There has been much talk in Adventism recently about unity. There have been hints that “worldly” worship music and “unbiblical worship styles” have been infiltrating our historic worship services. Should our local worship service be the same as the worship service down the street, across the country, and across the globe?
Worship leaders are charged with telling God's story in a local context. Our context is a local body of believers which may or may not include people groups vastly different from ourselves. I serve in a multi-ethnic local church context within a diverse denomination. According to a Pew Research study, the Seventh-day Adventist denomination was ranked as the most diverse religious group in the United States.1 The Florida Hospital Church (FHC) congregation is an excellent representation of our denomination in this regard as there are a host of different people groups represented every week.
My wife and I recently went to supper with some of our friends who are partners in music ministry and who are Black (from the islands). Part of our conversation steered to music in the church; they expressed thanks that we continually tried to reach out to different ethnic groups through variations in musical style while trying to be faithful to that genre and to the gospel. I learned some fascinating things about Black culture from our friends, including that those from the Caribbean Islands may have a very different perspective than those from the African-American South regarding culture and worship. These friends didn't feel a strong inclination to regularly attend an all-Black church, although they weren't opposed to visiting. Their philosophy was much more cosmopolitan regarding having different people groups worship together. We also acknowledged the importance of cultural heritage and a safe place to discuss community issues. I was reminded of how ignorant I often am about other cultures and assumptions that I make.
In Worship Together, Josh Davis acknowledges this sentiment: “Without taking the time to really get to know people, all you are left with is your assumptions about them, based on stereotypes and partial information and previous experiences. This can be dangerous!”2 I have decided to try and engage my congregants more often in conversation regarding culture. As uncomfortable as it may be initially, there have been improvements in understanding. Conversation, biblical/historical/cultural study, and experimentation are all pieces of developing cultural relationships in worship.
The Florida Hospital Church includes a variety of styles in corporate worship, not as a gimmick, but because that is who we are in the body of Christ. The Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture gives us four ways that the gospel and culture interact dynamically:
1. It is trans-cultural, the same substance for everyone everywhere, beyond culture.
2. It is contextual, varying according to the local situation (both nature and culture).
3. It is counter-cultural, challenging what is contrary to the Gospel in a given culture.
4. It is cross-cultural, making possible sharing between different local cultures.3
Substance is an excellent choice of words in the first sentence. When we retain the substance of the gospel in different cultures, we retain the essence but have the flexibility for it to appear differently in form. These four ideas carry a great deal of weight in our gospel approach to cultures. This statement also reminds us that worship is transcultural, “The resurrected Christ whom we worship, and through whom by the power of the Holy Spirit we know the grace of the Triune God, transcends and indeed is beyond all cultures.”4 One of the ways that we realize being transcultural is through different genres of worship music.
Using these different genres, however, requires careful contextualization. Styles need to be thoughtfully considered to ensure they are adequately understood and do not become a hindrance to worship. Careful planning, crafting, and rehearsing can remove obstacles to congregants. Aside from these, it is critical to explain to the congregation what is happening and why. This has taken our worship to a new depth and a greater appreciation. We assess our successes and failures through conversations, surveys, staff meetings, and a worship committee.
Our church music ministry Lifelong Worship took on our first songwriting project this past year in the form of a studio album. The music that we produced is very multicultural — like the congregation. On the recording, we have a wide variety of genres represented: radio-friendly CCM, Americana, bluegrass, bossa nova, a ballad with orchestral strings, blues, acoustic, country, and reggae. We have begun crafting our second album based on the Psalms, and we intend to keep our multicultural feel for this project.
FHC has representation from many of the islands in the Caribbean, hence the reggae track on our album. It is interesting that in the islands some churches will not use steel drums because of the association with carnival. Yet, in our church, they love to hear the pans played for God's glory. Ethno-worship educator Pedrito Reid agrees: "Too often the Euro-American ethos entirely dominates the worship service; in many such cases worship scratches where people are not itching. Too often we are wedded to the rusty old organ that has no appeal to the soul of the islander. How much more alive would the worship experience be if the steel pan and the reggae rhythms in themselves were not seen as sensual, sacrilegious and carnal but as elements that can awaken the spiritual chords of the soul.”5
I am reminded how differently people can worship and yet God can be honored. Worship author Rory Noland said something similar when he pastored in very different worship communities spanning several decades. He noted that God can still be honored in different ways but we have to “know your context, everything is not transferable, be flexible, and foster participatory worship.”6
When we examine the life of Christ, we see his superculture exclusively as the Kingdom of God. His desire is for all to be saved and have knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:3-4). Jesus was consistently challenging the religious thought of the superculture and reaching out to every sub-culture in his view: the little children (Mark 10:13-16), the lepers (Luke 17:11-19), the demon-possessed (Mark 5:1-20), the Centurion (Matthew 8:5-13), and the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42), etc.
As we emulate Christ’s philosophy into our local worship setting, we broaden our horizons to be more inclusive. We are encouraged to avoid an Anglo-centered hegemony — what Brenda Eatman Aghahowa calls “liturgical imperialism” — and to try appreciating and accentuating a broad range of musical subcultures in America.7 The truth is, this effort is so rewarding for the Christ-minded musician, it is like a high-end buffet with the finest and freshest of foods at your disposal. If anything, you can almost be overwhelmed by the choices. God has placed us at such a time as this, not to be stagnant in our approach to supercultures in worship, but to use the very best of the rich traditions of Christendom and apply them in new and creative ways for his glory.
Josh Davis framed it this way, “Unity in diversity is something far more wonderful than unity in similarity.”8 This is a beautiful statement that acknowledges the God who created a diverse world. He goes on to make the analogy of music making through a symphony orchestra. There are a wide array of instruments from the string, brass, woodwind, and percussion families. When they come together, sometimes they play in unison, sometimes in harmony, but they also play in dissonance. The totality can produce a beautiful symphony. The trick is that they must all be under the baton of the master, yielding the impulse to do their own thing, and instead, following the master to create an artistic vision.
We are reminded in Scripture of the great worship services that are to come: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9). Until this time comes, we must carefully examine ways that we can come together as the body of Christ, unified not by tribe, but by mission.
Notes & References:
1. Michael Lipka. “The Most and Least Racially Diverse U.S. Religious Groups.” Pew Research Center. Last modified July 27, 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/27/the-most-and-least-racially-diverse-u-s-religious-groups/
2. Josh Davis, Worship Together in Your Church as in Heaven (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2015), Kindle Locations 618-619.
3. Anne Zaki, “Four Ways Culture & Worship Relate,” Mission Frontiers (Sept/Oct 2014): 17.
4. “Calvin College.” Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture Full Text. Accessed November 5, 2018. https://worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/nairobi-statement-on-worship-and-culture-full-text/
5. Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid, Diverse Worship: African-American, Caribbean and Hispanic Perspectives (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 1459-1461 Kindle Edition.
6. Rory Noland, Liberty University Online, https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_382727_1&content_id=_18492554_1, Accessed 9.14.17.
7. Gerardo Marti. Worship across the Racial Divide: Religious Music and the Multiracial Congregation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 36.
8. Davis, Kindle Locations 459-460.
Richard Hickam is the Minister of Music at the Florida Hospital Church and Director for Arts in Ministry at Adventist Health System in Orlando, FL. He intends to graduate in May 2019 with his doctorate in Worship Studies. Richard is passionate about being an ambassador of reconciliation in God's missional story.
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