Several African American pastors and leaders in West Michigan churches began meeting regularly a couple of years ago for study and encouragement with the help of a Lilly-funded Peer Learning Group. A recurring theme in their discussions has been how to function as African Americans in ministry in a way that integrates their Reformed theology; they have been especially eager to find creative ways to reach urban African American youth. One of the books they read together, On Being Black and Reformed, is reviewed on page 34.
Several years ago I attended a conference held at an African American church. At the end of the first evening, the speaker challenged us to return on time the next day as we would have the pleasure of attending a “black” worship service led by the pastor and choir of the host church. The implication was that for many attendees the worship service would be a new experience, something out of the ordinary.
The next day I attended worship and was mildly surprised. The service featured traditional hymns, a classical choir selection accompanied by a pipe organ, and a sermon very similar to those I had heard in many Reformed churches. The only distinctive was the presence of a guitar player whose amplifier was turned down so low I could not hear it. Afterward I found myself asking, What is “black” or African American worship? Is there really such a thing? And what does Afro-Christian worship look like in a Reformed context?
This article is an effort to respond to these questions and some common assumptions about Afro-Christian worship through the lens of a group of African American pastors and leaders who work and worship in multiracial congregations in Reformed churches.
We use the term “Afro-Christian” to describe worship that is shaped by both historical worship elements and the cultural experience of people of African descent. What follows should not be seen as a definitive model of Afro-Christian worship but rather as examples of how some pastors and leaders in the Reformed context are creating worship that is a convergence of their theological and cultural context. These examples speak to three common assumptions and present two assertions about Afro-Christian worship.
Assumption: Preaching in Afro-Christian worship is all emotion and no substance.
Reggie Smith: My goal has been to navigate between the two. African American preaching within Reformed worship combines the disciplines of exegesis, delivery, and theological reflection. I have struggled to integrate these complex yet distinct cultural bases of church life. As I enter the pulpit on Sunday, I approach preaching with a few goals in mind. I am not always successful, but I try, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to include these goals in my preaching.
First, African American preaching is a relationship between the text, preacher, and congregation. The key word is relationship. Jesus seems to approach preaching as a relational event. African American preaching and Reformed worship agree that the liturgy is the work of the people and that in preaching from the Bible the preacher speaks the very Word of God. Second, African American preaching engages the head, heart, and emotions. The preacher restrains herself from an all-or-nothing approach. Preaching and worship must “keep it real.” The context of sin, salvation, and service are engaged through the liturgy and preaching. African American preachers have a long history of integrating head, heart, and emotions, as witnessed so often in the ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King. Finally, African American preaching within Reformed worship has been saturated in God’s grace. Preaching the miracle of grace presupposes the God who stoops down to meet human beings, not humans rising up to meet God. I come every Lord’s Day, along with fellow sinners, face to face with Jesus, our only Savior and the true giver of grace.
Assumption: Afro-Christian worship is not liturgical.
Andre Daley: A student at Princeton Seminary made that statement in a class on worship. This began a time of intense conversation in which the African American students, myself included, tried to refute the assumption: “We have liturgy and order, we just don’t print it in a bulletin”; “Our liturgy may not look like what you are used to, but it still is liturgy”; “We are more flexible about it and don’t have everything the same all the time.”
Since that time I have thought that this myth arises from an unconscious conclusion that form equals function—a conclusion often shared by those not familiar with Afro-Christian worship. So if traditional prescribed liturgical forms are not clearly evident in a bulletin, then there is no liturgy. Afro-Christian worship as it is practiced in my Reformed context is most definitely liturgical, although the liturgy is not shaped by prescribed forms. There is a framework (approaching God, hearing from God, responding to God) from which we develop the liturgy, but the liturgy is shaped by the function. One might find it difficult to discern a formal call to worship in our services. You will not hear the words of the votum and salutation, but the function they serve (inviting the people to approach God in worship) is there in the music, story, or visual elements that begin the service. The same is true for each element of the worship liturgy.
Assumption: Afro-Christian worship uses only gospel music.
Stedford Sims: We use updated hymns and contemporary worship songs, as well as a mix of hip-hop style that appeals to a younger age group. We recognize that while our worship has to be inviting to an African American audience it must also appeal to the younger generation. As a core team we are able to sacrifice our individual preference because we understand that our music selection helps us fulfill our vision.
Our overarching goal is to move worshipers towards a personal and corporate tangible encounter with the living God. We incorporate a time of “singing spiritual songs and hymns” (Eph. 5:17-20) that is spontaneous.
There may be times when the atmosphere is one of repentance; in that case we may have an altar call that was not planned. We do have a rule that we start and stop our services on time. At the same time, we work at being sensitive to what we believe the Holy Spirit wants to accomplish within our corporate worship—we want to avoid being held “hostage” to a format or scheduled events.
Assertion: Afro-Christian worship values prayer that flows from the movement of the Spirit among the people.
Denise Posie: When led by the Holy Spirit, typically in response to the preached Word, I offer an altar call to the congregation. As an affirmation and expression to God, those whose hearts were touched by the Word of God gather at the altar to bow in the presence of the Lord. Acknowledging that everything is not right in our lives, we lay our burdens, sins, guilt, shame, unbelief, inappropriate habits, and attitudes before the Lord—in essence saying, “Yes, Lord, to your will and to your way.”
The image here is much like God’s words spoken by the apostle Paul: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:1-2, NRSV).
The beauty of the altar call is that there are no barriers between those who have come forward. All stand in awe and in need of God’s grace and mercy. What you did or did not do makes no difference. The Holy Spirit moves mightily in these opened hearts. Skin color, age, gender, culture, socioeconomics, and level of spiritual maturity are not hindrances. Tears flow freely. Arms embrace easily. Sometimes knees weaken.
On Being Black and Reformed: A New Perspective on the African-American Christian Experience by Anthony J. Carter (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2004). 154 pp.
How can you be black and Reformed? I was asked that question more than once during my seminary years. I wish I could have referred my classmates to Anthony Carter’s book On Being Black and Reformed. Carter has done a valiant job of surfacing the connections between Reformed theology and the African American experience of the Christian faith. He makes his case by highlighting the significant common ground that exists between foundational Reformed theology and the African American Christian experience. He also provides the reader with a solid historical foundation for understanding how African Americans and Anglo brothers and sisters in the faith formed separate worshiping communities. Additionally, Carter records recent efforts by several major denominations at reconciling with African American people of faith and healing the separation.
Readers may find fault with some of the theological connections Carter makes. Particularly challenging are his thoughts about God’s providence in slavery of Africans. Some will read the notion that God acted providentially to bring African Americans to the United States through slavery with skepticism. Those seeking a specific treatment of worship issues on this subject will be better served by Maynard Reid’s Diverse Worship. Carter does not provide a comprehensive treatment of the subject by any means. But his book serves as a valuable starting point for a conversation between African Americans doing ministry in the Reformed context and our Anglo colleagues.