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How I Came To Multicultural Worship Music

Faris Mohammed/Unsplash

I started writing music on the piano when I was six years old. I was really into J.S. Bach and Tchaikovsky. I learned how lead sheets work from Wee Sing Christmas Carols. Then, I dove headfirst into the American evangelical subculture of the 90’s: WWJD bracelets, Testamints, “Christian alternatives” for popular bands, etc. Though the Church was still struggling with division in regards to worship music, I felt that, with my versatile education and appreciation of music, I could build (and in some cases reunite) church. And I arguably did for a few years.

But then I was called to serve at a multicultural church near a big city.

Now, all of a sudden, I’m meeting and talking to people who have passion for Jesus Christ but have an extremely different background than me. I get to know people who didn’t have my Western suburban upbringing, my appreciation for deep theological studies on non-essential issues, my pride in a culturally-homogenous denomination or ministry. One longtime attendant of my new church had never heard of the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” Oh, did my new congregation believe and celebrate the gospel and the power of prayer, but I was having trouble connecting to them with a significant portion of what I had thus experienced in my life and church, even with my MDiv.

It was humbling, but at the same time it was beautiful. Because I truly learned that my God is not just the God of Western civilization, but the creative Creator of all the world, transcendent through all cultures. Getting to know Christians with diverse cultural backgrounds helped me to realize what is truly biblical and what is something that Western culture added to church along the way.

At the same time, I worry about my beloved church in my country. The business-oriented megachurch model may have worked well in the days of Modernism, but now public scandals are increasing and trust in large institutions is declining. Church attendance is declining with the notable exception of churches with multi-ethnic congregations.

So, it’s arguable that many churches, especially in diverse demographics, should strive to do multicultural ministry. Not just for conscience’s sake, but also for lasting growth. The most successful religious movement in history (the early Church of Rome) did multicultural ministry with integrity.

I noticed a few things, learning about multicultural ministry. It’s different than other ministries I had learned about. It’s much more about relationships than programs. It’s about dying to your own comfort and presuppositions about the Bible and how to do church. It’s a slower (but more healthful) way of growing a church. But I was able to see Jesus Christ, biblical truths and ministry work in new and beautiful ways, and the prospect of returning to my previous ways and methods of ministry is difficult for me.

People have had the impression that I’ve pursued multicultural music and ministry for ulterior motives. Some thought I was trying to please each and every ethnic group represented in my congregation. Others thought I was trying to be trendy. Public businesses may build a slightly diverse staff and visible multicultural appreciation for their bottom dollar. But Christians, myself included, have a different reason: we believe that God has created all people and that all people are His children, and that all cultures have values to bring to God’s altar.

The other thing I noticed about multicultural ministry is that sheet music for many black Gospel artists (e.g. Kirk Franklin, Richard Smallwood, Travis Greene), international worship artists (e.g. Tito Cruz of Brazil, Aradhna of India, Sonnie Badu of Ghana), and even hymns are not easily available on the internet for purchase. How can many multicultural churches do multicultural worship music without chord charts or lead sheets?

That’s the purpose of this website. My cousin and I wanted to create a space for people to get connected with answers and resources on multicultural worship. If I, for example, can’t answer one of your questions, I can hopefully connect you to someone who can. I’ve met a few wonderful individuals and organizations, and I’ve read a few good books with lots of education and experience on the task.

Oh, and I arrange chord charts and lead sheets. That’s a good take-home thing. Just request the song through the site. A chord chart costs $5 per song. I am a professional music transcriber who has served churches and organizations in Chicago, Atlanta, Wisconsin and San Diego.

Again, I believe in the cultural transcendence of Jesus Christ, so I am very reluctant to prescribe a formula for building and maintaining a multicultural worship ministry. I think each church and its worship leader(s) should manage the degree of cultural diversity in prayer and relationship. Whatever you decide, here are some resources and connections for you.


-James Z. Gilliland, Co-founder

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