I offer this is in a humble spirit, because as a privileged white male in a widely diverse culture, I mean no offense in any direction. But as I reflect on my ministry across the past thirty-five years, I want to share some thoughts on meaningful and impactful worship. I was brought up in a fairly pedestrian mix of white, middle-class Presbyterian and Baptist worship. I ended up splitting the difference, going into ministry in The United Methodist Church, still experiencing a solid, middle of the road, white mainstream church experience. Through some very fortunate and unique opportunities, I have had the disquieting and wonderful opportunity to preach in a variety of black churches.
‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’ (Matthew 10:40-42)
I say disquieting and wonderful for two basic reasons: first, it has been disquieting as an experience very foreign to my previous understanding, and wonderful because it has essentially been a qualitatively better engagement than I generally encounter. The qualitative differences rest in two areas:
First and foremost, in music. I love the sacred music, traditional church hymns, and congregational singing I was raised with. But forgive me if I offend, music in the black church is in a class by itself. I shouldn’t make a sweeping generalization, but I have seldom experienced music with more power, spirit and energy than I have in a wide variety of black congregations. And what is the fundamental difference? Joy! Regardless of the pain, oppression, and injustice many black communities experience, there is an amazing joy at the heart of black worship music. This, in my personal experience, is especially true of black choirs, but also in the general sharing of the whole congregation. Even when the subject is petition or intercession, there is an undercurrent of joy that transcends all else. It truly lifts my spirit.
Second, is the experience of preaching. While it has taken me years to adapt and be comfortable, I love preaching in black churches. Too often in the white reality, sermons are “delivered.” Not so in most black churches. Preaching is a communal and interactive activity. There is nothing more encouraging or energizing than a congregation that interacts in preaching. The basic call and response, the constant affirmation and invitation when a subject strikes a chord, and the intoxicating “preach it,” “come on,” “amen,” that emanates from an engaged congregation, is amazing. I find no parallel in my white church experiences.
In many of the white, middle class, mainline church experiences I have had, there is very little feedback given to the preacher – the major expectation is for the preacher to preach to or preach at. But it is an amazing and transformative experience to be in a situation where the welcome and encouragement comes from the congregation, to call for the inspiration and exhortation of the Holy Spirit from the preacher. My fervent prayer is that we might all expand our experience of worship – not being afraid to enter into different experiences outside our comfort zones. Would that we could all experience transformative and joyful worship that propels us into the world to share our faith with others on a regular basis!
Gracious and loving God, you inspire many of us to preach. But remind us that preaching is a work of the community, and not just a performance on the part of the one for the many. For those who listen to preaching, remind us that your gospel message is delivered by many means, by many hearts, and by many voices, that all might receive the good news of Jesus Christ. We ask this humbly in Jesus’ name. Amen.
May this devotion provide you with a moment of faithful reflection and care. You are involved in ministries of justice and witness, in ministries of standing up and standing with people working to create better systems and communities, in ministries of learning and searching and researching to become more aware and awakened, more technologically savvy and proficient, more virtually and personally present in your churches and communities and world. Each of us who serve as members of your Wisconsin Cabinet write these devotions in grateful prayer for you – for sustenance and buoyancy, for strength and courage, for safety and just actions, and for faith and love to be full and fulfilled in your daily lives. God’s grace and blessings, God’s challenge and healthy discomfort, God’s Spirit and energy be with you, in the hope Christ offers us all.