One of the stupidest recurring arguments in many churches is the debate between contemporary and traditional worship services. I’m not a real music person. Sure, I’m an old school guy: give me some soul music, mix in a little Gospel, a little Parliament/Funkadelic, and a dash of Prince and I’m a happy man. However, I suspect that there is a similar transcendence and beauty to music that I feel about story. A connection to the spiritual, a way to communicates the idea of love the way only poetry can (though I’m not a real poetry guy either).

Sadly, I have pretty low opinions about modern day “worship” music. A lot of it comes across as deep theological themes reduced to narcissistic, triteness, and redundancy. More of a “how does Jesus make me feel” brand of sentimentality that tries to capture a 70s light rock sound and call it a contemporary service (though, in all fairness, to baby boomers it might be).

We use “worship” and “singing” synonymously to describe that portion of the Sunday morning service involving congregational singing. Our worship times have become “worship sets”, not worship times, musical manipulation to get you to the point where you close your eyes and say “God is awesome.” It all reminds me of the South Park episode where Cartman decides to make Christian records by taking pop songs and replacing the word “baby” with “Jesus”. It should make you question what we mean by worship.

Worship is more than music. Worship is what we do everyday. How we live, how we draw close to God. Worship is a way of life. What we do the other 6 days and 23 hours of the week. I thought that I’d use this as an excuse to share a recent e-mail exchange on the even more complicated idea of trying to design a multi-cultural worship service:

Hey Maurice,

Can I bitch for just a minute? I want to run this past you, and get your honest opinion. Since we don’t know each other, you can feel free to interject how the [Holy Spirit] leads.

I attend a multi-racial church. I am the worship director of a fairly large institutional church. I think that for too long the church (at large) has preached “diversity”. I don’t know that I buy into “diversity” teaching the way it’s been done (in the mainstream church). Maybe it’s a good starting point, but it has to morph; to begin to become what it should be and go beyond the first steps.

My vision for the department is to simply “be”. To use music to express and teach “worship”. I DO NOT believe that we should seek to “appear” diverse. I have taken a census of all of our musicians and worshipers in attendance and invited them to participate. We have always had 3 or 4 full worship bands in place (a good mixture of colors). We try to maintain a “one team, many expressions” concept. But problems come up because people don’t always know “how” to express diversity.

My focus is to train leaders to grow a team. I think that they should pick members based on spiritual maturity, chemistry, and ability and avoid race as a factor. But some people still have that old “it has to look diverse” thinking. I think that’s putting the tail before the dog. I believe that when they prayerfully pick a team then the team members will by default, be a healthy representation of the body we serve. The black members bring a certain influence, the rockers bring theirs, the old time gospel folks theirs etc. This results in a home-grown style that is a good picture of kingdom diversity. This stands in stark opposition to the “white music on one Sunday, black music on another” type thinking. When we are able to express the fact that we are truly of one mind, together, living in community, then our music will reflect that TRUTH.

The best times I had were when we had a rocker guitarist, a black bassist, an alternative drummer, and mixed backup singers. Each of them played the same music but from different influences and it was really cool. It reminded me of the Aerosmith/Run DMC combo. It wasn’t a “style” thing, it was a merging…. a merging of hearts and minds to produce something unique. That to me is kingdom diversity. We didn’t have to look for songs that spoke to any specific group to seem inclusive, we just “were”.

I don’t like diversity the way it’s preached and promoted. We spend too much time trying to tell people that we need to come together rather than just “being” together and “growing” together.

Am I missing something? Am I not seeing the fuller picture here? Should I be concerned with “fair and balanced” representation? Wouldnt that lead me to recruiting based on skin color rather than simply using the people God gave us? I don’t really know because I am not influenced by any one culture. I’m weird, I’m a cultural chamelion and can fit anywhere and nowhere. I dont want any one culture to claim me.

The question I always ask when someone wants more “representation” is, “what does it mean to you to be a black musician or white musician?” I get a variety of answers mostly having to do with old hymns sung soulfully or vineyard style. Well, that’s great and I love it, but c’mon, let’s get down to the real essence and discover how to bring that to EVERYthing we do. It’s not so much about a genre of music as it is an expression of that genre communicated throughout the worshipers. I’m about to begin a teaching to help them understand these principles. I want them to merge together and create their own “culture” of musical expression based on their unique personalities. It’s both a celebration of individuality and what that looks like in community.

I guess what I don’t want is us to get stuck on trying to please the blacks, please the whites type thinking. I think that drives wedges and serves to point out differences rather than explore similarities. Does that make sense? Can it be done?

Anyway, I just wanted to run that by you and get your opinion before I start getting too deep teaching this principle. They all agree so far, but most of them are still modernists in their thinking. I’m not sure they grasp the complexity and simplicity of what I’m trying to do.

To which I replied:

of all the church jobs out there, the one i am least jealous of is that of worship leader. at this church, the worship leader is caught in the eternal “you need more traditional music”/”you need more contemporary music” complaint cycle. no thanks. and when folks would try to draw me into the argument/complaint session, i’d say that we need more gospel music. which usually shut them up. we’re ostensibly planting from a large modern institution, firmly entrenched in their ways. recently, they’ve been talking about wanting to be more diverse. i have three thoughts that i’ve been trying to tell them:

1) you need to do more than just stick out a sign that says “Negroes welcome.” a multi-racial church needs to be reflected in its staff, leadership, and visible portions of the church. (though don’t get me wrong, talking about it is the first and an important step. heck, it took them 15 years to get to that point).
2) you have to do something about your music to reflect some attempt at blending since many black folks have to overcome the “sell out” guilt feeling that comes when we feel we have abandoned the black church. more “black”/gospel music goes a long way to assuage that guilt.
3) you guys are in the whitest county in indiana. where is this diversity supposed to come from? either move or get over the “guilt” that you’re feeling (and don’t get any crazy notions about busing).

i love your approach, and that’s the way that diversity and worship should be done. our music right now is one white guy and a guitar. we however are planting in an extremely diverse area. we are counting on the fact that as we grow, we’ll take one a naturally blended service style.

we’ve also set out to short-circuit any “worship” arguments. (it helps when the head pastor, worship pastor, and leadership team are on the same page and can keep hammering the points home). trying to please “the blacks” and “the whites” is like trying to please the “hymns” and the “choruses” crowds. it’s a no win. for one thing, it buys into the mentality that there are only two races. we have a hispanic community that we’re trying to minister to also.

but i don’t think that telling people to get out of their comfort zones is bad. the way we’ve done it is to let people know in advance, we’re planting in a diverse area. learn to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. the whole “come together” mentality tends to tacitly admit that as soon as we’re done we’re going to split up again. that doesn’t sound like the best way to be one body.

peace, maurice