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.
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.