Published on February 10, 2020 by Cameron Thomas  
Cameron Thomas

“I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour in Christian America.” -Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Many churches in Birmingham, AL reflect the homogenous communities in which they live. These communities also reflect a history of systemic segregation and, as Dr. King noted above, it is a segregation most visible during the hour of worship on a Sunday morning. Though he delivered these words to “Meet the Press” back in 1960, Dr. King’s words still ring true today.

Many pastors acknowledge that this does not reflect the future of the Kingdom that Christians look towards—a future when we will all gather in the presence of God in the new heavens and earth. In the book of Revelation, John recounts that he saw a great multitude “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9 ESV). This rich vision can inspire us in how we might worship with our brothers and sisters in anticipation and preparation for the coming eschaton, our forever home. We invest in our eternal formation when co-image bearers of God share space together to worship the living God. Yet, in so many ways, we have neglected this opportunity, and to the impoverishment of our spiritual formation. So John’s vision also challenges us, reminding us that our communities of faith do not have sole ownership of worship style or “proper” worship components. We are called to “divest” ourselves of our preferences and comforts for the sake of the other, so that we might be formed into our eternal calling as a unified culture of the kingdom.

The common attempt to counter this impoverishment in the worship lives of our congregations comes with the organization of a worship service centered around racial reconciliation, providing the thorny issue with an annual consideration or celebration. As an example, this year the Southern Baptist Convention scheduled February 9th as “Reconciliation Sunday.” Yet we might wonder, what exactly are we to do on this Sunday? Do we invite the local black church over and let their pastor preach? Or do we invite their choir over to sing Gospel songs and we organize a potluck supper for those in attendance? Given the tense racial climate (and history) of our country, observing a “racial reconciliation Sunday” is likely a good thing. Yet best intentions don’t fix problems, particularly invisible problems like structural racism and systemic segregation. A “Reconciliation Sunday” can reinstate racialized stereotypes about music and culture if the intention to invite guests into our sanctuaries becomes a token gesture of entertaining music or preaching.

We desire to focus our reconciliation services on praising Jesus, but how do we connect with all participants in this experience of racial reconciliation? The emphasis cannot be on merely checking a box, for checking boxes does not challenge sinful norms nor build inclusive worship services. We fail in our gathering when we simply check off a perceived “reconciling activity” as a completed action item while our hearts remain blind to the division between us, or even calloused towards the pursuit of reconciliation. We, as the catholic church, must rethink our ideas of reconciliation services, conferences, and activities, unless we desire already-frayed relationships to continue to tear.

So how might we go about designing “reconciling worship”?

First, we must recognize that the worship life of the church is an eclectic expression and not a monolithic experience.

As we architect our worship services, one voice or perspective cannot dominate the space for decision-making. The designing of worship must be shared by all potential participants. The history and heritage of all worship styles reflected in the congregation must be appreciated and celebrated. And for the (hopefully) diverse congregation found on a “Reconciliation Sunday,” even more so! The arrangement of the worship elements should require participants to stretch outside of their comfort zones along the lines of the activity. As worship designers, we should seek to foster an inquisitive nature in our services in order to share in another’s spiritual experience. And as we introduce new forms to our congregants, we cannot neglect to contextualize them through short introductions and explanations. The uniting of cultures first requires an unsettling collision of cultures. Yet in the midst of an uncomfortable fusion, a new, third culture can emerge: a kingdom culture.

Second, song selection becomes a critically important aspect of worship design, as music speaks a powerful, moving language.

Songs have history and allow for deep cerebral, emotional, and even somatic identification among congregants. Having a single black spiritual sung in a reconciliation service neither represents inclusion nor authentically embraces African American culture. Why? Because highlighting a single gospel song further imposes tokenism by isolating and reducing an entire culture to a single selection, when the true goal is to embrace one another.  Even as hymns are used and incorporated, organizers should insist on singing songs that could be embraced by both communities, as well as showing hospitality by deferring to the guest community. For example, if there are four selections for the service, then the host should yield most of those to the guest. The service should “breathe” a validation of what may be the minority perspective or experience. Another move of hospitality and unity might be to utilize a hymn familiar across both communities, but to allow one community to arrange that hymn in their native context, revealing and celebrating the cultural distinctives that emerge in its arrangement and presentation. In all of this the greatest temptation to avoid is the reduction of a worship culture to token entertainment, a reduction that fails to conceive song as a means of invitation into the holy moment of a collaborative gathering.

In addition, we also should seek to find songs that depict not only the positive aspects of the Christian faith but also the history of others in the Christian faith. A great example would be a treasured jewel of black poetry, Lift Every Voice and Sing, by James Weldon Johnson. This song unites all participants yet points towards a history drenched in God’s activity despite the segregation and the Jim Crow laws that plagued African American communities in the 20th century.

Third, preaching must not shy away from the occasion of the gathering.

A preaching text must be selected that embraces not a sense of unity but a reimagining of unity as foundational for the kingdom of God. Many cultural and political dynamics impact the unification of differing congregations. Our Preaching must reflect the kingdom of God as the people of God, and our preaching must move beyond itself, for we cannot simply celebrate the event and neglect the reality of the issues that hinder the reconciliation of our communities. Many of the issues go beyond preaching style and song selection. Community issues that impact the livelihood of those in attendance should be seen through a gospel lens and not left to political ideology. If our sermons only consider surface level issues of Christian unity, they do not invite participants to be stretched theologically or practically. Our sermons should be robust explorations of the beauty of the kingdom’s diversity and explain how unsettling that will be for all of us! The sermonic expression should not be grounds for a blame game. Instead, the sermon has the opportunity to provide an intentional address, through the use of local scenarios, of how constructed social or political systems have contributed to potentially detrimental situations for our community. The list of social ills and disparities we face are numerous, and are illuminated by the biblical witness. Congregants who have been impacted by these disparities can then receive validation of their experience while those who have been benefactors might receive eyes to see how even their implicit participation in societal structures and practices impacts their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Finally, we must come to understand that a singular event cannot be the sum of displaying unity amongst the body of Christ.

In addition, we must seek out opportunities to serve together. We have the chance to create relational unity and a “third culture” if we seek to share in building community life together, whether through shared service projects, co-sponsored community events, or the like. As such, “Reconciliation Sunday” should not be the end, but rather the beginning, a starting point for a journey together.

As worshipping communities of Jesus, we need to be willing to expand our reach and fellowship within the body of Christ. Reconciliation, of course, is a hard road to walk. Our history quickly reveals our failures in this. Yet as John saw, God is gathering and constituting a kingdom people from all the tribes and tongues of the world.  We do not own God, and so we do not get to create this “kingdom people” in our own image. Instead, we are invited through worship to approach the throne of God, not as a fragmented people divided, but as a united community of the redeemed. May our prayer be to reflect God’s infinite beauty by embodying here and now the first fruits of God’s coming eternal kingdom.