Song Selection At Multiethnic Churches

By Jonathan Solomon

            Until January 2018, the only church cultures that I knew were the Church Of God In Christ and the United Holy Churches of America Inc. I believed that worship had everything to do with how you physically respond to the lyrics, the Bible, and the testimonies of your brothers and sisters. We danced, sang, shouted, and some even ran around the church. If someone stood up and said, “I thank God that after being lost in darkness, he saved me,” there was a certain response that was expected. We took Psalm 145:21 very seriously when it states, “My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever.” 

            This was my church culture while I was being theologically developed, so I thought that this was how you are always supposed to respond to God in corporate worship – and sometimes even when not in corporate worship. The music I sang and listened to, the sermons I heard, and the family of believers around me all affirmed that.

            In early 2018 when I got to my current SBC church, I had to examine the way I processed worship because it was so different from the black Pentecostal churches I had been part of. A few people would have blended right in with my old context, but most wouldn’t have. At this new church, the members were truly devoted to Jesus, but many of them would stand during worship with a blank look. Some of them might have lifted their hands if the song was good. But that was about it for the most part. I was learning that their worship could look different and yet be honoring to God.

            Their worship was and is a devoted and sacrificial life to God. Running and dancing without the devotion and sacrificial living is running and dancing to idols. I had to realize that my standard for worship was my preference for worship. True worship comes from a life devoted to God. And even my preference came from the culture I was groomed in where it was about the theology but also the feelings, emotions, and focus of the songs. My church family has helped me immensely in analyzing these preferences across cultures while keeping sound doctrine at the forefront.

            And that’s helping answer a big question I’ve faced as the worship leader at King’s Cross Church. How do we do multicultural worship?

Standards for Songs

There are an incredible amount of songs written across cultures that will help your church worship while still sounding and feeling like the culture that the song came from. Here are the standards by which we measure songs at King’s Cross:

1) Are the lyrics Biblically true?

“…but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs…” Ephesians 5:18b-19a

            Paul tells the Ephesians to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” instead of being drunk with wine. The Greek word used here translates to pious songs to the Lord (which include the literal Psalms), sacred songs in praise of God (hymns), and songs that exhibit the character and effects ofthe Holy Spirit (spiritual songs). It is impossible to sing these types of songs as scripture commands if the lyrics aren’t true. Paul uses this as a way for the brothers and sisters of Ephesus to grow in love; so shouldn’t we grow in love through singing what is undeniably true about God? This can’t be stressed enough. It seems that there has been a rampant decline across ALL cultures in checking if lyrics are true and helpful for a congregational context.  Songs never even make it to the elders if they are untrue at my current church. If a song contains certain cultural phrases or ideas that you’ve never processed, then that can be discussed/debated later. This step is only for songs that come off as potentially heretical.

Song suggestions: “The River Of The Lord” – Tasha Cobbs; “Our God Reigns” – Israel Houghton; “Nobody Like You Lord” – Maranda Curtis; “Bless The Lord (Son Of Man)” – Tye Tribbett; “Great Is The Lord” – Jonathan McReynolds; “Light The Way” – Phil Thompson; “King Of Glory” – Todd Dulaney; “In The Name Of Jesus” – Unknown

2) Does it mention the cross and/or Jesus and/or make these themes fairly central?  

“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” 1 Corinthians 2:1-2

            The church of Corinth was ratchet. Paul attacks the elevation of arrogant knowledge and empty intellect because it was ruling the culture of their church. He reminds them that the message that saved them and opened their eyes was the simple gospel of Christ and Christ crucified. Similarly, there are many things that rule our American culture but find their root in feelings as opposed to truth. This standard of cross-centeredness directly combats the elevation of feelings in our culture like Paul’s words did for the Corinthians. If we use the standard of this text, then the truth of Christ crucified will shape our feelings. At King’s Cross this is the lens that we look at every song through.  Our philosophy pertaining to liturgy is very Christo-centric.  We have plenty of songs that we sing that are not explicitly centered on Christ, but they are generally the exception and not the rule.

Song suggestions: “Love Never Fails” – William Murphy; “A Reason To Dance” – ANWA Atlanta; “Jesus Saves” – Tasha Cobbs; “Hosanna” – Meaghan Williams McNeal; “Victory Chant (Hail Jesus)” – Donnie McClurkin; “Victory Belongs To Jesus” – Todd Dulaney; “Glory To His Name” – Kevin Terry & Predestined; “You Are The Living Word” – Fred Hammond; “God Is Good” – Jonathan McReynolds; “No Greater Love – GMWA; “Hebrews 4:9 (Detroit Mix)” – Donald Lawrence

3) Does it directly quote scripture?

I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Psalm 119:11

            We love singing songs at my church from different cultures that quote certain texts verbatim. It teaches and reinforces deep truths that the congregation can collectively hear and feel together. And as members go about their week, they can easily remember the scripture that we sing.

Song suggestions: “The Lord’s Prayer” – Phil Thompson; “*Psalm 23” – People & Songs; “Your Spirit” – Tasha Cobbs; “Everlasting God” – William Murphy; “Isaiah Song” – ANWA Atlanta; “They That Wait” – Fred Hammond; “Psalm 117″ – Earl Bynum; “I Will Bless The Lord” – Andre Crouch

            Sometimes we choose to take a break from singing the songs of a popular artist if their theology is ridiculously off. When evaluating whether or not to sing songs from these artists, we ask: Do the presuppositions of their theology inform the song more than you’d like? Are they so popular that it’d be wise not to sing them so it doesn’t seem like you may support their theology? If you decided to stop singing someone, how far is too far? What is the cutoff that makes something acceptable?

Tips for Incorporating Multicultural Songs

There is no sure-fire formula for choosing songs for a multicultural context, but here are a few things my church has found helpful.

1) Listen to songs from the culture that you would like to incorporate

You can’t analyze something that you don’t even know. My song suggestions list some artists from my particular cultural context, but they’re only a small piece of the cultural pie. Ask saints from a different cultural context what they are listening to and listen to it.

2) Visit worship services that are culturally different than yours

Confession: I didn’t care for the Together For The Gospel recordings until I went to the conference myself. This past week I was holding back tears while listening to T4G’s recording of “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul” because I understand now!  There are some songs and expressions that don’t register until you hear someone explain why they are worshipful!  You may not move, but during this song, Fred Hammond and Todd Dulaney will explain to you why you should! You may hate somber worship, but Bob Kauflin and Matt Merker will show you why it’s needed!  You may not care to clap, but Jonathan Solomon and his family at King’s Cross will let you know why this song is right for it! In the words of many people on Twitter, “That culture hits different when you’re in it.”  And these cultures may even show you how to do songs that you already know with a different sound to them.

3) Introduce songs well

Being multicultural makes introductions to songs even more vital than they already were!  You have to let some people know that the song may feel awkward to them while explaining the Biblical truths that it expounds upon. My band is about to introduce a song called, “A Reason To Dance” and I will need ALL of the time that is provided to me to make clear why we do truly have a reason to rejoice with our movements!  

4) Lean in on old hymns

I’ve not seen a doctrinally sound context yet that doesn’t use hymns. Different cultures sing these songs you already know with different instrumentation. Go find old hymnals from everywhere and let freedom ring, yo.

5) Don’t feel the need to do something that you can’t do well

Don’t force the issue if you don’t have the ability to do some music from a particular culture. Genuinely pray and seek ways to do these songs well. Some churches do this by using multi-tracks; others do it by changing the arrangements of what that they already do. God will provide grace while you pray that he sends people who can play and sing these songs well.

6) Don’t be discouraged when it feels like you’re accomplishing little

No culture is a monolith. If you sing “How Great Is Our God” in Korean and your Korean members say that they don’t care for that song, KEEP LABORING. If they love you as they should, they will appreciate that you tried, and you will be better knowing that they all don’t like the same things. I’m black and I love some stuff that some other black brothers at my church don’t love. Instead of being discouraged by this, I’m excited because it displays the unique way in which God made us. We share experiences, and yet we don’t like all of the same things. God is crazy awesome, yo! He’ll start and complete the work! You may find in your context that Hillsong and Sovereign Grace work every week for everybody. If that is the case then go for it. And call me over there to sing “Cornerstone” and “Show Us Christ” in the key of Bb major.

            If you are loving members from a different culture and preaching the word faithfully at your church, and they leave solely because of their musical preference, this is no fault of your own. Shepherd them well in finding a church that is preaching the gospel and continue on in trying to be faithful. 

            It isn’t easy to attempt anything multicultural, but it is worth it. I’m praying for you, and I’m praying for us. And if you have tips for me that have worked for you please hit me up.

I’m sure many will ask why they should even step out of their comfort zone to do multicultural worship.  I’d answer back to them that it is another avenue for all cultures present in your church to know that God sees them, you see them, and he planted sound worship everywhere.  We will worship uniquely and together in heaven, so it is worth it to practice here on Earth.

Jonathan Solomon

Jonathan is the worship leader at King’s Cross, a multi-ethnic church plant in Greensboro, NC. He is currently working towards his M.Div at SEBTS and previously graduated with a degree in Computer Science from NC A&T. Follow him on Twitter: @jsmeetsworld.