This series explores how to facilitate disparate cultures' coming together in communal worship. Here, Eileen Howard shares what it means to sacrifice our own comfort in worship for the sake of reconciliation and inclusivity (adapted from 7/10/2011):
Across America on Sunday, about 43% of the population will go to worship. In most cases, they will worship with folks who are pretty much like themselves. They will mostly be of the same ethnicity, education level, and economic class. In many cases, members of those churches will say that they really would like folks of other ethnicities to join them. Or they want to reach out to folks who are poor, but poor people “just don’t come to their church”. Or they may even be a church that serves the poor throughout the week with meals, clothing and other actions, but those same poor people do not join them in worship on Sunday.
What these congregations may not realize is that, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, their church has a big “Keep Out” sign for those who are different from themselves.
In order to invite economic and racial diversity, we have to make a sacrifice of the worship and musical styles dearest to our hearts. It requires us to shift our worship from being a comforting retreat, to being outreach. It requires making diversity a higher priority than our own spiritual (and social) comfort. The exciting news is that, in doing so, we find a richness of spiritual growth that we have not previously experienced.
Questions of musical style in worship can and do divide congregations in a hurry. The people who like traditional church music, might not like contemporary Christian music, and the folks who like traditional Black church music may not like a white style that they consider boring. Some folks find Country gospel music as grating to them as nails on a chalkboard.
Here are just a few examples of stylistic struggles with diversity and music in worship:
- Those who grew up in traditional worship may find meaning and comfort in old hymns and formal and liturgical worship. They may be comfortable with pipe organs, robes, and enjoy classical music and choirs. Some people feel betrayed and fearful about “Contemporary” worship. It feels like what is most precious to them is being discarded. They may be turned off by what they see as the emotional and superficial nature of Contemporary Christian worship music.
- Many traditional hymns are in styles that were very popular when they were written at the turn of the 20th century or earlier, but they feel old and stilted to unchurched folk. Language was different – more flowery, with a greater vocabulary, and now requires a college education to understand. Many people today just don’t connect with traditional worship.
- A lot of traditionally African-American music is focused on personal salvation and sustenance, with less of an emphasis on deepening discipleship. Some people find it overly emotional and lengthy. Traditionally black services are often filled with vocal feedback to the pastor or choir that may be perceived as disrespectful by others.
- Many churches that do good work for the poor sing songs about social justice and caring for the poor. Many of these songs have a meditative folk/Celtic quality that may not connect much with non-white cultures. Many songs come from the perspective of being ABOUT poor people, not WITH them. Not surprisingly, not many poor folk appear to be worshiping in the congregations that serve them and there is limited racial diversity.
So, the dilemma is: how can we have relevant worship that is inviting for rich and poor, black and white, young and old, churched, de-churched, and un-churched, that also has depth of discipleship, and includes both evangelism and social justice? Seems like an impossible task!
For eight years, I have been the Minister of Music for C4AP in Columbus, Ohio. This intentionally cross-class, multi-racial, inclusive congregation has been worshiping with and working with the poor since its inception. It’s not perfect, but over time what we found was that folks, for whom traditional black gospel resonated, started liking some of the pop/rock contemporary Christian songs. And folks who liked peaceful Celtic worship music, kind of got jazzed by modern Black Gospel songs.
In the midst of learning to love one another and making a sacrifice of the praise that most resonated within ourselves, we have learned to love the forms of praise and worship most cherished by others who are different from us.
Here’s the spiritual gem I have found: Letting go of “my preferred” music or worship style is practice for letting go of prejudices, stereotypes and labels that divide us one from another. It is relinquishing the worship that suits “my needs” and embracing worship that speaks to my neighbor. It is about loving one another through worshiping together.
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