Kingdom Work

Today’s post is written by Jo Anne Taylor, Worship Pastor at Bethlehem Covenant Church, Minneapolis, MN.

It started off innocently enough. Someone mentioned enjoying a particular Christian artist’s latest CD, and wondered which tracks others might be using in their own worship contexts. After a dozen or so responses, an issue was raised that turned the discussion in a new direction. Describing the inclusion of a prominent hip-hop artist on one track of the recording, the commenter wrote: “This song, though catchy and well-written within its genre, is another example of a person in power representing a dominant culture unintentionally sending the message that the only way for outsiders to get respect and recognition from that dominant culture is to acquiesce to and subsume one’s self within it.”

Nearly  – oops – Over a hundred comments later, covering a number of tangential topics, that early comment about the messages outsiders get from the dominant culture still convicts me, and I ponder the part I play in perpetuating a system that excludes more than it embraces.

Jelani Greenidge explains, “Because when it comes to Christian music, if you want into the upper echelon of recognition and stardom, people of color MUST learn to do the kind of music that White people appreciate, but White musicians are NOT required to do the same.” Jelani sees this as “blatant indication of the injustice inherent in the power structures that support Christian music, and it’s difficult for me to watch others support that success without also attacking the inequity of those structures. It is passive acquiescence of racism that allows it to continue to perpetuate.”

Some time ago, Jelani joined me on this blog to initiate a discussion about multicultural worship, and what that might look like. It was a polite exchange, and comments supported such a discussion – but they didn’t really engage in it.  This past week, the discussion has gone deep, and I want to share a few anonymous excerpts to get you thinking about what it means to be part of the Body of Christ, to honor and celebrate the many cultures that contribute to our corporate worship, and what it means to stand up to a music industry that marginalizes many of our most talented brothers and sisters because they aren’t white, aren’t male, or aren’t younger than 35. Ponder these thoughts prayerfully. Consider the part you play in this unjust system, and also consider what you might do to become part of that system’s redemption. Because this is Kingdom work.

What do we do then? Not purchase the … album? Not use his songs in worship? And what responsibility does [hip-hop artist] have to not participate in ways that have him “not equal” …? ”

1. Find ways to gently and with love keep bringing this issue to the forefront, especially by White people to other White people. … Even if you think it won’t be received well, even if you think “well these people did their best and it’s still white as vanilla” … still try anyway. …

2. Find ways to highlight and promote artists that DO promote diversity in their music…

“I wonder if the issue is not the race of the “purchaser” or audience, but simply the marketplace and the demographics and preferences of the audience…”

The most sociologically accepted definition of racism is that of race prejudice plus institutional or structural power. Long after people stop harboring actively malicious thoughts about others of different ethnicities, long after people stop using racial epithets, long after it stops being acceptable to use actively discriminatory practices along racial lines… there exists an institutional residue of racism, the result of centuries of oppression and disenfranchisement… those powers and structures that make it possible for White people to still gather and increase wealth at a rate disproportionate to their effort and achievement compared to other people of color.

At this point …, people may not be racists themselves in the first sense of the term, they might not be actively operating with racial prejudice… but without an active attempt to reform and restructure “the system” so that all of God’s children can get something closer to equal access, racism still persists on a SYSTEMIC level.

Segregated Christian music, just like segregated churches, will not change on a large scale until ordinary people say enough is enough … until there are my White Christian people saying this and people of color don’t have to be the ones to so consistently bang this drum, it won’t happen. That’s why I’m grateful for people like Katelin Hansen.

 “There have been many artists … who have been limited in their abilities … BUT who have achieved a level of success … because … they knew who they were, excelled at that and didn’t try to be something they weren’t.”

I believe God has a very creative way of preparing all of us for very different purposes and even different audiences, to bring about a desired result. …The church does have a responsibility to create this synthesis between cultures and races, Christ is coming back for a perfect church without spot or wrinkle … We have to introduce these cultures & different kinds of music to church to reap the multi-racial result God desires.

There’s more: women as worship leaders in a world dominated by young white males also see disparity.

“I feel some of your same arguments [apply to] women (white, black, otherwise) and CCM/mainstream Christian music. There are just a few women on CCLI’s top 100 … Just disappointing and challenging for us girl worship leaders.”

What I see as a root problem in a lot of this is the fact that the heartbeat of the church, worship, has become deeply entangled in the cult of the marketplace. What will sell to the most is what the church will sing, and the largest consumer of ‘commodified’ worship music is white. By getting in bed with a marketplace of worship music, we’ve hitched our wagon to an overwhelmingly white movement. The ‘invisible hand’ of the market is not a benevolent one to those outside of the dominant culture.
A potential for hope: the advent of digital music. That one can now make and distribute music without the hands of record companies, in theory, should greater democratize the contemporary music of the church. One can hope.

“…since Becky the White minivan-driving once-divorced megachurch-attending soccer mom is driving a lot of the decisions behind how worship music is being commodified, it’s harder for authentic people of color to advance their voices in worship without either becoming marginalized by the dominant culture or assimilated INTO the dominant culture.”

 “I … want to stick up for Becky soccer mom: she doesn’t know how to find any other music than the ten songs being played on her Christian music station, and doesn’t have time nor money to find out …”

 I do not mean to make Becky the scapegoat, I find her more of a symptom than the root cause. BUT… that doesn’t absolve Becky (or you or me, for that matter) of the responsibility to ask God what He wants from us and then doing our best to carry it out. … Again, here is the tension: maybe part of making things better is choosing to be intentional about diversifying your relationships and your musical tastes, and the worship part will flow out of that.

The mission of the Evangelical Covenant Church is to see more disciples among more populations, in a more caring and just world. How does the music you choose, and the worship you offer, bring you and your congregation closer to this vision of the Kingdom of God? As we bring more disciples into fellowship, how can we honor and engage one another in authentic, heartfelt worship?


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12 comments “Kingdom Work”

one of the reasons I’m grateful for BetterTogether is that there is a constant influx of new ideas from a vast diversity of voices, be it an ethnic diversity or a stylistic diversity and all the ways those recombine. my ministry has been blessed by the different voices that have given me new perspective on my own ideas, which have morphed from the discussion. I am a better pastor and a better person because of each of you, because you don’t hold back from the hard conversations and yet extend grace with every comment!

one thought I had was, how can we create a database of diverse music styles? the best representation of new music from as many genres as we can, but with enough limitations that it’s not like trying to isolate a single grain of sand from the ocean (which seems to be one of the current problems created by the influx of digital music). In part, I struggle with the ways some of them are different because I don’t hear some of the intricacies off the bat … what are the differences between hip hop and rap, for example? I think a database (something online like PCO, except available to anyone) would help give faces to each of the styles, especially for Becky or Burt (Becky’s SUV-driving 60-hour working travelling husband) …

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There’s so much in this.   And I appreciate how it seems that the discussion has the possibility of moving questions of intention from “I don’t intend to be racist” to “I intend to to question the latent racism in a system of which I’m a participant.”
As someone who doesn’t listen to CCM an who doesn’t lead or regularly participate in “contemporary” worship services, (and who can’t stand Tomlin, to be honest), the point of entry of this discussion is not my context.  though the reason I don’t listen to CCM is related to this discussion, as a White person engaged in “alternative subcultures”, CCM never could authentically embrace even the “White” margins let alone other margins.  There does seem to me to be some inherent problems with this whole system that include structural racism, and market driven capitalism.
I wonder thought too if the issue is bound up in assumptions that “race” is a real thing that would survive the demise of racist structures.  I wonder if the these problems will persist as long as we use the categories of racism: White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, etc….   
Chris are we really opening up ourselves to diversity and difference as long as diversity and difference is cataloged according the classification system of a racist structure? Even if it is a reforming racist structure?  One of the things I observe in our context is that the dominant system continually re-inscribes its categories and divisions even as it reforms itself to open itself to a diversity that the system then controls through its racial categories, that do then perpetuate the racism its reforms claim to overthrow.
Can Christianity and the Church conceive of multiculturalism outside the ideology of race.  Can we open us up the diversity hidden by the racist categories of “White”, “Black”, “Hispanic”, “Asian”.  Can White people give up the privilege of this classification system, rejecting the monolithic category of white that hides historical cultural and class distinctive, that could enrich our sense of diversity?  How does the Church also embrace the diversity of “White” subcultures that borrow widely?  And by labeling say the goth scene as a “White” alternative subculture actually hide that White, Black, Hispanic and Asian are all goths?   I think I may have more here than is appropriate for the comment box.  I think I might have a blog post.

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The teacher in me loves this idea, Chris. Developing a rubric of some sort to help identify critical attributes of each genre, with lots and lots of examples, could do a lot to break down the barriers of ignorance we often build for ourselves.

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Larry, you wrote, “Can Christianity and the Church conceive of multiculturalism outside the ideology of race?” And my short answer is: I hope so. I pray for it, because I know that the very concept of ‘race’ is a false construct. My question for all of us has more to do with “how?” than anything else. How do we embrace multiple genres, multiple cultural perspectives, when we are each limited by our own cultural blinders?

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Larry, I can see that. I think what I’m trying to do, though, is define each genre on that cultures terms. When I talked with the pastor of a hip-hop church in Brooklyn, he defined hip hop a certain way in his mind, but never said what that meant to him to me; his definition was assumed. Then someone else played what he called rap, and I think he was from San Fran. Honestly, they sounded alike to me, and so what I’m interested in is a way to have a common frame of reference so that we can honor each culture on their own terms.

The question you raise is actually one of heuristics. How do we refer to a self-identifying subculture in a way that both honors them as a group but does not define them in oppressed/oppressor categories? Because I too don’t like being called “white,” as though the color of MY skin defines ME anymore than anybody else! You could call me a “Swiss American” (and I actually am a dual citizen), but that doesn’t really define me either. 

BUT it does define PART of me, so Jo Anne, I’m not sure it really is a “false” construct so much as it tends to be misused to define a person into a statistic. Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth, all races, cultures, nations … no matter how you slice it, the Kingdom both subverts ethnic categories AND celebrates them …

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Chris, I know you are an anthropologist at heart, so forgive me for using the adjective “false” when this is what I meant: “The ambiguities and confusion associated with determining the boundaries of racial categories have over time provoked a widespread scholarly consensus that discrete or essentialist races are socially constructed, not biologically real.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ) My view leans toward the scholars who consider race to be a social construct, not a biological one. But scholars don’t agree… So glad we celebrate Freedom in Christ as we work through our varied opinions!

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I really appreciate this blog post and the issues that it raises.

I’m struggling with one of the statements that is included. It may be taken out of context from the original FB discussion so if it is, you can point me back to the original. The statement I’m struggling with is: “The church does have a responsibility to create this synthesis between cultures and races, Christ is coming back for a perfect church without spot or wrinkle … We have to introduce these cultures & different kinds of music to church to reap the multi-racial result God desires.” 

If we are trying to create a perfect church without spot or wrinkle for Christ to come back for, Christ will never return. Christ returning is the only way that there will be a perfect church without spot or wrinkle. I’m not saying that we should just forget about trying. We should be about trying. We should be about identifying sin in our lives and in the life of the church and repenting and living as Christ followers. That’s part of the tension of living in the now but not fully realized Kingdom of God. 

Again, I appreciate the discussion and the challenges dealing with the sin of racism and culturalism (and sexism and ageism and …).

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Dan, I sent you an e-mail to give you the context of the statement you question, and if the author wants to jump in here and clarify/expand on the quote, that will be great. When I first read that sentence, it made me stop and think “are we talking syncretism here?” But I don’t think that was the intention. I do think the Church is the best place for disparate world views to come together, with Christ at the center, complementing one another’s cultural understanding and enriching our knowledge of what the Kingdom of God is supposed to look like. But I also think the integrity of each culture is important to uphold, so that each participant brings a unique value to the whole. Someone referenced 1 Corinthians 12, and it is a chapter worth re-reading as we continue this discussion. “And I will show you a still more excellent way…” (1Cor. 12:31)

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Thanks, Jo Anne. I reviewed the original post. My struggle still remains. 

I appreciate the 1 Corinthians 12 reference. We are all gifted differently not for our own edification but for the body of Christ. God created our different languages, cultures, ethnicities, etc. My concern is that if we think we can accomplish bringing them all back together as one on this side of Christ’s return, then we are dangerously close to creating our own Tower of Babel. That doesn’t mean that we all need to stay separated in our different towers as that creates all types of -isms. And -isms are bad!

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JoAnne, I had a really amazing post written about biological vs. sociological causes of race/ethnicity and then I accidentally hit refresh somehow and it’s gone.

The gist of it was that it’s a “both/and” sort of deal, like the nature vs. nurture situation (a big “yes”) … cultures self-identify as a race (sociological) in part because of biological differences; we have to have the heuristic in order to keep track of the world (so our brains don’t explode), but unfortunately it also sets up the perfect dichotomy of “us vs. them” (when biological becomes sociological), which is the inevitable confusing of the two categories. Instead of realizing that our problem is sociocultural, we attribute the conflict to biological categories, because OBVIOUSLY our skin tone or our hair color or our vocal type or RH-factor must translate into a moral condition.

The point is that we have to be willing to see the origin of the issues as well as the fact that when redeemed, race and ethnicity doesn’t go away, rather, they’re all reconciled … every tribe, tongue, etc. is singing (in their own way?) of the glory of God …

Dan, I don’t think that ANY of this assumes the Church under her own power. I think we’d all acknowledge that the Church is only able to be responsible for anything under the power and guidance of the Spirit … that being said, we still have a role in the matter. One of my colleagues has a fondness for saying that the gospel isn’t about us, but it includes us; we are not the subject, God is. But we are included in the story of redemption, and I believe that this falls under our purview … in the power of the Spirit, just as we do all things in our purview.

Also, the 1 Cor 12 passage always makes me think “Be EXCELLENT to each other!” … kudos to those who get the reference …

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my understanding of the origin of the concept of “race” makes it more suspect to me than ethnicity.  Chris you seem more up to date on the scholarship here so I would differ to you or anyone else, admittedly I think my sense of this is now based on at least 10 year old scholarship.
My recollection from my study is that while ethnic difference and identity may have its issues, ethnicity isn’t primarily based upon a hierarchy of ethnicities, though one’s own ethnicity is naturally given precedence of the other.   Whereas “race” has always been bound up in some form of hierarchical arrangement of human beings based upon fairly accidental and surface biological traits like skin color, that has no direct association with the cultural particularities of those who share this particular trait. The “Black” hides the vast cultural and even biological diversity of the humans on the African continent.  Thus I see “race” as a more suspect construct than the concepts of culture or ethnicity.  Similarly “nationalism” and “nation” are to my mind similarly suspect given that the constructs of nation and nationalism came into existence in an attempt to deny and lessen the effects of real diversity say within the boundaries of what we now call France and Germany. France being among the oldest European nations and Germany being among the youngest European nations.  Thus the construct of national identity in my mind has similar problems inherent in it as does the concept of race.  I bring this up because I wish to emphasize that while the constructed nature of our perception of reality is not intrinsically wrong, some constructs may be less redeemable than others, or perhaps not redeemable at all.

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HA… so much good stuff to respond to here… and Chris, always fun to have a Bill & Ted reference. Considering my slavish devotion to the Matrix franchise, I applaud your willingness to own your tastes. 🙂

Larry, I am always hesitant to delve into sociological conversations regarding race as a construct, because I am not a sociologist and I try to sensitive to the plaintive cries of some of my peers (my wife Holly among them) who decry these conversations as being tail-chasing exercises of intellectualism.

having said that… I appreciate your concluding thought here:

“I wish to emphasize that while the constructed nature of our [racialized] perception of reality is not intrinsically wrong, some constructs may be less redeemable than others, or perhaps not redeemable at all.”

I TOTALLY AGREE WITH THIS… and added the word “racialized” only for the sake of clarity for the TL:DR-ers who only read my quote and nothing from your actual post.

It is, as Chris mentioned in the Better Together FB thread, more of a tension that needs to be managed rather than a question to be resolved. 

I have always heard, either directly or indirectly, from White acquaintances who get fed up with talking about race, and usually their stance is that talking about it so much is part of what perpetuates the problem and/or makes it worse. Usually when I hear that, my standard response is, “well you just don’t get it then,” and my respect levels for that person immediately plummet, though I try not to let that show on my face if we’re having this exchange in person. (Polite, or duplicitous? Probably a little of both, though being Black in a very White part of the country, the Pacific NW, this kind of verbal smoothing-over is a requisite skill for survival.)

Recently, though, I heard that from a White friend of mine, someone who’s judgment I respect, and whose background and career arc gives him a particular insight into some of the racial dynamics of our city… and essentially one of the things he said is that [and I’m paraphrasing], “the important thing about the gospel is that we all fall short and we’re all in the same boat, and I just wonder if we’re not making the problem worse if all we’re doing is talking about what’s wrong and how we’re divided.” 

Given our history, I couldn’t just mentally file him away under the tag People Who Just Don’t Get It, so I had to wrestle with that a little bit.

I think it’s true that the racial construct in America, in particular, the idea of Whiteness as a protected class of people against the encroaching hordes of others, including European ethnic groups who previously weren’t considered White… this is a construct that is IRREDEEMABLE.

However, it is my hope that talking about race and culture as it relates to worship music would help give language and opportunity for people, especially White people, to begin to identify and develop the areas of their ethnicity that ARE redeemable, because I think that’s what helps to break down the communication barriers. When White people who are less conversant in these conversations hear talk about multiculturalism as coded language for “all White people are guilty and should apologize to the closest Black person” … that doesn’t help the situation. But when the conversation can focus around the ideas that we all have something of value to offer in the Kingdom and we all have a responsibility to impact our spheres of influence for the Kingdom, and that influence is given unequal range because of racialized inequities in our society… well then, I think we’re getting somewhere.

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