Diversity and Music: African Americans in Predominantly Non-Black Churches
October 3, 2016
Properly understood, diversity highlights aspects of both the atoning work of Christ (Rev. 5:9) and the economic Trinity (John 3:34-35). The former, in part, underscores the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20). It is, therefore, incumbent upon Christ's Church to take the Gospel to the nations. As we do, we will encounter people who are dissimilar aesthetically, culturally, generationally, politically, socio-economically, intellectually, and ethnically. Our cultural blind spots will be exposed, our preferences will be challenged, and our Christ-likeness will increase. As the diversity conversations continue, there are many areas on which we can focus. How did we get here? That's partly an historical question. There are things in this nation's past that created the division that is clearly evident in the church today. How can we change? That is a strategic inquiry. We must examine our cultural assumptions, hospitality practices, variation within our relationships, and so on. Within the umbrella of that question, one area of supreme importance is that which concerns Lord's Day music. How does our church music promote or prohibit the inclusion of African Americans? Before briefly examining church music selections, I want to dispel the notion that all one must do is preach the Gospel and leave the results up to God. Although I believe preaching the good news is paramount, no church merely preaches the Gospel. There are cultural accoutrements that may hinder the possibility of growing in diversity. Language (i.e., phrases, Clichés, colloquialisms, etc.) and the ethos of one's church are two examples. If a minister, for instance, states from the pulpit, "We, as conservative Christians, believe that Jesus [insert the good news]," that could cause quite a stir for some African Americans. Like the word diversity, conservative is a buzzword that means different things to different people. In recent history, so-called conservative Christians did not allow African Americans to worship with Anglos on the Lord's Day. Professing conservative Christians helped institute the practice of redlining. Today, it seems that some conservative Christians are more concerned about life inside the womb than life outside of the womb. The Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) requires both. (See WLC 135). Language, therefore, can hinder diversity within one's church, and we need each other to help uncover those areas that might prohibit those for whom Christ died from entering our Presbyterian and Reformed Churches. (For an explanation of the ethos element of our church cultures, here is a talk that I gave at the 2016 PCA General Assembly. It may be helpful). What about our church music may promote or restrict the diversity within our congregations? As I write this, I'm specifically referring to areas that contain a high African American demographic. If the area in which the church building is stationed is predominantly one ethic group, the church-gathered should reflect that. Those areas are decreasing more and more, however. According to some reports, the United States will be a majority-minority nation by 2044. In the meantime, how should we be thinking about church music? Even within the realm of exclusive psalmody, our music can hinder or promote diversity. One area we must tackle, as it relates to church music, is our assumptions. What do African Americans like and prefer? Based on numerous conversations and multiple Facebook posts, it seems that there is growing consensus, particularly among whites, that African Americans prefer gospel music. That genre of music has a rich heritage within many African American churches. Whether Baptist, Pentecostal, or African Methodist Episcopal, you can be certain that on the Lord's Day, your souls will be uplifted with a vibrant and biblical choral selection. However, simply because many black churches sing gospel music does not mean all black churches sing gospel music. Recently, one of our elder candidates and I visited an African American church (an Independent Baptist church). Three things were notable. First, he was one of only about three whites in the entire building. Second, he knew more of the hymns than me. This man happened to be brought up in an Independent Baptist Church. Third, the congregation only sang hymns and they sang them at a slower pace than I'm accustomed to singing them in a PCA setting. You could neither clap your hands nor sway your hips to them! In short, African Americans are as diverse as the color of our skin. We do not have a preference for only one genre of music. Among some blacks, there is a growing trend to rearrange hymns. The words, "Come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace," sound quite different in standard measure on a piano than accompanied by a guitar and played with more of a neo-soul flavor. Consider also the modern hymn "The Power of the Cross" by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, Doxa recently rearranged it. You can clearly hear and feel the difference. All of this is an extended way of saying that we must be careful--in our pursuit of fostering God-glorifying diversity by means of musical selection--not to presume that African Americans necessarily prefer a certain genre of music. Requiring complete cultural assimilation will work against you. Nevertheless, as you ponder potential musical changes in your Lord's Day service, it might be a good practice to speak with African Americans in your community. If they are a part of a congregation, ask them what kind of church music they are used to and/or prefer. Use that as a barometer for any changes you may consider making in your congregation. You can also speak with other African Americans in your denomination or federation. Receive general input from them. I'm certain it will be helpful to the process.We have highly valued music since the start of our church plant. Not wishing to make assumptions about the genre of music preferred by those who were coming, I asked our members to submit the top 5 church songs that they would like to sing in worship (and, I continue to ask new members this question). From these lists, we then selected some of the songs that we believed were robustly biblical and that we could sing congregationally. In our context, this process has worked quite well. Members of our church feel that they have a hook on which to hang their cultural hats. Music is a terrific way to address--not to ignore--the preferences of the people and love our neighbors as ourselves.