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Archives / 2002 / September

 

African-American worship: Its heritage, character, and quality

R. Clifford Jones

 

Editorial Note: While the varied cultures of the Christian world each have their beautiful and distinctive ways of worshiping, there is something uniquely enriching about African-American Christian worship. We believe it embodies under lying patterns of thought and experience that do much to commend it to Christians everywhere.

Anybody who has observed or participated in an African- American Christian worship service will admit that there is an undeniable difference between the way American Blacks worship and the worship of other racial and ethnic groups. Rooted in their unique social history in America, the difference is more one of function and experience than proof that one style is superior to another.

In this reflection I shall explore contemporary African-American Christian worship, beginning with an examination of the religious heritage African slaves brought with them to the New World. Next, I shall investigate the theology of African-American worship, following with a focus on its characteristics and elements.I will end with a brief outline of some of the challenges facing Black worship.

The African religious heritage

The Africans who came to America had a myriad of religious beliefs and practices, including the belief in a transcendent, benevolent God who created the universe and was its ultimate Provider1 and though Europeans did not introduce the God of the Judeo-Christian ethic to Africans,2 seemingly intractable problems have faced those con tending that African religious beliefs and practices survived both the "Middle Passage" and the effects of slavery.

One school of thought, championed by E. Franklin Frazier, asserts that slavery in the United States erased all the religious myths the slaves brought with them.3 Conversely, others, among them Melville Herskovits, argue that survivals, residuals, and "Africanisms" are still evident in African-American culture, especial ly its religious practices.4

Striking a balance between these two extremes are scholars like Albert J. Raboteau, who though admitting that the gods of Africa all but died in America posit that early African-American religion was a syncretism of the African and the European. This school of thought contends that the African- American religion that remains to this day is a reworked Christianity crafted to meet the unique social context of the African American.5

An Africanism, for instance, that survived the "Middle Passage" and had a powerful impact on early African-American spirituality is the African understanding of life. Because Africans tend to view life holistically, the secular and the sacred are not mutually exclusive realities that exist in antagonistic tension but interconnected phenomena. Slaves held on to this understanding of life, and the result was that their worship was restricted to neither time nor place.

A theology of African-American Christian worship

Because people of African descent in North America tend to view life as a single system, their worship is integrative, holistic, and experiential. Traditionally, it has been inextricably woven into the stuff of their life. Born in slavery, weaned under Jim Crow segregation, and reared in discrimination, African-American worship is inseparably linked with Black life.

Community is a grounding principle of Black worship, understood by African-Americans as an encounter involving God, the worshiper, and the broader community.6 For them worship is not primarily the expression of one's private devotion to God, but is rather a community event. It is the "eschatological invasion of God into the gathered community of victims, empowering them with the divine Spirit from on high to keep on keeping on even though the odds might appear to be against them."7

Martin Luther King, Jr. asserted that at its core, and best, Black worship is a social experience in which people from all walks of life affirm their unity and oneness in God.8 Always a divine experiment and dynamic happening, it is experienced as a response to the Holy Spirit's call to the believer to cast off his or her coat of cares and enter the divine presence. As God's presence is experienced anew, praise, adoration, thanksgiving, submission, and commitment are offered by the celebrant.

In African-American Christian worship God is known and understood as the One who sides with the weak and oppressed. For Blacks, a God who does not care does not count, and they believe that the sovereign God continues to intervene in history in very concrete ways on their behalf. This God possesses absolute, unlimited power and delights in saving.9

God's Son, Jesus Christ, whose incarnational commitment to the poor was evidenced in His suffering, death, and resurrection, holds out hope for the personal and corporate transformation of humankind. There are no metaphysical distinctions between God and Jesus Christ in African-American Christian worship. Through the liberating presence of the Holy Spirit, both God the Father and God the Son are immediately present, and Blacks will fluctuate between calling upon Jesus for strength to help them climb up "the rough side of the mountain" and testifying to an Almighty God about '"how they got over.'"10

African-American Christian worship is the corporate celebration of what God, through Jesus Christ, has done for the community in diaspora. In worship, celebrants confess their sins and accept God's forgiveness after they have been confronted by God, made uneasy by His judgments, and consoled by God's grace.11

For African Americans, worship is not as cerebral and rationalistic as it is experiential and dynamic. This is the case because African-American Christian worship focuses not so much on the transmission of abstract ideas and information as it does on the communal sharing of reality.12

African Americans, in their worship, do not want only to learn something but to feel something, namely God's Spirit.13 They aspire to know God personally rather than to know about God through doctrines and creeds, and they frown on the mere recitation of dogmas as proof that God is known. What matters most is to know God through God's revelational activities in their personal and corporate lives.14

Yet their emphasis on experience does not mean that their worship is hollow and mere emotion. On the contrary, African-American worship has always held emotion and intellect in creative tension, rejecting the either/or for the both/and paradigm.

Characteristics of African-American Christian worship

Pastoral Care. Few things have provided African Americans with the coping and survival skills so vital to their experience in the United States as has worship. Black worship sup plied slaves with effective psychological and emotional medicine to combat slavery's decimation of their sense of being and worth. Today it is still a veritable "Balm in Gilead" that keeps African Americans sane and balanced in their world of traditionalized disenfranchisement and powerlessness. In short, Black worship has always been about pastoral care, providing celebrants with comfort and healing.

How are comfort and healing engendered during worship? Comfort is experienced as worshipers sing songs grounded in struggles that speak of a better tomorrow and hear testimonies from those who have "come over a way that with tears has been watered." Comfort comes as prayer is offered that reminds celebrants of the power of God to right wrongs, and preachers who know how to speak to aching hearts and confused minds expound the Word.15

Yet it is in drawing people into God's never-ending story of love that African-American worship functions best as pastoral care. As African Americans become aware of the fact that they have been integrated into God's story, their sense of being and wholeness is validated, and they respond by giving praise to God.

Liberation. Another characteristic of African-American Christian worship is liberation. African-American worship is a celebration of freedom in which people enter and experience the liberating presence of the Holy Spirit. It has been called a "black happening, the time when the people gather together in the name of the One who promised that he would not leave the little ones alone in trouble."16

A critical aspect of the liberation themes characteristic of Black worship is its refusal to be victimized by the tyranny of the clock. Liberation in African-American Christian worship is also evident in the ways in which music is performed, with Black singers and instrumentalists seldom being content to render a piece as it appears in print. Not uncommonly, they elect to search for notes and chords that strike a responsive strain in the African-American soul and experience.

Empowerment. African-American worship not only comforts and liberates, but empowers for current and future struggles. Historically, the Black church has functioned as an agent of social cohesion, an agency of economic cooperation, a forum for political activity, and, generally, as a haven in a hostile world.17

Today, Black religious leaders continue to responsibly sensitize African Americans about the social, political, and religious structures that seek to rob not only them but all of God's people of their God-given rights as persons. Worship leaders make sure that in worship people receive equipment and empowerment to confront these structures and forces.

"We truly worship as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to embody Christ present in and through us," asserts Wilson Costen, who adds that in true and authentic worship there is a "dialectical relationship rather than a dichotomy between faith and practice, justice and ritual action (liturgy and justice), theological talk and doxological li ing, and sanctification and human liberation."18

Celebration. A fourth characteristic of African-American worship is celebration. Simply put, Black worship is a celebration of who God is, what God has done, is doing, and will do for His people. Such worship is celebratory because it is rooted in a "theology of thanksgiving honed on the peripheral jagged edges of life."19

For a people still facing daunting challenges, waking up "clothed in your right mind and experiencing a measure of health and strength" is reason enough to praise God that things are as good as they are. In African-American worship people have a good time in the Lord, and it is not uncommon as they leave a service to hear them ask: "Didn't we have church today?!" Yet to have church is not simply to engage in hand clapping, but to experience anew the liberating presence and power of Jesus Christ.

Elements of African-American Christian worship

Among the many elements of Black worship are prayer, music, and preaching. Together, they form a formidable combination for praise and thanksgiving.

Prayer. In the African-American worship service, prayer is an irreplaceable that consists of three critical factors: the individual praying, the prayer itself, and the participation of the congregation.20

The Spirit of God takes possession of the person who prays as much as He does the preacher, with the result that the person approaches "the throne of grace" humbly, an empty vessel waiting to be filled. Black prayer is not an escape mechanism, but "having a little talk with Jesus" and "taking your burdens to the Lord."

It is "approaching the throne of grace" on behalf of the community which continues to feel "like a motherless chile" and is sure it is still "a long ways from home." More than poetic posturing, this kind of prayer is "rattlin' the gates of heaven" in the name of Jesus, who "sits high but bows low" and is "always on the main line" where He is ever "a-listenin' to hear somebody pray."

African Americans place a premium on the moment of prayer, which (for many of them) is the high point of the worship service. They will flock to the altar for prayer, firmly believing that there is additional power and efficacy in the extra steps of faith.

Whether at the altar or in the pew, many will participate in the prayer moment with utterances of "Yes, Lord," "Please, God," and "Come, Holy Spirit." Whatever their responses, African Americans are almost always involved in the prayer moment, designed to create a sense that the burdens of life will be made lighter, if they will not be removed altogether, and to offer strength for the journey ahead.

Music. The most tangible transmitter of African-American spirituality, music plays second fiddle only to preaching in Black worship, with the two combining to create the mini mum conditions for a fulfilling, elevating worship service.21

Wendell Mapson asserts that the power of African-American worship is in the music, saying that Blacks will forgive poor preaching if the worship service can be salvaged with good music.22

During slavery music was used to beckon the faithful to a predetermined spot for worship. Slaves understood that music helped to create a feeling of freedom, facilitated an awareness of God's presence, and engendered an atmosphere in which God's grace could be experienced.23

Unlike the ancient Jews who refused to sing in a strange land (Psalm 137:1-4), slaves sang, bequeathing to Western culture a genre of music that is uniquely and authentically American the Negro Spiritual. In the context of slavery the meaning of the Spiritual was at once ambiguous and profound, transcendent and immanent, otherworldly and pertaining to this world.

Thus, Spirituals protested the social conditions in which Blacks were locked even as they pointed to a better day of freedom and justice. Almost always, they communicated on several levels at once.

Preaching. There is little doubt that the African-American preacher occu pies a prominent place in Black history. Dating back to slavery, the African-American preacher has been one with the capacity to "tell the story," an ability grounded not so much in book knowledge as in an experience with Jesus Christ and an undeniable call to ministry.24

Today, Black preaching continues to pique, fascinate, and inspire people of all races and walks of life.

What is Black preaching? Cleophus LaRue posits that it is not so much a matter of style or technique as it is a function of the historical and contemporary experiences people of color have had in the United States, out of which they forged a distinctive biblical hermeneutic. LaRue lists as characteristics of African-American preaching strong biblical content, creative use of language, appeal to emotions, and ministerial authority.25

In a similar vein, Calvin B. Rock states that Black preaching is more a function of content than a form or rhetorical style, adding that it is the substance of Black preaching that informs and shapes its style,26

The primary objective of African-American preaching is to enable the listener to experience the grace and love of Jesus Christ, the response to which is usually one of celebration and praise.27 The cross of Christ is ever the substance and sum of Black preaching.

For Black Seventh-day Adventist preachers, the challenge to keep Christ as the core and center of their preaching is even more acute, given the premium Adventists place on content. Yet Rock admonishes Black Adventist preachers to be true to both their cultural heritage and their remnant heritage, believing that Black preaching and Seventh-day Adventist preaching are not mutually exclusive but complementary.28

African-American preaching is at its best when it is undergirded by two important hermeneutical principles. The first is that the gospel must be declared in the language of the people. The second is that the gospel must scratch where the people itch.

Historically, African-American preachers have had no qualms about utilizing these two principles, especially the second. Which is not to say that the Black sermon does not feed the mind as much as it satisfies the soul. Indeed, it is in this regard that the genius of Black preaching is most evident.

An African-American sermon is an experience of truth, not just a notion of truth. It must be felt and not just heard. To be sure, its cognitive elements must be present, but it must be so also when it comes to the emotive realities.

Black preaching is dialogical. It travels both vertically and horizontally. African-American preachers seldom, if ever, mount the pulpit if they have no word from the Lord, and this word is honed and sharpened by the preacher in his or her prayer chamber as well as in the preacher's study.

Black preachers know that each sermon they preach must originate with God, who will not bless the preaching moment if the preacher has not spent ample time with Him. In the pulpit, they carry on an unending dialogue with God and the congregation.

"I feel the Spirit moving" is an utterance the African-American preacher will emit to let the people know that the preacher has established a connection with heaven and is hearing from God. "Help me, Holy Ghost" is a plea for divine help with the delivery of the sermon, to which the congregation may respond; ''Help him, Lord."

"Do I have a witness?" is a statement designed to bring the congregation into the preaching moment, while "Tell it, preacher!" or "Preach!" testify that the preacher is onto something substantive.

Because Black preachers take evangelism seriously, they seldom just wind down, Wrap up, and take their seats without appealing for people to accept and confess Jesus as Lord. Failure to "open the doors of the church" is an unforgivable sin in the Black church, and the African- American preacher has been known to invite people to accept Christ at funeral services.

The invitation for people to accept Jesus is usually preceded and/or accompanied by a song.

Tasks of African-American worship

With no pretension's to being exhaustive, the following are some contemporary tasks of African- American worship. It must continue:

1. To reflect the communal experience of African Americans without minimizing the ultimate focus of worship adoration of and for God!

2. To hold in creative tension its unambiguous emphasis on correcting the injustices and inequities in this world with an eschatological focus on the life to come.

3. To strike a balance between spontaneity and order.

4. To be celebratory without succumbing to emotionalism.

5. To liven up worship and celebrate Christ.

African-American worship has played a vital role in the African- American community. Slaves who did not abandon their African religious heritage came to accept the God of their masters, worshiping God first in the "Invisible Institution" and later in their free churches.

Theirs was a reworked Christianity uniquely suited to meet the needs of their existential situation. A celebration of God's redemptive acts in history and on their behalf, their worship provided them with pastoral care, liberation, and empowerment. Prayer, music, and the preached Word are among the elements of their worship, destined to continue to be a "Balm in Gilead" for the journey ahead.

 

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1 Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion. The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978)1 11.

2 See Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Nampe, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 577, 578.

3 E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Church in America (new York: Schochen Books, 1964), 6.

4 Melville J. Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past (Boston Beacon Press, 1941), 207-260.

5 Raboteau, 58 59, 86. See also Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll. The World the Slaves Built (New York Pantheon Books, 1974).

6 Pedrito Maynard-Reid, Diverse Worship- African-American, Caribbean and Hispanic Perspective": (Downers Grove, III. Inter Varsity Press, 2000), 61, 63.

7 James Cone, for My People. Black Theology and the Black Church (Mart-knoll, NY Orbis Books, 1984), 24.

8 Martin Luther King, Jr, Strength to Love (New York- Harper and Row, 1963), 48

9 Cleophus LaRue, The Heart of Mack Preaching (Louisville. Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 3, 5

10 James Cone, Speaking the.Truth. Ecumenism, Liberation and Black Theology (Grand Rapids William B Lerdmans Pub Co , 1986), 140

11 J Wendell Mapson, Jr, The Ministry of Music in the Black Church (Valley Forge, Pa Judson Press, 1984), 40

12 Melva Wilson Costen, African-American Christian Worship (Nashville Abingdon Press, 1993), 18

13 Maynard-Reid, 61.

14 Costen, 20.

15 William D Watley, Singing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land (Grand Rapids, William B Eerdmans, 1993), 22, 23

16 James Cone, God of the Oppressed (San Francisco Harper and Row, 1975), 144

17 Frazier, 29-46

18 Costen, 126.

19 Watlcy, 20

20 Harold A. Carter, The Prayer Tradition of Black People (Valley Forge Judson Press, 1976), 53

21 C Erie Lincoln and Lawrence H Mamiya, The Black Church in the African-American Experience (Durham Duke University Press,
1990), 346.

22 Mapson, 20

23 Costen, 45.

24 God of the Oppressed, 58.

25 Cleophus LaRue, The Heat t of BlackPreaching (Louisville. Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 1, 6-12

26 Calvin B Rock, "Black SDA Preaching Balanced and Binding or Betwixt and Between?" Mtnt\try, September 2000, 5-10 For another important perspective on Black preaching, see Leslie N Pollard, "African-American Preaching Saga and Song," Ministry, May 1995,5-9

27 Frank A Thomas, They Like to Never Quit Praising God- The Role of Celebration in Preaching (Cleveland United Church Press, 1997), 19

28 Rock, 10

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