How We Got Over

The Approach, Word, and Response in African American Worship

Throughout the church’s history, Christians have looked at how worship connects to community through a variety of means, including song, Word, vocation, table, and prayer. In fact, one of the most controversial and mystifying subjects in all of history is where and to whom our worship is pointed. In African-American worship traditions, the liturgical pattern has deep roots and a broad heritage. Despite the trauma of enslavement and enduring centuries of injustice, the echoing voices of ancestral bonds and vibrant rhythms continue to shape the approach and actions of African-American worship.

Glory, Glory, Hallelujah

From the chanting of the deacon to the prayers of the saints to the “tuning up” of the preacher, music continues to be the essence of the Black worship experience, informing how we see God’s story intersecting with our daily lives.

Music in the Black worship experience both recognizes the sound of struggle and celebration and honors the voices of our heritage. For many African slaves, music was their connection to God and to one another. Their approach to God included a theological framework of praise. The freedom they longed to return to was found in their adoration and offering of worship.

Clapping, singing, dancing, shouting! This embodied music was not only an expressive act for African-American worshipers, but became the place where God would meet them. The expectation of the gathered faithful is that these expressions not only set the tone for the preached Word, but also prepares the listener to be engaged in mind, spirit, and body.

There’s no question that the African-American worship experience draws participants to engage in the rhythms of the liturgy through a musical lens. But, as gospel music songwriter Kirk Franklin asked in the early 1990s, why do we sing? When we lift our hands to Jesus, what do we really mean? The response to these questions moves us from simple expression to encounter.

Lift Every Voice and Sing

The psalms instruct us to “enter (God’s) gates with thanksgiving” (Psalm 100:4). One of the foundational elements of the African-American worship experience is the testimony service. This is the portion of the liturgy dedicated to offering those gathered an opportunity to give voice to the goodness of God. African-Americans understand this practice to be an encounter involving God, those who have come to worship, and the community at large. Because community is such an important pillar of Black expression, all who are present are invited to give thanks. As a child I was encouraged to grab my tambourine and join the lauding chorus. It is lively. It is engaging. It is emotional. It is inviting. The eschatology of the Black worship experience invokes the power of the Spirit and the witness of the gathered community to empower worshipers to continue marching forward, even in the midst of hardship and struggle. While we wonder, where we go from here, this portion of the worship service helps us to more fully engage Jesus’ command to love God and love neighbor as we offer a communal sacrifice of praise.

If God Said It, That Settles It

The leading voice in the worship expression is the preacher, the faithful woman or man who exegetes the Word that brings life. There is a reverence and expectation in the Black church that worshipers will hear from the Lord as the preacher hears from heaven on behalf of the congregation. Everything that happens before this moment is preparation for hearing and responding to the witness and presentation of the sermon. God’s Word gives strength. God’s Word brings hope.

In the Black tradition, hearing the Word is not merely an intellectual exercise with a cerebral response. It activates a full-body, sacrificial response: worship. Worship that moves beyond the four walls of the church. Worship that invokes a love of God and neighbor like what Jesus commands in Matthew 22:36–40: “‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”’”

This is vital to understanding the witness of community, which is where the Black community finds strength. Following the proclamation of the Word, then, is the invitation, or “altar call” (see also RW 136:32), which is the affirmation of the witness of the Word in action.

I Need You; You Need Me

Regardless of one’s ethnicity, worship is the appropriate response to God. We were created ultimately to worship God. Worship is the chief responsibility of every Christian. Growing up in the African American worship experience, I longed to see what worship could look like as a musical and cultural collision with the faithful who didn’t look like me. I’ve been given many opportunities to gather with brothers and sisters around the globe. I’ve encountered many rhythms that felt natural and other rhythms that stretched me. There is always much that we can learn from each other, especially about the God whom we all serve.

Black church invites participants into a conversation with the living God that reflects the communal experience of African Americans. The additional emphasis on partnering with God in recognizing injustice and lamenting inequities in the world has always struck a balance between mourning and celebration.

Worship within the African American tradition is often described as unique, soul-stirring, and demonstrative. It is about what we have been through. But it is also about how we “got over,” rooted in grace and empowered by the Spirit.

Pastor Jeremy Simpson serves in campus ministry at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and is a Worship Catalyzer for Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. He is a passionate teacher, pastor, musician, and creative.