Multicultural Worship – It’s Not Just About Style

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I am thankful for the responses from students, pastors and friends to my October 8 blog “Strategies Towards Multicultural Worship!” Interestingly, a common thread ran through those responses, one that reflected a shortcoming in my blog. I failed to clarify a vision for multicultural worship with respect to the style of music.

Consequently, the responses to my blog tended to equate multicultural worship with worship that employs a variety of musical styles. While worship services which employ a variety of musical styles qualify as multicultural worship, I had something else in mind.

Before describing this vision, I begin with two qualifications.

First, I don’t envision a liturgy or service which incorporates multiple liturgical or musical styles into one service. Personally, I don’t promote such a practice for, in the end, it gives shape to a service which resembles more a variety show than a worship service. Plus, for reasons we don’t have time to explore here (but will explore later), it tends to lack spiritually formative power.

Second, I don’t envision a liturgy or service which seeks to represent ethnicities and cultures not represented in a congregation’s community. I don’t envision, as an example, incorporating Reggae into a worship service when the congregation and community does not include Jamaicans. That approach may be culturally illuminating (and even appropriate when hosting a guest or missionary from Jamaica), but it does not serve the goal of a congregation whose desire is to represent the demographics of its community.

Instead, here is my proposal.

  1. If a congregation longs to experience a little heaven on earth by including people from the tribes and nations represented in her community,
  2. Then her liturgy will reflect the influence of people from those same tribes and nations.
  3. In so doing, the congregation will choose a default liturgical or music style to guide and accompany its worship, one style consistent with her culture.
  4. At the same time, the congregation will explore the boundaries of her default style with the hope of discovering prayers, music and more by people representing the tribes and nations she seeks to embrace.

Let’s expand upon those four points:

  1. This point reflects the mission of God as described in the book of Revelation.
  2. On this point, see my previous blog.
  3. Typically, a congregation selects a dominant or default liturgical and musical style by which she worships - and this is good. Among the more than 300 styles of music, we find Latin, Caribbean, Rock n’ Roll, Metal, Country, Rhythm and Blues (R&B), Jazz, and Baroque. Some of these have made their way into sanctuaries, such as Black Gospel (which represents a fusion of R&B and Jazz), Praise & Worship (which leans heavily on Rock n’ Roll), and Traditional Worship (which has been founded upon Baroque music).
  4. When a congregation pushes out from the center to the boundaries of its default style (Green Circle), it will find rituals and music which overlap the boundaries of another style (Red Circle).
  5. In the overlapping areas, a congregation may find liturgists and artists whose ethnicities, race and culture represent those of the people in her community. Once discovered, they will make certain that the Sunday services reflect the contribution of such people.

One might ask, “Is it that easy?” Yes and No! Yes, if the looks on the faces of the worship indicate anything. As one who has had the privilege of planning and leading a multicultural congregation, I can assure you that such efforts speak to those who participate in worship. I have seen the smiles on the faces, witnessed worshipful response, and received affirmation.

Yes, it is that easy. While leading worship in a multiethnic church, I will never forget the response of one worshiper who had been raised as a Roman Catholic when we sang Daniel Schutte’s “Here I Am, Lord,” or the response of a young African American worshiper when we brought out William McDowell’s “I Give Myself Away.” The style of both songs fell within our default musical style and the artists of each represented the cultures of people in our community.

And No. It takes time to stay abreast of the margins of a musical style. It takes courage to try new things. Plus, it requires more than one worship leader or liturgist for it we limit the planning and leading of worship to one person, the result tends to be mono-ethnic worship (that of the worship leader or liturgist). Ideally, the worship planning and leading team will include individuals representing different ethnicities, musical instruments, and vocal gifting.

In conclusion, when we promote multicultural or multiethnic worship, the listener often assumes that we are promoting the use of multiple musical styles of worship. In some instances, that may be the case. But, I suggest a different approach, one which affirms the default musical (even liturgical) style of a congregation, while exploring the boundaries of that style where we often find connections to a diversity of tribes and nations. Planning and leading such services challenge worship leaders on many levels but, in the end, it is worth the effort. 

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There is another side to this. To organize the worship service in a way that helps a few people unfamiliar with traditional praise songs feel more at home, we risk turning the worship hour into an unfamiliar experience for the greater part of  the congregation. I wasn't born here and I've learned to worship my God in the spirtually-uplifting songs and music of my congregation. As a former Roman Catholic I'd find it disenchanting to have the liturgy in an RC format, reminding me of the errors of the Church of Rome I left behind when I joined the CRC.  

Community Builder

Thanks, Joe.  You have hit on the tension we face a Christian congregations. When we gather as a congregation, do we so in a way that reflects the present or the future, who were are or who we hope to become?  And to what degree do we, as a gathered community accommodate our guests? Tough decisions.  I am thinking that each congregation will have to determine their answers to those questions.   You?     

The children in our church, along with children from some other churches, organized a twenty-four hour sing- a-thon to raise money for our community christian radio station.  They set a target of $5000 and raised $5100!   Singing non-stop for twenty four hours (in shifts of course) means you sing a lot of songs, perhaps over 700 songs, maybe more, although a few were sung more than once.  It started with a concert by two children's choirs, and in the second day they had three guest musician groups singing different styles of music.  Some of the kids learned praise songs they had not known before, while other kids who normally did not sing hymns, learned a lot of hymns.  They began to enjoy all types of worship music. 

Sam,  not just ethnic cultures abound, but worship cultures also vary.   The idea that people do not all relate to Christ in exactly the same way at all times, is an idea that can help to understand the benefit for variety in the music, in the words, in the order of worship, and in expressions of praise and thanksgiving.   Not everyone will be happily flexible towards all kinds of music, but I think if a few principles are maintained, then a variety of music will be possible, and eventually upbuilding and rejuvenating for all.   Variety is not for show, but to enlarge the beauty and variety of creation in our response to God. 

First, when singing, the words need to be heard, and preferably, singable by all.  ("Performances" should be infrequent, and rare, and perhaps participatory.)  That means words for new songs on the overhead or in print.  It also means that drums and organs and brass should not drown out the singing, but should have their volume adjusted downwards.  It's interesting how many hymns can be accompanied by drums as well.  Volume needs to be appropriate;  damage to ear drums not allowed, but a sense of joyous praise encouraged.  Sing more songs standing up!  Second, the theology of the song must not be incorrect.  (With allowances for poetic language!)  Every song will not express the entirety of the gosple, but it certainly should not express something which contradicts scripture.  Third, the majority of songs should be familiar with new songs introduced one or two at a time.  If the congregation cannot sing the song after three tries, the song should probably be dropped.   But repeating a new song or singing it two or three times in a row may be a good way to learn a new one. 

I personally find most genres of songs beautiful, whether hymns, southern gospel, vineyard, children's songs, spirituals, or whatever.   But a few songs in all genres strain the meaning of praise.   And harmony adds a huge beauty to the singing, so songs that can be harmonized should be included preferentially most of the time, although ocassionally a unison song can also be very beautiful in contrast.  Also consider some acappella verses in some well known hymns.... its a beautiful contrast!  Think of music like the landscapes in the world.   Singing the mountains is grand, but the budgies, the streams, the canaries, the trees, the prairies, the seas, and even the desert has its own music, meant to praise and worship God.   Sometimes the music is like a hurricane, and other times like the quiet wisper that spoke to Elijah.  Sometimes the music is like the bellow of a bull, or the roar of lion, and other times like the rippling of a brook, or the honking of the migrating geese, and sometimes it is blended together in a melodious harmony.  Sometimes the music makes you laugh, and sometimes it brings tears of joy and sadness.  God made it all.   It is our prayer to God, and His gift to us. 

Community Builder

John, thanks for your thoughtful response.  I would have loved to have witnessed the 24 hour sing-a-thon!  

Good, insightful stuff here, Sam! I am challenged in a good direction by your urging of an integrated, basic style to set the overall format of worship, thus avoiding the disjunctive "variety show" problem. And I love your notion of pushing the boundary outward to other worship sensibilities! I note all three of the major musical orientations you see operating are Western. But then, of course, we are here in the West! That, however, is rapidly changing because of the demographic shifts in Euro-American society--shifts happening even faster in the churches. So we'll get to explore the boundaries that include more global music styles; some congregations will have dominant styles, as well, from Asian cultures, African cultures, Islander cultures, etc. Here in Salt Lake City we have strong Tongan and Samoan congregations, strong Hispanic congregations, and various others--Nepalese, Burmese, South Sudanese, etc. I work for The Vine Institute which equips leaders from these various groups, working multiculturally; two or three times each year we sponsor a multicultural worship experience and usually feature two different ethnic groups in a service leading with their own style and language (translations on screen). It is very rich, but I must say I hunger for more integration in the service as a whole--thank you for your wisdom and encouragement toward this! 

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