Why should Christians care about diverse worship?

Why should Christians care about creating diverse worship experiences?

Here at the Urbana conference, the worship has represented a cosmopolitan range of cultures, languages, and worship styles. The worship team also made news earlier this week when they wore #blacklivesmatter shirts on stage. What motivates this focus on diversity? In this session, the worship team offers a biblical basis for diverse worship, some frameworks and values that shape the team’s approach, and some practical ways to bring the worship experience home from Urbana.

From Dec 27 – Jan 1, volunteers with our network of early career Christian academics are liveblogging seminars at the Urbana conference, a mission-focused student gathering of 16,000 Christians from across North America and the world. This post was co-written by Galina Pylypiv and Nina Thomas.

Why should Christians care about creating diverse worship experiences

  • Erna Kim Hackett lives in Portland, Oregon, is on staff with InterVarsity, and is the worship director for Urbana 2015. She is with InterVarsity’s Black Campus Ministries in Portland, Oregon in addition to pursuing a master’ Intercultural Studies at North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies. 
  • Bryce Bachelder (singing, guitar) has been a worship leader for 12 years and attended Gordon College before beginning his staff ministry work with InterVarsity in Burlington, Vermont.
  • Erin O-Neill (vocal, acoustic guitar), part Guatemalan, attended Wilamette University in Salem, Oregon. She currently lives in LA, working as an experienced singer, songwriter, and vocal coach.
  • Ivan Edwards (drummer) completed his undergraduate studies in Charleston, South Carolina before moving to LA for graduate studies. His background includes jazz and classical performance.
  • Jessica Jong (vocal, keyboard) is a Korean Canadian who grew up in Toronto and studied at York University. She currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba and serves with InterVarsity Canada High School Ministry.
  • Jonathan Ulanday (electric guitar) grew up in Libertyville, Illinois and attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York and DePaul University in Chicago. He is a worship leader and freelance musician in Chicago.
  • Joseph Salcedo (bass) grew up in Huntington Beach, California where he began playing bass at age 15. He studied at California State University, Long Beach and the Los Angeles College of Music, after which he began to play professionally in 2011.
  • Kraven Rowry (vocal) calls two cities her hometowns: Gainesville, Florida and Waco, Texas. Kraven has been a worship leader since 1995 and works as a full-time teacher.
  • Meljon M. Salazar (vocal, keyboard) is a Filipino American from Panorama City, California who attended UCLA. He is currently serves as InterVarsity staff at UCLA with Black Campus Ministries and leads worship at his church in Santa Monica.
  • Shedrach Rowry (vocal, keyboard) is from Beaumont, Texas and began to play music at age 8. He attended Austin Graduate School of Theology and served as worship pastor in Austin for 10 years.
  • Steve Schalm (vocal) is from Kitchener, Ontario and is currently on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship of Canada as a campus minister to international students (ISM) at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.

The team opens with a song by Kofi Thompson to open the worship seminar:

All other gods. They are the works of men.
You are the one true God.
You are the most high.
You are the most high God (Jehovah).

from “Jehovah You are the most high God” by Kofi Thompson

Erna introduces the team and asks them to share how multi ethnic worship has had an impact on them:

Bryce shares his experience of growing in his understanding of God’s graciousness in a multiethnic worship setting. God, who is in charge of the universe, allows humans to approach Him in a number of different ways. He loves and is honored by the human approach, and that is grace.

Erin remembers watching dancers at InterVarsity Greek Conference and learning how worship to God can engage the whole body. She takes this experience into multi ethnic worship with her.

Meljon grew up in a predominantly white worship setting with contemporary christian music. Multi ethnic worship keeps him from plateauing in his worship experience and pursuing deeper growth with God. “There is more of God that I can experience through multi ethnic worship.”

Shedrach comes from an African American setting in Austin, Texas. He remembers a vision he had at age 8 while he was at grandma’s house. In the vision, he mimicked a guitar player in the mirror. This vision was one of diverse worship where he was in a room with a diverse crowd and he was standing in front of that crowd with his broom guitar. This shaped his vision for worship.

What values shape the Urbana worship team’s work?

Erna realizes that leading worship is a very difficult job. “Worship leaders are more than song leaders. Take your spiritual authority seriously”, she says. The work of a worship leader helps to take whatever God is doing, deeper. Erna encourages worship leaders to take themselves, what they say, and their musical development seriously. She also adds that the Holy spirit should be an integral part of worship preparation.

“Worship is a community experience.” Erna foreshadows that she will be sharing principles, but encourages the audience to tailor principles to fit their context. “Evaluate what your community needs and adapt these principles to fit your community. Don’t just move people, but explain biblically why they should move.”

Erna shares a value of multi ethnic worship: “As a worship leader, I have a position of power. I want people to feel welcome, but what can I do in my power to help people feel welcome?” Erna has a background in a white and Asian American context, where she longed to include the Blacks and Latinos. She didn’t want to make Blacks and Latinos feel as if they needed to become White or Asian American to feel welcome in her worship setting.

“Multi ethnic worship is an issue of justice and stewarding power,” Erna says. Stewarding power means making others feel more at the center in a worship experience. Sharing each other’s stories is more than sampling other styles, but building relationships with other ethnicities.

Erna asks the crowd to make friends and get to know those around them as she encourages them to formulate questions for the worship team to address.

Questions and Answers:

Why should Christians care about creating diverse worship experiences

How can people make steps forward in multi ethnic worship?

Kraven says that the audience usually wants to enter in but they fear “messing it up” but leaders can invite them to enter in regardless and reassure that it’s ok to not get it perfect.

Erna compares multi ethnic worship to learning another language. It’s difficult to throw it at a person and expect them to do it well at first. She also shares that it’s easier to explain what is happening in a worship song – explaining what are normal customs for the culture background of the song, and engaging the congregation to participate in that style. Breaking down the experience into small pieces and guiding people through it helps to bring a perspective shift.

Shem shares that it can be beneficial to begin with a common contemporary christian song and add a stylistic handle to it such as adding gospel elements to contemporary christian songs. “Take something that is common among styles, and build on it to speak to many cultures.”

How can we engage those who are interested in multi ethnic worship but are not on the worship team?

Steve shares that it is a lifelong process of entering into multi ethnic worship. If people realize that this impacts the lives of others, it can attract people to become more interested and engaged. He encourages us to ask what it means to love the person and what that person brings to the table. That story can be tied into the worship experience.

Erna adds that it’s not just an approach to music, but it’s an expression of community. It’s about learning to play in other styles, which can be a challenge.

Jessica, who is Korean, shares her journey of learning to play gospel style music. She shares her difficulty in learning it’s complex technicality, but the rich history of it encouraged her curiosity. A turning point for her was when the bass player charted out a particular song for her. She then realized that it was simpler than she first imagined it to be. “The language learning metaphor is a good one because I needed someone to translate the complexity of gospel music for me to learn it effectively.”

Erna adds that multiethnic worship also includes changing the approach to rehearsal. She states that “The paradigm shift occurs when we realize that the song of a new style need to be rehearsed for at least 3 hours to go from zero to non-embarrassing.” It doesn’t just magically happen, but needs to be well-rehearsed.

Erna encourages crowd to talk amongst themselves about what they are taking away from the session thus far and to make a new friend in the process. More questions are taken from the crowd in the meantime.

With an international student community, we do songs in different languages. I’m afraid of offending people by style mixing and mispronouncing words.

There is definitely opportunity for tragic moments in this setting, but Erna encourages that fear shouldn’t paralyze.

Jonathan emphasizes that worship is based on relationship. Inviting others into the rehearsal to learn how to do worship better makes them feel served well not only as an audience but as a community.

In light of his ISM experience, Steve shares that there is a lot of “teaching each other” that happens. People do things wrong on many occasions, but the playing field is leveled because cultures outside of our own are difficult to learn. ISM creates a forgiving atmosphere. There is a lot of work that goes into preparation but it also brings great joy in addition to honoring those who engage in the audience during worship.

Erna mentions that the size of the group and the culture of the audience defines the needs that are in the worship setting. She encourages us to utilize and maximize resources to perfect as many elements of a certain style based on the level the team is at.

“I lead worship by myself because that’s all we have.” What can I do to accomodate multi ethnic worship?

Erna’s first response is: “God bless you!”

Kraven shares that performance tracks/ recordings can be helpful (karaoke). It’s also possible to play along with the tracks.

Erna adds that this approach can be good for some people but odd for others. For some, they need to be led into an understanding of what is happening with worship.

Multicultural and multigenerational church worship – How can we appeal to the cross generational gap while keeping multicultural elements?

Bryce shares that his county is mostly white with catholic backgrounds. The approach to cross generational worship is a similar approach to that of multiethnic worship. Bryce shares that even though he has a pentecostal background personally, he developed a love for hymns. He also emphasizes that it’s important to make people feel seen and recognized.

Erna says that people of color tend to feel this way: “Others want us to be in the room but they don’t want to hear our voices.” Leaders are hesitant to allow others to share in leadership or fully express themselves in worship. It’s a difficult question to navigate, especially in a central leadership position. This is one of the reasons that the Urbana worship team took one full year of preparation for the worship experience at Urbana. It takes time to build community and trust to create something beautiful. Many things are cross cultural: rehearsal, time, amount of time per song, etc… Erna encourages the audience to be mindful of these cross cultural elements.

Erna encourages the audience to make one last friend and share one last take-away from this multiethnic worship discussion as she takes a few last questions for the worship team.

What to do when the people on worship team are not entering in or “worshipping”?

Erin shares that she needs to step back from leading worship and let herself learn how to worship and experience God so that she doesn’t get stuck in technical details. The team takes moments for themselves backstage before getting on stage. She also adds that whether a singer is on the mic or not, worshipping is not optional. If a singer is not on the mic, they are on stage and then need to be in the mindset of worship. She shares that some of her best experiences have been during the moments that she is not on the mic, but allows the Lord to minister to her.

Erna shares conflict does arise at times in worship teams. Erna states that “Diverse worship is a new style that people are unfamiliar with, which makes it more difficult to enter in.” as she alludes to an example of singing in Arabic. Erna suggests having some worship songs that she never leads but rather keeps them as “her own” to protect her worship mindset/ posture.

Final words from the worship team:

Steve says “ If you go in community, you will make mistakes and be hurt. Forgive and be forgiven.”

Kraven says “‘Slow and steady’ builds relationships and allows us to win.”

Jessica says “Curiosity. Ask questions and have the courage to be displaced. Make a new friend to be more motivated and graceful.”

Jonathan says “Ask people in your community for singer suggestions in their genre and allow yourself to be influenced by them.”

Erin shares the importance of being a “humble and teachable learner.”

Shem says “Persevere – create reality that you believe in.”

Bryce says “This is advice to white students: Displace yourselves in worship. That awkward you feel in worship is a microcosm of what displaced people feel in every moment of every day. If we don’t displace ourselves, we can’t fully love our neighbor and we can’t fully love God.”

Erna says “Justice – The events that have been happening over the past year show that this year has not been equally painful for people of different races and people have not been oppressed equally. Leaning into that and acknowledging it from a platform of worship is important.”

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Galina Pylypiv

Galina Pylypiv is a senior Biomedical Engineering student and biomechanics undergraduate research assistant at the University of Akron. She is Vice President of the University of Akron Society of Women Engineers and leader of the InterVarsity International Student Ministry small group on her campus. Born in Ukraine and raised as a third culture kid in the US, she is interested in cross-cultural community that brings together the differing perspectives of culture, faith, and science.

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