Some weeks ago I posted an article which was painfully honest about the lack of diversity at the National Worship Leaders Conference I attended in May of 2017. It would be unfair to simply allow my criticisms to stand without suggesting some solutions, or at the very least, citing counterexamples which can stand as models for avoiding the problems I pointed out. Fortunately, I work for a church which is unusually diverse, and this diversity is reflected in our music as much as anything else.
We have four worship leaders at my church, and one of them, in particular, has a great track record when it comes to selecting music which challenges the complacency of the standard CCM songbook. Her name is Jennifer Hernandez, and it is interesting to note that she is young (25 years old); is fluent in both English and Spanish; and that she is… a she, a woman. Some of her more interesting choices over the past year have included Jesus Lifted Me by Sass O’Frass Tunic and Don’t Wanna Fight originally recorded by Alabama Shakes.
Similarly, we frequently delve into the repertoire of the African American church communities, performing gospel songs such as You Deserve It, or pieces which incorporate elements of rap and hip hop, such as I’ll Keep On. Even dipping into secular music can be useful, since many secular artists have touched on issues of faith in their songwriting, for example, U2’s 40 .
Arguably, the most useful way to break out of the cliches which hamper so much of modern worship music is to encourage the writing of new music, which frequently defies categorization. Take, for example, Can’t Go It Alone, an exquisite composition written by Jennifer Hawley. The same can be said for the wonderful a cappella piece Covers Me, written by Hannah Graf, which has received over 1800 views on Facebook in less than a week. Clearly this music is resonating with people. And it should also be noted that the bulk of original music being performed at my church is written by women, which helps to break us out of the rut which CCM seems stuck in.
It is also worth mentioning that we frequently include lyrics in Spanish, French, and a multitude of other languages (Korean, Swahili, Tamil, Luganda, and so on). We have a great many African musicians who have joined our team over the past year, and we are now preparing to introduce some of their best-loved songs into our repertoire. All of this defies the stereotype which has evolved since the 1990s: worship music of, by, and for white males, a populace which is rapidly ageing and whose aesthetic sensibilities are becoming less and less relevant with each passing year. This is not to say that there isn’t a place at the table for the Chris Tomlins and Paul Baloches of the world, but the table must be much larger and much more inclusive than it has been over the past decade. The NWLC simply confirmed the stark truth of this, and if church music hopes to remain relevant, it must break down the barriers which prevent musical — as well as every other sort of — diversity from thriving. It is significant to note that one of the women who performed at that conference, the inimitable Nikki Lerner, has since announced her own MWLC — Multicultural Worship Leaders Conference — which will be held this coming November in Columbia, MD. It is my fervent hope that this is a harbinger of many such events to come which, together, can combine to definitively change the direction of Christian music over the next decade for the better.