On African-American Worship, Spoken Transitions, and Children's Music

Q. Our congregation is eager to learn more about worship in the African-American tradition. Can you recommend some resources for us to study?

A. See the following books: Melva Costen, African American Christian Worship (Abingdon); William B. McClain, Come Sunday: The Liturgy of Zion (Abingdon); This Far by Faith: American Black Worship and Its African Roots (Liturgical Conference); Chestina Mitchell Archibald, Say Amen: The African American Family’s Book of Prayers (Dutton); and J. Wendell Mapson, Jr., The Ministry of Music in the Black Church (Judson Press). And don’t forget these hymnals: Lift Every Voice and Sing II (Church Hymnal Corporation); Lead Me, Guide Me (G.I.A. Publications); Songs of Zion (Abingdon). Taken together, these books explode the simplistic picture of uniformity within the African-American community held by some. As in the Hispanic, Asian, and European-American traditions, there is great diversity in worship in the African-American community.

Of course, consulting these books is no substitute for face-to-face conversations with members of African-American churches. In several communities, one of the highlights of the year is an annual joint worship service with congregations from multiple ethnic traditions.

Q. We are using a lot more lay worship leaders in our church. One problem we face is in the area of spoken transitions. Our services are well-planned, but the transitions are often forced, or too long. What advice can you give?

A. In spoken transitions, worship leaders have the opportunity to make worship accessible to all who are present, to model a worshipful attitude, and to point to the deepest purpose of what worship is all about. Just like leading music or preaching, offering spoken transitions is a skill that should be cultivated.

Spoken introductions about the mechanics of worship (for example, which page to turn to) should be clear and as short as possible. The best transitions are those that point beyond the mechanics to the meaning of what is happening in worship at that point. (See p. 45 for good examples of introducing hymns.)

Your worship committee might consider inviting all worship leaders (including your pastor!) to have a meeting where you evaluate recordings of spoken transitions at previous services and practice writing out transitions for future services. These exercises need not preclude extemporaneous elements in the service—in fact, this can help worship leaders speak extemporaneously with more effectiveness.

Q. I am concerned about the music we teach our children. In the children’s education program at our congregation, the children learn one set of songs. In children’s choir and worship, they learn a second set of music. These two groups of songs are totally separate—and some of the songs in our education program aren’t even very biblical.

A. Increasingly, churches in North America are thinking of ways to integrate education and worship programs. In fact, several congregations have suggested that teaching children about worship should be one of the most important goals for their education programs.

One congregation overcame the split you describe by mandating that there would be no music in its children’s education program that couldn’t be used in worship. Correspondingly, they committed to singing at least two pieces per week in worship that were used in the children’s education program. Fortunately, a hymnal with a leader’s guide like Songs for LiFE (CRC Publications), makes this easier to achieve.

Excerpt

ANY QUESTIONS?

We hope you find Q&A stimulating. We also hope that you’ll join in the dialogue. Send your questions about worship to Reformed Worship Q&A by mail (2850 Kalamazoo Ave. SE Grand Rapids, MI 49560), fax (616-224-0803) or e-mail (rw@crcpublications.org).

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.