Does Liturgy or Music Keep Minorities Away from Our Church? (Part 1)

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"Let's face it. It's music that keeps minorities out of our church," said a PCA layman during the question and answer section of my Sunday school class. I have heard many comments like this. Perhaps you have also. Is it true?

To your disappointment, I am only going to focus on the liturgical aspect of worship in this post. I am somewhat aware of the many worship war debates and how the emphasis is often music; I will return to that. For now, let us briefly consider liturgy and what that may be doing to provide (dis)interest to minorities in your community.

First, allow me to clarify some things, specifically in terms of what I mean by "liturgy" and "minority." I confess that every church has a liturgy, even those congregations that believe the Spirit should not be contained within a set structure every Sunday. Most often, at least in my experience, those churches still have a certain order, or flow, of worship that is fairly concrete. Liturgy, then, is the pattern or arrangement of one's Sunday service. In the context of this post, however, when I refer to liturgy I specifically mean that pattern or arrangement of the elements of worship that is often employed in Presbyterian and Reformed churches (i.e., what some wrongly title, "covenant renewal ceremony"; see also DPW, section II).  

As I use the term "minority," I am being extremely limiting as well. I am specifically thinking of middle class, African-Americans with some church experience. The ecclesiastical affiliation subsumes under three categories: Pentecostal/Charismatic, Baptist, and Non-Denominational. The reason for such constriction is because these are the classifications with which I have most familiarity. 

One final point. As I write this, I am assuming there are African-Americans in your community and/or the community in which the church building is located. From a previous post, which highlighted ethnic diversity and the lack thereof in many of our reformed churches, one gentleman asked, "How do you know that these monochromatic churches don't already "reflect the communities in which they are"?" In many cases, they might; regardless, I am writing from the perspective that your community is ethnically diverse, particularly as it relates to African-Americans. If the community in which you live and in which the church is located is primarily one ethnic group, we should expect the church to reflect that demographic. However, with the changing trends in many parts of the USA, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find communities that are primarily one ethnic group.

Is liturgy keeping African-Americans out of our church?

It may and it may not. One ought not to assume that African-Americans are allergic to liturgy. Unfortunately, I have had many conversations with people who have suggested that, in order to attract African-Americans to one's congregation, there should be as little liturgy as possible. "African-Americans need to be free to express themselves," I was told, "and if you are liturgical, they will feel inhibited." Interestingly enough, my dear Anglo brothers were the ones making the aforementioned comments. How ironic?

In many traditional predominantly African-American Baptist churches, they have liturgy. In fact, I recently visited a church that was extremely dialogical and liturgical in their approach. They confessed their faith, had numerous scripture readings, call-and-response segments, and a host of other things that we would find in a Presbyterian and Reformed church. As an aside, though this is outside the boundaries of the three ecclesiastical categories previously mentioned, also consider looking at the liturgy at some African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches. They, too, are accustomed to utilizing liturgy that is present in our reformed churches.

It is not merely traditional black Baptist churches that employ liturgy but also a recent wave of Pentecostal churches. "Bishop Gregory Bowers is pastor of Penuel Missionary Baptist Church and also leads the Jubilee network of churches," which has partnered with the ACNA with the expressed intent to see God's church unified and employ common liturgy. 

While I have many testimonies of African-Americans enjoying, and even becoming fond of, liturgy, there are times when it is not quite grasped or liked. In my experience there are two main reasons why liturgy is not received well. First, there is a lack of understanding and familiarity with liturgy. Second, there is a dullness to the liturgy or more particularly, the liturgist. Allow me to explain the former by personal experience.

When I was first introduced to Reformed and Presbyterian churches, I knew very little about them other than the ministers preached the doctrines of grace. Singing from a hymnal, liturgy, and weekly Lord's Supper were foreign. Simply because I was unaware of such practices, however, did not make me skeptical nor hostile toward the practice. I believe I was eager to learn.

The first church my family visited was a bit off-putting, though. While the liturgy was, generally, outlined in the bulletin, the congregation said and did things that were not listed in the bulletin. For example, there were certain songs that were sang throughout the service that were not in the bulletin (e.g., the doxology). When people either stood up or sat down, that was not outlined in the bulletin either. For a newcomer, it seemed like there was a hidden code that I needed to know in order to properly fit in. That was a turn-off. Since I was already ignorant to many liturgical practices, the unfamiliarity with that particular church's liturgy did not help in my understanding and enjoyment of it.

The second issue (i.e., there is a dullness to the liturgy) is also off-putting to some African-Americans. If they are accustomed to Baptist, Pentecostal/Charismatic (and yes, I recognize there are differences), or Non-Denominational churches, there is normally a liveliness to the minister's leading of the service. He does not normally stand behind the pulpit with his elbows locked, hands latched unto the pulpit as he slightly leans toward the congregation telling us what is next in the liturgy with a monotone voice. The dullness, therefore, does not come from the liturgy itself but from the liturgist. African-Americans, in many cases, are formed by enthusiasm that comes from the pulpit. It is obvious the minister believes, or at least we hope, what he teaches. When that is not present, the liturgy can seem unappealing. 

Liturgy does not, therefore, ultimately keep African-Americans away from Reformed and Presbyterian churches. While there are some African-Americans who will not enjoy liturgy no matter how enthusiastic the minister is nor how much education is provided regarding the flow of service, in many cases, African-Americans do not mind liturgy. Although, again, this is anecdotal, I believe our church plant is a testimony to this truth (View image). God is drawing a people together, who will worship on the Lord's Day, using many of the liturgical elements found in the DPW.
Posted July 2, 2014 @ 9:59 AM by Leon Brown
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