“Hakuna mungu kama wewe,” I sing with the students around me. “There’s no one, there’s no one like Him.”
On November 5th, the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) had their annual World Student Day of Prayer. Students from every nation exchanged prayer requests, updated each other on their country’s cultural and spiritual circumstances, and spent the day in prayer for each other and for “Thy kingdom to come, on earth as it is in heaven.”
When the staff worker for InterVarsity, a Christian ministry at the University of Oklahoma, asked me to lead our chapter in the World Day of Prayer and the World Day of Prayer Celebration the preceding night, I was taken aback. I’m a white, middle-class woman from suburbia. I’m not an International Area Studies major, or even a foreign language major. What could I have to offer this event?
Nevertheless, I accepted. What better way to begin to understand cultures apart from mine than to specifically seek them out? Being a university student, I often hear about the merits of studying abroad and getting international experience. “Shared experiences,” President David Boren of OU always says. “We have to create shared experiences across countries if we want this world to have any semblance of peace in the next century.”
And so, with the college call to study abroad echoing in my mind, I got a group of students together and started planning the events. I encouraged the other InterVarsity members to talk to their international friends, get cultural items from home, and come up with presentations representing each region from the world. Over the course of a month, I watched and occasionally helped them come up with two hours’ worth of songs, games, food, and interviews from countries all over the world, and put together tables with artifacts, prayer requests, and information.
As I worked with the various groups in developing their cultural presentations, I began to structure the layout of the night of celebration and the prayer room. In doing so, my view of the entire process shifted.
I had been coming at the IFES World Day of Prayer as a project—nothing more or less. Sure, I figured that it would be good to get some cultural experience, and sure I’d heard about Christianity being international before. I’d heard David Boren’s speeches on shared experiences and been to Missions Week at church. Multicultural was a word I had heard tossed around since I was a child.
However, planning the structure of the night meant looking at overarching themes and scripture to pull together the presentation. In doing so, I was completely struck by what I read. The Bible is strewn with images of a “house of prayer for all nations,” and a collection of all God’s people serving Him “shoulder to shoulder.”
It comes down to this: multiculturalism is not a keyword churches should use to bump up their Google hits. The Word is beautifully clear that we, as Christians, should be reaching out to other cultures as God’s creation, from which we can learn and for which we should pray. There is a fellowship in Christ that reaches across barriers of language and culture.
My experience with the World Student Day of Prayer and Celebration also taught me that there is tremendous beauty in worshipping and praying in the style of other cultures. So much of how our perception of God is influenced by the society in which we were raised. The imagery of God as a father, for example, takes on a different meaning depending on the culture’s conception of family. The idea of God as eternal is difficult for Westerners to grasp because of our linear concept of time, whereas languages rooted in circular time, like the Pueblo, relate to that more easily.
Not only are those ideas expressed differently in different cultures, but they are also expressed in different fashions because of different ways of expression in general. Compare the rich, rhythmic musical tradition of Africa with the harmonies of Western European hymns, and you will understand easily what I mean by that.
All of this is to say that the World Student Day of Prayer not only gave university students an opportunity to participate in prayer for the world and to experience other cultures, but changed the way I hear talk about “internationalism.”
Why aren’t the church and evangelical movement more serious about incorporating multicultural prayer and worship? About reaching out specifically to people of different ethnicities than their own? We are called to go and make disciples of all nations. Not only is seeking out and worshipping alongside believers from different countries moving and eye-opening, it is also our greatest commission.
So how do ministries do this year-round? While specific days and weeks devoted to celebrating other cultures are excellent, this tip-of-the-hat to the rest of the world is not sufficient.
What I would suggest is this: first, pray. Pray for the opportunities to find and interact with people of other cultures.
Second, develop relationships with those people you find. Ask and learn about their cultures, and how Christ fits into their culture and nation.
Third, invite them to participate in your services. Ask them what they think your ministry should know, and how to incorporate their styles of worship into your services. And then do it! Songs in different languages or styles, dances, visual art, different prayer styles, or ritual silence—all of these things can be beautiful experiences.
Of course, these are only suggestions. There are endless things to learn about the people of the world, and how they live and worship. But allow me to encourage you to join in with them wholeheartedly, rather than assuming their inclusion.
“Hakuna mungu kama wewe,” I sang. The verse to that song reads, “Nimezinguka kote, kote; hakuna na hataku wepo”—I’ve searched and searched all over; there’s no one like Him.
My friends, search all over. And worship alongside our brothers and sisters who raise one voice to praise the One unlike any other.