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Worship Across the Racial Divide: Religious Music and the Multicultural Congregation

Gerardo Marti
Published by Oxford University Press in 2012

Reviewed by Todd E. Johnson, Worship, Theology and the Arts, Fuller Theological Seminary

It is said you cannot judge a book by its cover. In this case, readers should wait until Part Two of Marti’s work before passing judgment. I must confess my reading of the initial chapters of Marti’s book brought out my critical and not-so-generous side. Marti’s book is the result of two years of in-depth congregational studies of twelve churches that are “successfully” (more than 20%) multiracial in the greater Los Angeles area. As advertised, Marti examines the role of music in the creation and sustaining of multiracial churches. I was initially off-put by apparent over-generalizations (for example, “Music is common in Christian liturgy and considered absolutely necessary to the worship of God” [10],) and the implication that 12 Southern California churches – which are not described demographically beyond their racial composition – is a representative sample. What I did not realize is that this book is written inductively. It describes Marti’s own journey of discovery, beginning with one hypothesis, only to dismiss that hypothesis and arrive at a very different conclusion.

This most recent work of Marti’s is the third in a series of congregational studies, following his studies of two individual congregations, A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church (2005) and Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity and Ambi-tion in a Los Angeles Church (2008), studies of Mosaic and Oasis churches respectively. Unlike those, this is a composite study of twelve unnamed churches. Also unlike those studies, this work seeks to understand the relationship between worship music and the success of multiracial congregations. Marti’s theoretical approach is heavily dependent upon sociologist Tia DeNora’s work. DeNora’s research examines music’s quality as a medium of social order. But in DeNora’s approach it is not the music per se but the place of music – its performers and receivers – in a community that must be studied. Marti writes, “DeNora’s corrective to semiotic analysis – a corrective with which this researcher resonates – is to pay attention to ‘situated actors’ in that music involves particular audiences or recipients” (19). This theoretical perspective serves Marti well as he will ultimately shift his focus away from the music itself to the musical ensemble as a symbol of racial diversity and inter-racial hospitality in an intentionally multiracial church.

The data derived in this study is the result of thick descriptions of twelve congregations, primarily emphasizing personal interviews and participant observation. Marti chose not to use a standard instrument to apply to all the congregations for fear of imposing his categories on the congregations. Instead he allowed each church to present its own language and categories for worship and congregational life. Marti was then responsible for find-ing compatible language and categories through which to synthesize his work. A detailed description of Marti’s methodology is provided in the Appendix (219-227).

It is important to note the limits of this study. This is not a theological book, nor is the theological or liturgical theory offered here very sophisticated. Marti provides an adequate survey of the literature on multicultural music in worship, as well as a cursory historical survey of issues of music in worship. Marti provides little in the way of theologies of worship or liturgical theological approaches to the question of multicultural worship music. He also in no way provides a representative sample of multicultural churches in North America. These limitations (and others) are explicitly acknowledged in Marti’s conclusion (197-217).

Given what this book is not, what has Marti provided in this study? It is a narrative in three acts, with each part comprised of two or three chapters. Part One begins with the question of how to negotiate worship in the twenty-first century in light of the diversity of worship options and preferences. In this case, Marti chooses to focus specifically on the choices of worship music in multiracial churches. Beginning with a survey of the literature on multicultural worship and multicultural music, Marti hones in on the common premise that by providing diversity in music, one can facilitate the creation of a multicultural congregation. Music is seen as instrumental (his pun) in making a congregation more diverse. Although his reading of much of this literature as promoting multicultural worship through music is accurate, it does slightly distort the work of Michael Hawn, as Hawn’s advocacy of globally diverse music in worship is less pragmatic and more theological. Instead of primarily creating a multicultural congregation, Hawn seeks to use an eschatological horizon of the worship of every tribe and nation in Revelation 7:9 to give all Christian worship a more global flavor. I mention this to illustrate that fine theological nuance is not the strength of this work; it is instead sociological description and analysis at the congregational level.

The strength of this sociological insight is evidenced in the conclusion of Part One, where Marti identifies a cross-racial concurrence that the ideal of worship in much of contemporary Protestant worship is African-American worship. The most authentic worship identified by Anglos, Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans in his study, is the uninhibited, over-coming hardship, full-throated, full-bodied stereotypical worship of the African-American gospel tradition. For this reason, worship leaders wish they were black, and many churches hire African-American worship leaders, regardless of their majority racial composition.

Part Two of Marti’s work shifts to the expectations and experiences of the parishioners of the congregations surveyed, where he reveals his findings that most congregants find worship to be an intensely personal and intimate experience, facilitated by music that encourages release and freedom to express their faith and its attending feelings. This understanding of the efficacy of worship was consistent across all races in these congregations. Marti then identifies the centrality of the worship leaders (or music ministers) in the process of executing the intended music program in a church. Although diversity in worship music was a value (in particular as a “cultural marker”) among the worship leaders surveyed, it was always secondary to being able to create the intended experience of worship within the congregation and to prepare the people for the sermon.

Part Two concludes with an examination of the strategies of worship leaders to promote racial diversity in their congregations. At this point Marti’s work becomes more analytical and less descriptive. Discovering that there was no common way of approaching musical selection across these successfully diverse congregations, Marti cross-tabulates the levels of musical variety with the levels of racial awareness evidenced in his research (132). In doing so, Marti is able to identify four distinct guiding philosophies of musical selection among the worship leaders at these twelve congregations, each of which he then goes on to define and examine in some detail. At the end of this second part, Marti offers two preliminary conclusions: 1) that musical selection is not a causal factor in creating or sustaining a diverse congregation; and 2) that worship (in particular music) is primarily intended to affect the congregants.

Part Three moves more directly to the conclusions of Marti’s work and shifts away from the thesis that music is a variable in the equation that formulates the creation of multiracial congregations. Music itself is not a panacea, though belief in music’s influence does affect the choices congregations make. For example, most if not all of these churches have a gospel choir. From the previously-mentioned ideal of African-American worship, congregations often have “gospel choirs” to inspire that ideal of worship. And though they vary in quality greatly, they are consistently a source of pride for the congregation.

This observation leads into Marti’s most important conclusion, that the racial diversity of the worship leadership is a greater determining factor of the racial diversity of a congre-gation than the music (in style or quality) they sing. A racially diverse worship team serves as an icon of hospitality and diversity, identifying the desire and effort on the part of the congregation to attract a racially diverse congregation.

Further, the racial diversity established in a congregation is primarily relational. Relationships forged across racial lines by working together in the music ministry become a catalyst for a network of cross-racial relationships. Marti calls the intentional use of multiracial worship leaders “racialized ritual inclusion.” Racialized ritual inclusion, as Marti defines it, is “the process by which church leaders change worship services to incorporate members of different racial and ethnic groups” (173). Marti joins others who conclude that congregations naturally tend toward homogeneity; therefore diversity must be intentional and encouraged – if not facilitated. But diversity is not about performances within a ritual; it is about the relationships that rituals can create. Marti summarizes his work stating, “As I continued to pursue my research, I came to understand that it is not the acoustics of music style but rather the visible presence of diversity – racialized ritual inclusion – that stimulates integration of different racial and ethnic groups into their churches” (198). Marti further proposes, “A persistent, racialized ritual inclusion is the engine that drives diversification through worship” (199; emphasis Marti).

Marti’s conclusion is what those who study ritual and liturgy have understood for some time: the liturgical life of a congregation is part of a ritual matrix in which multiple variables work together to create the liturgical community. Put another way, Christian worship cannot be separated from ecclesiology; Christian worship from the New Testament to today begins and ends with the gathered community – the ecclesia. Marti articulates it this way, “The efficacy of music for diversity is not so much in enriching individual experience as in its capacity to structure relationships” (209).

Marti’s sociological study of these multiracial congregations is rich in its insights and provocative in its assessments, categories, and questions. It is not without its limits, however. Though he offers a thick description of these congregations, he does not define them socio-economically or with other ethnographic categories. Further, he appears to be studying a fairly narrow liturgical bandwidth in these twelve congregations, as they all appear to have a “praise and worship” style with a contemporary music set followed by teaching. One wonders if his conclusions apply for liturgical communities that do not view worship instrumentally or worshipper focused?

Although this is a sociological work, it includes historical and theological material offered for context and interpretation. This material could be fortified. For example, an obvious study of race and worship that would have been a helpful point of comparison and a source of historical and theological categories, Scott Haldeman’s Towards Liturgies that Reconcile: Race and Ritual in the History of U.S. Protestant Worship among African Americans and European Americans (2007), is absent.

In the end, this book begins with the question of how music functions in multiracial congregations and ends concluding that it is the diversity of the musicians who function both as a symbol and the touchstone for interracial relationships in a congregation. It is the diversity of the worship leadership that is the causal link in successful racially diverse congregations. Along this well written, carefully researched journey, one is given the chance to consider one’s own perspective on worship, music, race, and church. This is a much-needed set of considerations for the church and the academy as we journey into our increasingly diverse age.

Cite this article
Todd E. Johnson, “Worship Across the Racial Divide: Religious Music and the Multiracial Congregation”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:2 , 82-85

Todd E. Johnson

Fuller Theological Seminary
Todd E. Johnson is William K. and Delores S. Brehm Associate Professor of Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary.