A Theological Foundation For Multicultural Musical Worship

Posted: March 14, 2014 in Christianity, Music, Worship
Tags: , , ,

wincon background

I recently had the honor of co-leading an incredible worship team at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s (IVCF) Northwest Regional Winter Conference (whew, that’s a mouthful) alongside my good friend, Thomas.  There were around 400-something students there from all over the Northwest.  It was easily one of my favorite worship experiences I’ve ever had and it was really encouraging to see so many students transformed and excited about their faith.  One of the singers on our team really captured the diversity of our musical selection when she posted on Facebook:

“I NEVER thought in one weekend I would be leading Praise and Worship songs representing Rock, Folk, Hip Hop, Go-Go, Gospel, Grunge, and Spanish…..but here I am! LETS GO!”

While we were there, Thomas and I also were able to lead a workshop on multicultural worship, and we got such positive feedback from that time that I figured it might be worthwhile to share some of the content from that workshop with others who are looking to grow in this practice, either from a worship leader’s perspective or as anyone out there who has an appreciation for worship. 

Multicultural musical worship is something that I am VERY passionate about.  I want to provide at least a basic theological framework by sharing a bit about multicultural ministry/outreach in general first.  I then want to apply a similar thought process to why I think multicultural musical worship is so valuable and why it has been essential in my life.

For starters, I recommend that you first watch this video by James Choung, a guy who has been involved with IVCF for many years, who will lay some of the groundwork for why multicultural fellowship as a whole is so important (thanks for pointing out this video to me, Billy!).  He even goes into a bit of detail of the benefits of intentional ethnic-specific ministries but that is a post for another day.  IVCF was instrumental in helping me form my own understanding of worship.  Check it out.

The two scriptures that most stand out to me from the video are Revelation 7:9, where we see every tribe, nation and tongue worshipping God and Acts 2, where the crowd hears Peter in their own native languages! Not just in the Aramaic he was likely speaking in.

The main scripture that forms the basis of my worship theology is the following:

Genesis 1:27

 “So God created mankind in his own image,

   in the image of God he created them;

   male and female he created them.”

This is such a short piece of scripture to zoom in on but SO rich with meaning.  This is often referred to in Latin as “imago dei,” which means “Image of God.”  There are many things that we should understand with the fact that God made us in his image.  THE God of all things, the creator, savior, sustainer, all the ways that we try to describe this huge God.  WE, humans who are full of flaws, who make poor decisions, who often have minds that think so far from the nature of this perfect God… WE are, in fact, made in the very image of this great God.  What this means is that every single one of us is valuable just by nature of our existence.  I love the way that this is described in Psalm 139, where David says:

  “For you created my inmost being;

   you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

   I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

   Your works are wonderful I know that full well.”

So it’s not just this haphazard “boom, there’s Steve, boom there’s Jane, boom there’s John, sigh… boring, whatever”–NO.  David gets it!  Even though creation is a task that God is able to accomplish in a blink of an eye, there is still an intentionality to God’s creation.  God doesn’t do things haphazardly.  God doesn’t make mistakes.  God is not random.  God is an artist, who carefully and specifically creates his works of art.  Are you an artist or do you know any artists?  Any writers?  Painters? Sculptors?  People with a passion for creating new things?  Can you think of a time when you created a piece that you were especially proud of, when you were completely in your flow and it came out exactly how you wanted it to?  It is a great feeling when that happens.  This is how God works too, except that he is ALWAYS at his creative peak and always “in the zone.”

I get really excited looking at these two passages side by side.  God carefully and purposefully knit you together in your mother’s womb, just as you are.  AND God created you in his own image!  Wow!  This is true about every single person. It’s crazy to consider the implications of this, especially noticing how different people from various parts of the world look.  How different all these people are.  We all have different cultures and stories and experiences, yet this scripture from Genesis 1:27 about God creating mankind in his own image is true for ALL of us.  That blows my mind and it’s hard to fathom how that is even possible.

When I was an InterVarsity student, I had the privilege of hearing a great teaching from Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, who has been a pastor, speaker, author and champion for racial reconciliation and justice for many years.  He spoke specifically about that Genesis passage and I love the way that he broke it down, which I will now paraphrase.  (Dr. Rah, if you happen to read this, forgive me for potentially butchering the eloquent way that you have phrased this!) God created us with value as beings made in his image.  Our primary purpose on Earth is to reflect his glory, like a mirror.  Unfortunately, we’ve made some pretty poor decisions along the way and that mirror image of God that we were intended to be has been shattered and broken because of our sin.  A big part of God’s grace is that even in spite of the sin in my life, I am still able to reflect God’s glory in my small way, like a sliver of that mirror.  It is only by coming together with my brothers and sisters that we are able to reflect a greater portion of that mirror and, in turn, reflect God’s glory more fully.  All of us, in all of our diversity of experiences, cultures, perspectives, and so on, we all offer a unique way of understanding God and being a part of the body.  This HAS to include people of other ethnic backgrounds as well.  It’s not just a nice, progressive, or politically correct idea to seek out multicultural relationship.  We have to come with a mentality where we know that we actually NEED each other.  This is why InterVarsity has so many areas of intentionality in being a multicultural body.

This is the foundation of my perspective on the value of multicultural worship.  Worship is a critical practice for us as believers and it just so happens that musical worship is an amazing way for us to connect with God.  Worship is giving complete adoration, praise and humility in acknowledging God.  It is a place where we recognize that God is so much greater than we are and where we give thanks to God.  God doesn’t need anything from us and to worship him is really the only thing we have to give that is pleasing to God.  We worship with our lives, not just in music.  But there are some really great reasons why multicultural musical worship specifically can be a fantastic medium in connecting with God.

Since different people have different cultures who have different experiences, this inevitably leads to different aspects of God that we tend to focus in on. This can manifest itself in the different ways that we choose to respond with our voices, our volume levels, our bodies and even our song selections.  For example, if someone most strongly connects with God while out in nature surrounded by his creation, it makes sense that they might naturally gravitate towards worship songs that refer to God’s creation.  For example, check out this line from the old school, yet still popular, “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” by Delirious?

Over the mountains and the sea

Your river runs with love for me

And I will open up my heart

And let the healer set me free

If someone comes from a culture where emotional restraint is the norm, where it is expected to keep your cool and frowned upon to let your feelings get out of control, maybe you will most often connect with God in emotionally intense songs, that give you a medium for expressing your passionate, desperate need for God.  Take the song by All Sons and Daughters, “Great Are You Lord”

And all the Earth will shout your praise

Our hearts will cry these bones will sing

Great Are You Lord!

Or maybe if you come from a culture that has a history of being oppressed, like African-Americans, you might find yourself gravitating to songs that emphasize God’s strength, God’s ability to bring healing or deliver you out of a situation where you feel powerless like in Fred Hammond’s “A Song of Strength” (LOVE this song, by the way)

(When I can’t see), I know You’ll guide
(When I cry out), I know You feel
(Now I’m praying), I know You hear
(Praying for healing), I know You will

My point is that our differences give us a unique perspective on the many ways that we need God.  When we choose to learn from each other and bring these different cultural experiences into our own default way of expression, we will inevitably find that our ability to understand God grows, our ability to worship our God gets bigger and, in turn, we are also changed.  We learn that God himself is much greater than the small boxes that we hold him in. Also, multicultural worship gives us the ability to worship God no matter what might be happening in our lives.  If we are so excited that we can’t contain it, we have a language and a framework to fully express that joy as well as a freedom that our everyday default demeanor might restrict us from.  If we are mourning or in a place of deep brokenness, we have the ability to go deep and be fully honest as we approach God in that place.  There are so many great benefits to our hearts when we decide to open ourselves up to new worship experiences.

Just as importantly, we gain a stronger ability to connect with others from those completely different cultures.  We gain a means of speaking to someone’s heart that our regular conversations might fail at and this becomes a great way to grow in community as well as communicate the truth of these worship songs to someone who might not even be a believer yet.  It improves our ability to “go out to the nations” and to our neighbors to bring the good news as we are commanded by Jesus to do when we choose to learn new cultural languages.  We can also more effectively disciple to fellow believers who come from different church/worship backgrounds.  I have friends who have grown up in contexts where their relationship with God was active and growing and their heart language was spoken, only to come to college and have their faith flounder because they couldn’t find a place where a fellowship was able to communicate worship and the Word in a way that fed their soul. It doesn’t have to be that way and we can choose to step in and be that bridge.

I hope that this is at least a good foundation on why I think multicultural worship is so important for all of us, and especially so for my fellow worship leaders out there.  I want to encourage you to be willing to step outside of your comfort zone and to grow in cross-cultural, deep, vulnerable, non-token friendships with people from other cultures and to also choose to learn from these cultures and integrate them into your worship and into your life as a believer.

wincon team pic

The Winter Conference 2014 Worship Team

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