Worship in Black and White
When I was in middle school, I wanted to be a rock star. When I became a Christian in eighth grade, I was eager to see how my love for music would fit in with my decision to follow Jesus. (I gradually learned that "star" is not a pursuit befitting Christians.) People in my church wanted me to use my musical gifts too, so I started learning and leading people in contemporary praise-and-worship songs like "Lord, I Lift Your Name on High" and "Shout to the Lord." As I went to more Christian music festivals, visited different churches, and learned more songs, I garnered a library of hymns and praise-and-worship music.
Meanwhile, sometimes I would hear gospel music on the radio or television, and it struck me as a curiosity—the kind of music to which black people worshiped but that remained mostly irrelevant to me.
When I was a sophomore in college, the theme for the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship regional retreat was racial reconciliation. A few weeks before it began, our campus staff worker told me that they had initially planned on inviting singer-songwriter Derek Webb to speak and give a concert but had changed their minds.
"No way!" I said. "Why?"
She said that when an African American staff member heard the idea, she threw up her hands in frustration—most African American students had never heard of Webb. So the planners decided to re-focus the conference theme on racial reconciliation.
The speakers at the conference pointed us to the picture in Revelation 7:9-10, where a great multitude that no one could count, "from every nation, tribe, people and language," stands before the throne and worships the Lamb. They said that if this is the picture of how things will be when everything is made right, we should be living into it now. Christ called us to be one, as he and the Father are one, but Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week. Our divisions compromise our faithfulness and our witness to Christ.
The retreat initiated a wave of conversations across campus, and soon I saw racial reconciliation as one of the paramount tasks of the church. I was convinced that we had to do away with the old categories of "white church" and "black church." We needed to be the new, reconciled, unified church. And this meant changing the way we did worship music.
I began to realize that the songs I knew, like "Heart of Worship" and "How Great Is Our God," were written primarily by and for a white audience. So as a worship leader on campus, I tried to insert black gospel songs and occasionally also a song in a language other than English.
What A Black Hymnal Means
In my buoyant eagerness to reconcile the world, though, I put little thought into why the church is racially divided. This led to a hurried jump to seek reconciliation without knowing the journey that preceded me. I had no concept of the black church tradition, and really no interest in learning about it. If the church was going to be reconciled, I assumed, we needed to look forward, not backward.
My attitude began to change when I moved to Durham, North Carolina, and began worshiping at St. John's Missionary Baptist Church, a historically African American congregation. On the Sunday I first walked into the sanctuary, the congregation was singing "This Is the Day." We clapped, danced, and repeated the chorus over and over. When we sat down, I noticed the African American Heritage Hymnal in the pew rack. Most of the songs in the service came from the hymnal, but sometimes they erupted spontaneously out of the hearts and mouths of the church members.