The Straight Truth About Multiracial Worship

The Straight Truth About Multiracial Worship

Gerardo Marti’s Worship Across the Racial Divide: Religious Music and the Multiracial Congregation is a sociological exploration of worship music ministry in multiethnic churches, and as such, its timing is critically important. There’s, of course, no shortage of resources that point to multicultural worship music as a panacea to cure what ails struggling churches, something that will help to usher in a glorious new dawn of cross-racial unity. What sets this work apart is its approach.

Worship Across the Racial Divide aims to be more descriptive than prescriptive. Through thousands of interviews of pastors, worship leaders, and congregants from a variety of multiethnic churches across the diverse state of California, Marti, a sociology professor at Davidson College, uncovers a series of principles and patterns gleaned from actual multicultural worship ministries. Rather than speculate on what should be, the book tells us a lot about what is.

And when it comes to multicultural worship music, what is — that is, the way things are being done — is sometimes at odds with what or how we expect things to be.

Philosophical Differences

With the rise of diversity as a cultural value in churches, there has been a noticeable creative spike regarding worship musicians diversifying their sound. The prominence of Israel Houghton, especially, has opened doors for a host of other artists (Freddy Rodriguez, William McDowell, Tye Tribbett, etc.) who have in some measure adopted a similar, dynamic, multicultural sound, what some might call the sound of the new breed.

Yet, when it comes to the ways in which multiethnic churches are approaching their music, that Israel-and-New-Breed sound is far from the norm. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most important is the differences in philosophies regarding musical styles. According to Marti, there are four main philosophical models of music selection at play in multicultural or multiethnic (for the most part, those words are used interchangeably) churches:

a.) The Professionalist – where the style of music doesn’t matter as much, so long as whatever music that’s performed is done with excellence (high musical variety, low racial awareness).

b.) The Traditionalist – where the style of music performed is whatever the worship leader or the church leadership is most comfortable with (low musical variety, low racial awareness)

c.) The Assimilationist – where the chosen style is deemed to be “universal” and can connect with most or all kinds of people (low musical variety, high racial awareness)

d.) The Pluralist – where a variety of styles are deliberately chosen to connect with various ethnic groups (high musical variety, high racial awareness).

Most leaders who deal in worship music may find themselves somewhere in these philosophical models, maybe even incorporating more than one approach depending on context. But the key is to remember, not only is there no magic bullet for achieving multiethnic worship music, but among practitioners of multicultural worship ministry, there seems to be no consensus as to how to define it.

And while the Pluralist approach seems to be the most explicitly racialized, it’s also most susceptible to racial stereotyping.

Less Rhythm, More Relationship

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the book is how little it has to do with music, per se.

It’s become a common refrain that worship is more than music. What did surprise me was the extent to which not even the music itself is about music. Contrary to popular assumption, Marti’s research shows tha the success of multicultural church music ministry lies less in the adoption or mastery of a particular style of music, and more in the use of music ministry programs to form lasting cross-cultural connections in the congregation. In other words, it’s less about the rhythm, more about the relationship.

That’s because worship music is defined less by a particular sound and more by the activity that encompasses it. Worship music is inherently participatory, and it’s in this participation that lasting bonds are forged. It’s true monoculturally, and it’s even more true cross-culturally. Especially because worship ministries are by definition high profile, it’s often common for racial diversity to show up first or in greater proportions with the worship ministry compared to the congregation at large, a phenomenon Marti refers to as “ritualized racial inclusion.”  The more people of color are conspicuously recruited and displayed on the platform, the more welcoming an atmosphere is projected, and the more likely people of various races will want to call that church home. Which isn’t to say that the style or the sound doesn’t matter at all — it just means that it’s not necessarily the key element that guarantees success. People might come through the door because of how the choir or the band sounds, but what will keep them coming back will be the relationships.

Cautions and Warnings

Worship Across the Racial Divide is not an easy book to read. It gets bogged down in sociological jargon in places, and because of its reliance on interviews, sometimes after five or six quotes supporting the same idea it feels redundant. Also, it should be stated that, despite Marti’s intent to reach a cross-section of diverse churches, they were all still in California. I’m sure there are plenty of cultural differences that come into play when you factor in regional geography.

Nevertheless, this  work is a landmark achievement that lends plenty of insight into how multicultural worship is being done today, and how it might be done in the future.

Praying for the People of Aurora

Praying for the People of Aurora

CRIME SCENE: Police cars and emergency vehicles gather around the Century 16 Theatre in Aurora, Colorado, where early this morning a gunman opened fire on moviegoers during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” (Photo: Jonathan Castner/Newscom)

“A lone gunman dressed in riot gear burst into a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., at a midnight showing of the Batman film ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ and methodically began shooting patrons, killing at least 12 people and injuring at least 50,” ABC News reported this morning.

The outpouring of prayer has been swift. President Obama, speaking from a campaign event in Fort Meyers, Florida, asked for a moment of silence and prayed that the Lord bring would bring the people of Aurora “comfort and healing in hard days to come.” He also promised to “stand by our neighbors in Colorado during this extraordinarily difficult time” and expressed heartbreak on behalf of “the entire American family.” The president didn’t hesitate to call the shooter’s violent rampage “evil.” But he also said the tragedy provides us with an opportunity to reflect on “what makes life worth living.”

“If there’s anything to take away from this tragedy it’s the reminder that life is very fragile.  Our time here is limited and it is precious.  And what matters at the end of the day is not the small things, it’s not the trivial things, which so often consume us and our daily lives.  Ultimately, it’s how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another,” said President Obama.

Both Religion News Service and The Huffington Post published round-ups of tweets from faith leaders regarding the tragedy. Charisma magazine followed with condolences from politicians, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who said, “Confronted with incomprehensible evil, Americans pull together and embrace our national family more tightly. I join President Obama, and every American, in sending my thoughts and prayers to the victims of this awful tragedy. We will all stand with them, as one nation, in the days ahead.”

At The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf referred to a 2000 Atlantic article about how police in Colorado and elsewhere have changed their training and protocol for mass shootings in public places. Before Columbine, first responders “never rushed in,” but now, “they are being taught to enter a building if they are the first to arrive at the scene, to chase the gunman, and to kill or disable him as quickly as possible.” Sadly, in Aurora, they were too late for 62 people or more.

“It is time we acknowledge US has a domestic terrorism problem with carnage multiplied by easy access to firearms,” tweeted Mercer University ethicist David Gushee.

The city of Aurora is holding a “dark night prayer vigil” at the Aurora municipal building tonight at 7:00 pm, said Colorado Community Church pastor Robert Gelinas on his Facebook page.

Let’s join all these voices in praying for the Aurora community, the families of those who’ve died, the survivors whose lives are forever changed, and for an end to domestic terrorism.