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Music isn’t the magic bullet

29 June 2012

Bernice Martin reads a study of 'inclusive' worship in the US

Worship Across the Racial Divide: Religious music and the multiracial congregation
Gerardo Marti
Oxford University Press £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10 (Use code CT499)

THE astonishing range of variants of the faith which makes up American Christianity has always followed the grooves of class, racial, cultural, and regional divisions. Christianity tumbled in increasingly populist forms down the whole social ladder and westward with the frontier, creating a minutely variegated patchwork of culturally and racially homogeneous churches all the way from Anglophile Episcopalians to the latest arrival of Hispanic Pentecostals from south of the Rio Grande. Paradoxically, this de facto segregation within the American melting pot secured Chris­tianity's social reach and under­pins the continuing vitality of the Churches.

Yet, since the end of de jure racial segregation, the multi-cultural congregation has become the holy grail of American church develop­ment. Church boundaries may have become more porous; yet Gerardo Marti admits that left to themselves most congregations would remain largely homogeneous. A movement advocating "multi­cultural worship music" as the recipe for congrega­tional diversity inspired Marti to look at 12 diver­sified Protestant congregations in southern California. To his own surprise, his research dis­proved the mantra "It's the music, stupid."

Marti himself initially believed that it was music's "almost mystical" acoustic properties and "universal" essence that enabled congregations to transcend their differences. The pastors and music directors, as well as the people who write "how to" manuals and run training courses for diversity, are convinced that music is the magic bullet. Unfort­unately, the evidence showed no common, purely musical factor associated with congregational diversity.

What actually brings diversity is what Marti calls "racialized ritual inclusion", a strategy with prob­lematic moral implications. Virtually everyone takes it for granted that the spiritual nature of different "races" is innate and expressed through their distinctive musical styles, and that African-Americans have the "deepest" capacity for worship. People routinely use three broad "racial" categories of music-cum-spirituality: African-American (gospel); His­panic (salsa or mariachi); and white (popular Evangelical music from "Vineyard" to rock 'n' roll), with Asians "assimilated" to the white category, as they have no obvious musical distinctiveness.

Marti shows that these are fluid cultural constructs that "racialize" differences. An Anglophone, white-majority congregation seeking diversity first introduces "gospel" into the musical mix, and recruits at least one African-American musician to the "worship team". Then it may do the same for Hispanics. (Black churches, it seems, do not pursue diversification.)


It is the practice of recruiting "visible colour" "on to the platform" and into the team of "greeters" (even before "colour" is evident in the body of the congregation) that stimulates diversity. Most of all, it is interpersonal relationships across "racial" categories which often develop through working together in choirs. Co-operating in common tasks does the trick rather than what the author calls "karaoke" worship with everyone self-consciously singing along to someone else's musical tradition.

Despite the quest for "sincerity" and "authenticity" which motivates these well-meaning Californians, they are simply wrong about what they do that "works", and curiously unembarrassed by the racial stereo­typing that underlies it. Nor is it the first instance of liturgical reformers deluded by their own conviction that tinkering with words and music will of itself bring about greater inclusiveness in the Church. Caveat!

Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at the University of London.

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