Many congregations have gone through the issue of traditional hymnody and contemporary worship when it comes to the issue of what music style(s) should be employed during the regular gathering of the church. Some prefer Psalms only, others hymns only, others contemporary only, and still more blend the ancient and the modern.
One issue I’ve not seen come to light much is the question of which cultural styles to employ during the weekly church gathering. Granted, there are certain cultural elements to hymns and contemporary styles that tend to fall on the lines of age and prior church experience, but matters of ethnic style are not usually discussed, owing in large part to the commonality of monochromatic church gatherings (i.e. churches that are almost exclusively of one race or ethnic group).
In many circumstances, this is merely a reflection of the racial and ethnic makeup in the church’s surrounding environment. I grew up in a small town that was upwards of 90% Caucasian, meaning that there was not likely going to be a large number of African American, Hispanic, Chinese, or Korean cultures present. However, where I live now in Indianapolis, Indiana, there are a plethora of races and ethnicities present, yet churches tend towards homogenous groups.
There are white churches, black churches, Korean-language churches, Spanish-language churches, and probably many more that I’ve not yet experienced. When attending one of these churches, there may be a question over whether you will hear hymns or modern songs, but for the most part, you expect certain music styles to be present in black churches that are not present in white churches, and vice versa. However, many churches, particularly white churches, do not consider themselves to be a “white” or “black” or otherwise church. We tend to be blind to our own cultural distinctives, particularly those of our worship styles.
There is a danger in seeing music as either rising above cultural distinctives or somehow adequately representing various cultural groups. Chris Tomlin’s “How Great is Our God” may be sung in many languages and cultures, but we should not assume that by singing his songs we have a multi-cultural worship style. It is more likely that this song comes from the dominant, majority culture and has been adopted by minority cultures, not because it fully embodies those cultures, but because it is considered acceptable by those cultures. Being self-aware that is the first step towards becoming more inclusive.
Of course, the first question people ask is, How far should we go towards inclusivity? That’s a difficult question to answer. It’s going to take prayer, careful thought, and good exercise of discernment. In a community that is 90% white, I wouldn’t expect much use of minority culture music styles, although I still believe that it is good to expose people to other cultural expressions. However, a church that is 90% white in a community that has sizeable and diverse ethnic groups, should employ various music styles, not merely as an attractional tool, but as an effort to reflect the community in which the church is located and hopes to represent among its membership.
This is a challenge. Certainly songs like “How Great is our God” appeal to people across ethnic and cultural lines, yet it still originates in the majority culture. People of the majority culture should not be so ethnocentric as to suppose that only music from the majority culture is suitable for church gatherings. Minority groups produce music distinctive of their culture that gives God glory. As long as the lyrics are sound and the song is learnable by the congregation, majority culture churches should be willing and even desirous to include songs from outside the majority culture to reflect the true diversity of the church.
If the New Testament’s treatment of Jewish-Gentile relations is any indication, pursuing diversity within our churches will not be easy. As a matter of fact, it will be fraught with misunderstandings, criticisms, complaints, and opposition. But it can succeed because our unity is not founded on a cultural identity or ethnic heritage. Our unity is based solely on our reconciliation with God through Christ (see Ephesians 2:11-22).