So you want to have a multiracial, multicultural church. Music, you decide, is an important vehicle to get there.
But what type of music? This is the core question of Gerardo Marti's fascinating new book, Worship Across the Racial Divide: Religious Music and the Multiracial Congregation (Oxford University Press), and one that occupies the minds of many a Christian leader attempting to do multiethnic ministry.
Marti's answer is shocking.
After carefully studying twelve successfully integrated churches, he came to a clear conclusion:
It doesn't matter what type(s) of music.
What? This answer seems counterintuitive, and Marti admits it is not the one he thought he would find. He also notes that it is not the answer most anyone gives, even those heading up successful multiracial churches.
When asked, most leaders fall into one of two camps as to how they answer the question, "What type of music is most conducive to being multiethnic?"
They fall into either the one-size-fits-all camp (there is a universal language of music, a particular rhythm that speaks to us all as humans) or the musical-buffet camp (you need to play a variety of musical forms to appeal to the varieties of people). About half the people interviewed fall into the first camp, about half into the second camp.
Quickly, Marti finds that the theory he subscribed to when he began his research—the one-size-fits-all theory—is simply wrong. Ethnomusicologists, sociologists, and missionaries have all concluded there are no universals in music. People can and do ascribe different meaning to and have different feelings about the exact same musical sounds, even if the people are in the same room together when hearing the music. If you think about it, you have probably experienced this reality yourself—some people in the church almost breaking into tears at a song, and you experiencing essentially nothing (or vice versa).
Those who subscribe to the musical-buffet theory not only believe a variety of music must be performed, but they work hard to act on that belief. So how do they decide what varieties to play?
It is here that Marti is again on to something of tremendous importance. What he found in his interviews is that people have to rely on stereotypes.
What does this have to do with the problem of the musical-buffet style? Marti finds that this style actually "essentializes" racial groups and draws on narrow stereotypes. Want white people in your church? Play Vineyard, contemporary Christian music (or for the older crowd, play European-origin hymns). Want black people in your church? Play gospel music. Want Hispanics in your church? Play salsa music. Want Asians in your church? Play, ah . . . well, play white music.
The end result? Instead of bringing people together and transcending racial boundaries, this approach reinforces boundaries—boundaries built on gross, oversimplified stereotypes. It unwittingly even assumes that somehow we have inborn preferences for certain styles of music, rather than tendencies to prefer the type of music we most often hear those around us enjoying. Fact is, musical preferences are learned.