The other day I was rereading an article written by Michael Hawn “Singing Across the Generations: is there Hope?”1 and I came across this statement on page 20, “congregations that are virtually all African American or Latino most often worship together as multigenerational families.” He goes on to say that Anglo-dominated, middle-class congregations from 200-400 in attendance were more likely to offer two or three different patterns of worship (based on musical style). According to Hawn, minority-dominant congregations tend to worship intergenerationally. Hawn does not aim to explain why this data exists, but focuses on strategies for how churches can find unity in their musical worship.
I’m curious as to why. Why are Anglo-dominated congregations more likely to have multiple types of styles of services? The argument that a new, improved, more energetic contemporary service in the name of attracting new or de-church people will bring young families in doesn’t seem to be the answer in the non Anglo-dominated church. Many of our minority-dominated churches are thriving The African American and Hispanic dominated congregations I’m familiar all over the with all over the world aren’t dying…in fact they are growing! I’ve been to several Latin American churches (all intergenerational) that are THRIVING and the gospel is proclaimed and received.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking, praying, strategizing about how to bring musical elements that transcend generations into our worship context. I’m very interested how minority-dominated congregations have managed to avoid the “worship wars” and what I can learn from them.
This post is not designed to find ways to bring multi-ethnic elements into a particular church content. Anyone with Google can find hundred of articles and books on the subject. However, to begin the conversation, I want to discuss some traits I’ve found in minority-dominated churches that might give a few clues as to why these types of churches have chosen to worship intergerationally. I have a few ideas I’d like to share–all anecdotal although observed many times. As always, there are doubtless others.
- Minority-dominated congregations are made of families that VALUE being together. Go to any Latin American country and you’ll see multiple generations living together. They value all; church is no different. Most non-Anglo cultures are ultra family-centric. The “it takes a village” mentality is evident. My observation is women in minority-dominate churches are taking care of many generations of children and raising in a “pack-mentality.” It’s not uncommon to find many Hispanic and African American grandmothers helping raise their own grandchildren.
- Minority-dominated congregations are not afraid of emotionally-driven, passionate times of worship. One of the reasons many Anglo-dominate churches have decided to add “contemporary” services alongside their “traditional” services has been that some feel that traditional worship is stuffy, uninspired, boring, and lacking passion. Those who find comfortable in the predictable liturgy of a traditional service find contemporary services irreverent. Minority-dominate churches just don’t have (my opinion) boring or dispassionate music. It’s always been passionate and will continue to be. Ergo, there is no need to separate services based on style.
- Minority-dominate churches cling to their ethnicity while embracing new. The musical worship in these churches is rooted in who they are historically. While they aren’t afraid to embrace new styles of music, they would never create a worship service that excluded one musical style over another. They know their culture and context.
- Participation comes from all generations in minority-dominate churches. Some of this is due to the size of the church. Many are small churches that need everyone to work together. However, my experience has been that even as these churches have gotten larger, (some of our largest churches in America are African- American and Asian dominated) they have not lost their intergenerational nature. All have a role in worship leadership.
- Choir participation in minority-dominate churches is still HIGH. I can’t think of an African-American dominate church today that doesn’t use a choir. This could be said for many other non-Anglo ethnic groups as well. While authors of the “National Congregations Study” (Chavez and Anderson 1998 and 2008) reported that choirs in all types of churches has decreased from 72.3% in 1998 to 58% in 2008, there is no evidence of decreased participation in minority-dominated congregations in this study. In fact not only does it remain common, it is intentionality intergenerational (not just choirs of members with with white hair)! These churches have figured out how important a choir can still be relevant. In fact many leaders of these churches depend on the energy that the choir brings to musical worship, an energy that cannot be replicated by any other means.
I’m positive I’ve only scratched the surface and there are always exceptions to these comments, but I can’t help but notice that it seems to me that only Anglo-dominated churches (and generally in America) think creating separate worship events which contains only one style of music and liturgy is ultimately healthy for the church. This can lead to generational separation, but more importantly, separate services also prevents the fusion of multi-ethnic musical variety. It is only through cooperation and inclusion of multiple styles that we may paint of picture of how heaven will truly be—all peoples worshiping together in many different ways, but worshiping…together.
1Liturgy, 24 (3), 2009: 19-28.
A few months ago I wrote an article about the rise of choral singing in America from a study from Chorus America. If you missed that blog post, check it out here: Church Choirs Shouldn’t be Declining Because of Lack of Interest. Last week, I ran across another article called 1 in 6 Americans sings in a choir — and they’re healthier for it.
This article cites the same study, but this paragraph stood out to me:
It’s no secret that America’s social fabric is unraveling. Participation in churches and religious institutions is down. Fraternal organizations are shrinking. Marriage rates continue to decline. Voting is up, but volunteering is down. The differences dividing us seem greater than the similarities.
That last line stuck out to me. Our differences are dividing us and churches are not immune. In fact the enemy has targeted the bride of Christ, who loves nothing more than to create division. This division is contrary to the admonition of Scripture. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesian church urges [us] to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3 ESV).
I’m suggesting that our churches have a unity problem. The decline in church attendance is doubtless linked to the decline of church choir mentioned in this study. The decline of the church choir has removed one of the most visible models of unity on display in our local churches. Week in and out, vibrant church choirs demonstrate unity in worship leadership. Further, when we get rid of graded choirs, we don’t have the opportunity to start this “discipleship of unity” early in the spiritual formation of the students. Sadly, I believe many of displaced church choir members are the reason community choirs are on the rise.
Any choral group, by design, must strive for unity in various ways. While striving for unity, our individuality must take a backseat for the good of the whole. Here’s a quick list of some areas where choirs must be unified:
- Vowels, articulation, rhythm, consonants, breathing, phrasing, dynamics, etc.
- Often, but not always, dress. Concert dress or robes often hide the individuality of each person for a unified look.
- Blend vocally. I included this as a separate number because listening and blending is crucial to choral tone. In choral singing we must give up our solo tendencies to achieve unity and balance.
- Preferences in music or in other facets of choir ministry. Often we don’t always sing everything that we personally like. That’s okay, the person sitting next to you might love what you hate. That’s the beauty of mutual submission—loving one another more than yourself.
The list could go on, but consider this, I learned more about serving others and working together toward a goal in a choral setting than any other facet of the local church. I believe the task of moving many people toward a unified goal will result in greater effectiveness for the Kingdom.
Last night I was approached by an octogenarian woman during our family night meal. She looked me dead in the face and said something to the effect of, “Will, you’ve made me learn to love contemporary music.” As I’ve thought about this over the last day, I’m starting to wonder how I’ve made her learn to love contemporary music? I didn’t realize I had that power! Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to continue our conversation because I needed to get to my first rehearsal. Of course the next time I see her I’m going to ask her, but for now, I can only guess why she said that to me—and 80-something year old woman whose church music heart-language likely does not include the latest Passion tune. However, something in the way we present contemporary music resonates with someone from our Builder generation.
While I don’t have an exact answer to why she felt compelled to stop me at the coffee bar yet, I have some guesses:
- Utilize contemporary songs that are biblically-rich. I refuse to put on the lips of our people songs that aren’t clear in theology and Christ-glorifying.
- Utilize contemporary songs where the music and text complement each other. Much has been said about this, but effective text/word painting is crucial to cementing the truth in the minds and hearts of the worshipers.
- Utilize contemporary songs with a hook. You all know what I’m talking about—songs with the indelible earworm. Songs that have sections that contain melodic (or even harmonic) sections that you can’t get out of your head. My current earworms are Way Maker and I Belong to Jesus (O Hallelujah). If you don’t know them, be prepared to invest lots of time hearing the song in your head. But you know what? These songs reinforce the TRUTH of who God is and my relationship and response to Him. If you listen any pop music at all, the most popular songs have hooks–and rightly so, we humans respond to them. No matter your age, a fantastic hook transcends generations!
- Instrumentation. I don’t think we can overestimate the importance of how the music is played and sung. A rock band is going to sound different on most contemporary songs than a full orchestra (even if you have the same rhythm section in your orchestra). We use orchestra every week and my guess is our chosen method of presentation is more intergenerational friendly.
- Volume. I CANNOT stress how important volume and decibel level is in a worship service. I talk at length about this in my article here: The Noise is Deafening and It’s Not My Fault! Basically, as we get older, we get more sensitive to sound. If you want to ostracize older people, disregard decibel levels. We make very sure that we set volume levels appropriately for our worship space.
- Relationships. I care about the people I serve. I care about the content that God has given me the responsibility to feed them musically. My octogenarian friend probably has learned to love contemporary music because I do not lay aside our historically-rich hymns of the faith either. In fact I try to find creative ways to use textual similarities between new and old and put them together in worship services. I want all generations in my church to know that no music is off-limits based on it’s copyright date alone. By this I’m able to bridge gaps and build relationships across generational lines. It’s kind of an inter-musical approach for the intergenerational church!
What might you add to my list here?