Kenneth L. Wallace Jr. on Multiethnic Worship
Multiethnic worship includes but is much more than singing songs from diverse cultures. An ethnodoxologist who identifies as African American Choctaw Pawnee says you need to know your own culture’s stories and gifts to share with and receive from Christians in other cultures.
Kenneth L. Wallace Jr. is a professor at NAAITS, an Indigenous, learning community, and Kairos University. He is also a certified aromatherapist with Wallace and Wallace Healing Center and an ethnodoxologist with Kingdom Reflections Multiethnic Worship Ministries. Wallace currently lives in London, Ontario, Canada. In this edited conversation, he talks about key concepts for creating authentically multiethnic worship.
In what geographic area, Christian tradition, and culture did you grow up?
I grew up in a U.S. military family, so geographically we lived all over the place—but mainly on the east coast of the U.S. Most churches we attended were Baptist of one shade or another. While in university, I attended several different denominational churches, including a year at a Messianic synagogue. I am an African American Choctaw Pawnee in the fullness of what that means. I believe that my Indigenous heritage only serves to enrich the African American parts of my identity. When people ask me about blood quantum, I jokingly say I am 100 percent of each. I truly am 100 percent of who Creator made me to be.
Can you explain some key terms for learning about multiethnic worship?
Sure. I’ll define critical contextualization, cruciform worship, and worship decolonization. I say that critical contextualization is examining one’s culture for the marks of how God was at work and then using those marks in worship in response to his being and revelation. This is done within the framework of scriptural guidance, the Holy Spirit, and the community wherein the contextualization is to take place.
Cruciform worship is the holistic expression of one’s response to God at his initiation and one’s corporate expression of loving the neighbor. If one were to place arrows describing the direction of engagement, or the flow of love, there would be a vertical arrow flowing back and forth from God to people and people to Creator. There would also be a horizontal arrow flowing back and forth between people. Together this forms a cross, representing Jesus, the best expression of this holistic worship—hence, cruciform worship.
And what does it mean to decolonize worship so it becomes truly multiethnic?
Decolonization of worship is the work of releasing the ideologies, manners, and concepts that have been imposed on one’s culture by another’s in the name of Christianity. This is often done in conjunction with critical contextualization. One should not deconstruct without the intention of reconstructing. The process of decolonization answers the question “Is this Christianity, or is this someone else’s culture wrapped in Christian language?” More often than not, I find that someone’s culture is being confused for the definition of faith in Creator, his Son, and the Great Spirit.
How have you used these concepts to name and change worship practices in a faith community?
My church, Mosaic Church in London, Ontario, is currently experiencing an expression of critical contextualization borne from my own decolonization process. Since our church is studying God’s generosity, we wanted to lead our community in growing in generosity. God placed a gift of generosity in the Choctaw people. One traditional expression of this is the give-away ceremony where a blanket is laid and blessed and gifts are placed on it. These gifts are later redistributed to the community. I introduced this as a way of understanding God’s generosity towards us as well as a way for us to be generous to our community (cruciform worship).
For the past few weeks we have performed this ceremony in the place in worship where we would traditionally have the offering. The conversations around the blanket have been rich, our community has been blessed, and the congregation has observably been generous.
Can you share a story of how worship expanded your imagination about who God is and what God is calling you to?
During my doctoral program at the Institute for Worship Studies, I clearly remember walking with my class into a sanctuary with high rafters, stained glass, and an impressive altar. It was the type of space that causes you to catch your breath and makes you drop your voice to a whisper. The professors then instructed us to look up. The beams arching above our heads looked like the hull of a boat. In whispered tones, they explained to us that God calls us into the ark, just like Noah, amid a world of chaos and destruction. But he calls us in and rescues us—not to stay in the ark, but to send us back out into the world to help re-create it anew. My mind was blown. Even in the architecture of our sanctuaries, God reveals himself, and our only response is worship!
A corporate experience of the same power happened this summer at the NAIITS: A Learning Community Symposium. Michelle Nieviadomy, Cree, presented a paper on the place and importance of grandmothers in our communities. Afterwards, I asked what men can do in response. She said we should “get out of the way.” At the next session, the worship team drum circle, usually composed of men in this context, had a conversation. This led not only to women joining us standing around the drum, but to women leading the entire conference in the “Women’s Warrior Song” and ceremony (a prayer for missing and murdered Indigenous women). This time of worship led by women was a powerful expression of the gifts that Creator placed in women.
Do you have any tips for pastors, worship leaders, or lay leaders who long to make worship more multiethnic, especially for congregations that aren’t very diverse?
One of the major tips I give people is to learn and lean into your own stories. There is always a danger when we are talking about doing multiethnic worship to exoticize the other. But we cannot begin to appreciate the gifts God has given other cultures if we do not truly know and understand our own. This is true as well for congregations that are not very visibly diverse.
I am sure there is a diversity of subcultures, varying giftings, and life stories that can be used to enrich corporate worship. For those that are not quite sure yet, or have negative responses, I point to Revelation 21:23–26. The kings and the nations all bring their own “glories” into the heavenly city. The word for “glories” there is doxa, like doxology, worship. Each culture is bringing worship that is unique to them to the King—not as a free-will offering or a choice, but in tribute. God requires that we return the gifts of our cultures to him in worship. This is not an add-on, but a requirement. And as Jesus taught us to pray, may his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Beyond church worship, how do you use your Indigenous heritage to point people toward Creator?
At Wallace and Wallace Healing Center, we like to say, “Creator has given us everything we need to take care of ourselves.” So my wife, Achlaï Ernest Wallace, is a registered psychotherapist, and I am a certified aromatherapist. I lead Kairos Blanket Exercise workshops to help Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada learn about their shared history. I do hoop dances in the way of Jesus at powwows. And through my side business, Don Conejo Designs, I do beadwork that tells stories of humanity’s interconnectedness.
Kenneth L. Wallace Jr. and Achlaï Ernest Wallace founded Kingdom Reflections Multiethnic Worship Ministries, which offers training, seminars, and consultations on multiethnic, multilingual, and multicultural worship. Elder Martina Pierre explains why she wrote “Women’s Warrior Song.”