A friend recently asked me about the beginning of my life-journey into exploring multicultural worship, or rather, reconciliation and worship. I know that I’ve mentioned Menders and the Duke Center for Reconciliation as a big part of my story, but if I had to trace it back to the very beginning, it would be the powerful, life-changing event that is Urbana.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Urbana is a conference that happens every three years. It is a huge conference – 20,000+ people – and it is produced by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a campus ministry that exists to reach college students and future leaders. People are drawn to it because they long to encounter God in new and amazing ways, and that’s what drew me as a post-college young adult – a desire to experience God during a time of extreme loneliness and trying to understand my place in the world. (BTW, Urbana is happening this year, and you should definitely go!)
As I stepped into the stadium with 20,000 other people for the first worship service, I wondered what the Lord had in store for me. I had never worshiped with so many others at the same time, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. But being around people gives me energy, and I felt energized by the crowd from all over the world. As with any new environment, there’s a “warm up” period when you enter into worship with new people and unfamiliar worship leaders, and as a musician I had the added element of critiquing the music itself.
So I’m feeling overwhelmed, excited, ready to be a music critic, and filled with anticipation. The worship session began… and I instantly knew that I would never ever be the same.
The first thing I noticed right away was that there was a very diverse group of people on the worship team. There were men and women. Blacks, Latinos, Asians, mixed races, and Whites. It’s not like I was against this kind of a team leading worship or anything like that, but at that point in my life I had only experienced worship led by two kinds of people. I was used to seeing Koreans leading worship, either at my church or our retreats growing up. Beyond that, I only knew worship leaders as being white male Christian rockers. All my worship albums were by white male Christian rockers. The campus ministry that I was a part of had white male Christian rockers. Every church that I worked for had a white male worship leader. I didn’t realize that I had been conditioned to think that all worship leaders were supposed to look a certain way, and seeing the Urbana worship team really disoriented me. Coming from the South, I wasn’t even used to seeing people of different races interacting with each other in any kind of meaningful way, and now they were up on a stage together, singing and worshiping the same God? Could this be right?
Then they started to play and sing . . .
I was initially uncomfortable and jostled at the kinds of songs we were singing. Throughout the conference I was exposed to worship songs in different languages, worship songs that required dancing and chanting, and many other ways of worship that were so new to me. At first I was unsure of myself and very uncomfortable because I wasn’t used to praising the Lord in these new ways. Whatever happened to just straight up acoustic guitar? What were all these strange beats and unfamiliar languages? I remember really struggling with pronouncing the words to some of the songs. I had to coordinate all of this while dancing, too? This was distracting me too much from worshiping! Again, could this be right? I couldn’t help but think that this worship team was breaking the rules, both in look and sound.
Looking back, I realize that the worship experience at Urbana was the exact spiritual awakening that I had so been longing for. I was being completely transformed and encountering God in ways I had never imagined. The once abnormal look of the diverse worship team suddenly began to feel like it should be the standard look of a worship team everywhere. Why wouldn’t different kinds of people find unity under God and express it together? The strange songs and beats that made me feel unsure of my footing soon led to me singing these same songs at the top of my lungs and dancing like I was on the hottest dance floor. Why had my definition of worship music only been limited to one genre and one or two worship groups/artists? Why limit myself to clapping on beats 2 and 4, and occasionally raising a hand during singing, maybe even two? Did I really expect that all of the world would worship using the same songs that I did?
I was being challenged in what it meant to follow Christ and explore the Kingdom of God through the expression of worship. I felt really liberated and really excited that I was learning more of who God was. I felt free to dream about new expressions of worship. I even let go of my musical critiques, which is really really hard for a musician to do.
I came home from that wonderful conference, empowered to spread the news about these other ways of worship that would give people the same kinds of awakenings. I longed to continue that feeling of transformation and joy that would spread the good news about Jesus’ love for all of us, expressed through worship of all of God’s people. I remember wanting to learn more songs and think of different ways to worship.
Then… reality hit.
The struggle to implement this vision and calling became real. All kinds of daunting questions began to emerge:
- How do I sing these different types of worship songs if I couldn’t belt out lyrics?
- How do I play these songs with unfamiliar chords or instruct others on how to play songs that had completely different rhythmic structures?
- Why am I even doing this? I was attending a mono-cultural church at the time – did they even want this?
- Do I just fake it until I make it?
- Do we all look like a bunch of idiots up there?
- How do I find good music that’s different from what I know but that’s not insulting to others?
- How do I even begin to search for the music?
- Isn’t there a deeper theological foundation to all of this instead of just doing a musical buffet?
These are tough questions, and every time I think I’ve found the answers I encounter a new set of tough questions. And yet, even in the struggle, something beautiful has happened to me over the last 10+ years. I found that engaging in the struggle has connected me to a deeper part of the character of God. The questions, the wrestling, the discomfort, the cultural disorientation – they all somehow become tools in the hands of God to create new and beautiful things.
Learning to put words to all of this has been very transformative for me. It has given me language to describe the ways in which God has awakened me, grown me, and birthed within me a larger vision for the kingdom. It has given me a whole new sense of direction as a musician, a leader, and a worshipper.
I’m thankful for the ways God has been moving in life this past decade, both as a worshipper and as a worship leader.
As if that weren’t exciting enough, there is something else that I have come to realize…
I’m not the only one in this awakening!
I knew that I couldn’t possibly be the only one with these struggles and questions, but in those early days I honestly didn’t even know where to look or who to turn to for help. I felt really helpless and alone in searching for answers and direction. But now, as I travel in and out of circles throughout the country, I am hearing the same sort of lonely cry. There is a new generation of worship leaders that longs for a deeper encounter with God. They’ve experienced limits with what they are currently doing and they long for more. They want to encounter God very deeply in their personal lives, and they want to lead the congregations (or ministries) they serve in to experience God very deeply.
Something is brewing right now in God’s family. I’m honored to be part of it, and I’m excited to see what all God does with it.