Worship that Welcomes
Engaging Others to Encounter God
David M. Edwards
In recent years I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in many churches when it comes to the musical portion of our liturgies. Sometimes it is subtle, done out of habit or because of our particular comfort zone, perhaps…nothing intentional. Then there are the times when it is not so subtle but intentional and sadly, divisive. The church-at-large has a treasure trove of well-over one thousand years of music and yet many of our set lists rarely move outside the CCLI Top 25 of the past five years. As worship leaders we say we embrace and applaud creativity, but the read-out of what we are actually doing during our times of worship often denies the veracity of such statements.
Furthermore, what are we teaching our congregations about worship music? If it is always the same thing over and over again; isn’t this unfair to them? We say things like, “we are multi-generational,” “we are racially diverse,” “we are multi-ethnic.” We say, “we are global Christians” (of course what we probably mean is that we sent a mission team to the Caribbean this summer) and the list goes on and on. Yet, our setlists never change.
Here is the point, we need to be intentional about why we do what we do and remember that the goal of our instruction is love. Who could be comfortable in your church? Who would find something in that worship setlist that connects with them in some way? Look at your congregation. What are their ages? Where do they come from? Is it truly diverse ethnically, racially, economically? If so, your liturgy should reflect that. If not, well, perhaps it should still reflect that. Different forms and genres of music can build a bridge to a certain cultures within your city more quickly than any sermon could.
Worship leaders can set the standard in educating congregations in the multitudinous expressions of worship with an intentionality that welcomes people from different walks of life, different parts of town, and different places in this world (at the same time, not forgetting your existing congregation in the process). Psalm 133:1 reminds us, “How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.” Worship can unite us all around the throne of grace where we encounter God’s presence. Our liturgies should cast a wide enough net that all can find a place to say, “Amen.”
I grew up in an “inner city” church, went to school in South Florida, university in Southern California, pastored racially-mixed congregations, and now have the privilege of teaching worship on a vast campus that celebrates a student body from over 80 countries and a staggering 40 percent non-white student community.
My sense is that this is truly where the Church shines: when we dwell in unity, when we come together under the blood-stained banner of the Cross of Jesus Christ, when the world recognizes that we are Christians by our love for one another, where the color of our skin and the various rhythms and styles of our worship music become a rich tapestry of praise unto the one who made us all and breathed his life into us all.
Our setlists and liturgies have the possibility of reflecting these values. It happens when we forfeit our own “preferences” in lieu of:
a) What would please the Lord’s heart?
b) And does this setlist speak to those that are already gathered here and those that we desire to reach?
One of the roles of the worship leader is to educate people through worship music as well we are tasked with creating an overall flow of the liturgy that God can be worshiped in myriad ways, genres, and styles—and not just music.
Breaking that down further, am I weaving hymns in and out of each month’s set lists? Hymns not only connect with older generations, but stand as touchstones of theological truth that cut across denominational, racial, and geographic barriers.
Am I stepping outside our perceived norms in order to incorporate other worship components that will both teach and reach? The sky is the limit here: a violin and flute duet playing a familiar modern praise or worship song, a dance troupe dancing to something that possible isn’t the usual genre of music you would gravitate toward, use a worship choir instead of a band, a special song done in yet another different style, and so forth.
You the Librarian
I can use songs from the 1970s and people will ask invariably, “Is that a new song?” Worship leaders need to educate themselves beyond charts, radio hits, and their own music. Building a worship music library that is vast in its scope and style is important to being able to reach a wide swath of your community.
Let me give you an example. This past Sunday I had 5 songs on my worship set list: two were black gospel, two were what I would call modern worship, and one classic hymn that I mixed into a medley with a chorus of another well-known worship song. Within that setlist, I had the children’s choir join the band and I for the second song and then had the youth worship band do the last song. All in one service. You wouldn’t believe how people responded and loved entering in to the entire experience.
I remember being asked to help an inner city with a predominately white membership with their desire to reach the Black community. The first thing I did was to find some great Black singers and musicians who were open to helping me. When people came in and saw those up on the platform leading in worship reflected the community at large and looked and sounded like them, they “got” the message. They understood that this church was being intentional about wanting to reach the people groups within their own community. You see, its one thing to say it – but talk is cheap isn’t it? You have to DO IT! Show people, and while we’re at it, the devil, that we as the church mean business when it comes to dwelling together in unity.
Perhaps you are in a Latino Church that’s primarily made of people with roots in Ecuador and want to reach those from diverse backgrounds in your community or city. Maybe instead of singing exclusively in Spanish, you incorporate some songs sung in English as well, or both. Actually there are many of Hispanic or Latino heritage that don’t speak Spanish. Some of them have been speaking English for hundreds of years. So that’s another tact, you won’t say or sing something embarrassing from the platform if you familiarize yourself with the history of those in your community, even the ones you think are “Just like me.”
You may be surprised. The culture of Costa Rica is different than that of Guatemala. Don’t lump people together whose names or appearance is similar and assume you know what someone is or what they like; ask them. That kind of authentic interest and care draws people’s attention and also draws their hearts and that is our mission. Find out what those who live in your community respond to. Not stereotyping people musically or ethnically is a really great starting point. And being honest about what you don’t know about people is essential. It’s amazing what you can learn when you start from a position of humility. Let your community teach you its songs, before you start teaching them yours.
We are called to engage people—all peoples—in order that they may encounter the living God. It is the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ—not the United Nations, not the government, not world powers—that are called to love the least, the lost, the lame, and the last of this world. We who have healing in our hands, love in our hearts, and his Word in our mouths, we are the change agents. We are the ministers of reconciliation. Shouldn’t that be a part of our liturgy, our song, our music, our worship?
You and I both know that God doesn’t care if our expressions come in the serenity (or intensity) of a pipe-organ or the thunder of a rock band. What God does care about is the posture of our hearts, and if our hearts are fixed on him, then we will die to personal preferences that inhibit us from reaching the “whosoever wills” of this world. Like a prism takes pure light and refracts that into a rainbow of color, we can take the multi-colored expressions of our praise and worship and in reverse order, it becomes a pure source of praise back to God emanating from grateful hearts. So the beauty of various styles that engage hearts across life’s spectrum ultimately bring glory to the one who loves and created us all.
The rich treasure that comes from all this creativity will be worship that builds a bridge for people of different age groups, ethnicities, and cultures, straight to God’s Presence.At the end of the rainbow, there really is a pot of gold!
David M. Edwards is an award-winning songwriter, author, and speaker.He is the Creative Director of the International Center for Worship at Regent University and his new gospel project from Maranatha! Music / EMI will be released in November. For more information contact: davidmedwards.com