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Diverse worship styles among African-American Baptists.

Religion in America has always been a livery affair. This range of choices is also reflected within the Baptist family. In fact, the autonomy of Baptist churches lends itself to creativity and diversity. Historian Walter Shurden affirms this is his volume, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms.
 Church freedom is the historic Baptist affirmation that local churches are
 free, under the lordship of Jesus Christ, to determine their membership and
 leadership, to order their worship and work, to ordain whom they perceive
 as gifted for ministry ... and to participate in the larger body of Christ.

This freedom to order worship contributes to the variety in the Baptist family.

Just as this range of choices has been available for the majority culture, it has been open for African Americans. The purpose of this article is to explore diversity in worship in African-American Baptist churches. While there are those that might naively expect all African-American Baptist churches to be gesticulatory in their worship styles, i.e., to be characterized by hand clapping, foot stomping, handkerchief waving, and fiery preaching, there is not a monolithic approach to worship. There are churches with pipe organs, subdued services, and friendly suggestive homiletical styles. There are churches where long-metered hymns are regularly featured without accompaniment. This article will describe some of the differences and provide some suggestions as to why some of these worship elements exist.

The Nonimportance of Denominational Affiliation

While trying to understand the reasons for choices in worship styles in African-American Baptist churches, one should not be lulled into believing that a denominational label is an easy identifier of worship style or elements. Many Baptist churches are dually or even triply aligned. The rationale behind these choices includes expanded fellowship opportunities, previous affiliations of new pastors, pension, insurance, and denominational structural support.

Denominationalism does not appear to be an important issue for many American congregations. Lyle Schaller, George Barna, and other researchers have noted that the Boomer and Buster generations are not as interested in denominational labels as they are in clothing or car labels. This tends to be true of the city where I live as well. Of the five fastest growing African-American congregations in the city, four of five of their pastors shared with this author that denomination is not an important issue in the development of their congregations. The age-range of the new congregants of these churches is between twenty-five and forty. Moreover, two of them in Baptist communions have dropped the word "Baptist" from their marquee listings to attract persons who have become turned off by denominationalism. (2)

The logic behind these phenomena might include the following:

* Training of pastors in nondenominational schools

* A growing neo-Pentecostalism in worship that is present in churches regardless of their denominational labels

* Pastors of growing churches have diminished time for denominational pursuits

* The de-emphasis of doctrine

* An association of young laity of traditional churches who view denominationalism non-relevant to contemporary social and spiritual needs

* A sharing of church musicians between various faith traditions, which result in an influence on style and content of worship.

The one notable exception to this linkage of doctrine and worship style is the Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship that is headed by Bishop Paul Morton of the St. Stephen's Full Gospel Baptist Church of New Orleans, Louisiana. Although this group did not view itself as a denomination initially, it has been forced, into a denominational posture by other bodies with which its members are aligned. Their Pentecostal worship style and limited episcopacy have captured the imagination and enthusiasm of a number of pastors and worshipers. Their theological stance is best characterized by their insistence on emphasis of the gifts of the spirit, especially glossolalia. Their upbeat neo-Pentecostal worship style is characteristic of their churches.

The Importance of Music in African-American Worship Tradition

While it is true that music is important in Christendom generally, music seems to have a special role and place in the African American context. J. Wendell Mapson in his book, The Ministry of Music in the Black Church, asserted:
 It would be impossible to imagine the people of God without a song....
 [H]owever, when speaking of Black religion, it may be an understatement to
 say that music has always been a necessary ingredient in the religion of
 the Afro-American. In this case, music has been more than a mere
 ingredient. It has been the yeast that has given shape, substance, and
 content to the black religious experience. (3)

C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya essentially agree with Mapson that music is of major importance in the ministry. In their landmark study, The Black Church in the African American Experience, these researchers insist that music ranks a close second to preaching in its presence in the life of a local body of believers. (4) My own reservoir of experience as a pastor and church musician bears this out. I'll never forget the time a parishioner told me that she thought my preaching was marginal but my organ playing really moved her! As one examines worship issues in black churches, the way in which music is used is a hugely important issue.

Paradigms of Churches and Worship Styles

Since denominational affiliation does not determine worship style, what are the influential factors? Some of them may include the age of the congregants, the training or lack thereof of the clergy and musicians, the socioeconomic background of the congregants, as well as the interest in contemporary forms of worship. McKinney and Massey in their volume, Church Administration in the Black Perspective, argue that black churches are often either class churches, mass churches, or mass/class churches. (5) They go on to suggest that most black churches are inclusive of persons from various social strata making them mass/class churches rather than either mass or class churches.

Having a trained pastor could influence the worship style in a mass/class church. There would be at least some Bible school training if not seminary and possible other graduate work. There might be a graded-choir system, hymns would be utilized, Bible readers encouraged to bring their Bible and follow the text. Multiple clergy and musicians may be designated to serve in various roles in the service. Along with hymns choirs would sing some anthems, spirituals, and traditional and contemporary gospel.

The mass/class typology is one paradigm that is useful for understanding African-American Baptist worship issues. Another typology for further differentiation is the Franklin paradigm. Kevin Cosby, pastor of St. Stephens Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, suggested that black Baptist churches might be one of these "Franklin" types. (6)

A church might be in the C. L. Franklin generation. C. L. Franklin, pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church, a prominent Detroit church, was known for his whooping and colorful preaching. One is more likely to find long-metered hymns in this generation, especially, but not exclusively, in Primitive Baptist circles.

The second Franklin was Franklin's daughter, Aretha Franklin, who became known as the "Queen of Soul." Aretha's generation put in newer gospel songs such as the Hawkins type or Andre Crouch. Graded choirs and genre choirs are used in this church's service.

The third "Franklin" is Kirk Franklin. Kirk is a contemporary gospel/inspirational artist who blurs the lines between the musical genres. His theology is hip-hop and geared to nontraditional seekers. He has a fusion of rap, rhythm and blues, traditional gospel, jazz, and hymnody. Praise dancers may join praise teams. The Kirk Franklin generation is comprised of religious consumers rather than joiners. They look more to paid staff than volunteers. They look for convenient services that are impactful. The C. L. Franklin generation may stay two and a half hours. The Kirk Franklin crowd is an hour-and-fifteen-minute crowd. Announcements and community issues are not their concern. That is for the C. L. Franklin generation. Kirk Franklin preachers have to blend rap, motivational thought, and biblical insight into a fifteen- to thirty-minute presentation. Altar calls are frequent as are calls for conversion. Mega churches are more likely to be of the Kirk Franklin type with great appeal for younger worshipers. Cosby's Franklin paradigm provides an intriguing model for understanding generational differences.

Technology and Worship

Just as music and generational paradigms are important factors to consider, the use of technology is a significant trend. Some churches are using praise choruses with the words projected on a screen. Some are placing huge video monitors in the sanctuary to increase visibility. PowerPoint preaching with downloaded movie clips and colorful graphics help to keep the interest of the Nintendo generation. Thus, technology provides the new wineskins for the new wine of this age.


Baptist freedoms are alive and well in African-American Baptist circles. Music, technology, and generational choices are influential in the worship/theological context. It is hoped that this brief treatment has been illuminative of some of the dialogue and diversity available in African-American Baptist churches.

(1.) Walter B. Shurden, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms (Macon, Ga.: Smyth and Helwys, 1993). 33.

(2.) Sherman R. Tribble, "African American Denominationalism in Nashville, TN" (an unpublished paper delivered to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, November 1996), 3.

(3.) Jesse W. Mapson, The Ministry of Music in the Black Church (Valley Forge, Pa: Judson Press), 11.

(4.) C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham. N.C.: Duke University Press), 346.

(5.) James E. Massey and Samuel McKinney, Church Administration in the Black Perspective (Judson Press: Valley Forge Pa., 1976), 123.

(6.) Kevin Cosby, "Vibrant Preaching," (an unpublished lecture delivered at the Garnett-Nabrit Lectures at American Baptist College, Nashville, Tenn., March 2002).
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Author:Tribble, Sherman R.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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