Down to the River

I am currently teaching a class at my church using material created by Eric Gentry, a minister with the Highland Church of Christ in Memphis. While the concept I present here isn’t original to me, I have expanded upon it considerably.

In 2013 James H. Cone published a book titled, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree“. One aspect of this work suggests that one’s life experiences impacts the way we read Scripture. In particular, Cone argues that the closer one’s proximity to the lynching tree the more that person identifies with the suffering of the cross. This extends to the point that the cross is viewed as a lynching tree (Galatians 3:13) and the thousands of lynchings the African-Americans experienced throughout the U.S. are regarded as a “uniting with Christ in his death” (Rom. 6:5).

For white Christians comfortable with a well-established historical understanding of the significance of the cross, the idea that a community’s shared history can lead to a different perspective of the cross may create some discomfort.

Similarly, African-American culture has often viewed baptism through a different lens. White Christians commonly regard baptism as a moment that a divine transaction takes place; it’s a physical representation of a spiritual reality. Baptism is a moment of commitment, of forgiveness, of new life and orientation. It is a mental and emotional undertaking to trust one’s future to God and to make changes to live in harmony with God.

Within black culture baptism has often held dual hopes: an immediate hope of physical rescue and the spiritual hope of forgiveness and eternal reward.

In my mind, these different perspectives (and yes, I know I’m painting in broad strokes) are well portrayed in three songs written around the familiar Gospel theme of “the river”.

This traditional spiritual has a catchy tune that disguises the gravity of the lyrics. There are at least three ways to understand this song:

  1. The song speaks of baptism and putting on the long white robe down by the riverside. However, the lyrics don’t view baptism as addressing a sin issue. Rather, there’s the immediate connection of “studying war no more” and “laying down my sword and shield”. It demonstrates a view of baptism that relates it to the immediate physical need of escaping or ending violence. Sadly, that hope seldom came to reality in this realm, but it reminds us that Jesus is the Prince of Peace and thus condemns those who make their living through violence.
  2. While this song doesn’t name the river, Gospel music often refers to the Jordan River as the point of transition from life to death. This image draws from the Old Testament account of the Israelites crossing the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. According to this darker perspective this song declares that the slaves Promised Land and only escape from life’s burdens and violence is death.
  3. When I played this song in class an older black member quickly commented that the spiritual language was a metaphor for slaves crossing the Ohio River to reach the relative safety of the non-slaveholding states.

Each of these understandings stresses the immediate hope of peace and escape from oppression.

Eric’s class notes pointed me to a more recent (2015) song by Leon Bridges simply titled “River”.

Bridges describes his motivation for writing this song in this way,

I felt stuck working multiple jobs to support myself and my mother.  I had little hope and couldn’t see a road out of my reality.  The only thing I could cling to in the midst of all that was my faith in God and my only path towards baptism was by way of the river.

Bridges’ iteration of the river theme has a darker melodic feel and the video captures the daily struggle of life. While the lyrics turn hopeful the links between the river, baptism and hope for a new life in the present remain intact.

Finally this contemporary Christian song titled “The River” was also released in 2015 by Jordan Feliz.

Writing for a predominantly white audience Feliz describes his journey to the river more in emotional and spiritual terms than the concrete realities of the previous songs. On his website Feliz reflects,

“Musically ‘The River’ is my own personal happy place. It’s a great driving groove that just feels good to sing. The song itself is an invitation to anyone who hears it—whether they’re stuck in pride and legalism or wallowing down in the mess they’ve made of their lives—it’s an invitation to take whatever we have and to run to Jesus. It’s an invitation to go down in amazing grace and to rise up being made new.”

The first two songs regard the river as a place of hope, peace and freedom. However, the suffering still experienced in the present prevent it being the “personal happy place” that Feliz describes.

This contrast of emphases regarding baptism does not make one view right and another wrong, but the songs demonstrate a diversity of perspective even regarding a Christian sacrament at the core of our faith. They remind us that our way of viewing the world is not the only, or best, way. They remind us that we are all interpreters of Scripture seeking answers to our questions within its pages.

For multi-ethnic churches we’re reminded that we need to hear diverse voices in our teaching and within our congregations, because no single voice will speak into each hearer’s life. The way we express and apply our faith will have different points of emphasis to different cultures. We can’t be so arrogant to think that any one person can cover all the cultural bases. Diversity is not just different skin colors or even languages in one room. Diversity involves accepting different ways of thinking ans seeing the world.

(If this post brings other “river” songs to mind, I’d love for you to share them in the comments section below along with any other reflections you may have.)

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Worship Without Borders : part 3

SVCC_KipThis is the final post from an interview with Kip Long, the worship minister at Sycamore View Church of Christ in Memphis, TN. In 2015 Kip and the Sycamore View Praise Team produced an album titled Without Borders that broke from their usual repertoire of hymns and contemporary Christian music. (Part 1 & Part 2)

As I’ve been thinking about this topic over the last couple of weeks I’ve realised what  challenge it is for churches to learn new music styles. I attended a Gospel Meeting at a local African-American church last night and it dawned on me that even if we ‘borrowed’ one of their song leaders occasionally, our congregation wouldn’t necessarily know how to sing in that style. We’re trained in western classical and choral music to follow the leader, while in the Gospel genre the congregation needs to know their part because the leader is doing his own thing.

While there’s some benefit to having a black worship leader, if he’s expected to simply sing songs in the usual style, it’s really just window dressing, not multicultural worship. To allow all members to express their souls we must encourage their styles of worship music, even if the majority don’t readily recognise it.

I appreciate Kip addressing some of these challenges below.

What advice would you give smaller churches seeking to move to a more inclusive worship style where song leaders often don’t have a great deal of training?

 If a smaller church is diverse and desires for its up-front leadership to reflect that diversity, I would say

  1. Begin with prayer, continue with prayer and end with prayer. Ask God to help you!
  2. Even though you can find plenty of diverse songs, you need to determine if your church is ready to adapt its worship culture. Different ethnicities sing in different ways. Although there is a lot of common ground in theme and style, I have discovered that predominantly white congregations and predominantly black congregations have a few differences when it comes to church music:
    • Predominantly white churches are generally accustomed to following the song leader like a choral director. He sings the melody line and the church sings what he sings when he sings it. The church will usually sing “by the book”- meaning that they will follow the melody, harmonies, verses and choruses that the sheet music dictates.
    • Predominantly African-American churches may be quite comfortable singing one thing while the worship leader might sing “fill ins” and “ad-libs” along the way. The congregation will sing some amazing harmony, but it may not be what is written in the hymnbook. They may also enjoy singing the chorus a few more times than is written.
  3. If you feel like your church will benefit from a more diverse style of worship, invite some of your black brothers and sisters to lunch or dinner to discuss new music and the worship culture of your church. You will most likely discover common ground along with many new opportunities to deepen your church’s worship culture.
  4. Begin listening to different radio stations and search for more black gospel songs.
  5. If you are able to arrange music, you can add to your list of congregational songs. If you aren’t able to arrange music, I know a lot of arrangers who would be willing to help.
  6. As a worship leader, you may feel unable to credibly lead the church in this style of music. If you just don’t feel capable of this, ask God to open your eyes to leaders among you that might need someone to open the door of leadership to them so they can use their gifts to bless their congregation If there is no one among your congregation who can help you create a more inclusive worship style, perhaps you can ask other churches if they have gifted worship leaders who would be willing to lead worship for you on occasion. I firmly believe that God will provide the leadership the church needs when its leaders are open-hearted about leading his people.
  7. I don’t know a lot of training opportunities like this, but I am always open to listen and offer help in any way I am able. You can reach me at klong@sycamoreview.org.

 How much fun did you have recording Without Borders?  As we close are there any stories you want to share?

The greatest blessing of this project was the people he gathered together to create it.   I’ve always had talented background singers and soloists who have blessed each recording, but this time we discovered a few vocal gems!

It’s no secret that Steve Maxwell is an amazing vocalist. He sang with Acappella and is now the worship leader at North Atlanta Church. It’s a blessing to be a part of the congregation when he leads worship, but it was an awe inspiring moment when he recorded Every Praise. He came in, put on the headphones, got a sound level and proceeded to record it all in one take with no tuning or alignment needed. He was literally in and out of the booth in 4 minutes and it was golden. That was a moment I’ll never forget!

Another treasure is Kimberly Heard. She and her family were already an important part of Sycamore View, but to see the way the church responded to her solo on A Little More Jesus was unforgettable. She has a beautiful voice and a wonderful gift from God. This CD gave her a platform to give a gift to the Church that continues to bless.

Another one of my favorite treasures is Reginald Williams, who isn’t a part of our praise team. One Sunday morning we sang “Lean on Me” as our final song and Reginald came up to me after worship and started singing “You just call on me brother when you need a hand…” and I loved his voice.  I asked him if he would consider learning a song called, “Count it Victory” to go on our new CD. I’ll never forget the child-like look in his eyes the first time he heard the finished product. He asked, “Is that ME?” and then he would listen for a few more seconds and ask again, “Is that really ME?” I loved to be able to say, “That’s you and you are going to bless a lot of people with your song brother!

I loved hearing Julie Sanon sing Mansion, Robe and Crown, Candice Goff sing Oceans, Derek Byrd sing Starts With Me. I am still moved by Eric Wilson’s spoken word piece called “And We Waved.” And our kids singing “Thrive” always makes me smile. I loved how our entire team worked so hard together to create a gift that calls us to unity as we celebrate diversity.

I just got a call from a brother in North Little Rock who received Without Borders as a gift from a friend who visited one of our worship gatherings. He called me to say that this CD has meant so much to him and many times he has been brought to tears as he listens to it.  As our conversation moved to more personal levels, I shared my journey in creating this CD. He then shared his journey and how he grew up in an African-American church and went to a Harding University where he discovered different songs of worship and a different way to worship among the white churches and various campus devotionals he participated in. He said he came back home to share some new songs he learned only to find that his church wasn’t really interested in learning “those” songs.

He has since stepped out on faith to be a part of a church that is trying to blend black and white worship styles so that more people can  find unity in worshiping the Father. After I hung up the phone, I was grateful to know that God used our little CD and how He is moving among our churches to begin some much needed conversations about diversity in music that will create more unity in churches. May God bless us as we continue the conversation.

Without Borders music

Without Borders is available for streaming HERE. You can also order a CD of the album by contacting Kip: klong@sycamoreview.org.

Worship Without Borders: part 2

SVCC_KipLast week I began a 3 part interview with Kip Long, the worship minister at Sycamore View Church of Christ in Memphis, TN. In 2015 Kip and the Sycamore View Praise Team produced an album titled Without Borders that broke from their usual repertoire of contemporary Christian music.

One of the great challenges for multi-ethnic churches is designing ways for each culture to express themselves in worship. So I was curious to learn from Kip what motivated the production of this album and the process of reflecting cultural diversity through music.

You can read Part 1 of the interview HERE:

How are the song choices on this album different from previous compilations?

            The song choices were different than previous compilations primarily because their sources and style were different. I spent time searching for songs suggested by my Hope Works class members and a few brothers and sisters who were familiar with urban contemporary gospel music and it opened a whole new appreciation for other artists. These songs were a stylistic departure from the previous songs because we had never recorded much gospel music before. We touched on a few songs on our Hymns CD which featured Jerome Williams, but never to this extent.

I understand that you took a sabbatical and did some research in preparing not only for the album but to adjust the worship style at Sycamore View. Can you describe that process?

            After 7 years of ministry, each minister at Sycamore View gets a sabbatical to not only unplug from ministry, but to make deeper connections with God. During my time with God, I needed Him to help me discover ways to be the worship leader for a congregation that continues to grow in diversity. I am a 46 year-old white male who leads worship for a multi-generational, economically diverse, and multi-ethnic congregation. I knew we were planning to make a few stylistic changes to the next CD, but beyond that I wasn’t sure how much change was needed in our worship gatherings.

            So I attended predominantly African-American congregations across the city to experience first-hand the similarities and differences in worship styles. I observed and learned a lot.  I met with black worship leader friends and though I don’t have the same past experiences with Gospel music that they have, I was willing to learn and they were willing to teach. I met with many of my black brothers and sisters at Sycamore View who could help me gain new insight in this area and I was pleasantly surprised to find that most held a great appreciation for our music ministry and had discovered many new and wonderful songs that they had never heard before coming to Sycamore View.  By the end of my sabbatical I felt:

  1. No wholesale changes in worship style were needed, but our music style would need to reflect the congregation as it grows in diversity.
  2. This CD would help many members and guests gain a greater appreciation for Gospel music. Without Borders would be a good first step.
  3. God was training our hearts and ears to hear his voice among different styles of music and culture.
  4. Peace in knowing that God is shaping us into the church he needs us to be on his time table.

 What’s the racial makeup of your church? Have you received criticism for introducing songs from a different culture than many members are accustomed?

            Our church is about 77% White, 20% Black with a few other ethnic groups among us. The bride of Christ at Sycamore View is truly beautiful. After the CD release, I received a few comments from people who do not prefer this style of music, because it was a little “too busy” for their ears. But most of our members fell in love with new music they might have never heard had we not chosen these specific songs.

            As we move forward, I intend to seek out more congregational-friendly songs (for CD’s and for worship) that have roots in the African-American community. I am praying that God will continue making our praise team even more diverse and as we grow together so we can lead with credibility and integrity. I keep asking God to guide this process and open the doors that need to be opened. My prayer is Philippians 1:6, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” God started this journey and he will guide our church to a place where we can all experience worship gatherings with the style of worship that is right for us.

Many of the resources I know on the topic of multi-ethnic churches emphasize the importance of expressing the cultural diversity of the membership in our worship services. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a worship leader in a larger church?

            As we prepare worship each week, we pray that the leadership on the stage reflects the diversity in the pews, but not every Sunday will be as diverse as our congregation. We lead with those who are available to lead and celebrate when it happens to be a diverse group. Our prayer is that God will continually help us open doors of leadership to all people in our family so that various generations, genders, ethnicities, and socioeconomic levels would be represented.

Continue to the final part HERE.

Without Borders music

Without Borders is available for streaming HERE. You can also order a CD of the album by contacting Kip: klong@sycamoreview.org.

Worship Without Borders : part 1

SVCC_KipI met Kip Long during my first year  in the United States (1999/2000). A small church in rural Mississippi had asked me to work with their teens a few hours each week. This is how I found myself at a youth rally in Senatobia, MS. Kip was a youth minister from Memphis and worship leader for the weekend. He could also throw the football further than any of the other teens in the parking lot that weekend.

Today, Kip serves as the worship minister for the Sycamore View Church of Christ located in Bartlett, Tennessee, just outside the city limits of Memphis. As a worship minister he leads the church’s primary worship gathering each Sunday, coordinates the praise team, plans musical events and produces worship CDs. In the bigger picture he seeks to help people live a life of worship that will attract others to the Lord.

One of the great challenges for multi-ethnic churches is designing ways for each culture to express themselves in worship. In early 2015 I stumbled across a new worship CD recorded by the Sycamore View Praise Team titled “Without Borders” that attempted to address this challenge. I recently had the opportunity to interview Kip about the motivation and process of producing this album.  I’ll be sharing this interview with you in three parts over the the next three weeks.

How long have you been the Worship Leader at Sycamore View Church of Christ?

            I’ve have the privilege of leading the Sycamore View Church in worship for 13 years.

 How many albums has your worship team produced over the years?

            We just released our 9th album, Seasons of Worship Volume 3 in November 2015

 What prompted you to start recording these albums?

            When I began work at Sycamore View in 2003, there were several new songs that the church had not learned and I needed a way to teach them. We were also searching for ways that each ministry could share the Good News of the Kingdom.  A few months later, Seasons of Worship Vol. 1 was born and we were able to share music with members and guests.

You recently released an album named “Without Borders.” Can you explain that name?

            When churches sing about God’s power, the Spirit’s guidance, the Savior’s sacrifice or any of the major themes in worship, we are formed, informed and transformed as we worship. Although we find ourselves in agreement over the content of our worship songs, we discover some disagreement when it comes to the style of songs. On all popular secular radio stations, you will hear the same basic content: I love you, I hate you, Go away, and Come back (Over-simplistic…but close, right?) So why do we choose one station over another? It is because the style of music is what we prefer.

            In my car, you will find my pre-set radio stations are Christian, Gospel, Rock, Pop, Classic Rock and Oldies because these reflect my preferred style of music.  When my 14 year old daughter gets in my car, she hits a button that takes the radio to FM2 pre-sets, where 4 of the 6 stations are Country. Because I love her, I am willing to listen to her music even though Country music isn’t my preferred style. But over time I have discovered a few songs that I truly like-songs I would have never heard otherwise.

            Do you have a pre-set style of worship music?  Does your church? What if our love for brothers and sisters caused us to expand our perspective and discover different styles of music? This project was an attempt to invite our church across a few stylistic borders to discover new ways to praise God.

What motivated you to move in this direction?

            hopeWorks-signI have the opportunity to teach a Bible class at Hope Works (www.whyhopeworks.org). It is a joy to share scripture with under-resourced individuals in the Memphis area who need skills to break out of the poverty cycle. I need to let you know that this class was mostly African American. As a part of my class I usually play songs that help deepen their connection with God and many times I use our praise team CDs. One Thursday I was preparing to share another one of our songs with the class, so I was letting our CD play as students entered. The only other person in the room at the time was an older African-American woman who was looking over her notes from the previous class. As I walked by her she said, “Excuse me Kip. I like your music, but I was wondering if you have…(long pause)…any music that WE like?”

            I didn’t really know how to respond. I had every opportunity to find offense. After all this wasn’t just any music, this was MY music. I was thinking, “What’s wrong with my music?” Thanks to the Spirit’s guidance, he helped me close the door of offense and open the door of understanding. I simply asked, “Hmm….well… I’m not sure. What kind music do you like?” Her face lit up as she started naming all these artists whose music blessed her life. I can honestly say that of the dozen names she mentioned, Kirk Franklin was the only name I recognized. And so when the class began I asked everyone, “What Christian artists draw your heart to God?” And for 20 minutes we discussed Christian artists that I had never heard before. They played songs from their phones and most began singing along. It was a holy moment…and I felt like an outsider.

            After class, I got in my car and sat for a few minutes in silence. I prayed, “God, thank you for opening my eyes today. Thank you for my brothers and sisters who love you and for the Christian artists who bless them. But what does this mean for me? Why have I never heard of these Christian artists before?” Then I envisioned my congregation and thought of my black brothers and sisters at Sycamore View. “God, do my S.V. brothers and sisters feel this way? What do I do now? Do I change everything? Do I change anything?” As I started my car, I found Hallelujah FM (a Gospel Station) and locked in a new pre-set.

CONTINUE READING PART 2 OF THIS INTERVIEW HERE AND PART 3 HERE.

Without Borders music

Without Borders is available for streaming HERE. You can also order a CD of the album by contacting Kip: klong@sycamoreview.org.

 

 

Black Violins

I have something different this week. It’s a bit of a parable. A friend of mine recently shared a video on her facebook page of two black violinists playing to hip hop beats.

I knew nothing about these artists, but I thought, “How sad if people recognised their talents but insisted they play Mozart.”

At a talk I attended last year by Dr. Soong-Chan Rah.  At one stage he made the point that we’ve given the descriptor “classical” to Western European music most popular starting in the 1600’s. All other musical genres from other cultures and times are given different descriptors that often indicate they are something less than “classical”.

What if people looked at these musicians and thought, “How sad they settled into popular music when they could have joined an orchestra and made a name for themselves as classical musicians.”

I have a stereotype in my mind of what violinists look like. And it’s something much more like this video that was shared with me on facebook than the previous duo.

They’re white. They’re women. They’re wearing evening dresses. And even though they’re clowning around and playing popular tunes they more closely fit the image I expect.

But I’m also forced to face my own violin prejudice. Within the predominantly white culture there’s also the decidedly non-classical genre of fiddle playing. No one looks at a fiddler and says, “That guy has talent. What a shame he’s not part of a philharmonic somewhere.” There’s a willingness to accept this folk music style as a distinct genre because we recognise its roots.

We face a couple of challenges when we consider these different styles of violin performances.

1. Can we value each style for its unique traits, or do we feel an urge to rank them?

2. Would it be possible to host a concert with all these artists performing together?  Would the musicians need to make adjustments in order for the concert to appeal to the entire audience? Would they be willing to make adjustments? Would the crowd give each group equal attention and respect?

Sadly, churches often want to make newcomers from other cultures worship and serve in a style preferred by the majority culture. This attitude is most often unthoughtful, but it communicates a lack of respect for the talents and values of the minority culture. This is why it’s so important for congregational worship to reflect the values and preferences of all cultures if the church is to grow. It’s also why it’s so difficult to change the existing pattern of worship.

What do you think? Is this helpful? What are the strengths and weaknesses of comparing these violin genres to multi-ethnic churches?

After a little research, I can share that the duo in the opening video are known as Black Violin. They’re both classically trained musicians who creatively play a variety of styles. They have performed at the US President’s Inauguration Ball in addition to many other high profile gigs. Here’s one of their recent performances: