Cross-Cultural Music

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Last month I had a lot of conversations about cross-cultural ministry in the Christian community.

I believe that God loves the diversity of the human race. All the shades of skin evidence how we have filled the earth, the cultural mandate in Genesis. We have filled the hot deserts and the cold forests, and our bodies reflect that in our skin, body type, facial features, and hair textures. Our cultural customs and foods  represent what we make of the environment we are in. I love Andy Crouch’s definition of culture as making meaning of the world around us by taking what God declared good and making it very good, explained more here and here.

Unfortunately there are barriers that separate us. Most campus ministry organizations and missions groups are predominantly white. Sunday morning is still one of the most segregated hours in America years and years after Dr. Martin Luther King pointed it out. So even though we are a diverse people and a diverse body of believers in Christ, that is not usually exhibited in our day to day interactions.

An area of cross-cultural ministry that sticks out to me the most is music. What instruments do we use and what songs do we sing to express ourselves and give glory to God? I grew up listening to CeCe Winans, Kirk Franklin, and Fred Hammond. At church we would clap our hands to the upbeat songs and lift our hands to the slow songs. Some people would dance or fall out in the Spirit. We did not place the lyrics on screens because per the call-and-response tradition a worship leader would say what part of the song was coming next. With a lot of repetition it did not take long to learn a song.

When I went to Kenyon College to study, I was struck by how many songs I had to learn to be able to worship with my peers at our weekly Christian fellowship. The songs were by white Christian musicians that I had not heard before. The hymns I did recognize were sung in a tune I did not know. I felt my difference so strongly when every other person in the room could lift their voice and sing but I could not. I wondered if anybody else felt out of place besides me. The same was true at the at Sunday morning church services I tried in the area. My one place to sing where I felt I fit was with the gospel choir and at my desk in my room. Then I could sing the songs I knew so well.

What sticks out to me with cross-cultural ministry is what is taken for granted. Something so simple as music can have such an impact. I have come to love the songs I learned during my time at Kenyon, but I knew that I had to learn those songs because I stepped outside my cultural comfort zone. How many of brothers in sisters in Christ step out of their zone and learn the songs I someone else knows so well? It’s an uncomfortable experience to not know the song or the lyrics, or not understand the tempo. I often wondered why the hymns have to be so slow, especially when I’ve heard a faster version. But while uncomfortable, it is enlightening. We see what the cultural expression of worship that is important to someone else and we may learn a bit more about God through that perspective.

Sometimes I like to imagine a worship time among a group of friends. They each share a song that means a lot to them and explain that meaning. One person’s song is in Spanish, another in Korean, another in Igbo, another in English, and another not sung but played on the piano. It’s a time of storytelling. When someone sings a song we don’t know, we can still hear the passion in it. We see God is big enough to be known and worshiped in different languages and different styles, and that is another reason to worship God.

At Pentecost the Holy Spirit came and the disciples began to speak in other languages they had not learned to speak. The people around them were amazed to hear the mighty works of God told in their native tongue. It was a great revelation then and still is now that Christ came to save us all, even the people very different from us. How we express ourselves and allow others to express themselves in worship is a very important in celebrating that revelation.

In light of all that, here are somethings to ponder:

  • Are we including the music and worship dynamic in talks about cross-cultural ministry?
  • Are we making room for the songs important to each of us to be heard and celebrated?
  • Are we encouraging everyone to take the uncomfortable but enlightening step to hear a song we’re not familiar with but gives glory to God all the same?

It would be awesome if we could incorporate diverse worship in our lives today, or at least experience and appreciate it. Because one day when Jesus returns to restore creation in full we will all worship God together, and”Salvation to the Lamb” will be sung by all nations, races, and languages. It will be glorious.

“I looked again. I saw a huge crowd, too huge to count. Everyone was there—all nations and tribes, all races and languages. And they were standing, dressed in white robes and waving palm branches, standing before the Throne and the Lamb and heartily singing: ‘Salvation to our God on his Throne! Salvation to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10, The Message)