The Current State
Churches in America are still segregated and yes, churches are that way “up north”. Why? Jesus prayed for unity in John 17. Jesus prayed for ALL of His believers to be one. Jesus was after unity. Black believers, white believers, liberal believers, conservative believers, old believers, young believers – he prayed for us all to be united and function on the standard of His word. Why, then, are we still segregated well over 2000 years later? Edward Robinson, a leading historian and student of black history in Churches of Christ stated that we have not made a commitment, among black and white Christians, to share life together. He’s right. For the most part, black Christians and white Christians haven’t made a legitimate and intentional commitment to become so engrained in each other’s lives that we understand the racial thoughts and feelings that undergird our behavior and lives. As a matter of fact, white flight prevails when neighborhoods change, and black lingering consistently is the norm in most American churches. What if “white” churches stayed when neighborhoods changed to evangelize, or black churches built in “white” areas of town? I preach at a church that’s done an excellent job of integrating. Millington Church of Christ leaders decided to integrate the church in 1970 which was unprecedented foresight at the time. As a result, nearly a hundred members left and decided to worship elsewhere. Even still, through years of integration and a solid foundation of both black and white members, our roots in worship styles still differ.
White Christian contemporaries seeking integration or acquisition of black members lament that they’re unable to reach souls or convince blacks to attend their church when they attempt to evangelize in predominantly black neighborhoods. There’s a history there that supersedes any desire to be together. Slavery and then segregation created a tangible mindset that told us we can’t be together. The church missed that opportunity to show the world our Jesus. Why is it that predominantly white churches have an easier time integrating with Hispanics who speak a different language than they do with an entire race of people that have lived in each other’s midst for over 200 years? Black churches’ worship styles differ from white churches’ worship styles and melding the two must be handled with kid gloves.
Exodus 1 details the harshness of Israel’s slavery and the King’s intentional infliction of hard labor. Exodus 3 details the Israelites’ cry for help from GOD to emancipate them. Slaves who are lamenting to GOD their oppression certainly would have had a very noticeably spirited, heartfelt, soulful worship experience. Like the Israelites (who were in Africa), American slaves lamented to GOD too. Songs like “Go Down, Moses” and “Down to the River to Pray” draw sharp parallels between Israelites and American slaves. God is known and understood as the One who sides with the weak and oppressed (Jones, 2002). God who has the power to emancipate. Additionally, black churches see a portion of worship as a social event. Worship is (and was) an opportunity for the oppressed to gather and pour out their lives, struggles, pains, weaknesses, etc. to each other and to a GOD who helpfully can respond in the time of need. Antebellum era churches in African American contexts were critical for slaves to gather socially and discuss issues such as freedom and abolition (Weisenfeld, 2016). These churches even asserted their public influence through publishing houses, journals, and other periodicals (Weisenfeld, 2016). Church and worship have historically been more than just an hour of the week to oppressed people. Worship was also a spiritual experience. I draw up sometimes when I hear one of my brothers downplay the significance of worship because they don’t understand what worship has meant to blacks throughout history. Christians worship to give glory to GOD. When we fail to worship we lend ourselves and future generations to the potential forgetting GOD and that’s as dangerous for us as it was for Israel. Worship was a very necessary and extremely valuable time to cry out to GOD for deliverance from oppression. It was a time to cry out to GOD for deliverance from inequality and lynching. Worship represents a time to seek spiritual help when our sons are being killed in the name of the law when they’re unarmed. Worship style is, in part, a learned behavior. Robinson stated in an interview that “some black congregations want to maintain control of how they worship and how they conduct their affairs.” Black congregants don’t want to be chastised or judged for taking their time (sometimes all day) to pour out their heart or for giving a heartfelt 10-minute testimony after a sermon. Black congregants want to cry out to GOD in adlibbing in songs (which is born of slavery). What does worship look like between the oppressed and those who have plenty? Worship styles are different today because our history has impacted us.
In the spirit of unity, integrating or attempted integration may be necessary. However, it’s equally necessary to give both black and white congregants stake in the service, worship style, church activities. The white way isn’t the right way and the black way isn’t the correct way. Styles are just different for historical reasons that we should understand prior to our attempt at unity. In keeping with Jesus prayer, let’s be one in Church and one in understanding of intergenerational learned behavior in church.
Jones, C. (2002). African-American Worship: Its Heritage, Character, and Quality. Ministry Magazine.
McMillon, L. (2009). A Conversation with Edward J. Robinson. . Retrieved from https://christianchronicle.org/a-conversation-with-edward-j-robinson/
Weisenfeld, J. (2016). Religion in African American History. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American
History. DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.013.24