Our spaces often define how we live—from sleeping and working to meeting with others—but at the same time, we often define our spaces, from location and decorations to basic furniture. One type of space that we may not have much control over but which can affect us greatly is our space of worship. For each religion, nationality, or even locality, spaces of worship vary to some degree. In this article, we explore some of the different kinds of worship spaces within the Christian religion through missionaries who have traveled to different regions and experienced Christianity in a variety of cultural contexts.
In an 11-month mission trip around the world, Morgan Malone, the short-term trip coordinator for Adventures in Missions, traveled to more than ten different countries across Africa, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe. Since 2012, Malone has worked with Adventures in Missions, an “interdenominational missions organization that focuses on discipleship,” has participated in “The World Race,” and has led “Passport” trips through Guatemala. “The World Race” is designed for participants who are 21 to 35 years of age and spans 11 countries within 11 months, while “Passport” is a college-age focused trip that can range from one to three months.
Alida Leino, of SEND International, works as a Regional Missions Coach for the Northeast. SEND is an international missions agency with teams serving in over 20 countries. She has served as a missionary in Alaska previously with Alaskan Native cultures.
Liz Lawson currently works for Cru, a Christian ministry organization involved in college campuses, churches, and other organizations in the United States and around the world. Currently, she works at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) through Cru. Lawson first interned with Cru in Moscow, ministry organization involved in college campuses, churches, and other organizations in the United States and around the world. Currently, she works at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) through Cru. Lawson first interned with Cru in Moscow, Russia for a year after graduating from Texas A&M University, then returned to do full-time missionary work for the organization in Moscow for more than seven years. On college campuses in Moscow, Lawson, along with other members of the group, hosted English clubs focused on discussing spiritual topics and cultural exchange.
As we explore variation in spaces, first we must examine variation in time, or rather, the timing of services and worship. In Alaska, according to Leino, “The Native culture is event-oriented rather than time-oriented. That means that the starting time for Sunday worship may be 11:00 but it doesn’t begin until everyone is there, or at least key people.”
In addition to the flexible starting times, there was no scheduled ending time in Leino’s experience. Attendees would enter and leave during the service, and in particular, children would constantly get up and move around.
In Malone’s time in Africa, including visits to countries including Tanzania, Malawi, and Swaziland, she observed that church may last up to eight hours. Services might consist of sitting and listening to a speaker, then getting up to sing and dance, then repeating this cycle a number of times. “It’s not very structured … but there’s a lot of freedom in it,” Malone said. “People are worshipping the Lord through what they know – and that’s song and dance.”
Malone further explained that witnessing this lively worship in Africa was one of her favorite memories on her missionary trip. “There’s just joy in it and what they do,” she said.
This trend of long services was also notable in the Caribbean regions Malone visited, like the Dominican Republic. In contrast, in some of the cultures she witnessed in Asia, like Thailand and Malaysia, church services and worship ran on a more rigid schedule, more similar to what it is like in America.
Beyond the timing of worship, the degree to which “Westernized Christianity” is incorporated into spaces of worship varies, even within the same region. In Alaska, Leino noted differences between the setup of church buildings. Some were structured with pews and rows of seats, she explained, while others had attendees sitting in a circle. Malone also discussed how in Cambodia, features of Christian services seemed more similar to ones seen in the United States, but could vary based on a variety of factors, including whether or not the churches were American-based or founded by Americans.
Another factor that varies in spaces of worship includes safety. Christians are still being persecuted around the world today, which Malone personally witnessed in one country she visited in Europe. “A lot of their worship is done in secret,” Malone explained, in regards to the youth group she worked with in the country. “If they’re given a space and they know it’s safe, [that in] this particular location [provides] lot of freedom in their worship… There wasn’t any fear of being found out — it was just pure unabashed worship.”
Spaces of worship, in terms of their physical appearance, can also vary, according to Leino and Lawson. Lawson noted the ornate nature of the cathedrals in Russia, and recalled one specific cathedral, called “Christ the Savior.”
In the cathedral hung paintings of saints and of the twelve disciples in a circle. A painting of what God is believed to look like overlooks attendees from the ceiling. Lawson compared this setting of worship to what she was used to at home. “It represents the formality they have between them and God. He is a very majestic being very set apart from humans,” she said. “In my upbringing in Texas… there was a lot of emphasis on relationship.”
There are an uncountable amount of ways to worship the Lord, with different languages, traditions, dances, and structure. Malone, Leino and Lawson were able to witness some of these variations and to see the effects
of their experience in their own lives once they returned home.
For Leino, experiencing different cultures has led her to prefer less-structured worship. “I used to be one that liked having a church bulletin that gave the order of worship but after being in a church that had no bulletin, I am quite content to go with the flow,” she said. “I pay no attention to whether the pastor is ‘going overtime’ on his sermon.”
For Malone, seeing the Lord in different spaces has renewed her perspective of God. “Personally for me, worship is so much more than just singing in a space. Worship to me is all of Him and all of me, and all of me praising all of Him… for who the Lord is,” Malone said. “Seeing worship in all these different spaces has given me a bigger picture of who the Lord is… [It] has both made me appreciate what worship is and provided me a lot of freedom in how I worship and how I experience the Lord.”
Lawson noted how the views of God in different cultures brought her attention to the perspective in the US. “I really grew to appreciate how they [in Russia] perceived God… and how in our culture we can really underestimate the majesty of God,” she said.
Lawson discussed the importance of learning from other cultures and keeping an open mind. “See what you can learn from their culture. As missionaries you want to come and bring Jesus and you’re bringing a message that you hope people adapt to,” she said. “Give a little room to see the value of their culture and what they could bring to the Christian culture.”
Lawson also mentioned how the Bible can be interpreted differently by cultures, and encouraged an important question to consider: “What does Christianity look like through their own culture?”
Malone advises those who might want to travel and do missionary work outside of the US: “My biggest piece of advice is to go without expectation… Have expectations to see the Lord move and be flexible.”
She emphasized, “The most important part is His goodness. Worship can take on so many different forms and so many different shapes … Through it all He remains good and He remains true and He is glorified through it all.”
Marinna Okawa ’20 is a Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology concentrator in Dunster House.