The Lord will make a way somehow
When beneath the cross I bow
He will take away each sorrow
Let him have your burdens now
When the load bears down so heavy
The weight is shown upon my brow,
there’s a sweet relief in knowing
the Lord will make a way somehow.
--Thomas A. Dorsey

So many changes have taken place in worship in just my lifetime. I was born in 1950 and it was in that decade that Billy Graham came to New York for the Madison Square Garden Crusade. How that impacted the local church with its evangelistic style and old time gospel music! More recently there was the Jesus movement of the 1970s, and the era of the mega-church in the new millennium. We see evidence all around us of charismatic worship elements or gigantic campuses of full-service ministry for the family.

Jim Ward TeachingBut another change in the church has been more subtle and more infrastructural. It has been the shift to the suburbs by African American and Latino families, and the return to urban areas by young white families looking to have the benefits of downtown living. Young families are moving into previously monocultural neighborhoods and playing in the park alongside longtime black residents.[1] One result is that churches planted in the 1950s and 60s as traditional white congregations in the suburbs are being faced with a change in the neighborhood around the church much the same as churches in urban residential areas. One church in the small city of Tupelo, MS is an all-white congregation positioned across the street from a middle class black housing development. The pastor invited me to come and talk with him after a luncheon we had there. “I want to have a parish church, uniquely positioned to meet the needs of our immediate community,” he said. “How do I begin to do that in our worship if our neighbors are black?”

In a strategy for reaching another cultural group, white Christians should recognize that within a people or ethnic group, there is still diversity. African Americans are not a monolithic group any more than whites or Latinos have uniform preferences. Often whites make the mistake of thinking that all blacks will prefer gospel music or will have had a lot of shouting experience growing up. Black Christians may be part of a black Baptist tradition, African Methodist Episcopal, or one of several Pentecostal groups. Some blacks are Catholic or Episcopal, and some are actually Presbyterians. The challenge of creating an inclusive worship environment is reflected in the bungling efforts of churches that stereotype.

If the Tupelo congregation was in a Latino neighborhood, the divergent cultures would be even more pronounced; many Indian groups from countries like Guatemala do not even speak Spanish as a first language. Mexicans have certain types of music that they prefer with instrumentation and exaggerated emotion. Cubans, Dominicans, Brazilians, Ecuadorians, and even some from Argentina have made up the stream of Latino attendees at our church in Chattanooga. Although there are certain widely known songwriters and worship leaders who are popular with Latino worshipers, it often comes out that they may not like certain artists or styles, just like white Americans. It is important to ask immigrants or ethnic visitors who are Christians and who have come from worshipping communities to share their music and their tastes as we seek to welcome them and make a heart home for them in our congregations.

This is but one motivation for a cross-cultural worship strategy—to reach a local congregation’s neighborhood. There are other reasons for cross-cultural worship. One is to recognize change in American society and the witness of the church in that society. Nowhere is the testimony of Christ’s followers found more poignant than in the joining together of different races or different classes and cultures. Racism is a universal sin and is found in every nation and culture.

For twenty-five years I was a travelling Christian concert artist, visiting many communities through the US and Canada. Audiences were intrigued by my description of our church and its unique worship. “We really don’t have any black people here,” was the common response. But in the northern provinces of Canada are the Inuit people, an aboriginal group recognized as recently as 1982 who consider the term “Eskimo” pejorative. In Spain and other countries in Europe the Roma are considered social outcasts. With their origin believed to be from India, wherever they arrived in Europe, curiosity was soon followed by hostility and xenophobia. Roma were enslaved for five centuries in Romania until abolition in 1864. Elsewhere in Europe, they were subject to expulsion, abduction of their children, and forced labor.[2] The common term “gypsy” is considered pejorative by the Roma. Ironically, the music so associated with Spain, flamenco, is of Roma origin. This cultural contradiction sounds similar to the strong heritage of black music from America throughout the world, while blacks in America have had so much struggle and discrimination. And in Kenya, the South Asians and the black Kenyans are historically separate. During the colonial period in Kenya, Europeans were at the top of social status with South Asians below. “Although some Asians were able to compete with Europeans in the professions, by far the greatest numbers were retail traders who had shops in small towns, or were artisans, clerks, or bureaucrats on limited salaries. They couldn't compete seriously with Europeans, but in African eyes, Indians always seemed to occupy all the positions to which ambitious Africans with a little education might aspire.”[3] Here is an example of a higher social class being an ethnic minority. Racism and ethnic segregation is everywhere.

These examples of racial prejudice show why a church with an intentional commitment to cross-cultural worship is an excellent example of Christianity in action. Recently, the city of Chattanooga asked our choir to sing at the dedication of a Cherokee monument called the Passage. “We want a diverse group of singers to represent our city’s vision,” I was told. On a separate occasion, a large contemporary church invited our racially mixed choir to sing at a women’s conference. “We would like your choir to process into the room with a typical gospel song. We heard that you all were really ethnically diverse, and that’s what we want our conference to tap into.” Even churches without a cultural commitment to diversity recognize its power to communicate.

A third reason for cross-cultural worship is one that is frequently alluded to by black preachers who visit our church. The guest minister looks out over the assembly and then says, “It is a joy and blessing to be with you all today. As I look out over the church, I think this is the way God wants us to be, together, black and white.” Further one reads in the book of Revelation of a great multitude of believers, gathered around the throne, of every people, race, and tongue crying ‘Holy, holy, holy! Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” Although it is impossible for us to know what that assembly will sound like, the Bible clearly describes unique cultures united as one in worship. For a vast majority of Christians, black, white, Asian and Latino, that will only be realized in the last day. It is simply impractical, except on certain auspicious occasions, for us to be together. There are too many complications and differences. We are only human.

So whether one might see the neighborhood changing, or desire to make a statement to the watching world about reconciliation, or maybe want to be a little more like heaven, cross-cultural worship has some very strong, poignant reasons for being a priority for pastors and worship leaders.


If the church leadership decides that a diverse, or cross-cultural music style is the direction they wish to take, first it must be championed by the pastor. The under shepherd of the flock is called to set the tone for the local church ministry and to lead the charge for evangelism and mission. The congregation looks to him for courage and energy, just as the people of Israel looked to Moses and Joshua for courageous leadership. It is the pastor who can challenge the congregation to step up and choose to submit to one another as different styles of music or worship language are implemented.

Pastors are often plagued with schisms and controversy in the music of the church and some pastors opt for a hands off approach, letting the musicians work out their differences aesthetically and culturally. Some pastors try to establish a strong worship culture based on “contemporary” models that communicate relevance and technological savvy. So called contemporary churches spend large sums of money on sound systems, video support, performance venue worship space, and cool head set mics to attract a certain kind of worshipper on that brief slice of the week from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm depending on how many services, and how early the leadership can get going. This is not only true in the white church; there are black pastors who clean house musically in order to have a strong contemporary gospel sound with louder sound, electronic keyboards, and praise teams replacing the traditional choir.


But, secondly, in addition to the pastor there must be capable musicians to back up a commitment to cross-cultural worship. These musicians must be willing to grow and be stretched. They must be willing to visit other churches, listen to recordings and copy styles, and they must have the musical capacity to decipher the elements in a musical style—rhythm, harmony, melody, timbre, and even the right tempo. In other words, willingness is not enough for music to replicate a cultural focus. Musicians trained in church music are often not trained in improvisation, playing by ear, and transcribing chords and forms from a recording. The best training for this task is in jazz departments. Jazz is the classical music of the African American and Latino communities, and much of the skill to play gospel or salsa is acquired in jazz. Jazz theory is also conducive to cross-cultural church music, since one learns chord voicings, chord alterations, and the matching scales for improvisation, for the blues, and for the variety of urban pop styles—swing, funk, ballads, samba, and fusion.


Thirdly, there is a vocal style of cross-cultural music. Trained singers may have diverse approaches depending on whether they are singing an operatic aria or a popular song. Some trained singers do both very well, and sometimes it is a simple matter of developing articulation for blues, for straighter tone, or for embellishing melodies properly. Untrained singers are usually confident in one or two styles and can ‘belt’ out lead vocals very well if they have a strong accompaniment. .[4] It’s when trained and untrained are put together that grace abounds! One of the blessings of cross-cultural or multi-cultural music is the openness and acceptance of variety that seems to result. But lead vocalists in a praise team or song leaders need to have a more vernacular, improvisational style to capture the congregation’s attention and not its sympathy. Lead vocalists for white praise songs are often simple straight-tone Celtic-style vocalists. Lead vocalists for Latin music are more expressive, almost romantic stylistically. Lead vocalists for African American music are loved the world over for their powerful, soulful delivery. By God’s grace and sovereign provision, singers in a cross-cultural church are equipped to sing the wide variety of music that is needed for unity in the singing body.


Musicians who are asked to lead in cross-cultural ministry must have a special skill set. But fourthly, they must also have a spiritual discernment of the mission of worship as they approach each Sunday and each group of musicians with whom they work. If a musician is hired for musical skill, but does not have spiritual eyes, he or she can become an obstruction rather than a facilitator of cross-cultural worship. A musician acting in the flesh can be prideful of talent, harsh toward amateur participants, and even insubordinate toward the leadership. Cross-cultural worship is also culturally rooted in the church traditions it combines, and if a musician has no roots in a church, he or she will capture the style but not the substance of worship music. If it is necessary to hire musicians, there should always be a spiritually motivated leader, whether it be a singer, an administrator, or pastor who is in charge of the music.

At the center of the commitment to cross- or multi-cultural worship is an understanding of “heart music.” This is an ethnomusicological term and refers to a musical context learned in childhood that most fully expresses one’s emotion. This concept, that has been applied to the study of indigenous music by ministries such as Wycliffe Bible Translators, can be similarly applied to North American worship. And when cultures are coming together, or when a person from a minority culture attaches herself to a worshipping body in the majority culture, certain worship expressions are intentionally left behind or even suppressed. I visited a well-known church in Maryland where music is created and recorded for their worship in the dominant contemporary Christian style. I noticed the presence of 200- 300 African Americans in the Sunday morning service. When I remarked that there was a significant number, the worship leader enthused, “Yes, they love our teaching” but admitted that they were less than enthusiastic about the style of music. In this kind of setting, one worshipper is nourished culturally while the person next to him is unsatisfied. [5] Population shifts have changed the very fundamental heart language of congregations. And when cultural blending occurs, a new heart language emerges for our children—one that is sensitive to the worship sense of disparate peoples. One such song in our congregation is the African American song, “We’ve Come This Far By Faith” which has become an anthem of unity and mission, but originated in the black community of the 1970s.

Because “heart music” is so integral to a sense of belonging, it is necessary that the dominant culture give place to the minority group stylistically. In my experience, black worshipers will always want the music to be blacker, while white worshipers will notice the slightest unfamiliar tune and think, “Wow, we’re a diverse congregation.” I have been asked several times to come and lead worship for a convention to provide diversity. Some committee decided that they needed to diversify. To a white client, diversity is mostly familiar praise songs with a few Latino or African American songs. Whites assume that they are the majority. This is why minority groups of believers have a problem trusting white authority figures who, the minorities believe, are looking out for their own, and using blacks to enhance their image.

Ethnic diversity is a frightening prospect to some whites and to some blacks as well. There are fears of a loss of something one holds dear and there may be sinful fears that the effects of blending cultures will encourage one’s sons and daughters to marry someone of a different race or class. There are misunderstandings and stereotypes and other genuine bases for distrust. One African American man about 40 years old in our church testified that the greatest witness to him was a white man in his 70s who accepted and respected him. After all, it wasn’t until 1965 that schools in Chattanooga were desegregated. Further, it is hard to come together in worship when one worshipper thinks of the scripture, “let all the earth keep silence” as a standard for true worship, while the next one is thinking, “make a joyful noise.”

One aspect of cross-cultural worship in which I have no experience is that of an existing church deciding to embrace a new ideology of worship and music. Our church in Chattanooga was founded on the principal of blending together. Many other churches must come to an agreement from a previous position of homogeneity. One part of a congregation in Jackson, Mississippi decided to stay in a black neighborhood while another segment moved and purchased a building in another community in order to remain uniform culturally. Recently the music leadership, white and black, taught the original congregation several gospel choir and congregational songs from a New City Fellowship music conference. The people there are energized and excited, posting choir anthems on Youtube.

As frustrating and challenging as it has been, it has also been rewarding and energizing to our congregation. Having a purpose for choosing certain kinds of music that goes beyond one’s own tastes and preferences is an exercise in self-denial in the Pauline sense—“Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.” (I Corinthians 10:33.) It is one thing to speak of mercy and justice in a seminar or a book, but quite a different thing to act it out in the worship service.

It is also difficult to believe a cause such as racial reconciliation is important, only to see your children grow up to leave the cause for more homogeneous pastures. As wonderful as it may sound, cross-cultural worship seems not to be for everyone. It seems like some of us are more wired for this than others. Or, sometimes cause-oriented churches raise a generation of principled young adults who have tasted of the fruits of racial harmony and express that concept differently, like enrolling their children in a public school with diverse population. The heart language of worshipping together reaches those who give themselves to it, and passes over those who aren’t convinced. That doesn’t make it irrelevant nor undeserving. Most things worth doing are hard in some way. But for those who are still determined, one of the important details of cross- and multi-cultural worship is resources. Frequently after a worship service, a visitor to our church will come up to the stage and ask, “What was the third song you did today? Could I get a copy of the words?” Maybe this happens in many churches, but the worshipper should also be asking, “Where does that song come from? Has it been published or recorded? Is it on youtube?” Finding music for blended worship is one of the most persistent tasks of cross-cultural musicians and pastors. “We have an Intervarsity Christian Fellowship worship leader from college and we need him to sound like…uh…Andrae Crouch. What songs would you recommend?” asked one church planter from Miami. Some resources are easily found in published hymnals. Three I would recommend are:

  1. Songs of Zion. 1981, Abingdon Press, Nashville.
  2. Libro de Liturgia y Cantico. 1998, Augsburg Fortress Pub., Minneapolis.
  3. Global Songs for Worship. Faith Alive Christian Resources, Grand Rapids, MI.

The first is one of the best collections of traditional black gospel and spirituals. The second is a Spanish language hymnal published by the Evangelical Lutheran Church, so if you want to sing mainstream hymns in Spanish—as well as a variety of Spanish liturgical music, this would be a good resource. The third is a collection of praise songs from world cultures, and is good if your church is experimenting with worldwide music styles. [6] I recommend these, not as the single purchase one might make, but as the beginning of a collection of similar songbooks, depending on your direction as a congregation.

Another important resource is real live worship in churches where the target group may be found. In the early days of our mission, we would go to black churches and listen to their choirs, their pianists, their soloists, and their songs. It was there that we heard “I’m So Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always,” and “There’s a Leak in This Old Building.” These songs gave a familiar ring to our otherwise halting efforts. I am often amused when I hear a black praise team member say, “this is the New City way of doing that song. It’s not the way I grew up with.”

Increasingly online resources are available for minimal cost. If you know a song you want to do, chances are it is on itunes, youtube, or Sometimes it’s knowing which songs to start with, and that comes from listening, visiting, and going to the fountainhead of culture. There is no shortcut. Don’t try to create authenticity overnight. Frequently the resources that will be the most valuable and durable are right in your own church. Ask a Latino or African American worshiper what the equivalent of “How Great Thou Art” is in his or her culture. When I asked that question a few years ago, my friend said, “What a Fellowship.” That is the same as “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” found in most white hymnals. But it is the way it is sung and played that gives it authenticity. Ask your own people to bring you CDs or music of songs they love. This will build a strong sense of belonging when your favorite gospel song turns up in the order of worship next Sunday! At this writing, our church music ministry is slowly uploading content to a website for this very purpose. will be sheet music of public domain hymns like “Down at the Cross/Glory to His Name” written out in 12/8 time the way it is played by gospel pianists. The site will include audio recordings, video, and podcasts, as well as written articles on ethnic worship from several angles. There are other resources like this in a variety of places, so dig deep and find what works for you. GIA Publications, the largest Roman Catholic music publisher even has the African American Heritage Hymnal.

Finding the right songs to use can be a hit or miss proposition. Your musicians may think they are on the right track, but they must listen, listen, listen to the minority population in your church and meet people where they are. Just because a song has a nice back beat or is soulful in the melody doesn’t mean Aunt Hattie will like it. You may find yourself with a hip group of musicians thinking they are hitting the target with cool chords and R&B, when all the while there are certain traditional songs to be explored and rendered. Even contemporary gospel artists who have created a “new standard” for praise music will sometimes include a remake of some old song like “The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow” by Thomas A. Dorsey. In other words, the cross-cultural palette is a blend of traditional dominant culture, contemporary dominant, traditional co-cultural music, .[7] and contemporary co-cultural music.

These few thoughts and anecdotes are important ones but they do not define the only way to do cross-cultural worship music. The city of Chattanooga is a demographic that may skew our strategy a bit. However, we do have visitors from around the world, and it seems we are getting close to what folks expect of a cross-cultural worship setting. It is my experience that church music in general is a stressful task for the full- or part-time music director. One must sense what the pastor wants, put that together with the available volunteer pool, sprinkle in some instruments and resources, and mix it with special events. But adding in the element of cross-cultural strategy increases the pressure on the church musician to produce results that are almost impossible without a generation of trust and development. If the church is working in a neighborhood with mixed economic and educational aspects, it can be complicated to get folks to work together freely. It can mean handing out lyric sheets that you have carefully prepared to match the sheet music. It can mean working on very simple music notationally, but which requires swaying and clapping or improvising sections of the music at the bidding of the director. It may mean learning words in other languages and pronouncing them correctly. It may mean having a person who is adept at motivating or relating, but is unschooled.

For those of us in the dominant culture who are seeking to reach outside our own comfort zone, it will mean stepping back and leading from the sidelines a lot. The focus will be off you and on the other participants, some of whom are not as skilled as you. It will mean laughing at yourself as people in your program are laughing at your clumsiness, but realizing that physical movement is an important part of being cross-cultural, period.

A strategy for cross-cultural worship will bear much fruit in time, as the local body commits to reaching a people group at various levels of mercy, justice, and worship. An initial reaction from a member or new attendee of “wow, thanks for that song, it reminded me of my grandma’s church” gives the rush of excitement when you finally hit a homerun culturally. After a while, you may hit some bumps in the road, whether it’s the loss of a great singer to personal problems or the antagonism of ethnocentric members. Progress in cultural issues is measured in decades of various efforts, and if you are reaching out to a different culture, you may not get a ringing endorsement ever from the target group. Sometimes the best indication is that talented folks say “yes” when you ask them to participate.

In 1978, my wife and I returned to New City Fellowship from Pennsylvania, having worked with a jazz band for two and a half years, and found it unproductive. Sometime during that year I wrote a song called “Make Me a Vessel” about God taking us through the fire and the water to make us fit vessels for his Kingdom.

By that time, one of our members was an old African American woman who had lived the hard life of years in the south. She had even played guitar in speakeasies as a young woman. Her teeth were stained from chewing tobacco. She was thin and stooped over but she had a ready smile and a testimony.

On a Sunday morning at the dilapidated YMCA where we were meeting, I sang the song as a special selection. By that time I was playing and singing in a soulful style. As the song came to a crescendo, there was a scream from the back of the small meeting room. We were all surprised, and then realized that Miss Betty was “shouting” in response to the performance. This song was not an old traditional gospel song. I was as white as the driven snow. But God gave me a gift that day; the gift of a uniquely ethnic response to my musical offering in the early days of our worship’s taking shape. It remains as a milestone in my heart of his calling to cross-cultural music and worship.

So think hard about whether this is God’s calling on your vocation or your church. Some musicians never make a conscious choice, they simply find themselves needed and able to fill that need. Your strategy may be a great one, but God’s calling is in his sovereign wisdom without all the answers spelled out. He will make a way, when there is no way. He did for me.


[1] Black folks have come a long way from cultural uniformity of even a generation ago. Black professionals, educators, or artists may have a completely different perspective on social interaction. “Traditional black neighbors” here refers to working class families, sometimes matriarchal, housed in black enclaves within the city.

[2] Ronald Lee, “Roma Origins” Roma Community Centre. Accessed 13 Mar 2011. Online:

[3] Ronald Johnson, “Asians of Africa,” Countries and Their Cultures, accessed 12 Mar 2011, online:

[4] Untrained vocalists often refer to accompaniment as “music” as in “We can come and sing, but we don’t have any music.”

[5] Brian Shrag and Paul Neeley, “All the World Will Worship” Ethnodoxology/ACT Publications, Duncanville, TX. 2005.

[6] This would be a more multicultural approach, resulting in an appreciation for the music of other countries. It may or may not be effective in reaching people from these cultures.

[7] C. Michael Hawn, Gather Into One: Praying and Singing Globally. ( Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003) 4. This is a term used rather than “subcultural.”