Diverse Unity in Adventist Worship

There has been much talk in Adventism recently about unity. There have been hints that “worldly” worship music and “unbiblical worship styles” have been infiltrating our historic worship services. Should our local worship service be the same as the worship service down the street, across the country, and across the globe?

Worship leaders are charged with telling God's story in a local context. Our context is a local body of believers which may or may not include people groups vastly different from ourselves. I serve in a multi-ethnic local church context within a diverse denomination. According to a Pew Research study, the Seventh-day Adventist denomination was ranked as the most diverse religious group in the United States.1 The Florida Hospital Church (FHC) congregation is an excellent representation of our denomination in this regard as there are a host of different people groups represented every week.

My wife and I recently went to supper with some of our friends who are partners in music ministry and who are Black (from the islands). Part of our conversation steered to music in the church; they expressed thanks that we continually tried to reach out to different ethnic groups through variations in musical style while trying to be faithful to that genre and to the gospel. I learned some fascinating things about Black culture from our friends, including that those from the Caribbean Islands may have a very different perspective than those from the African-American South regarding culture and worship. These friends didn't feel a strong inclination to regularly attend an all-Black church, although they weren't opposed to visiting. Their philosophy was much more cosmopolitan regarding having different people groups worship together. We also acknowledged the importance of cultural heritage and a safe place to discuss community issues. I was reminded of how ignorant I often am about other cultures and assumptions that I make.

In Worship Together, Josh Davis acknowledges this sentiment: “Without taking the time to really get to know people, all you are left with is your assumptions about them, based on stereotypes and partial information and previous experiences. This can be dangerous!”2 I have decided to try and engage my congregants more often in conversation regarding culture. As uncomfortable as it may be initially, there have been improvements in understanding. Conversation, biblical/historical/cultural study, and experimentation are all pieces of developing cultural relationships in worship.

The Florida Hospital Church includes a variety of styles in corporate worship, not as a gimmick, but because that is who we are in the body of Christ. The Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture gives us four ways that the gospel and culture interact dynamically:

1. It is trans-cultural, the same substance for everyone everywhere, beyond culture.

2. It is contextual, varying according to the local situation (both nature and culture).

3. It is counter-cultural, challenging what is contrary to the Gospel in a given culture.

4. It is cross-cultural, making possible sharing between different local cultures.3

Substance is an excellent choice of words in the first sentence. When we retain the substance of the gospel in different cultures, we retain the essence but have the flexibility for it to appear differently in form. These four ideas carry a great deal of weight in our gospel approach to cultures. This statement also reminds us that worship is transcultural, “The resurrected Christ whom we worship, and through whom by the power of the Holy Spirit we know the grace of the Triune God, transcends and indeed is beyond all cultures.”4 One of the ways that we realize being transcultural is through different genres of worship music.

Using these different genres, however, requires careful contextualization. Styles need to be thoughtfully considered to ensure they are adequately understood and do not become a hindrance to worship. Careful planning, crafting, and rehearsing can remove obstacles to congregants. Aside from these, it is critical to explain to the congregation what is happening and why. This has taken our worship to a new depth and a greater appreciation. We assess our successes and failures through conversations, surveys, staff meetings, and a worship committee.

Our church music ministry Lifelong Worship took on our first songwriting project this past year in the form of a studio album. The music that we produced is very multicultural — like the congregation. On the recording, we have a wide variety of genres represented: radio-friendly CCM, Americana, bluegrass, bossa nova, a ballad with orchestral strings, blues, acoustic, country, and reggae. We have begun crafting our second album based on the Psalms, and we intend to keep our multicultural feel for this project.

FHC has representation from many of the islands in the Caribbean, hence the reggae track on our album. It is interesting that in the islands some churches will not use steel drums because of the association with carnival. Yet, in our church, they love to hear the pans played for God's glory. Ethno-worship educator Pedrito Reid agrees: "Too often the Euro-American ethos entirely dominates the worship service; in many such cases worship scratches where people are not itching. Too often we are wedded to the rusty old organ that has no appeal to the soul of the islander. How much more alive would the worship experience be if the steel pan and the reggae rhythms in themselves were not seen as sensual, sacrilegious and carnal but as elements that can awaken the spiritual chords of the soul.”5

I am reminded how differently people can worship and yet God can be honored. Worship author Rory Noland said something similar when he pastored in very different worship communities spanning several decades. He noted that God can still be honored in different ways but we have to “know your context, everything is not transferable, be flexible, and foster participatory worship.”6

When we examine the life of Christ, we see his superculture exclusively as the Kingdom of God. His desire is for all to be saved and have knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:3-4). Jesus was consistently challenging the religious thought of the superculture and reaching out to every sub-culture in his view: the little children (Mark 10:13-16), the lepers (Luke 17:11-19), the demon-possessed (Mark 5:1-20), the Centurion (Matthew 8:5-13), and the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42), etc.

As we emulate Christ’s philosophy into our local worship setting, we broaden our horizons to be more inclusive. We are encouraged to avoid an Anglo-centered hegemony — what Brenda Eatman Aghahowa calls “liturgical imperialism” — and to try appreciating and accentuating a broad range of musical subcultures in America.7 The truth is, this effort is so rewarding for the Christ-minded musician, it is like a high-end buffet with the finest and freshest of foods at your disposal. If anything, you can almost be overwhelmed by the choices. God has placed us at such a time as this, not to be stagnant in our approach to supercultures in worship, but to use the very best of the rich traditions of Christendom and apply them in new and creative ways for his glory.

Josh Davis framed it this way, “Unity in diversity is something far more wonderful than unity in similarity.”8 This is a beautiful statement that acknowledges the God who created a diverse world. He goes on to make the analogy of music making through a symphony orchestra. There are a wide array of instruments from the string, brass, woodwind, and percussion families. When they come together, sometimes they play in unison, sometimes in harmony, but they also play in dissonance. The totality can produce a beautiful symphony. The trick is that they must all be under the baton of the master, yielding the impulse to do their own thing, and instead, following the master to create an artistic vision.

We are reminded in Scripture of the great worship services that are to come: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9). Until this time comes, we must carefully examine ways that we can come together as the body of Christ, unified not by tribe, but by mission.

Notes & References:

1. Michael Lipka. “The Most and Least Racially Diverse U.S. Religious Groups.” Pew Research Center. Last modified July 27, 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/27/the-most-and-least-racially-diverse-u-s-religious-groups/

2. Josh Davis, Worship Together in Your Church as in Heaven (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2015), Kindle Locations 618-619.

3. Anne Zaki, “Four Ways Culture & Worship Relate,” Mission Frontiers (Sept/Oct 2014): 17.

4. “Calvin College.” Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture Full Text. Accessed November 5, 2018. https://worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/nairobi-statement-on-worship-and-culture-full-text/

5. Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid, Diverse Worship: African-American, Caribbean and Hispanic Perspectives (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 1459-1461 Kindle Edition.

6. Rory Noland, Liberty University Online, https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_382727_1&content_id=_18492554_1, Accessed 9.14.17.

7. Gerardo Marti. Worship across the Racial Divide: Religious Music and the Multiracial Congregation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 36.

8. Davis, Kindle Locations 459-460.

Richard Hickam is the Minister of Music at the Florida Hospital Church and Director for Arts in Ministry at Adventist Health System in Orlando, FL. He intends to graduate in May 2019 with his doctorate in Worship Studies. Richard is passionate about being an ambassador of reconciliation in God's missional story.

Photo by Spencer Imbrock on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9236

“Not by tribe but by mission.” Great thought that needs to be practiced in every congregation. The thought should be inclusive of gender in the pulpit.,

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Mission is part of it.
Unity is of mind, purpose & character.

Adventism does not promote that.

As far as music…I have attended a few mega churches, one where the rock music is SO LOUD that they have ear plugs available in the foyer.

Adventist churches don’t have to play their hymns at 78 RPM but it would be better if they played them at 45 instead of 331/3 rpm.

Especially when the person leading the song wants to sing all 4 stanzas.

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SDA music is sterile. It sounds as if someone made up a tune to some lyrics. It is presented like medicine that is recommended, a ghastly liquid that is supposedly good for you and you ought to swallow and smile and say AMEN.

What if they could create truly great songs like this?



I think I have witnessed nothing in the church with the capability to start an argument faster than the topic of music in worship. Just a few weeks ago what was a friendly conversation over lunch with people from a nearby church somehow got onto the topic of music in worship and I soon had a woman in my face expressing with great energy about how she feared using any musical instruments in the church other than the piano or organ would quickly lead to loud rock-n-roll music and people dancing wildly in the aisles! I could hardly believe my ears, but it was obvious that she believed it.

What I find missing from virtually every discussion about music in worship is a definition of worship itself. Years ago I used my electronic concordance to do a verse-by-verse search of the Bible to see what instructions I could find about how to worship and found too little to form the basis for a universal concept. What should a person’s posture be in prayer? I found references to standing with hands raised heavenward, kneeling and lying prostrate on the ground. (I don’t remember finding any mention of anyone folding their hands in prayer or having their eyes closed.) There also is scant mention of what anyone did to worship God. But what I found was that when a person offered worship to God it was often after a personal encounter with God and that encounter triggered a response of adoration and praise.

The biggest thing I learned was that God accepts our worship, whatever form it may take. So any claim about what is “Biblical” or “worshipful” is based on misconceptions about what worship is. What matters most in worship is not how we worship but if we’re having encounters with God that compel us to worship Him.

As for those who speak loudly and critically about worship styles and music in worship, I have found that the strength of conviction with which a person expresses their complaint or criticism is very revealing about the personal insecurity they are experiencing in their relationship with God.


In Psalms, David tells us several times to “sing a new song to the Lord.” Singing to God lifts our hearts to Him and enables expression from the depths of our soul that words alone often cannot tell.

I have had the great blessing of becoming personally acquainted with several very talented composers and arrangers of spiritual music. They each tell of how the songs they write are not of their own composition, but an outgrowth of their personal relationship with God and their private worship experience. As composer Dennis Jernigan says, he is “not a song writer, but a song recorder” because God gives him the songs.

After the current SDA Church Hymnal was released, I went through the entire book and created a spreadsheet recording the dates listed for when the song was originally written and when the arrangement given there was written. I was shocked to see that the average age of the original compositions was more than 240 years old and the average age of the specific arrangements was more than a century old! Some songs like “Faith of our Fathers” were five centuries old. That’s hardly a new song like David told us to sing.

Contemporary Christian composers and artists are producing a veritable flood of glorious, praise-filled music that are powerful in lifting my heart to God. Dismissing music just because it is new is a prescription for missing powerful, even life-changing blessings.


Very interesting, William!

Perhaps dismissing music because it is old is also a prescription for missing powerful, even life-changing blessings?

Could a “fusion of horizons” possibly enrich our experience even more?


I deride and dismiss “praise music”. — we derisively label it “SEVEN ELEVEN MUSIC “. — not after the grocery store chain —. but because it is seven words repeated eleven times —-all to the tuneless accompaniment of drums and banjos!

Recently a church I usually support financially, started to have “praise music”.

My annual generous contributions switched from their church budget to giving the money to SPECTRUM instead!

I should have been an Episcopalian, since I like a “high church” liturgy.

The current church I attend has one of the largest pipe organs on the west coast, with a virtuoso organist to match, an awesome bell choir, and a splendid choir.

Also an ordained clergywoman as the senior pastor, who preaches a succinct superb sermon never lasting more than fifteen minutes.

Needless to say it is not an Adventist congregation as even our institutional college churches with stellar choirs and organists, have preachers who are too verbose!

The quality of the worship hour is extremely important to me!

Many Adventist congregations allow lengthy verbal announcements ( all such should be printed in the bulletin) lengthy childrens’ stories and other gobbledygook which detract from the sublimity of the worship experience.

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I think you’re really gonna enjoy Heaven, Robin, providing God doesn’t burn you alive, of course. :slight_smile:

I, on the other hand, disappear into Jesus-is-my-boyfriend music, wallow in it, binge on it, the schmaltzier and more repetitive the better.

I also like your kind of music.

For some reason, Hanz comes to mind…

All of the above. How we relate to the music depends on how it blesses us and how effectively it lifts our hearts to God and express what is on our hearts to Him. There are a number of old hymns that do that for me but their number is being eclipsed by the number of newer songs that do it for me. I don’t think it matters If one song speaks to my heart but doesn’t speak to mine because we come from different life experiences. What I ask is if it is effective in lifting your heart to God.

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I love the Nairobi Statement of Worship and Culture. It’s a solid work that should utilized more by a global worship community like the Adventist Church.

Please, tell me which church that is so I can avoid going there. To me, the pipe organ is just an assault on the eardrums because it is so overpowering that it fails to facilitate me expressing my praise and adoration to God.

Delivering informative and inspirational sermons as short as that female pastor is an admirable model for others to follow. Still, I find that I am becoming almost allergic to sermons for a long list of reasons, not the least of which is that I have searched the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and have found not a single example of anything even remotely resembling the modern concept of a sermon. What I have found is that Jesus, Paul and others used the model of a rabbinic dialogue where there is an exchange of questions and answers and a guided discussion that requires the listener to think critically and thus learn inductively. We’re supposed to be following the example of Jesus, so since he never used anything resembling a modern sermon, why should we? Since worship is our expression of praise and adoration to God, the greatest effect of a sermon is preventing worship because it prohibits us from expressing much of anything.


Its not a new concept

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Are you familiar with the Hillsong Church in Australia? They are far more than a single congregation and actually are multiple congregations in each of three cities in Australia along with having branch churches in a growing list of cities around the world. They typically have multiple services with a variety of worship styles in different services to attract people with varied musical and worship style preferences. Some of the compositions and arrangements by their musical talent, most famously Darlene Zschech, (EX: “Shout to the Lord”) have become record-setting global favorites. I have been blessed by many of their songs and the testimonies telling the stories behind the songs.

Had to pause in my carpet ripping to dance to that. :dancer:

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Of course it’s not. But they took a style of music, modified it as all good artists do, and applied it in the gospel genre.

What do you think about Amazing Grace? According to Wikipedia, “in 1835, William Walker assigned Newton’s words to a traditional song named New Britain, which was itself an amalgamation of two melodies (Gallaher and St. Mary) first published in the Columbian Harmony by Charles H. Spilman and Benjamin Shaw (Cincinnati, 1829).

Having learnt that the hymn has roots in a tune called “St. Mary”, would you now tear it out of your hymnbook and walk out of the church when it is sung? When asked the day of the week, do you refrain from saying Sunday, for example, because that name was given in honour of the sun god of pagans long ago? How far from the company of society are you willing to go to be lily white and pure?



Looking forward to a video of the performance.



Sorry, I only do private performances for my Invisible Friend in the Sky. :innocent:


Why does the discussion of “worship” generally default to “music”? pet peeve of mine, btw

How do different personalities respond to worship gatherings? (NOT talking about JUST music… :rofl:)

I had never considered that what Cholerics thrive on is the same thing that frustrates Melancholics. And whereas a Melancholic enjoys repetitive elements like liturgy, those elements annoy Sanguines. This creates an interesting challenge for a pastor’s vision. It is an area that I want to continue to explore.

Curators should be sensitive to these differences. A thoughtful curator should provide a few elements that address the different worship comfort preferences. Is this what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23?

Of course you can argue, that one should segregate personalities… what a family mess that would be!