Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Black Church/White Church/Rich Church/Poor Church

One of my co-workers, a woman of African descent, asked me about the differences in behavior between black churches and white churches. She had observed that black church services last for hours and have no fixed end time, whereas white churches have much shorter services with a pretty tight schedule.

I allowed as how that was true of my church but explained that there were multiple services and additional activities that had to be considered. Our pastor would love to be able to yammer on for hours on end, but the elders would have to drag him from the pulpit to keep everything on schedule. If the early service goes long, there will be a logjam when the attendees of the next service show up and try to park and gather in the fellowship hall. After the later service, there's usually some kind of luncheon or meetings, and Sunday School teachers are ready to get rid of their pupils. A lot of families have things to do on Sunday afternoons such as soccer or baseball or what have you, so they can't be stuck in an open ended church service.

It seems to me that the group worship experience is more central in my co-worker's church, whereas it is only a small part of what is going on with our church. A little bit of group worship goes a long way for us. Those of us who favor the "traditional" service are looking for a more contemplative atmosphere and are content with an hour to an hour and a quarter of this. The earlier service is more "contemporary" with lots of "praise music" and an atmosphere somewhat more conducive to an experience of, if not ecstacy, then a mild form of joy. The sermon is the same in both services, and the preacher almost never gets into any kind of state of excitement. It's a challenge to get the congregation to make any kind of oral response that isn't written down in the bulletin. We're Calvinists.

Of course, not all white churches are like mine. When I was a teenager, I sang in a touring ensemble and performed in all kinds of churches. "Holiness" churches and little independent Baptist and nondenominational churches out in the country tended to have open ended services with very little adherence to any kind of script. I suffered through many an endess altar call in my day. Those churches were almost entirely about the worship service, and there were very few activities beyond conducting worship. The congregations were composed of your salt of the earth, working class, poorly educated, and extremely reserved country folk whose only permitted emotional outlet was group worship. And boy did they let their hair down in church and experience a ration of ecstacy in an otherwise melancholy existence.

Sometimes, these services were pretty fun. On other occasions, they went on so long that the living envied the dead. The preaching was more spontaneous, and the preachers would fall into a kind of chant punctuated by short "coughs". This could be mesmerizing, and the sermon usually didn't make any kind of sense. It got you in a trance like state, though, and got you shouting and crying out and quivering like a crazy person at times. The tongue speaking and pew jumping and wallowing about on the floor that accompanied some services freaked me out quite a bit, and I remember that I fled in terror from the first such service that I ever attended.

I also attended black church services on a few occasions. The ones I observed were very much like the white country churches at the core in that the congegation was expected to emote and participate in an ecstatic atmosphere. These churches were usually bigger and more luxuriously appointed than the country churches, and they usually had full time paid clergy. The singing was different (generally better) than you'd find in the white country services. Individual worshipers would sometimes erupt into songs that they apparently composed on the spot, and I never observed this in any white church.

I can't really account for these differences despite all my personal observations. Some of us are just more reserved than others when it comes to worship, and unless you have a critical mass of congregants who are able and willing to loosen up, you're not going to get an emotional outpouring.

I recall with particular joy the times that I attended concerts by Andrae Crouch and the Disciples. "This is not a concert!" he'd shout. "This is Church!" and we'd be off on an emotional thrill ride where you would be convinced of the presence of the Holy Ghost right then and there.

Could it be that those of us who have been inculcated with bourgeois sensibilities are uncomfortable with the idea of uncontrolled emotional expression even in worship? It's that way in other aspects of our lives, too. We're sexually repressed and unwilling to take too much pleasure in sexual activity. Don't look like you're enjoying anything too much. You'll never get ahead if you don't control your passions, such as they are. Don't act the fool. Have some dignity, for crying out loud! Don't celebrate your touchdown; it's unseemly.

Perhaps we are missing an opportunity to enjoy what should be an occasion for joy, to let it hang out a little. I'm pretty sure that if I started shouting "Amen" and "Praise the Lord" all the time or wept in church, I'd be taken for a crazy person and probably admonished. If anyone else acted joyful or ecstatic, it would be uncomfortable for me.

I'm reminded of the story of the farmer who found himself in town on a Sunday and slipped into the worship service of one of the Main Street "First" churches. He was aroused by the singing and the preaching and began crying out with Hallelujahs and Hosannas and Praise the Lords until one of the deacons asked him to be quiet. "But I've got the Holy Ghost," explained the farmer. The deacon replied, "You didn't get it here."

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