to avoid what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the most segregated hour of Christian America”: Sunday morning worship. Pastors and worship leaders have done so by diversifying their liturgy and worship music, which many scholars and leaders saw as essential in stimulating diversity in congregations. Marti, in his book, Worship Across the Racial Divide, published in 2012 by Oxford University Press, suggests that move may have created more problems than solutions. “We have a lot of beliefs about how blacks or Latinos, even Asians, are supposed to worship, and that is moving a lot of pastors and worship leaders to implement ideas that are ill-founded.” In his book, Marti draws on interviews with more than 170 congregational leaders and parishioners in Protestant, multiracial churches in Southern California. These interviews, and his own worship experiences in many of these congregations, shape his insights on worship and music in racially diverse churches. Grace and Peace Magazinemet up with Marti at the 2013 ANSR Conference (Association of Nazarene Sociologists and Researchers) in Lenexa, Kansas, where he was a keynote speaker, and asked him a few questions about his insightful book.
G&P: WHAT IS THE PROBLEM YOUR BOOK IS POINTING OUT REGARDING THE PRACTICES CHURCHES USE TO CREATE DIVERSITY?
MARTI: Lead pastors who want their churches to diversify tend to think this can be accomplished through diversifying the music and worship forms. Worship leaders then do whatever they think will bring diversity: introduce gospel choirs, put in a few salsa rhythms, and so on. Often, churches will aggressively recruit people of color, or borrow people of color from other ministries in their congregation, or even pay people who are more diverse to be in the choir or on the platform. They are saying, “Look, we have diversity.” However, these assumptions often create greater chasms between racial and ethnic groups than are necessary. Part of what I learned in doing research for my book is that it is not the performance on the platform that creates diversity, but what happens off the platform. Diversity happens because of the relationships that arise from choir rehearsals and other connections as people become part of a relational community. Oddly, if churches recruit for diversity, it often happens, but not for the reasons we think. People are not swayed to your church because they see color or hear diverse music; they come because they see relationships happening. They come because the church and its leadership assert that racial and ethnic diversity matter and are a priority for everyone in the congregation.
G&P: WHY ARE CHURCHES EYEING WORSHIP AND MUSIC AS THE KEY TO CREATING DIVERSITY?
MARTI: Worship is up front and public. In addition, churches cannot change their neighborhoods or their demographics. What do they have control over? They have control over their liturgy, so it becomes the first point of intervention, and the weight of that is borne by the worship leader. The worship leader is expected to master different genres of style and become responsible for recruiting and promoting diversity. Many of the worship leaders I interviewed were hired with the understanding that their task was to diversify the church. That is a lot to expect. It is unrealistic to think that by reshaping the music of the congregation, you can reshape its demographics. That is not borne out by research. Typically, diversity on the platform is greater than the diversity in the pews.
G&P: WHERE ARE WE MISSING THE POINT WHEN IT COMES TO MUSIC?
MARTI: We need to understand that music is primarily not about genre or style. We may think that different racial and ethnic groups respond to different types of music: blacks respond to gospel, Latinos respond to salsa, and whites respond to acoustic or hymns. If you are told to introduce diverse music in your church, and it is a white church, you will probably choose gospel. In the churches I studied, I found that all of them either had a gospel choir or were planning to implement a gospel choir, regardless of whether African- Americans were in the church or not. We naively believe that certain kinds of music are connected to certain kinds of races, and this moves us in awkward directions.
G&P: YOUR BOOK USES THE PHRASE “RACIALIZED RITUAL INCLUSION.” WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THIS PHRASE?
MARTI: All churches want to include people in their liturgy, whether that is having someone read Scripture, lead in prayer, or contribute a special song. Ritual inclusion, which is fundamental to church life, is incorporating people from the congregation so we can have a wide sense of who is here and who we are . Racialized ritual inclusion is choosing to bring people up front based on race. It is making sure you have visible, conspicuous color in in your worship rituals. This is a fundamental strategy used in churches that are successfully diverse. They actively recruit and incorporate conspicuous color in all aspects of their public liturgy, so that when people come in and experience the service, they are experiencing people of different backgrounds doing that work.
G&P: DOES THIS STRIKE YOU AS MANIPULATIVE?
MARTI: It can be, and my book tries to highlight areas where this can be problematic. But churches that are racially diverse and want to remain so are willing to recruit, to draw people in on the basis of color, and people of these different ancestral backgrounds are actually very willing, surprisingly willing, to participate because they believe in their church. They trust their leadership, and they are willing to be a part of anything that helps to fulfill the great commission. You and I might call this tokenism, but those who participate do not tend to experience it as such.
At a deeper level, what diverse churches are trying to do is cultivate a godly community, a community that reflects the values of God’s inclusive kingdom. In many ways, the most interesting thing about worship is that worship happens in public. We all experience it together, as a diverse community, and this experience of inclusion reflects a heavenly value we are all aspiring toward.
G&P: YOU HAVE SAID WE HAVE UNINFORMED NOTIONS OF DIVERSITY. HOW HAS THIS GOTTEN US INTO TROUBLE?
MARTI: I have gone to a lot of workshops and picked up a lot of books that purport to understand what diversity looks like and how it can happen. Too often, these are built on faulty ethnic stereotypes. People and people groups are more complicated than we assume. If we create plans and programs based on these faulty assumptions, they will often fail.
It is important to do solid and exhaustive research. Too often, we seek the advice of a lone representative of a cultural group, someone we think of as an expert. I have found that when you put a lot of so-called experts together, they contradict each other. What worked for one in one setting does not translate into other settings. It is easy for a lone person to universalize their experience.
G&P: WHEN IT COMES TO STIMULATING DIVERSITY, YOU SAY THAT WORSHIP MUSIC IS MORE ABOUT PRACTICES THAN PERFORMANCE. WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THIS?
MARTI: Let me illustrate this: I went to a church whose gospel choir had a great reputation. The church was proud of their choir, and I sat where I could take in the full force of the group. When they came in, it was a ragtag mix of about eight people. They were diverse, but not impressive. The piano was not quite in sync with the choir. The bass player was considerably louder than everyone else. When they got to the end, I thought, “What’s going to happen? What are people going to do?” I was shocked when everyone clapped enthusiastically. I thought, “What are they clapping for? It cannot be the music; it was terrible.” I asked people why they clapped. Some thought it was beautiful, but many said, “Well, they are our choir.” That spoke to me. The issue is not always about sound quality, but the ways in which we are connected to each other. When you attend your niece or nephew’s piano recital, you clap and cheer, even if it is bad. Why? You cheer because of the relationship you have with that person. As I paid more attention, I found that music is less about performance and more about the various practices that bring people into proximity with each other and create the space for relationships and connection to occur. In the grand scheme, choir rehearsals are more important than choir performances. The relationships forged in our practices are what bring about diversity.
G&P: WHAT DO YOU SAY TO CHURCHES THAT DESIRE TO BE MORE DIVERSE?
MARTI: Diversity does not arise from re-engineering how we worship, but by having relationships with people who are diverse. I remember being in a church where they kept talking about the people across the street. “What are we doing for the people across the street?” I soon realized that nobody in the church lived across the street. They commuted to the congregation from all over the place. I thought, “How can you reach people across the street if you are not even there?” The truth is we have to be there. You have to get to know the people in your church’s community. You must take advantage of diverse relationships where you can find them: at school functions, PTA meetings, the grocery store, the gym, and so on. Diversity results when you allow people with diverse relationships to bring their friends and family to church. We need to revisit notions of hospitality. In Greek, “hospitality” comes from two words that mean “love of the stranger.”
G&P: IS THE CHURCH PICKING UP GROUND IN ITS EFFORTS TO BE MORE DIVERSE? ARE WE DOING BETTER?
MARTI: Yes, the best research we have on diversity and churches shows an increase, but we do not know exactly why this is happening, though there are some theories. Some evidence suggests that mega-churches are becoming more diverse faster than smaller churches. One reason for this is because mega-churches are very good at finding affinities and offering people many different kinds of opportunities to connect with their congregation. While there is criticism about the mega-church, people fail to appreciate how much these churches invest time and resources in incorporating people into membership and into activities of their congregations. As a result, mega-churches have a better resource base for stimulating diversity. Second, we have more people who are integrated into America who have an immigrant past. More people are connecting through schools, colleges and universities, and workplaces. We find that there is more affinity between people who share educational levels than on race or ethnic background. These kinds of connections and relationships are spilling over into the church.
In my first book, A Mosaic of Believers, I found that couples of inter-ethnic or inter-racial marriages often did not connect with either the husband’s church or the wife’s church. Instead, they sought a church where neither partner’s race was an issue, which inevitably led to a more diverse congregation. People who cross racial and ethnic lines in their relationships are finding that diverse fellowships are a better fit.
G&P: AS WE CONTEMPLATE NEW CONGREGATIONS IN THE FUTURE, DO YOU SEE DIVERSITY BECOMING A STRONGER AND STRONGER VALUE, PARTICULARLY AMONG YOUNG PEOPLE?
MARTI: Most young people have been exposed to greater amounts of diversity than prior generations, and they have seen more people whose identity was bi-racial or multi-racial. For them, diversity is probably more normal. While we would like to think our youth will be more expansive, more tolerant, and more likely to mix it up, we cannot ignore that there are still profound racial divides occurring in many places. People still want to stay with their own groups. What we can say confidently is this: if a new congregation begins with a diverse group of people, and diversity is a value of that congregation, the probability that the church will remain diverse is high. It is much harder to take a mono-cultural church and transition it to a diverse congregation. At the same time, it is unrealistic to think that diversity happens evenly, like a 50-50 split. There are things fundamental to the Christian life, like generosity, caring for each other, learning how to serve, and so on, that must be considered along with diversity.