Lately I have come to a different understanding of why 11:00 am on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. I have begun to wonder if the answer has less to do with a racial divide and more to do with the nature of worship. These thoughts came to me as I participated in an ecumenical Seven Last Words of Christ service in Atlanta in which was the only white person among well over 200 worshippers. This happens to me from time to time. I serve a predominantly African-American congregation in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. When the churches in the neighborhood get together for worship, I am usually the only white pastor and sometimes the only white participant.
As I listened in awe to the quality of the presentation of the Word that day, both in sermon and song, and marveled at the response of the worshippers, I came to realize that, while we gather to worship for a number of reasons, our main purpose is to hear from God. Some call worship entering into the presence of God, others liken it to a conversation with God, but no matter how you put it, in worship we meet God. In worship our relationship with God, which may have gotten out of balance during the week, is restored. In worship our sin, which would bar us from the presence of God, is forgiven. While worship has many purposes, the primary one is to hear God say: "I love you just as you are."
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:7 that "we have these treasures in earthen vessels," which means to me, among other things, that God must use the human voice to speak these words to us. Such an intimate expression is mostly clearly heard in our mother tongue, in the language most familiar to us. We prefer to hear this, the most sublime of all expressions, in the accents we grew up hearing. We desire to hear it in the songs our mothers and fathers sang to us as they put us to sleep. If God wants to reach us deep in our hearts with words of love and forgiveness, the "earthen vessel" that will be most effective is the cultural context in which we were raised.
What is interesting to contemplate is the future of our worship as society becomes increasingly integrated. When white and black children both grow up hearing blues and rock on the radio at home, when Latino and Asian children both move to the beat of rap, when cultures that were once isolated and ghettoized are shared, what then will our preference be? How will God speak to us the words we long to hear? Will we hear God say "I love you" in a common voice?