The Graveyard of Multi-ethnic Worship

I once heard Pastor Kenny Kaufman say, "Lord save me from my preferences!" This article by Isaac Adams (@isickadams) of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. nicely unpacks the Godly wisdom of that short prayer.  Read it. Pray about it. Live it this Sunday when the singing starts.  This article was originally published at Doxology and Theology-- Kevin

"It’s Sunday night, and I see Pearl. She has loved Jesus twice as long as I’ve been alive. Donning her silver hair she, faithful as always, has arrived at church yet again. She’s wearing her classic velvet jumpsuit – burgundy. Her sneakers, puffy and white, look soft – like clouds. Their Velcro straps are sealed. She is old. She is white. And she is here to praise God, to spur on saints. Despite recent hip surgery, she stands, singing the same hymn as me – a 24-year-old black man.

Ed is Filipino, and he’s pretty well off financially. He’s voiced a number of times how he wishes our church’s music were more upbeat. But he stands, singing with gusto the same hymn as Pearl and me.

I look across the room and see Dave. He was locked up a few years ago. He still struggles to land a job given his record. He’s used to resounding organs from the Catholic church he grew up in. But he stands, singing the same hymns as the rest of the church.

Luther once said,  “After the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.”[1] Yet it often seems this secondary treasure causes some of the greatest division in churches – especially those comprised of multiple ethnicities. After all, a myriad of cultures and ethnicities guarantees a myriad of preferences that, frankly, people don’t want to give up.

I think that’s why people struggle with multi-ethnic worship.[2] It’s not the music. It’s that most of us expect our preferences, which morph into our comforts, which mutate into our idols. We often wrongly conflate these preferences with our encounters with God. Vaughan Roberts diagnoses this problem well in his book True Worship:

“If I identify an experience with a genuine encounter with God, and only a certain kind of music gives me that experience, then it will be very important to me that that kind of music is played regularly in my church…That will cause no problems if everyone shares my tastes. But if others feel they need different kinds of music, there is bound to be trouble…Those with other preferences are dismissed as unspiritual old fuddy-duddies, or mindless, frothy youngsters.”[3]

But this is why churches must understand multi-ethnic worship. It pushes us sinners to (1) display our unity in Christ, (2) better select music in love for others, and (3) die to ourselves.

1. MANY ETHNICITIES, ONE PEOPLE

A church’s unity radiates when all its members lay down their preferences to submit to one Christ-exalting preference. And this submission is painful. But we have a supernatural bond that sustains us through these pains – the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In 2 Cor. 3:18, Paul promises Christians that they are being transformed into Lord’s glorious image. Paul uses a plural pronoun, ‘we’, for those being transformed. Understand from this that though God transforms individuals, his is ultimately a corporate transformation; it’s redemption of a new people, not just a new person. Though Pearl, Edward, Dave and I come from different ethnicities, ours is a sure, blood-bought uniting identity.

Multi-ethnic worship inherently testifies to this truth. When people from different ethnicities gather to praise God, they make known to the world God’s power to reconcile all people.

Sure, I can gather with thousands of people from different ethnicities at Justin Timberlake’s concert. Yet most people there will likely be close to my age. But this past Sunday, I sat between two women who, when they were my age, lived in a culture that viewed black people as subhuman. Sitting between Marta and Marlene said something.

It said that no one ethnicity perfectly depicts God’s mercy and justice. That’s why Revelation 7 features all of them crowding the throne to praise the Lamb in unison. At that moment, the last thing on anyone’s mind will be “man, this is great, but this song is so old!” No, Christ will be all – to all.

But your church may not look like Revelation 7. That’s OK. Nobody’s does. That’s why churches on earth are the dress rehearsal, not the main event.

2. SO WHAT SONGS DO WE PICK FOR OUR LOCAL DRESS REHERSAL?

This is a question of freedom, stewardship, and love. It’s a question of freedom because this is an area where Christians may disagree.

It’s a question of stewardship because every church context looks different. Realistically, a large suburban white congregation will likely have musicians who lead in a certain style and people who sing in a certain style. This is true of African-American churches, Korean churches, etc. And this is fine as long as church members recognize that no church is perfectly multi-ethnic. So we must steward the musicians and context we’ve been given.

In others words, church, be yourself. Churches in homogenous communities, please, minister among your community and serve those whom the Lord brings to you.  Churches in multi-ethnic communities – you may have the freedom to come up with a creative blend that serves your people.

So, which songs? Well, probably the ones your church already uses. But one important thing to determine in all songs is this – does this song exalt more man’s preference or God’s glory?

The latter, in any situation, is going to require the congregation to die to itself. And it should not do so for the sake of reaching new audiences, but for the sake of loving those who are different. This is the question of love – the duty of love – that multi-ethnic worship charges us with.

3. THERE WILL BE BLOOD

Multi-ethnic worship forces us to deal with preferences that differ from our own. It is the graveyard where churches can bury individualism and group privilege.

One might think a logical remedy for group privilege would be to feature different styles of music every Sunday. That would appease everyone, right? But this turns worship into chaos that no one can adjust to. It makes more of the form of our praise than its rightful content – crowning the Lord of Lords.

His humble, others-before-me disposition is what Paul said should characterize our churches: “do nothing from selfish ambition…but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”[4] This mindset characterized our Lord unto his death; it should characterize his peoples’ worship unto theirs – whatever their ethnicity is."

 

Isaac Adams (@isickadams) is a spoken word poet and member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

 

[1] Roberts, Vaughan; “True Worship” loc. 1190; Authentic, 2001.

[2] By the term “multi-ethnic worship,” all that I am describing is corporate praise given by a church whose membership is comprised of multiple ethnicities. Many recognize that “worship” means much more than praise. But since these two terms are commonly employed synonymously, I’ll use them as such.

[3] Roberts, Vaughan; “True Worship” loc. 1020; Authentic, 2001.

[4] Philippians 2:3