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Worship across cultures

ACCORDING to Leslene Woodward, worshipping in other cultures, buildings and even religions can broaden perspectives on what it means to be in relationship with God.

Ms Woodward, a librarian from north Queensland who has volunteered with UnitingWorld in Bali, India and Kiribati over the past 10 years, has experienced the richness of worship in many different spaces and learnt valuable lessons from each context.

“Balinese people love natural beauty and their churches reflect that,” Ms Woodward says.

“Perhaps more so than here in Australia, the architecture of churches expresses a love for creation.

"There’s a back wall to accommodate the altar, but often it is made of glass and looks out onto beautiful natural or cultivated gardens, including waterfalls.

"Past the ornate front doors there are no side walls, just pillars, with ponds and ferneries alongside.”

The experience raises questions about what our church buildings in Australia communicate about our image of the God that we worship, our connection with nature and how English we value creation.

Ms Woodward recently spent time in Kiribati, where 98 per cent of the population identify as Christian.

Serving at the theological seminary, her experience of worship was familiar, as students are required to preach in English.

However, the traditional worship services and spaces of Kiribati reveal interesting transformations.

“The churches are built on the same model as the traditional meeting house, the maneaba,” explains UnitingWorld’s Associate Director, Church Connections and Experience, Kathy Pereira.

“They have a low roof, so you have to stoop to go inside; you have to adopt a posture of respect and humility.

Within the traditional maneaba, the men and women have to sit separately.

"The churches, however, have allowed the gospel to speak, transforming that tradition.”

The very edifice of the church building, Ms Pereira suggests, shows how God liberates people and can transform human relationships.

Just as the way faith is expressed through physical buildings can illuminate crosscultural worship, so can the question of how God might be found in the traditions of other religious spaces.

Ms Woodward says, “I think that walking down the street and encountering Hindus in the midst of a funeral service or being invited to worship in a jungle temple with a history stretching back 1200 years deepens your appreciation for who God is and where God can be found.”

“It’s not as though we can simply say, ‘This is a pagan religion and these are pagan places of worship’.

"God is bigger than that. In the same way that a place can be of Christian culture yet not be very Christian, so can we find the deep and beautiful things of Christ in places we may not expect.”

To experiencing another culture through volunteering with UnitingWorld, contact Roz Elkington on 02 8267 4269. Visit unitingworld.org.au