianity is inherently global, then it logically follows that Christian worship should be global as well. If people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation are called to worship around the throne of King Jesus, we should expect to see the various linguistic and cultural expressions represented in Sunday worship. “You are what you worship with.”
The reality, however, is quite the opposite, and starkly so in the American church. Quite sadly, this is something that all sides of the theological spectrum have failed at. For instance, in my own tradition, which is theologically conservative and predominantly White demographically, our standard hymnals feature song lyrics and tunes crafted by mostly White or European writers and composers. While indigenously written songs and even some Black spirituals can be found on the pages of the hymnals, more often than not, the vast majority of songs sung in a church from my tradition are written and/or composed by someone of White or European heritage.
If the vast majority of the songs we sing are White or European in origin, then the message being communicated every Sunday is that we are not a globally-minded worshipping community.
Churches of slightly more contemporary worship convictions also have pedestaled White or European songs and artists. The worship songwriters that many Evangelicals are familiar with—whether that is Hillsong United, Phil Wickham, or Matt Redman—are heavily dominated by White or European voices. Simply tuning into Christian worship on the radio in the United States compounds this fact.
If the newly-coined adage is true—“You are what you worship with”—then it is at least pertinent for Christians to take a self-assessment of their places of worship and see who has written and composed the songs they sing. If the vast majority of the songs we sing are White or European in origin, then the message being communicated every Sunday is that we are not a globally-minded worshipping community.
While singing songs translated from English into other languages is one step closer, it is still not hitting the mark of global worship. At worst, translated worship songs leave a bitter taste of the colonialism of former decades, where the natives of the mission field were compelled to throw off their own culture for that of Whites and Europeans to become a “true follower” of Christ. The opposite should actually be our goal in our contexts. How often do we hear indigenous hymns written by Chinese Christians translated into English, for example, being sung in our churches?
Some may say that these global worship songs are hard to find and incorporate into their church worship. But that is not true, if you make it a priority to take the time to look in the right places. The United Methodist Church has compiled a list of indigenous hymns written by Asian and Pacific Islander Christians. ChurchLeaders.com has published a compilation of resources on global worship, including songbooks and recordings of global worship songs.
For Christians in the United States, it would be of great benefit to learn from the traditions that are often forgotten or left on the margins of American Christian worship. For example, Abingdon Press has an Africana Hymnal Project with a collection of Black sacred music. The General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church has a powerful short film on the history of Black Sacred Music available for free to view online.
The resources are almost endless, and becoming globally-minded in our worship may even be as simple as forming relationships with Christians of various backgrounds and cultures. Especially in a digital age of internet connectivity, we can have contact with Christians around the world in an unprecedented way.
Ultimately, the main motivation is faithful identity—“You are what you worship with.” If Christians are called to be faithful in worshipping Jesus with the global nature of his kingdom in mind, then our Sunday worship should reflect that as much as possible. There is something awe-inspiring and beautiful about singing songs written and composed by brothers and sisters around the world. It is a reminder to ourselves and to the watching world that the Body of Christ is united across time and space.
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