Last week I offered the following gloomy prediction where matters of race are concerned in white suburban contemporary American evangelical churches: “[George] Floyd’s death will be a vague memory six months from now in most contemporary worship services in suburban America–having had an ethereal impact, if any–unless two things happen.” The first of those concerned a willingness to abandon our status-quo service orders (including our status-quo congregational song choices), at least periodically, in times of strenuous civic upheaval. That’s an effective, but short-term, way of acknowledging black lives matter.
A second, longer-lasting prescription suggests strongly that real change will not be effected until worship leaders–especially those of us who serve churches that have historically expected a steady diet of K-LOVE/CCLI Top 25 songs for congregational singing (not because they are bad but because they speak to, and in a language of, a very narrow sociological understanding of Christian faith)–educate ourselves a bit in order to do more than appear to pay lip service to our efforts to show solidarity with our African-American brothers and sisters. In the same manner that Black America has long touted education as a primary means to the end where any number of issues (self-respect, financial stability, et al.) are concerned, so, too, must White America use education to promote greater unity among its worshipers.
Hence, in no particular order, are a few resources (among a multitude shared by various ministries on social media) I think will help that cause:
Two Essential Books
If you’re a full-time worship leader–and even more so if you’re a weekend warrior–you likely don’t have time to do too much in-depth research on any subject, much less one as complicated as how corporate worship should speak to racial injustice. So consider picking up both of Dr. James Abbington’s Readings in African American Church Music and Worship, one-stop shops for all things related to the rich heritage of the worshiping black church. Volume One features such essays as W.E.B. DuBois’ “Of the Faith of the Fathers,” Sister Thea Bowman’s “The Gift of African American Sacred Song,” and the intriguing “I Am the Holy Dope Dealer: The Problem with Gospel Music Today,” by Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. (intriguing not only in title but in content, which illustrates worship-wars rhetoric is not the exclusive domain of white churches). Volume Two, published a few years later, takes a look at such topics as “The Theological Validation of Black Worship” (Samuel D. Proctor), “Back to the Heart of Worship: Praise and Worship in a Los Angeles African American Megachurch (Birgitta J. Johnson), and “Work the Works: The Role of African American Women in the Development of Contemporary Gospel” (Tammy L. Kernodle). I used the first volume extensively when I considered the new songs of Thomas A. Dorsey, the Father of Gospel Music, in my doctoral thesis; both volumes are excellent.
One Essential Web Post
The Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, once again, has been quick to make available a slew of references, compiled over the years of its ministry, to help churches speak authentically during these trying times. You can access their material here.
One Essential Playlist
Ryan Flanigan and the folks at Liturgical Folk, some of my favorite indie worship leaders, have curated a magnificent playlist drawn from some of their recent releases, Songs to Fight the Evil in Us. Their efforts speak to my charge above re: variety of worship expressions, a good start for white worship leaders looking for different contemporary worship music.
Others more informed and eloquent (and, I fully admit, with more at stake) than I have urged the American Church to work for real and lasting expressions of racial justice in our congregations. The gravitational pull of years of status-quo practices will be immense in the weeks and months ahead, especially since the enemy hates to see the Church break out of comfortable confines. The last bullet point from the Calvin post says this: “[T]here is always a temptation to think that paying attention to this for a little while will help us get past it instead of thinking of this as a lifelong posture for every Christian eager to bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit.” (Read that again and let it sink in.) In the midst of unspeakable pain and sorrow, worship leaders have an opportunity to exercise prophetic muscles for the sake of the Kingdom.
The character trait that comes to mind here is humility. Might we all pray, in the words of this great modern song (in the style of a spiritual, published by GIA as part of the Abbington-curated African American Church Music Series), “Guide My Feet” (“Lord, while I run this race, for I don’t want to run this race in vain”), taken from the Judson University Choir’s spring tour to Missouri a few months ago. (The link takes you directly to the song; feel free to watch/listen to the rest of the service, if you are so inclined. A nice rendition of Rich Mullins’ “If I Stand,” complete with hammered dulcimer, comes right after.)
The Lord be with you!