In 1979, President Jimmy Carter declared June, Black Music Month. Later in 2009, President Obama renamed it African-American Music Appreciation Month. This month was created to celebrate the influence African-Americans have had throughout the world by their music that has been created. It tells stories of faith, freedom, love, and justice. For years, we have used the music we have created to bring hope and joy to our greatest moments of sorrow. As a black worship leader and musician, I am so grateful to be a part of this legacy; however, as I experienced the world and heard new sounds, I had to challenge myself to explore and diversify my sound.
Last year, my worship team read The HD Leader by Derwin Gray. The book speaks about building multiethnic churches and embracing diversity. According to the book, a homogeneous church is one that is made up of 80 percent or more of the same ethnicity. Ring any bells? I certainly grew up in a church that was homogenous. Every Sunday we had a full-on production: big choir, praise and worship team, a loud and passionate preacher, and it wasn’t church without a b3 Hammond organ. My church experience shaped my perception of what worship was “supposed” to look and sound like. It was what I was comfortable with, and for a long time, it was all I knew.
I moved to Nashville, the music mecca, a few years after college and my perception of worship and church began to change as I was exposed to new styles and sounds. But just as fast as I was learning new sounds, my walls went up even faster to defend the sound I knew and loved. I was quick to become defensive when I’d hear from other people that the worship style I was used to was not “true worship” because it was too busy, or too loud, or too distracting. However, at the same time, it helped me realize that homogenous churches have led to segregated styles of worship.
This made me think, I want to challenge us, to celebrate the abundant variety and diversity of sound around the world. After all, that is exactly what the body of Christ truly looks like. All nations, ethnicities, tribes, and tongues singing of the greatness of our God. It’s important to have an inclusivity of all styles of worship in our churches and as worship leaders, our main goal should be to connect people to God through song. How can we do that successfully without broadening our horizons, knowledge, and growing our spheres of influence? With the team that I lead we have created a Spotify list where everyone puts in music that they enjoy. This exploded with the team as far as music being a reconciliation tool within our team. We then shared it with our congregation and started seeing people really connect to sounds outside of what they had been accustomed to hearing.
My greatest desire is that we can use our songs, and future worship-inspired music, to be a bridge to connect people, different sounds, and cultures. As I am on this road of discovery and growth, I don’t have it all figured out, and I do not know what is to come; but I am learning and trying to challenge myself and my comfort zone every day. The conversation surrounding homogenous churches and segregated worship is an important one. The issues that exist are not going to be resolved overnight, but we can be the catalysts of change starting by challenging ourselves and encouraging those around us to do the same by bringing others to the table. There are many ways you can engage. To get started, try one (or more) of the following:
Listen to music that’s outside of your norm. I have to admit Hillsong music is not that bad☺. I love how descriptive they are with their words, allowing me to connect to God in a new way. Psalms 149:1 says, “Sing to the Lord a new song. Sing his praises in the assembly of the faithful” (NLT). Find something to celebrate about the music you choose and try to use it as inspiration when writing your next song. There are a few worship leaders that I listen to that you can check out KJ Scriven, Tom Read, David Baloche and Casey J.
Have a conversation with someone that thinks differently than you. As Dr. David Anderson says in his book, Gracism, “Distance demonizes but as you come closer you will find that they are your brother [sister].” We come closer to one another through conversation. When having the conversation, approach it as a student, be ready to listen and to learn.
Give vision to your church/team(s) with a plan of action. What does multiethnic, multigenerational, diverse sound worship look like for you? How do you plan on being intentional and strategic about building that in your life and church? And talk about it. Challenge one another. Grow.
In Christ’s Love,
Joel Buckner was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio and has been leading worship for 20 years and he claims to be only 25! His passion in life is to become what God designed him to be (along with eating the greatest food in the world) while mentoring young people and writing songs. Joel has performed on many platforms across the country and around the world leading people into the presence of God. It’s his desire to help raise up other worship leaders and impact D.C. with a sound of worship that changes lives. Above all, Joel is a reconciler. You can follow Joel on Instagram @ joel.buckner.
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