If churches want to be more diverse — maybe we should start with worship

I was just listening to a fascinating episode of Radiolab that took a look at race and racism in the world of debate. In short, they talked to black debaters about the ways the language and norms of the debate world excluded black people. The main subject of the show shared a story of walking into a national debate competition in high school and having everyone in a large cafeteria stop talking and stare at the black students who just walked into the room. Then he participated in a debate with a partner who instead of arguing the topic at hand, she argued that the debate itself did not allow for black voices, black culture, black ways of being and speaking. She argued that the basic setup of debate set up a ton of obstacles that kept black students from not only winning, but participating. It’s a fascinating episode and you should check it out.

This got me thinking about how we in the mainline protestant church, particularly in my home denomination, the ELCA, tells people of color, women, people with disabilities and the LGBT community (among others) that they do not belong in our pews through the norms of our worship. As we worry about how to become a more diverse denomination, we cling to what might be the main thing that keeps us inaccessible to people from so many other places on the margins. Our worship norms, our language, our music — our frozen chosen style — may create so many barriers to entry it is no wonder we are so damned white (96%, if you are wondering). The way we worship and the way we react to different styles of worship, music changes, etc (either protesting or tokenizing) reinforce white supremacy and keep people who are not a part of the dominant culture (or who don’t speak/have an affinity for the language of the dominant culture) away.

Nettie Jahns 003

Most of our ELCA churches still look like this, only the clothes are way less cool.  (1902 Confirmation photo, St. John’s Lutheran Church, Fremont, OH)

 

This is not new information to me. But I had mostly looked at it from the point of view of including other white people — white women, white people with disabilities, white members of the LGBT community. I hadn’t thought enough about how the very language we use may be a reason that people of color stay away.

For example: When I go to churches that have a ton of Father God talk, I get tense. I get annoyed. When I see a large amount of masculine language included in prayers, I get irritated. I want to see myself in worship; I want to hear that my LGBTQ community is included and that those who don’t identify with male or female gendered language have a space in worship. But I don’t consider how the worship might be exclusive to those for whom our the language of the dominant culture doesn’t make sense. I use music in worship that is accessible to people who like predominantly-white hipster music, but I don’t work to include much music that might be accessible to non-white people (which is some ways is because I don’t have those skills). I mean, I use some of the stuff from This Far by Faith, my denominations African-American liturgy, but that’s as far as it goes (also, I would highly doubt that anyone would have any idea that was what I was doing. In fact, I actually quit the gospel choir in my seminary because of the constant drone of masculine language in gospel hymns, preferring my comfort over the comfort of others who experience far more oppression than I do as a white woman.

The language, music and style of our worship services are, in general, that of the dominant culture. With the exception of the non-white Lutheran congregations out there, we all do the same thing in the same way (to one degree or another). Even when we are doing something “different” we are using the language of the dominant culture whether we know it (admit it) or not.  When we tell people of color that their songs aren’t Lutheran enough, when we exclude the possibility of including non-hymn music in worship, when we stick to the script, we reenforce whiteness on a grand scale. Some people in oppressed groups like our theology and our community enough to stick with it, but most will just walk away.

Last week, the ELCA clergy Facebook group did an experiment. All white clergy were asked to step back and listen to provide space for voices that are generally marginalized on the page. While there were many postings that caught my eye and tugged at my heart and my social justice bones, there was one I saw that pertained to this writing. One woman pastor of color posted a gospel hymn with the words, “It’s nice to post a non-Lutheran song here without worrying that it will be completely dissected for its non-Lutheran message. We can simply enjoy the song and singer. Also, realize that this is typical of the music that many of those not in church listen to and which inspires them.” This is what we white pastors have a horrible tendency to do: we explain away all of the reasons something doesn’t fit into our culture when it is incredibly meaningful for someone and make assumptions about whether the person who loves the songs understand the theology behind it. This is a shining example of how we, in the church, reinforce white supremacy and keep other cultures out of our pews and our lives, whether we mean to or not. We whites plain to others (or straightsplain or mansplain) why their language does not belong, and by doing so, we claim the space as “ours.” We tell other people that they do not belong, that they do not matter, and that our cultural preferences win. Every. Time.

There are exceptions to our (Lutheran) tendency to adhere to the cultural norms that are rooted in our European heritage, and I believe that whenever possible we (rostered and lay people) should get outside of our comfort zones and experience the worship of communities different from our own. When I was a student at LSTC, I attended a predominantly black church in Harvey, IL. What I experienced there blew my mind. I cannot express how uncomfortable I was at first. People would (gasp!) speak during worship, uttering “Amen” and “Praise the Lord!” during sermons, prayers, etc. Everyone would hug during the passing of the peace. There was a hip-hop liturgical dance troop, and the music was far more along the lines of Kirk Franklin than Martin Luther. But the members of that community went out of their way to make me feel at home. Every week I would try to escape before the passing of the peace, avoiding the barrage of hugs (I grew up in a shake hands with the people in front of and behind you church). One week, this little old woman stood in front of me as I moved to leave. I told her I had to go to the bathroom. She said to me, “No you don’t. I see you every week. you’re passing the peace today!” Then she hugged me. In that hug, she shattered 24 years of frozen chosen-ness inside of me. I began to enjoy that people were so into worship that they would vocally respond to things that resonated with them, to look forward to the gospel songs (I always liked the hip-hop liturgical dance troop and think that should happen everywhere). I had to make a cultural commute to be there, but the people helped me along. Making it easier was that the words for the liturgy were, by and large, the words I knew in my heart, so we were really meeting each other halfway. What can we do in our predominantly white spaces that meet people who aren’t of European descent halfway? How can we open up our spaces so that there is something for everyone?

Yes, we have an African-American liturgy and a Latino Liturgy, but for the most part they stand alone or are only included for theme times like Black History Month (and, honestly, I am probably just being hopeful here about what we do) or Pentecost. Pentecost — the one Sunday a year when we all welcome other languages to be spoken in our space. What would it look like if we used pieces of these liturgies every week? If we intentionally brought the languages (liturgical style, music, structure, tone, etc) communities that we don’t think of as “traditionally Lutheran” into our spaces. What if we examined our norms to think about the kinds of barriers they might put in the way of people seeking community in Christ? What if we occasionally used our bell choirs for a little hip-hop or meringue, or we got in the habit of using a more call and response style of liturgy? Or if we taught our congregations that it is okay to speak when the spirit moves you (there is no side eye like the side eye given to someone who Amen’s through a sermon at a predominantly white church). How can we remove barriers to not only white women and white queer folk, but to errybody? What would an intersectional* worship look like?

I don’t know if this would have a huge effect on our abysmal diversity statistics. But It seems like a really good place to focus some attention.

Friends who are not of the dominant culture: what do you think? How can we as a church become intersectional in worship? Would it matter?

 

BTW, I am not remotely saying that there aren’t people of all races who enjoy hymns or that classical music is a white thing. But I am saying that these are things that our white culture is most comfortable with and it might behoove us to look at the ways these things might be creating barriers for people who aren’t Scandinavian/German Lutherans.

 

*Intersectionality is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. So, by intersectional worship, I mean a worship that allows people to see their whole selves, all of their identities, reflected in the worship service. This definition is from Wikipedia 😉

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About Elizabeth Rawlings

Lutheran. Feminist. Child of God. Thinking about how to be a leader in a church that is trying to rediscover itself and what it means to live simply so that others may simply live in tandem with what exactly is the fast God asks of us. Chronic alliterator. Generally silly person. View all posts by Elizabeth Rawlings

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