Congregational Power and Grace in a Hostile Culture

Dwight Andrews

The church, thank God, has never been a static institution. Change and upheaval are certainly afoot in American religious life today, both in our cultures of worship and the culture of church itself. Our task is to face it, try to understand it, and despite uncertainties reclaim the church’s great strength and gift: community.

Many Christian communities continue to struggle for common ground around matters of human sexuality, race, class, mission, politics, foreign policy, and materialism. Other churches, unfettered by denominational authority and long-standing liturgical traditions, have been very successful offering a church experience that mirrors the world of popular culture and entertainment. Carefully avoiding social and theological controversies, some non-denominational churches have created a worship experience that is at once familiar and immediately gratifying.

Of course, “change” has always been an important dynamic – indeed a constant – within American religious culture. Recall the eighteenth and nineteenth century religious debates over slavery, or the early twentieth century struggles over women’s suffrage and segregation. The church continues to be moved by the Holy Spirit as well as by the same fads and fashions that shape the rest of our world. Indeed, the perpetual tension between the church and the world – the ever-present critique of the world embodied by the gospel and the necessity of bearing witness to the gospel – gives the church its reason for being and shapes the details of a congregational life. Through it all, churches are perhaps the last institutions standing that have the inner reserves and counter values to defy the corrosions of twenty-first century culture. Worship, despite the turmoil and debate around it, is a regular, historic opportunity for creating that sense of community, something society is fast losing. 

But the quality of congregational life, as we presently know it, is under unusual assault from within and without. I believe this is a reflection of the shifting values of what people are seeking in a church experience and what it means to “be church” today.

At an earlier point in the twentieth century, churches were based in neighborhoods, so there was a sense of shared geography, cultural, and educational experience. However, certainly since 1945 in America, with the creation of the suburbs, and the partially desegregated urban communities of the 1950s, then the re-segregated communities by class in the 1960s and ’70s, our sense of community has changed remarkably. Under desegregation, affluent blacks now live where their affluence can afford them. (Even so, one reality hasn’t changed: 11 a.m. on Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour in American life. That we continue to worship in separate ways and segregated spaces is its own commentary on the distance we have yet to travel.)

The Overbooked Life

These shifting patterns – of consumerism, housing, transportation, time management – have changed congregational expectations, pulling at the fabric of a cohesive faith community. Many members in our downtown congregation come from as far as 50 miles away to worship on Sunday. Though we are grateful for the faithfulness of our long-distance members, the distance means that their ability to participate in the life of the church on other days is often quite limited. Similarly, their children are challenged both because of their proximity to the church and also the multitude of other activities they and their parents are involved in closer to home. Between soccer, football, tennis classes, marching band, and SAT test prep, many parents ask that their children’s church lives be condensed into a single Sunday experience.

The difficulties here are obvious. Many of our families who have been blessed by their affluence are also driven by overbooked lives and unfocused, almost incoherent family schedules. The “smorgas- bord” approach can expose children to too many activities. Mastery and proficiency are sometimes sacrificed. This lack of focus, discipline, and com- mitment often leads to unsatisfactory results, or, at

Our attention spans are shorter, our sense of expectation requires quicker gratification. Our young people – and many of our not-so-young people – find it difficult to listen to anthems, hymns, or other multi-part pieces of music.

best, a mediocre outcome. Inadvertently perhaps, we teach our children that a sustained and committed encounter with a subject or activity is not valuable. We opt out of making a commitment to a few choices and instead choose to dabble in everything. More ends up being less. Equally troubling, we dabble in multiple experiences simultaneously and call it “multi-tasking.” Recent research seems to suggest that multi-tasking is an illusion – productivity is not necessarily increased, and the quality of our efforts is diminished.

Attention, Please

There are connections and consequences to all of these disturbing behaviors. We accept the short syn- tax of an e-text, because we have been conditioned to condense more and more “stuff” into a shorter and smaller time frame. We accept the sound bite as a shortcut to the essence of the story. Yet the essence of anything can rarely be found in a sound bite. The lyrics in our popular songs have fewer words and fewer whole sentences. The hook of a good pop song used to be the culmination of an idea. Now, the hook is the idea.

When the same frenetic approach is transferred to our church experience, the quality of our congregational life is impoverished. It weakens our ability to be engaged for longer segments of time. Our attention spans are shorter, and our sense of expectation requires quicker gratification. Thus, for many of our young people, the preacher is boring because it takes him or her 20 minutes just to say Jesus loves me. Our young people – and many of our not-so-young people – find it difficult to listen to anthems, hymns, or other multi-part pieces of music. These realities put a tremendous burden on our worship leaders to create an engaging and fulfilling worship experience.

Some churches try to resolve these issues and satisfy the members by offering different worship experiences, including a “contemporary” service or a “traditional” service. The danger of these divided services is often a divided congregation. First Congregational Church in Atlanta has elected a “blended” approach in which traditional anthems and hymns are placed alongside jazz and gospel music. Our attempt at blending different musical traditions and preaching styles into a single service affirms that we see value in all of these different expressions. By not capitulating to “niche” worship services, we come together as a family of God’s people: old and young, black and white, rich and poor, educated and not-so-educated. Divisions may still persist, but at least we are worshipping at the same time.

Important aesthetic and theological decisions must be made when choosing this course. It means the music is not simply the responsibility of the minister or the minister of music; rather the membership is charged with helping to discern not only what song to sing, but also the why of the song. Through Bible study, informal but intentional discussions, and forums about worship traditions, church members actually learn about the roots of our worship experience, which strengthens bonds between present and past.

Our decision to include different music traditions in worship is also a fundamental acknowledgement that the African American experience is itself a “blended” experience. It sets the stage for the church’s necessary, ongoing critical self-examination. Since the beginning of independent black congregations, tension has existed about “what song shall we sing in a strange land.” The tension here is not about style but the substance of the music and liturgy as an embodiment of the congregation’s very identity.

For many decades, educated African Americans in urban settings openly rejected traditions that seemed to contradict their new-found status and prosperity. For instance, the “old way” of lining-out the hymns, the call-and-response practice whereby the worship leader calls out the text and the congregation repeats the line, reinforced a sense of community in congregations that could not read. This tradition placed great emphasis on the immediate and powerful experience of sharing the word, person-to-person, unmediated by a text or hymn printed on paper. When contemporary worshipers understand the compelling origins of the practice, they are able to embrace and appreciate a past that many prefer to forget.

An exception is the African American spiritual, which represents an important strand within the black religious experience that continues to bring cohesion and a sense of community. This musical tradition, borne out of the slave Christian experience, distills the theology and Christology of black slaves who could not spell either term. God’s redemptive power was set into songs like Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel and Go Down Moses. These songs became the mechanism to teach the gospel and introduce the Biblical narrative. We sing these songs because they both remind us of a past that God has brought us through and they affirm God’s capacity to speak even now. The relevance of the spiritual song tradition is that it testifies to God’s power to free us. The spirituals link resistance and redemption and make justice a divine matter, not simply a moral imperative. Put another way, liberation theology has no meaning without an appreciation for captivity. The fact that the human spirit continues to be imprisoned in dark and nefarious ways today means that the spirituals still have value.

Questioning the Post-Racial Moment

Worship is a powerful reminder of God’s grace in the midst of the drama of human history. It provides a living sense of spiritual continuity from week to week and generation to generation. A vital congregational life asserts a counter-discourse against aggressive secularism and moral complacency – including the complacency that says we now live in a “post-racial” moment. The post-racial proposition suggests the battle is over and the victory has been won. The election of Barack Obama and the Supreme Court appointment of Sonia Sotomayor certainly represent signs of significant, exciting change. But assertions that these signposts indicate a new “post-racial” era in American life are premature. The battle against racial disparity and prejudice – in education, in the court system, in the disproportionately high incarceration rates of young African American men – is not over. Congregations embody and articulate a sense of history and the search for God’s justice. Congregational life provides the antidote of cohesion against the contemporary sense of dislocation and discouragement. In our society, it is the church that says the battle is not over and the victory has not yet been won.

Communities of faith are at their best when they have stood up against segregation, against war and violence, materialism and consumerism. The church is invigorated and energized when it protests against the misogynistic, racist, and demeaning values that seem to consume us and bears witness to the truths of justice and mercy. Living up to this calling to affirm what is good and true is key to finding the common ground that defines community and well-being in our congregational life.

In spite of the many things that can separate us – geography, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, class, gender, and generation – the love of God, discovered in faithful community, brings cohesion and wholeness to a world that values neither.

The Rev. Dwight Andrews ’77 M.Div. is senior minister at First Congregational Church in Atlanta. He is also an associate professor of music theory at Emory University. He holds degrees from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in Music Theory from Yale University. Recognized for his collaborations with playwright August Wilson, he has composed music for several Broadway productions, film, and television. He has taught at Harvard, Yale, and Rice.