We are a few years removed from the famous “worship wars,” but it is amazing how divisive musical worship preferences still can be. In the Western world, at least, believers can agree with a church in every major doctrinal question, but if the music isn’t right, they feel like they don’t fit and will go elsewhere. Sadly it is probably one of the main reasons people either leave our church for another or come to us from a different one.
That’s because music and culture are intimately connected.
In fact, I think you can look at musical preferences and how we deal with them as a microcosm for a whole set of cultural preferences. It’s often where the “rubber meets the road” in our willingness to engage in multicultural diversity.
Most of us aren’t as flexible as we’d like to think.
Early in my ministry I spoke with a white college student who was exhorting me to better integrate minorities into our church. I agreed with everything this young man said, so I was surprised when he popped up after service one weekend with a complaint.
Apparently, he didn’t like some of the changes we had been making in worship. He wasn’t fond of some of the newer songs we were singing and didn’t appreciate that our worship leader was urging people to clap and raise their hands.
Perhaps this college student was not as eager for multicultural worship as he indicated. Perhaps what he really wanted was multicolored worship, where people of differing colors all worshipped the way he preferred.
Not the same.
I’d be harder on him if I weren’t just like him.
As I mentioned in the last chapter, Vance Pitman says that the sign you are in a multicultural church is that at times you feel uncomfortable. Even if you are the pastor! And in my experience, one of the first areas that discomfort manifests is with the music. If the music in your church never feels uncomfortable to you—well, it does to somebody.
Our problem in this is that we can’t understand why people would not want to express themselves in worship like we would. We assume their reluctance to worship like us is evidence of some innate spiritual flaw.
For instance, some of the more “expressive” people in our church respond with frustration to the less-expressive believers and wonder how they can remain so unemotional in the presence of so great a God. “You will scream like a maniac for the sake of a basketball team,” they argue, “so why wouldn’t you do it for the God of the universe? Does King James (LeBron James) really deserve a more rousing response than King Jesus?”
On the other side, there are those who feel like emotionally charged worship is manipulative, exploiting crowd dynamics and then labeling all that commotion “the Spirit.” Many in our Western context—believers and unbelievers alike—are skeptical of such coerced emotional moments, especially when you label those moments “the Spirit of God.”
So which culture’s concerns are more valid?
As I said before, yes and amen.
Both sides bring truths to the worship conversation that must be heard and heeded.
Is it possible for our worship to be deceitful, contriving emotional moments?
But is it possible for our worship to be stale and lacking an appropriate enthusiasm, an enthusiasm we freely pour out for other, lesser things?
We need to stop thinking about worship in our churches as an “either-or” between two diametrically opposed extremes. Like many areas of ministry, this is a place where we live in tension, balancing the “both-and” of mind and heart, wisdom and passion.
We must study our Bibles, analyze our given contexts, and be open to worshipping together with others who express themselves in different ways than we do.
The gospel calls us to reach more than the people who are just like us.
And that means we have to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable.
And along the way we’ll probably have some blind spots revealed. That’s one of the many beauties of God’s multicultural body. We are more complete together than we are apart.
J. D. Greear, Above All: The Gospel Is the Source of the Church’s Renewal (Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2019).
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