Gerardo Marti, professor of sociology at Davidson College, has made a specialty of multicultural or multiracial worship. He contends that the divide that segregates congregations is as wide as ever. He notes that in spite of Martin Luther King’s appeal in 1963 to overcome Sunday morning as the “most segregated hour of the week,”* few integrated congregations exist. “Church leaders today,” he writes, “are tired of bearing the embarrassment of having mono-racial fellowships in an increasing multiracial world” (3).
By his definition of a multicultural congregation where at least 20% of the congregation is other than the majority group, it is rare. If by multicultural is meant a congregation with no racial or ethnic majority group, it is even more unusual. He observes what most of us see every Sunday: “In the context of personal religious choice, churchgoers overwhelmingly choose to attend churches with people who are just like them” (15).
He shares a conclusion of Emerson and Smith, in Divided by Faith, that, “Churches do little to promote racial unity and instead reinforce the racial differences that pervade American society” (15).
He began his research suspecting “that music might be the single greatest determinant of a congregation’s racial composition” (4). He then conducted 170 interviews as a participant observer in 12 multicultural congregations in Southern California to explore the question: “Could sacred music be the gateway for stimulating integrated congregations?” (4)
His discoveries and conclusions are somewhat surprising.
He found that two common assumptions about worship music do not hold. One is “Universal Music Theory”—the “One Size Fits All theory” (32). He contends that “there are no universals in music” (33). The idea of universal music is easily refuted. In the churches he studied, he found that “no single dominating style or genre exists among them, and many different kinds of music can accomplish congregational diversity” (32).
The second error he found builds on the first. Since there is no universal music, some try what he calls the “Musical Buffet Theory” (34). That is, using a variety of music styles that appeal directly to particular ethnic groups, particularly Black gospel and Hispanic salsa sounds and rhythms. The problem is that racially specific music more often than not divides rather than unites congregations. The boisterous sounds of gospel and salsa do not necessarily appeal to the typically quieter tastes of Anglos and Asians.
Racially or culturally specific music runs the risk of stereotyping. Not all African-Americans prefer gospel, nor do all Hispanics want salsa worship music.
In the end, Marti observed that there was no particular style of music that attracted and retained cultural diversity in these 12 congregations made up primarily of Hispanic, African-Americans, Anglos, and Asians. In his interviews, “Respondents so often tell me how they come to ‘learn’ the music” (82). “I conclude,” he writes, “that music alone does not attract or keep members over time. Instead, it appears most people come because of family or friends and stay because they are involved” (82).
From his interviews, “I found, “he writes, “that when members commit to a congregation they come to accept the music as a part of that congregation” (93). While everyone learns worship individually, “They can only accomplish worship corporately” (93). Music then is the “practice that constitutes the congregation as a community” (94).
It is then not the music that produces congregational diversity. Diversity is the result of people of different races and cultures feeling welcome and engaged. Diverse music becomes the means of uniting a diverse community.
Somewhat surprisingly Marti found that:
While not all multiracial congregations orient themselves around racially or ethnically sensitive musical styles, all of them are highly intentional about visibly including 'conspicuous color' in who leads and who performs music up front during church services (199).
Given that, he arrives at what he believes is the glue that holds multiracial churches together: “A persistent, racialized, ritual inclusion is the engine that drives diversification through worship” (199).
“In the end,” he writes, “it’s the togetherness of worship that stands out” (202). The multiracial congregations he visited found ways to blend their music preferences into a new shared reality.
TOM NEES formerly served as director of the USA/ Canada Mission/Evangelism Department for the Church of the Nazarene, but now serves as president of Leading to Serve (www.leadingtoserve.com), an organization dedicated to leadership and mentor training.