This seminar is an attempt to explain to a majority white audience, some of the differences between African-American culture and majority White culture in the context of worship.

I’d like to begin by telling a story of something that happened to me several years ago. Randy and I were visiting a church in a southern city. This church has a black pastor who had brought in a black woman to be the music director in a church, that had less than 2 years previously,  been all white. Randy was doing a seminar on mercy, and during one of the breaks he brought a woman over to meet me and than he said “Joan, talk to her”.  This woman loved the fact that the church was becoming increasingly cross-cultural and multi-racial. She adored her pastor and she was really behind the mission and vision of the church to reach the surrounding black community, that this African-American pastor was leading the congregation in. She started weeping, as she said, “I understand what we’re doing. I love it, I think it’s wonderful but I really can’t stand this music that this new music director is bringing in.” I was kind of blown away by her, mostly because she was so honest. Usually when people have problems like that, they don’t start there; they start with something “spiritual”.  “I believe God wants us to worship ‘this way’ because…” but she said, “I just don’t like it. What do I do?” I really appreciated her honesty.  I rarely hear people in her situation being that transparent and honest. Basically, she had made a judgment regarding black music and culture. She was unfamiliar with it; she was uncomfortable with it; she was afraid of it and she felt bad and sad about her fears. The fact is that African-American music and culture is different from white music and culture and for the first time in her life she had to deal with that difference. 


Joan NaborsThe worship cultures of African-Americans and white-Americans in this country come out of very different experiences.  Blacks in this country came to understand the one true God from a very different place than where whites did. White culture was birthed in Northern Europe. Between 550A.D. to 1543 which was the year of the reformation in Germany, congregations didn’t sing at all. If you’ve ever been to Europe and seen the beautiful Cathedrals, they’re full of art. The church service was conducted in Latin and not many of the people who came to those services spoke Latin except for the priest. The people that were there spoke another language in their daily lives- German or English. The choir sang, in Latin, and the preaching was in Latin. There was very little that happened in the service that people could actually understand. It was hoped that they would learn something from the art on the walls; the rest was beautiful and mysterious, like they were told God was.

This is why Martin Luther and the other reformers were often hymn writers.  They began to write hymns in the languages that the people actually spoke. The songs that they wrote were full of theology so the people, as they sang could express the truths that were found in the bible. There is also a great Psalm singing tradition of actually just using the Psalms as they were written and putting those to music.

 African Americans came to this country from Africa, and a culture that was very communal and participatory. For African-Americans worship has never been a “spectator sport.” We don’t just sit there and absorb.  When we listen to a singer or a choir sing we are admiring the skill and the art that’s involved and we also admire the personal experience that is expressed in the music or preaching. I think that we all yearn to know that God is helping us and guiding us in our daily lives. Hearing about somebody else’s experience of God’s presence in their lives that’s expressed in music and feeling the emotion behind it when somebody else is singing or when we’re singing- causes our hearts to be stirred and our faith to grow. It always calls for a response. For an African-American, worship is more of a communal experience.

One of the best experiences of my life happened this past summer  when my son got married. My third and youngest son got married in Kenya, he married a Kenyan woman. My husband, my daughter and I traveled there for the wedding. One amazing thing, I took lots of pictures and when you look at them it looks very much like an American wedding. But being there, the experience was extremely different. The actual service was very similar but we all made promises to God regarding this marriage. There was a 30 voice choir. They sang, and we all sang together.  The wedding guests had come for the whole day. All they wanted to do on that day was celebrate this couple and their new lives together.  The time we spent was as much about us being together as it was about the bride and groom. African Americans come out of more of a community focused culture and it shows in the way we worship. And we also come out of a culture that was forged in suffering.

“You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will praise you forever.”
  Psalm 30:11-12

For all of us- whether you’re in a black church or a white church- in either or any culture, the congregation; we, whoever we are,  are not the audience. God is the audience.  He is the only One who has to be pleased by how we worship Him. 

 Characteristic cultural Expressions in African-American worship

 Let’s compare and contrast African-American worship with the majority culture’s worship.


 “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.  There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?”
Psalm 137:1-4

One of the reasons African-Americans, during slavery, were drawn to Christianity was because they were able to make a direct connection in their hearts and minds to the people of Israel and the time they spent  in captivity in Egypt, and later Babylon, with the whole experience of slavery. The connection was strong and powerful.

“I cry aloud to the LORD; I lift up my voice to the LORD for mercy. I pour out before him my complaint; before him I tell my trouble.”
Psalm 142:1-2

In sorrow, in weeping and wailing, and in joy, for African-Americans church was always a place to express our emotional connection to God.  From Slavery to share cropping to ghettos, black people found church was the one place they could really cut loose and be themselves. “Singers and hearers are participants in the exuberant experience of gospel music. They are caught up in the exciting message of hope and the passionate tone of the music. They sing songs from hearts seeking freedom and relief from God, who they saw as their only hope. They would come away from service feeling like they could face life. They had literally sung themselves to life. They would practice the tradition of ‘praying through’ praying until they felt they had touched the heart of God and been touched in return.” –Warren

All of this takes passion and energy.


 Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.  Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.  
PS 100: 1-2

Sing for joy to God our strength; shout aloud to the God of Jacob!      
PS 81:1

Awake, my soul! Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn.               
PS 57:8

These are all scriptures that talk about shouting and just noise. For African-Americans, we aren’t bothered by loud if it sounds good. In our congregation we’ve had white people complain about the volume. They come up to us after church covering their ears and we say “Just take your hands down. We’re not turning it down, sorry.”


 “David wearing a linen ephod, danced before the Lord with all his might while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the arc of the Lord with shouts and sound of trumpets”
II Samuel 6:14-15

“David said to Michael it was before the Lord who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel. I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this and I will humiliated in my own eyes. But by these ….you spoke of I will be held in honor”
II Samuel 21-22

These are just a couple of excerpts from that story in second Samuel where David was dancing before the ark of God, and he was so filled with joy,  that he literally made a fool of himself. A few years ago I saw Richard Gere  in the movie “David” and the movie had that scene of him dancing.  He really does look out of control, but just delighted with God. His wife didn’t think he was being dignified enough to be the king of Israel and she rebuked him and this was his response,

“I will be even more undignified before the Lord…”
“Hear my cry for mercy as I call to you for help, as I lift up my hands toward your Most Holy Place.”                         
PS 28:2

It’s hard for me to sit still in worship. I watch the congregation when I’m on praise team or in the choir, and I see people just standing there, and I often wonder: how do you do that? For most African Americans moving back and forth (swaying), nodding heads, clapping hands, raising hands, and even dancing is the “proper” response to a great song or an inspiring sermon. Scripture says its okay move around when you worship. I’m not saying that you have to move around, but maybe you shouldn’t dump on people who do.


 I don’t have a scripture for this, but what I mean by spontaneity is this, in the black church the congregation participates in such a way that neither the leaders or the people  know what’s going to happen next. This creates flexibility in a worship service and it also accounts in part for why African-American services don’t always begin or end on time.

Last fall I had the opportunity to visit my grandmother in New Haven.  We got there on a Friday night and my grandmother informed me that if I wanted to see her she would be in church.  So we went to church.  This was the same C.O.G.I.C church she used to take me to when I was a little girl. They were having  a youth service that night and it was scheduled to start at nine. We got there at nine-twenty and there were five people in the sanctuary. It was almost 10 o clock when the pastor got up and started the worship time.  There was no point in him starting earlier because there was no one there. He started his singing and people kept coming.  The praise team started singing and people kept coming. Then they started having different gospel groups sing, and this apparently attracted young people, because there were lots of them there. We left around eleven because we’d driven all day to get there, and we were tired. People were still coming, as we were leaving. Groups were still coming,  buses were still coming! I called my aunt the next day to ask what time they left and she said “a quarter till three in the morning.”  My eighty-nine year old grandmother, stayed, and she never goes home early.

Adlibbing or “lining”

 “ I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the LORD and put their trust in him. I do not hide your righteousness in my heart; I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help. I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness from the great assembly.”
 Psalm 40: 1-3, 10

In the gospel tradition the leader would often “line out” a song and sing several bars ahead of the congregation so that the congregation would know what to sing next. This is a valuable technique and it’s actually necessary if the song has never been written down, or if you don’t have any books or if you can’t read. In these situations it helps to have a leader sing what you’re supposed to sing next. Often the lining is sung and the leader will improvise on the line as he sings it ahead of the congregation. In this way is even a very familiar song like, for example “We’ve come this far by faith” is a little different every time it’s sung. This is an important characteristic of African-American music.


 Improvisation, is similar to “lining” and involves repetition.  In black music lines are often repeated many times especially at the end of a song. This gives additional opportunity for improvisation. The singer is then able to explore different techniques and performance styles. Gospel music is a singer’s art more so than a composer’s. The singers and congregation get to remember just what it means that “Jesus is a Fence” as Fred Hammond tells us in one of my favorite songs.  He sings that God is a protection not only for me,  but also my family, at any time, day or night.  As he sings we also get to remember when God was there between us and danger that constantly threatens to destroy our peace. . White people tend to have a problem with this because there is not enough “content” and to have somebody repeat something that many times is annoying. Lots of classical music such as the “Hallelujah Chorus” just repeats the same words over and over.   Some how you get something out of it.

Common themes

For you, LORD, have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before the LORD in the land of the living.                            
Psalm 116: 8-9

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”                            
Revelation 21:4

In the African-American gospel tradition themes have to do with God helping or delivering the individual or comforting his people in their trials. The tradition began with spirituals whose lyrics were often based on bible stories and concepts of moral behavior. They especially highlight stories about Moses who represented freedom from bondage and Jesus who also suffered injustice. We also like to sings songs about heaven where things are going to be very different than they are here and the place where we’re  going to be reunited with loved ones. This knowledge that we would see our loved ones again was especially important to a people who lived with the knowledge that your whole family could be sold away from you, and your brightest hope was that someday you’d see them in heaven.  There is also a difference in black gospel and white music in who is addressed. Unlike other genres traditional gospel music does not usually address God directly. The songs usually rehearse what God is doing in the life of the believer or what the believer hopes God will do. “Lord Help Me to Hold Out” Some of the younger artists like Kirk Franklin or Richard Smallwood, however, often address God directly in the songs they write.


In that day you will say: “Give praise to the LORD, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted.  Sing to the LORD, for he has done glorious things; let this be madeknown to all the world. Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.”                    
Isaiah 12:4-6

In the African-American tradition sermons and prayers are often sung, in the south this is called “hooping”. The preacher tells a story in simple direct words and each line is given a response by the people such as: “Amen!” “Halleluiah!” “ Help ‘em Lord!” “Well!” It often sounds a lot like a conversation between the preacher and the congregation.  One book I read said that some scholars think that this was the origin of the spirituals, this “call and response” sort of sermonizing that was eventually written down and then sung. According to Ms. Warren, “this tradition goes back to slavery when slave preachers would moan, hum and sing in order to stir up the gift within and seek revelation and illumination from God.” This can be a very emotional experience. If the content is biblical, it’s great preaching, because it’s  really reaching the hearts of the people.

The Shout

This is not something we do at New City,  The Shout is a very physical and vocal expression of praise. It involves dancing and shouting and screaming and calling on God. It is the believer’s way of very fervently praising and glorifying God in a very physical and vocal way. For many people it is a turn-off but I think for many this is the way that they worship, and  it can be  a heart felt  expression of worshipping God. 

The Problem of Interpretation.

As we think about the differences between African-American and white culture in worship often what we’re dealing with is a difference in interpretation. For someone from another culture looking in our exuberance and passion is viewed as people being out of control or just being loud and noisy; improvisation and adlibbing, is called performance or showing off; spontaneity, is called uncertainty or confusion.  And these things are judged harshly by our critics. What David says in II Samuel 6 is relevant here; what may seem humiliating and undignified, if it is done with a heart that is seeking to please God and celebrate before Him, gives God glory.