Presented at the 2018 Andrews University Music & Worship Conference
As my parents tell it, I have been praising the Lord through song for much of my life. For family worship, I would pronounce I had a new song for us to sing and promptly meander through a “melody” supported by stories from the Bible, the color of the tights I had worn to church, or most often, an amalgamation of the two. It is as a joyous, musically-inclined worshiper, but also as a scholar of race and representation, that I speak to you today, bringing together my experiences as a worshipper, a worship leader, and a researcher passionate about interrogating issues of diversity.
I once sat on a church committee where the chair requested that we be more creative with our worship planning. In response, a member from Africa, let’s call her Esther, asked if she could invite a choir who sings African music to perform (I realize Africa is a continent and not a country, but Esther did not specify beyond saying “African choir.”). Many of us met her question with enthusiasm. But after sharing our encouragement, a member paused, let’s call him Bob, and then came a word many of us on committees or any other organizational groups dread when we think that the discussion has been resolved: “well…” Bob proceeded to caution that not all church members may like “that kind of music” and therefore suggested we should be wary of inviting the choir. “Well” indeed.
After a moment of awkward silence, someone spoke up, remonstrating, “Let’s just be honest here, you’re addressing black music. That’s not even what the choir sings.” There is a lot I could unpack here, from proper committee etiquette to the conflation between “black” and “African” music to the issue of whether all participants in any given worship service need to be comfortable with the music on every Sabbath. But when thinking about and praying over what to share tonight, I decided to discuss some of the issues underlying the assumptions made in Bob’s comment, namely, that worship styles unfamiliar to us may pose a threat, and that that threat should be excluded. His comment, in other words, leads to questions about privilege, inclusion, and worship. In this day and age, we may think of issues concerning racial and/or ethnic distinction as political, thereby meriting no place in church or in discussions of worship. But tonight, I propose that as we craft ourselves as a body of believers, an attention to diversity and inclusion proves crucial to us as Christians.
After all, the Bible makes God’s inclusivity clear. In Isaiah 56:6-7, the Lord enumerates who he will “bring to my holy mountain,” and it includes “foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to minister to him” (New International Version). In Ezekiel 47: 21 and 22, when the Lord God discusses the distribution of land amongst the 12 tribes of Israel, he observes that the “inheritance” will be not only for “yourselves” but also for “the foreigners residing among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites.” The New Testament likewise stresses unity for those from different backgrounds. Indeed, the holy fire of the Pentecost not only allowed each person to “speak in other tongues” but also to hear “them in our native language.” (Acts 2.1-8). And Paul makes the point both clearly and persistently, stating in Galatians 3:28 that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” and again in Colossians 3:11, “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” Because of God’s clear commitment to making all who believe welcome and integrated in a Christian community, I would like to suggest that the inclusion of various forms of musical worship—particularly those associated with different racial and/or ethnic groups—should not be simply welcomed by our churches but in fact be encouraged actively, for beholding these diverse worship styles and songs helps change us into the types of openhearted Christians the Lord requires that we be.
The most difficult idea I want to propose tonight is that the songs we sing, whether selections from the hymnal or praise songs, are not simply neutral or unraced. Rather, the form of worship adopted by Seventh-day Adventist churches across the globe is actually a “white” form of worship. Those of us familiar with the American racial milieu can support this claim anecdotally with the fact that we can distinguish easily between what the average Christian, or at least Adventist, would categorize as “white” or “black” worship songs. The fact that our churches have this division is a dynamic shored up by white privilege. Before moving on, however, let me be clear. I am not entering into the debate about whether we should or should not have distinct congregations based on language or background—Hispanic Church, Korean Church, Filipino Church, Black Church, to name only a few. But when the term “church” is not preceded by a descriptor of the kind I just listed, we tend to think of it in neutral terms. It is just a church. If we were truly honest, however, more often than not, we could accurately call it a white church, not necessarily in the makeup of its membership, though that may apply, but rather in its music and worship practices. And this distinction derives from the fact that even as we become an increasingly global church, our founders were not global but instead young, white New Englanders who brought their traditional Protestant worship traditions to bear upon the nascent Seventh-day Adventist Church. Every institution has to start somewhere, so this dynamic is not a problem in and of itself. But that this dominance remains insufficiently discussed and addressed is the problem, for seeing some worship traditions as neutral while others as inherently carrying the potential to offend is a product of white privilege.
What is white privilege? As Sociologist Allan G. Johnson explains, “privilege exists when one group has something of value that is denied to others simply because of the groups they belong to, rather than because of anything they’ve done or failed to do” (21). Described by theorist Paula S. Rothenberg as “the other side of racism,” white privilege specifically is “the systemic advantages of being White” (qtd. in Tatum 8). Speaking to the way white privilege involves denial of said privilege, in the well-known article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” English and gender theory scholar Peggy McIntosh describes white privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious” (1). Johnson adds that privilege necessitates “the lopsided distribution of power” in order to be maintained (12). Some specific examples are useful here. McIntosh illuminates how white privilege works by listing the conditions that she can, by and large, count on, which “my African American co-workers, friends, and acquaintances” cannot (1). A few representative examples include: “When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.”; “I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions…”; “I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.”; and, “I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared” (2).
Now, because McIntosh wrote this piece as a secular talk, she does not include examples related to music and worship. Yet we can easily re-contextualize some of her observations in order to understand how white privilege manifests when it comes to worship. A privileged person will answer “yes” to the following statements: “When I am told about our worship tradition and history, I am shown that people of my color made it what it is”; “I can go into a church and count on finding the music of my race represented”; “I can remain oblivious to the worship preferences, styles, and customs of persons of color who constitute the world church’s majority without feeling in my culture or local church any penalty for such oblivion”; and perhaps most potently, “I can go home from church feeling somewhat tied in rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.” If these statements resonate with you—and even as a second-generation Latina raised in the U.S. and in non-Hispanic churches I must admit they do with me—then you likely experience worship privilege in your church, one, as I have already argued, that is often connected to whiteness.
One aspect of white privilege underlying many of McIntosh’s observations is the fact that society often tacitly yet pervasively positions whiteness as the neutral position or norm, as seen in her example of not needing to be familiar with diverse languages or cultural practices. Sociologist Richard Dyer explains how, in Western society, being able to position one’s self as the “norm” is expressly due to the privileging of whiteness: “As long as race is something only applied to non-white people, as long as white people are not racially seen and named, they/we function as a human norm. Other people are raced, we are just people. There is no more powerful position than that of being ‘just’ human” (10). This positioning occurs with our worship and music. Yes, we may say “white” and “black” music when discussing what we deem appropriate music styles for worship. Yet if we are truly honest with ourselves, we often discuss it as “black music” on the one side and “traditional worship” on the other, thereby allowing us to avoid racing that half of the binary. This is precisely the normalization of whiteness Dyer theorizes. And to be clear, despite the context both Dyer and McIntosh employ, this is not simply a white/black issue; rather, as in the committee anecdote I used to open this talk, whiteness becomes the seemingly unracialized, fully accepted standard against which all other forms of worship—yes, gospel songs but also a Tagalog special music that many may not be able to understand or a Mariachi-style hymn that would involve guitars and trumpets—are deemed as acceptable, or not.
“Wait,” you might be thinking. You are not giving us enough credit. We have negro spirituals in our hymnal, and “The Old Rugged Cross” is clearly southern gospel. Yes, we do, and yes, it is. But let us consider the negro spiritual for a moment. When we sing those in church, how often do we do so with rhythm, clapping, or even instrumental syncopation reflecting the style in which those pieces were originally created? I’m sure the answer will vary from congregation to congregation. But I would feel safe in venturing to guess that the answer for many is “not very often.” Trust me, this is a time when I would be happy to be wrong. But if I am not, it should raise the question, “why don’t we sing them that way?” Other questions I ask you to ponder: how often do churches invite people who sing in a different language? How often do worship leaders encourage the congregation to sing songs in a different language or atypical music style? If a church does invite performers of these styles, are the guests made to feel welcome? Do people thank them afterward for their contribution?
Not too long ago, a diverse, gospel-oriented singing group performed at the worship service I regularly attended. I felt relief at hearing a music style missing from our services for some time. I became even more excited when the musicians asked us, nay encouraged us, to clap along. I do not believe I have clapped along with music in my church since college, and if I were to narrow that to clapping on a regular basis, since high school. The group felt like a breath of fresh air. But as I clapped, I looked around and saw a significant number of people around me standing still, actively resisting the special music. Let me pause here and be clear. I do not believe you have to clap. My husband certainly did not because he is not rhythmically inclined. Rather, clapping is part of a set of gestures and attitudes that can work to communicate enthusiasm and gratitude toward musical guests. The group was invited, but I do not believe we did a good job of including them in our community—as indicated by the small number of people who thanked them for their contribution after our service—despite their valiant attempt to include us in their performance. This example demonstrates how, even if you are not a worship leader, responsible for what occurs on the platform, you too participate in diversity and inclusion during worship.
And to return to the issue of singing in English that I just raised, I grant you that for those in the U.S., my pressing upon the issue of language may seem unusual. We speak English, after all. It therefore makes sense for our worship songs to be sung in English. Yet to return to a point raised earlier, how many times are churches deemed international in congregational makeup? Are the worships in those churches reflecting the diverse makeup? And if not, I encourage you to truly ask yourself, “why not?” Put more pointedly, is your supposedly international church privileging whiteness, or even more narrowly, an Anglo-centric approach to worship?
I want to be clear. I am not ignoring the beauty of the shared worship experience that hymns especially can provide. My student worker, Alexi Decker, noted to me that when her family moved to Egypt to do mission work, she was imminently grateful to be able to sing along as a new congregant far away from where she had known as home. Indeed, I experienced a similar international occurrence just last summer. I had the distinct pleasure and privilege of joining the Andrews University study tour to Tanzania. As part of that trip, we attended Sabbath School and church at the Seventh-day-Adventist-run University of Arusha. Instead of sitting in church as mere spectators, our group joined in the singing because they sang hymns and did so in English. Moreover, when they invited us up for a special music—an unexpected request—we quickly used the minute we had as we walked up front to frantically whisper and make the decision to sing “Amazing Grace” for them. A unified, transnational music tradition can and does bring us together.
At the same time, however, the universalization of particular forms of worship also has the potential to drive us apart. For a number of those positioned as Other in any given society, the seemingly narrow parameters of accepted worship in many churches may leave them feeling alienated and unwelcomed. Lack of representation, whether in worship leadership or worship content, is a manifestation of privilege that can alienate the Other by functioning as a microaggression. Psychologist Derald Wing Sue explains that “Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership,” a marginalization which includes race (3). According to Sue, microaggressions become particularly difficult to identify and confront due to “their invisibility to perpetrators and oftentimes the recipients,” a dynamic which, Sue argues, can make “acts of oppression by imposition or force through microaggressions…more harmful to racial/ethnic minorities than hate crimes” (6). Microagressions can take three forms, the most obvious being the microassault, an articulation of conscious bias “expressed or acted out overtly or covertly toward a marginalized person or socially devalued group” (8). A clear example of a microassault would be the use of a racial slur. Conversely, microinsults occur without a conscious bias, so that these “cues”—which include the verbal, nonverbal, and environmental— “communicate rudeness, insensitivity, slights, and insults that demean a person’s racial, gender, sexual orientation, or group identity and heritage” (9). A microinsult would include asking a dark-skinned guest to church, “do you speak English?” or, after asking someone, “Where are you from?,” and they say something like, “I grew up in Michigan,” following up with, “No, where are you really from?” Microinvalidations are likewise enacted through unconscious bias, and they function to “exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, beliefs and experiences of the target group,” making them, according to Sue, “perhaps the most insidious, damaging, and harmful form” (10). A microinvalidation would be telling me I’m too sensitive if I get offended by continuously being asked where I am from.
I want to return again to the committee example I cited above in order to demonstrate how microaggressions can appear in discussions about worship and music. When Bob slighted the African choir by demeaning their worship style, he enacted a microinsult against Esther by making it clear that, to some, that music would not be welcome. And in doing so, he negated Esther’s experience as an African who does enjoy that music, thereby enacting a microinvalidation. Not all examples of microaggressions via worship need be this obvious, however. Any individual in the pew whose worship experience becomes explicitly or tacitly invalidated by never being represented, week after week, month after month, year after year, may feel keenly that a worship style from his or her background, in his or her language, or even that he or she may have experienced via another group and yet feels brings him or her closer to God, is not valued by our churches, and therefore, he or she is invalidated in a way as well.
So, what do we do? I would suggest that regarding worship, we make ourselves comfortable with (potentially) being uncomfortable. I know that is easier said than done. I don’t enjoy camping very much, you will never find me running a mud race, and when it comes to music, it is a constant negotiation with my 4-year-old son about whose music gets played on my commute because songs from Daniel Tiger just do not put me in as calm a state of mind as anything I would choose. In other words, I am not the type of person who enjoys the challenge of being uncomfortable. But in my car, Daniel Tiger does get played. Not all the time, not every day, but often enough that my son feels that I value him and his choices. And to do that, I have to be uncomfortable.
I experienced the same process when it came to worship. Growing up in central Florida, I attended an Adventist church with very narrow parameters about allowable music. For years, we had to have special worship services in the gymnasium down the road if we wanted to sing praise songs. To give you a sense of the extreme, one Sabbath, my class from the associated junior academy organized the church service. One young woman was not an Adventist; she played the flute beautifully. For our service, she chose to perform“Ave Maria.” After the service, numerous church members bombarded this pre-teen with excoriations for playing such a Catholic song, something that she, a Pentecostal, did not realized would be inappropriate for our church. This is all to say that I was not exposed to many varying worship styles and songs growing up.
That all changed when I attended Forest Lake Academy. While there, under the tutelage of Gale Jones Murphy, I participated in the school’s mass choir as well as the select choir, New Generation Singers. Certainly, we sang the more traditional John Rutter song, but also negro spirituals such as “Elijah Rock” or original compositions like Murphy’s “Clap Your Hands,” which as the title suggests, involved various forms of rhythmic clapping as we sang “Clap your hands, all ye people. / Sing to God, a brand-new song.” She would invite us to sing solos in other languages backed by the choir. It was there that I developed a much broader worship experience, one I did not even know I needed but which filled me with such joy from head to toe that I cannot imagine what it would be like if God had not led me to FLA. I truly remember singing with that group and knowing in my heart, “this is what singing in heaven will be like, praising God through song with all my body and soul.” New Gen, as we called it, had a very good reputation prior to my arrival at FLA; in other words, those of us who wanted to be in it knew of its diverse repertoire and auditioned not in spite of but because of it. And unsurprisingly, the people drawn to this diverse music were likewise diverse. Thus, through choir tours I not only learned about different types of worship, but also about the backgrounds of my co-worshipers. Through this experience, I was transformed.
We can facilitate a similar transformation in our own churches. Doing so requires attending to certain structural issues. We have to invite and support a variety of worship leaders from different backgrounds, ages, experiences, you name it. As much as possible, we need to shield those attempting to introduce new music styles, languages, etc. from unnecessary critique. We should invite and even search for skilled musicians willing and able to facilitate various worship styles and pieces. We must commit to not just diversity but also inclusion more broadly in our church community so that members willingly “buy in” when worship leaders or guests introduce them to novel forms of worship and/or music, or even better, when they must participate in these forms. We must commit to spending the time and care that actively cultivating a diverse worship experience entails—and here I mean looking for new songs, reaching out to musicians and singers, practicing for services. This transformation thus takes commitment, effort, investment. Not only is it worth it, however, but as we can see in the Word through examples about connecting with and even integrating those we perceive as Other, God calls us to do so as his examples here on earth.
Here, I want to pause and speak to a specific worship service that embodies the types of attitudes and commitments I have been discussing. I have mostly addressed music because of the conference’s theme, but worship also involves prayer, Scripture, liturgy, and other activities. The diversity that can appear in these varying facets of worship were on display this year at the Honors Church. We celebrated the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door in Wittenburg. Because of the theme, I was dubious about how diverse this worship could be. I should not have been. Students read scripture or passages from Luther in English, Russian, Mandarin, and more. We sang traditional hymns, but the service also ended with a gospel song. This service was thus multi-faceted in its representation and in its style.
Even with all of the aforementioned commitments, it is not to say that everyone will like all pieces of diverse music introduced. But we can develop congregations open to, even welcoming of, the unknown and unusual. If I may use one of my favorite people to make a relatable example—we have worked with my son so that he will try vegetables even if they may not be, as he says, “a favorite for me.” We can do something similar with worship. In the case of Forest Lake Academy, it took a leader with vision and commitment to diverse perspectives and voices; perhaps it is no coincidence she is African American. But all of us as leaders of and participants in worship and our church must do the work. Granted, for those of you who serve as worship leaders, I know how difficult planning worship can be. You may be limited by the pianists available, by the number of people willing to sing, by your own energy level at the end of a week where you have been scheduled for all number of activities. I know that when I need an easy service on any given Sabbath, I turn to hymns. We know them well; they require less or no practice; any of our rotating pianists can play them. That is all ok. Because if we commit to making a diverse and inclusive worship environment and experience central to our churches, one “off” Sabbath or more traditional Sabbath or even several will not be a problem.
That said, in order to make this diverse, inclusive worship and music experience the new normal, then we need to be willing to share the privilege of having a worship service that speaks to us. In an article by The New York Times about why black worshipers are leaving white Evangelical churches, professor of practical theology at Mercer University, Chanequa Walker-Barnes, explains that “We [black congregants] were willing to give up our preferred worship style for the chance to really try to live this vision of beloved community with a diverse group of people.” Can we say we are willing to do the same? The same article notes that “In the last couple of decades, there had been signs, however modest, that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning might cease to be the most segregated hour in America,” a dynamic which author Campbell Robertson asserts is no longer the case. But what if our churches did provide an unsegregated worship experience each week, in part through our inclusive worship and music choices? It would not only benefit those seeking a Christian community, but also those of us already participating in said communities. Ellen G. White explains that “By beholding we are to become changed”; in other words, by meditating on Christ as model “we shall desire to become wholly transformed, and renewed in the image of His purity” (301). After the great commission, we all have become Christ’s disciples. Therefore, when we lead worship up front, if we ask the Holy Spirit to be with us, to manifest through us, in beholding worship, congregants behold Christ living in us. Thus, if we model diversity and inclusion, we model Christ, and congregants can thereby be transformed through the act of worship. Put simply, by mirroring the Lord’s commitment to a diverse community of believers in our worship practices, we as believers become transformed and also help transform others so that our hearts can be more open to issues of diversity and inclusion. This only better prepares us for Heaven, where, Revelation 7:9 tells us, there will be “a great multitude that no one [can] count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” We will worship God-on-high together, and likely in various ways. May we try to bring a little piece of Heaven here to Earth, beholding diversity and transforming into an inclusive body of Christ through His power, until we can worship together in our true home.
The Bible. New International Version, Zondervan, 2013.
Dyer, Richard. “The Matter of Whiteness.” White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism. 5thed., edited by Paula S. Rothenberg, Worth Publishers, 2015. pp. 9-14.
Johnson, Allan G. Privilege, Power, and Difference. 2nded., McGraw Hill, 2006.
MacIntosh, Peggy. “‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.’” Peace and Freedom Magazine, 1989, pp. 10–12.
Robertson, Campbell. “A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshipers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches.” The New York Times, 10 Mar. 2018, p. A1.
Sue, Derald Wing. Microaggressions in Everyday Life. Wiley, 2010.
Tatum, Beverly Daniel. “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race. Basic Books, 1997.
White, Ellen G. God's Amazing Grace. Review and Herald Publishing, 2004.