So you want to have a multiracial, multicultural church. Music, you decide, is an important vehicle to get there.

But what type of music? This is the core question of Gerardo Marti's fascinating new book, Worship Across the Racial Divide: Religious Music and the Multiracial Congregation (Oxford University Press), and one that occupies the minds of many a Christian leader attempting to do multiethnic ministry.

Marti's answer is shocking.

After carefully studying twelve successfully integrated churches, he came to a clear conclusion:

It doesn't matter what type(s) of music.

What? This answer seems counterintuitive, and Marti admits it is not the one he thought he would find. He also notes that it is not the answer most anyone gives, even those heading up successful multiracial churches.

When asked, most leaders fall into one of two camps as to how they answer the question, "What type of music is most conducive to being multiethnic?" 

They fall into either the one-size-fits-all camp (there is a universal language of music, a particular rhythm that speaks to us all as humans) or the musical-buffet camp (you need to play a variety of musical forms to appeal to the varieties of people). About half the people interviewed fall into the first camp, about half into the second camp.

Quickly, Marti finds that the theory he subscribed to when he began his research—the one-size-fits-all theory—is simply wrong. Ethnomusicologists, sociologists, and missionaries have all concluded there are no universals in music. People can and do ascribe different meaning to and have different feelings about the exact same musical sounds, even if the people are in the same room together when hearing the music. If you think about it, you have probably experienced this reality yourself—some people in the church almost breaking into tears at a song, and you experiencing essentially nothing (or vice versa).

Those who subscribe to the musical-buffet theory not only believe a variety of music must be performed, but they work hard to act on that belief. So how do they decide what varieties to play?

It is here that Marti is again on to something of tremendous importance. What he found in his interviews is that people have to rely on stereotypes.

What does this have to do with the problem of the musical-buffet style? Marti finds that this style actually "essentializes" racial groups and draws on narrow stereotypes. Want white people in your church?  Play Vineyard, contemporary Christian music (or for the older crowd, play European-origin hymns). Want black people in your church?  Play gospel music. Want Hispanics in your church?  Play salsa music. Want Asians in your church?  Play, ah . . . well, play white music.

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The end result? Instead of bringing people together and transcending racial boundaries, this approach reinforces boundaries—boundaries built on gross, oversimplified stereotypes. It unwittingly even assumes that somehow we have inborn preferences for certain styles of music, rather than tendencies to prefer the type of music we most often hear those around us enjoying. Fact is, musical preferences are learned.

And the musical-buffet approach can rarely succeed, says Marti. People simply are not trained or skilled in the abilities to perform such a wide range of musical styles. Even if a church finds an incredibly gifted worship leader who can do so, the worship leader will not be able to find enough volunteer choir members who can do so.

So, like the one-size-fits-all theory, the musical-buffet theory simply does not work.

'Our Choir, Our People'

So what else is there? How can a church attract and be sensitive to a multiracial people?

In responding to this question, Marti's sociological brilliance shines. He asks you to imagine your child, niece, or nephew doing a musical solo—perhaps it is at a school recital, or perhaps in your church's children's choir. 

What do the adults do? No matter what the music, no matter how well or poorly performed, they cheer, usually while standing, and usually filled with a mixture of joy and pride. The point is not whether the children "did well." The point is that they are our children, and we are proud of them for being up there, representing us.

This is exactly the answer Marti arrives at through his extensive analysis of what is actually occurring in multiracial congregations, and through his insightful interviews with parishioners, choir members, and church leaders.

What "succeeds" musically in multiracial churches is not a certain type of music or how well it is performed. Rather, it is: (a) people of various backgrounds all practicing together, spending time together, singing together, worshiping together; and (b) the fact that it is "our choir, our people." 

To get downright sociological, it is the transcendent experience in which worship becomes at the same time a celebration of the group itself and of God who has brought the group together. At its essence, then, what matters is the network of relationships of the people in the congregation, not the type or even the quality of the music.

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I must admit, when I first read this book, the conclusion did not seem right to me. I had previously been in a multiethnic congregation that played only what is stereotypically white music. While the congregation was diverse, with people from several dozen nations, the music was not. I felt distressed by what I thought was insensitivity, and even—to use a fancy term—the musical imperialism of this church. 

It proclaimed itself diverse, and it wanted to be a place for all people, but anyone who came had to conform to only one musical style. Sometimes I became so upset by this, and by my participation in it, that I had to leave the service. But what truly confused me is that, as I talked to people in the congregation, almost no one seemed bothered by the one-dimensional musical style. I could not understand it.

Until I read Worship Across the Racial Divide. The church I had attended worked hard at developing relationships across racial lines, and the people knew each other well. The people in the choir were their friends; the music thus was their music. Like the joy and pride we feel for our child performing a solo, so the parishioners felt for their choir. And this is exactly what Dr. Marti found in his research.

This book is a paradigm shifter. To me, it represents an advance to the next stage of multiracial/ethnic/cultural ministry. Focus on people as people, bonding them together, helping to create the unity Christ prayed we'd have. Go ahead and seek musical forms that speak to many people simultaneously, and feel free to play different types of music. But you need not be in bondage to either.

And the truth shall set you free.

Michael O. Emerson is professor of sociology and co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. He is co-author, with Jason Shelton, of the forthcoming Blacks and Whites in Christian America: How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Convictions (NYU Press).

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Worship across the Racial Divide: Religious Music and the Multiracial Congregation
Our Rating
5 Stars - Masterpiece
Book Title
Worship across the Racial Divide: Religious Music and the Multiracial Congregation
Oxford University Press
Release Date
January 23, 2012
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