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At the Center of My Life: Talking with James Ward on Multicultural Worship Past, Present and Future


Since 2002, Jim Ward has been the Director of Music at New City Fellowship, a Reformed, multicultural congregation in Chattanooga Tennessee. Ward is a highly skilled musician with a love for God, a passion for sound theology, and a great respect for the musical expressions of other cultures. Add to that mix the chops to pull off a wide diversity of musical styles with integrity, and Jim’s musical leadership treats us to a purity of both sound and culture.  When it comes to worship, Ward obliterates all the man-centered boxes of expectation and focuses us squarely on Christ as the Creator and Head of the nations.

Before this month’s New City Music Conference on July 25-28, Ward sat down with Karen Ellis and RAANetwork to share his thoughts on where multicultural worship has come from over the last forty years, where it may be headed in the future, and his view of possible role of movements like spoken word and Reformed hip hop in liturgy.

KE: Many acknowledge that you were on the ground floor of the multicultural worship music movement; some even say that you were the catalyst for it. How did you personally develop musically, and how did that run parallel to the infancy of the new movement in church music?

JW: I was a student at Covenant College in the 70’s when Frances Schaeffer first came back to the US to speak and spread his worldview of ‘all of life redeemed.’ As a music major, I was inspired to go out and do music to the glory of God wherever that might be. I had grown up in the Reformed Presbyterian church, and so it wasn’t new for me to involve church in that spectrum. For a lot of musicians who are educated in contemporary and pop music, the church is kind of a strange land, but for me, it was one I could already freely operate in. In contemporary Christian music, which was the field I started in, there were very few of us in the eastern United States at the time. I played a lot of public concerts sponsored by Intervarsity after their philosophy of “pre-evangelistic music.” That was kind of where I got started.

Later when I signed with the Benson company in 1979, I had an album called Mourning into Dancing. The record had three songs on it that didn’t specifically refer to Christ or to God; they were simply songs about life. Charisma magazine completely rejected the idea that an album by a Christian could have various kinds of experiences on it without necessarily alluding to a Scripture passage.

This was kind of a collision of cultures for me as a Reformed Christian coming out of this Schaefferian worldview, going to Nashville and trying to interact with the Gospel music industry. Whether we were Pentecostals, or Southern Baptists, or Reformed Christians, we were all coming into the music business with this mission we wanted to accomplish, and colliding with the business. It was hard – I didn’t succeed at the Benson company; their view of what they were doing was geared toward mainstream acts. That was the parallel to my work in the church.

KE: How did that cultural conflict inform what you’re doing now?

I enjoyed what I did… and any craftsman who likes popular music as I did would go into a song tank like Nashville where songs were being sold and recorded. I mean, Al Jarreau and many others found songs in Nashville, all kinds of people came there for songs. Many of my friends were – and still – are songwriters in Nashville. I learned a tremendous amount about how to craft music.

Like any artist, there were hard things and disappointments. If I were still on the road today, there’s so much involved in being an entertainer, scrapping for what you want and savagely trying to win; that part didn’t agree with me. I wanted to succeed, and though I had all the chops to be successful as a songwriter and an entertainer there was this other room in my house that said to me I can go so far, and no farther.

My identity included this aspect of working in the world to bring about good, and working for the marginalized and the mission that my wife and I had – even as I began to enjoy the benefits of playing contemporary Christian music. The Lord ordered my steps and He brought me to a place where I can be creative, and no one flinches because I played diminished jazz chords. Sure I have regrets, but there’s a richness to all these experiences in a tapestry that’s being woven together that’s our life; I find that identity to be unique, and something to be treasured.

Listen to Jim Ward with New City Fellowship Choir, singing Death Is Ended.

KE: Talk a bit about how identity comes into play when we think about multicultural worship.

JW: Being a White Christian … you can’t just look at a White person and say, “that person is going to behave in a certain way.” Of course, Whites have done that with African Americans, and with Latinos and different ethnic groups, but we too are a diverse people group. My identity blends with my childhood – in a large family where music was important, and music was folksy, and something we laughed with and enjoyed – up through college where I began to be more formally educated. During my pop music phase, I began to enjoy jazz more, and God helped me to use my musical interests alongside the [multicultural] mission of our church.

Many musicians have the opportunity to interact with other ethnic groups, and their music becomes intertwined with that. I was a folkie – I played guitar (Simon and Garfunkel)… so for me to interact with African Americans in college and play a bit of blues on the piano and see the electricity of the response – moments like these changed not just my music, but my identity.

After getting off the road, I learned many of my worship leading skills after transitioning from a recording artist to a working musician and getting my graduate degree – someone who could so a variety of things with skill. I had some heroes… I learned band-leading by watching people like Duke Ellington. I saw him on videos watching his band from the piano, indicating who would take the next solo, admiring his soloists, honoring his band members, calling out their names, clapping for them… I saw Ellington as one of the great composers of American history, behaving in a very supportive role toward his band, and nurturing them.

KE: From your perspective, why is our identity so wrapped up in our worship experience, and what are the possibilities and limitations of the connection?

JW: People experience a cultural connection to their worship environment. If they’re in an environment that’s never been threatened, that’s a comfortable place for them. When they come into a space and they hear an organ playing, maybe a pipe organ, or an electronic organ, they begin to center on the experiences they’ve had in that setting.

The emotion of that environment, the psychological repose, if you will – if someone comes into a church and they expect candles to be lit, or distant voices singing in Latin – those things are all reinforcements for someone’s faith life in a corporate sense, and as they come into that environment there is that expectation.

If you take that expectation and move it over a little bit, then, and say that the church is bigger than the sound of a pipe organ, and recognize that there are people who have come to our congregation from other countries – people from the Congo, perhaps – and they want to worship God… how are we going to help them to have that same sense of emotional connection in our Western church? Some churches really don’t want to answer that or even ask it; some want to continue with the ‘one size fits all approach,’ that this is the ‘Body of Christ and we are one in the Spirit.’

Creating a welcome musical environment isn’t merely about accommodating language, though that’s an important part. It’s also about the instrumentation; it’s about the unique vocal timbre associated with singing music from different cultures.  There are worship experiences that appeal primarily to the rational experience of God. But as you move away from highly educated areas of the world and you move into areas where Christianity is something that people are fighting and dying for, there is more physicality; there’s a more basic expression of faith, sorrow and praise that’s highly repetitious. Personally, when I think of a multicultural worship experience, I’m thinking more physical – even if we’re singing music from the Western songbook, if we have a steady beat and a rhythmic pulse and people want to move, they can move. That, to me, is a welcoming environment.

Listen to Jim Ward’s Low in the Grave.

KE: What are some of the pitfalls of addressing multiple cultural identities in a worship setting?

JW: Say there’s a church that wants to have diversity, and there is resistance to that. It may produce a leader who wants to have more than one service so that, for example, “we can have one thing over here, and y’all can continue to do what you do over there” – this doesn’t address the problem, it simply says “we’re going to agree to be different.” That’s one thing if you’re going to have a bilingual church if you’re going to take people out and have a worship experience in their own native tongue. It’s another thing altogether if you’re going to have a church divided by cultures so that people can be happy. It doesn’t really look at the fact that you’re looking at the people around you, and a particular song may not be necessarily blessing you, but it’s blessing others and you release this because you love them … that’s the more positive response.

KE: How do we move a congregation of people to understand that they need to make room for others in their own worship experience?

JW: I try to make the music I choose welcoming to everyone, but I think that if there’s an explanation of the vision as people join a church – that the vision is to unite, and new members should submit to the leadership plan for unity, then I think that worship happens, and friendship and fellowship can follow.

KE: How are you preparing to pass this ethos on to the people coming behind you, and how do you see it changing?

JW: Our Black young adults don’t necessarily want to sing what Grandma sang. We’re having to look for new expressions in the field of Gospel music. It’s tricky; we’re not going to sing the same songs forever, and we’re developing new material.

Ironically, multiculturalism in society in general is becoming something that everyone is used to. In  everything from commercials to how housing is treated, to how we travel together, people are not as compartmentalized as they used to be. For example, I can have an African American woman in my congregation bring me a CD for communion meditation that’s blessed her, and the music is folk Irish Celtic worship; she’s having a visceral response to a worship experience outside of her own culture, and I want to honor that.

Listen to Jim Ward’s At the Center of My Life.

KE: Speaking of young adults, what place do you see for the Hip Hop movement in Reformed theology in your own church’s Sunday morning liturgy?

JW: I’m seeing it already. I can hear it in my head, and I’m developing a pool of people with unique gifts to pull from. There’s also something to the craft of Spoken Word where the approach is not so assertive but more contemplative, and it reminds me of some of the music from when I was younger, like Gil Scott Heron and some of the poets who spoke over their music. I’ve been listening to this record from The Robert Glasper Experiment of rappers interacting with a Rhodes (piano) sound and a slow back beat, and I can hear doing a Call to Worship this way. I’d love to hear someone get up and rap the Call to Worship; I would enjoy that myself, and I wouldn’t see any contradiction in the priorities we have in worship – I don’t think it needs to be overly dramatic, but I think in our congregation it would be well received.

To raise up musicians that speak to congregations in multicultural settings, we have to recognize that the church is  an educational institution – not a performance venue. We need to raise up our kids with sound theology. If we raise them up properly, and if they’re musically gifted, they’ll take on themselves the mission with the skills they’ve been given. I want to capture these young people in the church now and see their art assimilated into our body; I want to see this in the same way I want to see a gifted young man with a violin raised up – with sound teaching, and affirmed in his gifts.

We need to continue to teach our musicians from the Word. It concerns me when the musicians don’t stay for the preaching; they’re not getting the whole picture. The preaching Is where they’ll hear the call of the gospel on their life, and be convicted about their own sins. So in our church, we rely heavily on the preaching and discipleship for education. Growing up in the church gave me a strong sense of what’s appropriate in worship; I’m constantly trying to pass that around with a high level of musicianship.

The question is often asked, do you want the guy who’s the great musician but shallow spiritually, or the spiritual giant who can’t play? Neither of those is the best option.

The skill – the art and the spirituality – they have to come together.

This month, Jim Ward will be conducting the New City Music Conference in Chattanooga, bringing together worship leaders and planners, musicians and pastors and like minded congregations who want to engage in cross-cultural worship, fellowship, learning.  The conference will show appreciation of Northern European, African, African-American, and Hispanic traditions, as well as the contemporary expressions in these cultures. Learn more about the conference here.

3 thoughts on “At the Center of My Life: Talking with James Ward on Multicultural Worship Past, Present and Future

  1. Gabriel

    Thank you for the response. I will definitely check out the book. Again, the reason that I asked is because I play the saxophone. Over the past couple of years, I’ve heard multiple reformed people say that I’m rejecting the Regulative principle when I introduce musical instruments into worship. Since I didn’t have any frame of reference in addressing their points, I simply took their advice and stopped playing my saxophone altogether. The interview posted here definitely has me re-thinking the issue.

  2. James Ward

    Gabriel, I have found John Frame’s position on the regulative principle to be liberating rather than stifling. Check out his book on Contemporary Worship Music. He’s an apologist so he leaves no stone unturned! One should take each diverse cultural circumstance in worship for its own merits according to the Scriptures, whether it is a gospel choir with a vamp at the end, or prayers for healing, when the sick come to the front of the church for prayer and anointing with oil.

  3. Gabriel

    good interview… this is an issue that I’m thinking about much more
    recently because of my own musical interests. I have a question though. How would this discussion on multicultural worship fit into the Reformed view of the regulative principle of worship?

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