Worship Across the Racial Divide: Religious Music and the Multiracial Congregation A response by three practitioners.

I believe it is important for worship leaders to think deeply about theology, leadership, vision, sociology, and as a result, I am grateful for several things about Dr. Marti’s work. First, he clearly states and reiterates frequently “music is never simply acoustic.” Because of his expertise in sociology, Marti thoroughly highlights the sociological aspects involved in corporate musical worship. These are important for us as worship leaders to consider. I believe wholeheartedly that the interaction between worship team members is more important than the music itself. Secondly, Marti clearly states that no one knows “what manner of worship is best for stimulating and accelerating racial and ethnic diversity in churches.” Absolutely. There is no one-size-fits-all method or approach to multicultural worship. Each congregation and combination of cultures is unique. Thirdly, Marti also makes a great point that music does not affect everyone from a specific race or culture in the same way. In my work to help churches transition from monocultural to multicultural as it relates to worship, I encourage a relational and dialogical approach. For example, recently, as I facilitated a dialogue among the members of a “Worship Renewal” team of a small congregation, it was totally surprising to a white member of the team that one of the black participants did not like gospel music, but preferred CCM. It is important that we not generalize, though it is extremely difficult, maybe even impossible to avoid completely.

On that note…I have been encouraged to think about myself and where I fall in Marti’s quadrants of “Philosophies of Music Guiding Music Selection” (Table 6.1). I found this to be quite frustrating. It was easy for me to recognize myself as someone with High Racial Awareness and High Musical Variety. Last week, I led worship at a Sudanese church, completely in Arabic. The week before that I led in English, Spanish, Creole, Swahili, French, Yoruba, and American Sign Language. I have a classical music degree. I am bi-cultural myself as a former missionary kid. I interact daily with people from different cultures than my own, and have frequent discussions on culture and its effects on individuals and society. So, according to Marti’s table, I am a “Pluralist.” However, I do not adopt musical styles based on my “notions of race” as Marti asserts. I adopt them based on friendship, relationship, dialogue, and sharing. As I meet believers from other cultures, I ask them to share songs with me that they find particularly worshipful. I ask them why they connect with these songs. And, I learn their songs and they become a part of who I am. Marti states, “Pluralists firmly believe every racial-ethnic group has a style of music best suited to them.” I disagree. I wholeheartedly believe that every individual has a style (or more than one!) of music that I would call their “heart music”…this stirs them on an emotional level. I believe you can develop new “heart music” and that this is not something that has to be (or even should be) static throughout one’s life. I am a living example of this. Right now, if I were to choose a musical style that expresses my heart to the Lord, it would be a toss up between Black Gospel and Christian “bhajans” (devotional songs) in Hindi. You can’t tell by looking at someone what kind of music will connect with their heart. This is one reason that relationship, dialogue, and cross-cultural collaboration are vital to inform and inspire corporate multicultural worship expression. And on that note, let’s dialogue!

Josh Davis is the founder of PROSKUNEO MINISTRIES, INC.,  a non-denominational, international ministry that exists for the purpose of bringing the nations together in worship.



As a worship leader, I was encouraged to see that someone had written a book within the last year or two that centered primarily around the topic of multicultural worship music.  Worship Across the Racial Divide is a thoughtful and well-researched resource and I could see this book becoming a valuable resource for college and university programs that offer degree programs in Worship Music Ministry.  The book gives a wonderful history of worship music in the church and addresses the importance of music in different cultures.  I particularly enjoyed reading the chapter entitled African Americans as the Icon of “True Worship”.

At Bridgeway Community Church, our worship and music decisions have been made based on what the book might refer to as “fusion”.  Our church has held the value high of “having church” together and finding a way to craft a worship service that incorporates various forms of cultural expression.  Weekly worship services at Bridgeway incorporate stylistic diversity, genre diversity, language diversity (including ASL), as well as instrumental diversity.  We have found that blending these elements together allows us the opportunity to leverage culture.  The congregation is able to hear songs and scriptures in their native languages as well as learn the languages and songs of other ethnicities that exist within our church.  Worship from week-to-week is a lovely array of different musical expressions.  While some arguments of blended worship have presumed that blending cultural elements in one service may lead to a watered-down version of a cultural experience, that has not been our experience at Bridgeway.  Over the years, we have seen the worship IQ of our congregation rise and we are watching them even consider one another’s worship preferences over their own.

I appreciate the time investment and careful research with which Dr. Marti has given the subject of multicultural ministry.  And while I believe that leaders of multicultural music ministries would still benefit from a resource written by a day-to-day practitioner of multicultural ministry, I could not agree more with his conclusions at the end of this book:  As I continued to pursue my research, I came to understand that it is not the acoustics of musical style but rather the visible presence of diversity—a racialized ritual inclusion—that stimulates integration of different racial and ethnic groups into their churches [pg. 198].  It is about people.  People coming together from different cultures and ethnic groups, setting their personal preferences aside and worshipping our Lord, Jesus Christ who has made us one.

Nikki Lerner is the Director of Worship at Bridgeway Community Church in Columbia, MD and contributor to Multicultural Ministry Handbook:  Connecting Creatively to a Diverse World (IVP)




Hi, I’m Jeff.

(Hi Jeff!)

I’m a pluralist . . .

(We love you, Jeff!)

. . . addicted, well, “consumed with preparing and cultivating musical variety on the basis of appealing to different racial and ethnic groups” (p. 132).

It all started 5 years ago when the mono-ethnic church I was serving charted a new course of ministry toward becoming a “Christ centered community for all people.” A fresh understanding and application of the Gospel coupled with a desire to remain vital in our formerly-white-now-multi-ethnic community, led our church leadership to re-vision our ministry from a suburban past to an urban future.

As the Worship Pastor, I was charged with answering the questions: What does worship in a multi-ethnic church look like and sound like? What steps need to be taken to help in transforming a white congregation to a diverse one? How can the “face” of the church (our worship celebrations) help fuel and realize the vision?

Without reading the book or attending the conference, I assumed (some would say blindly!) that including different musical and spoken languages, re-shaping our rather typical music ministry structures, and being intentional about diversity on the platform were practical ways to begin answering those questions. The result of that assumption has been to ask myself in worship planning, “What is the multi-ethnic element (or elements) in our gathering this week?”  It may be a person of color involved in some aspect of leading; it may be including a song with some “neck” (as my friend, Nikki, says); it may be someone praying in a different language; it may mean passing on teaching the congregation the latest Crowder tune in favor of learning a song in Arabic.

Dr. Marti’s research, however, concludes that this pluralistic approach to multi-ethnic worship isn’t necessary, at best, and disingenuous, at worst. “Any approach to music selection can work, and leaders do not need to be racially or ethnically conscious in their musical selections in order to create services where people of all ancestral backgrounds can truly worship” (p. 149). And, speaking of whites attempting racial musical styles: “Such music is fake, and rather than bringing in diverse people will fail due to its lack of substantive connection to the real lives of people” (p. 131). Honestly, I argued with Dr. Marti most of the way through the book but was beginning to feel an openness to his perspective due to the thoroughness of his research (and who am I to argue with an esteemed professor!).

Then I had coffee with Jersin. He is a 28-year old from Cameroon. He recently started attending our church and because I was in the thick of sifting through this material, I asked him about the impact of the different cultural elements in our gatherings. “The second week I came you sang a song in Spanish. Even though that’s not my language, I realized that as a church you welcomed people from different cultures. Then in November, when you sang a song in Yoruba, it really connected with my heart.”

I realize Jersin’s response is anecdotal. But it’s real and it’s happening in my church.

Jeff McCourt, Pastor of Worship Music and Celebration Arts – New Hope Church in New Hope, MN






  • Twitter
  • Technorati
  • Facebook
  • email
Tagged as: , , , ,


  • Gerardo Marti

    Thanks very much to Josh, Nikki, and Jeff for taking time to carefully read my newest book Worship across the Racial Divide. I very much appreciate your thoughtful comments.

    Josh summarizes several key points in the book, and I am glad that he sees value in my approach to seeing music as more than simply acoustics. The book gives a lot of detail on this approach to “music as practice,” and as far as I know it is the first book to do this using recent theories of social behavior. Also, I can see how Josh was frustrated in trying to map himself onto Table 6.1 (on page 132) as to whether he was more Professionalist, Traditionalist, Assimilationist, or Pluralist. Chapter 6 of the book is the first time anyone has ever tried to capture the variety of approaches to music selection in multiracial worship. I felt it was important to reveal the scope of philosophies that exist among worship leaders in successfully diverse churches because so many people assume they all have only ONE approach. When I read Josh’s remarks, I hear an exceptional level of sophistication when it comes to the intersection of music and culture. Unfortunately, the great majority of music directors and worship pastors lack such sophistication and are stuck working only with stereotypes and presumptions. Diversity often dissolves into the pursuit of the exotic, rather than a relationally based exchange of things that are special, personal, and treasured. Even more, your emphasis, Josh, on relationships seems so right. In my interviews, an emphasis on relationships was not reflected in how leaders come to choose music, but relationships are very much the focus of every church leader I spoke who are constantly trying to find ways to connect in real and authentic ways to people in their congregation. Real, caring relationships are central to building a church community (and, shouldn’t it be?). That’s why I write so much about how cross-racial relationships are built through worship and liturgy in Chapters 7 and 8.

    Nikki highlights the main conclusion of the book that multiracial worship in the end is about conspicuous diversity from the platform, and this is a key means for individuals to build relationships with each other. With the focus on community, the pursuit of diversity becomes a pursuit of people coming alongside each other in the ministries of a church and working toward shared goals. What I note in Worship across the Racial Divide is how successfully diverse churches are continually recruiting for difference, consciously looking for people who would add more to the conspicuous diversity of the congregation. I’m very glad you liked Chapter 3 on “African Americas as the Icon of True Worship” — I worked a long time just on that chapter. Chap 3 is important because it gives extensive history and background on the black experience of worship. The danger that becomes evident is we as Americans hold images of the way “black people” worship that we can box individuals (even those who are not Christians or who grew up in the church) into expectations of how they are supposed to worship. Over and over again, I found that churches tend to exaggerate racial and ethnic differences in public worship, and this is especially noticeable when distinct styles of worship encouraged “up front” on the platform are discouraged when they occur “in the pew.” Such opportunistic highlighting of “diversity” seems wrong to me and indicate that the values of diversity have gone awry. Yet, what Nikki clearly stresses here is a value for relationships among believers who come together in worship. The best form of interracial community comes when we can appreciate differences without necessarily demanding them as performances from others, and I sense Nikki and her church have their hearts in the right place on this.

    Jeff, I really appreciate your active dialogue with the book. The best research is an ongoing conversation, and I hope you know that people like me are dependent on learning from the experiences of leaders like yourself who have worked so long and so hard through these issues. Many church leaders share your convictions, and you can see evidence of that in how I devoted many more pages of Worship across the Racial Divide to describing Pluralists like yourself than the other three orientations combined. So, my discussion on Pluralists is not to discount this approach, but to begin a dialogue on the assumptions that are embedded within this approach. Also, by placing Pluralists alongside Professionalists, Traditionalists, and Assimilationists, I wanted the book to stress that successfully diverse churches bring varied approaches to liturgy and musical style. Clearly, the sentence you quote — “Such music is fake, and rather than bringing in diverse people will fail due to its lack of substantive connection to the real lives of people” (p. 131) — is not my opinion, but rather summarizes the view of David, a worship leader who draws from many years of his own experiences in three different churches and sees the propping up of diverse people as shallow and inauthentic (p. 130-131). David told me, “I love cultural diversity,” but he also said, “I”ve learned to hate manufacturing it, and I just hate how it comes across.” This is not your experience, but it is his. He leads differently, rejecting the Pluralist approach, and has found something that works for him and his current congregation. Finally, your story about Jersin is a great one and points out a key theme in this new book. There are people in our churches who may not share specific languages or musical styles presented in the church, but they can recognize and appreciate the value for diversity and inclusion. The value for diversity can come up in several ways (like seeing visual diversity, hearing different languages, feeling various rhythms, etc.), and these moments can deeply touch the growing number of people who value diversity and inclusion and who are willing to give themselves to the mission of a church who push those forward.

    Thanks again for taking time to reflect on the findings of this book, and thanks to Art Lucero for organizing this forum. The conversation is only beginning…

  • Sheryl Marshall

    Thanks to this review by three of my friends ~ I think I have another book to pick up… :)

  • [...] the successful racial diversification of churches. Of course, not everyone agrees with this, and reactions to this newly research are only just beginning to appear. Here I will stress that it is important to approach the notion [...]

  • [...] can also read three responses from practitioners by visiting the Unity in Christ Magazine web-site here. Share this:FacebookTwitterEmailPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. [...]

Add Your Comment