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African American Christian Worship
By Melva Wilson Costen
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2007 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
A THEOLOGY OF AFRICAN AMERICAN WORSHIP
African American Christians gathered and engaged in worship, regardless of denomination, share many things in common. First and foremost, they gather to offer thanks and praise to God in and through Jesus the Christ, and to be spiritually fed by the Word of God! In response to God's call and by God's grace, communities of faith gather to affirm God's providence and power. Under the power of the Holy Spirit, African Americans express their corporate and personal belief that God in Jesus Christ continues to work for good in every aspect of their lives. There is an ethos of beloved community as the "extended family" recalls and celebrates freedom in Christ. Aware of the mysterious presence of the living Christ, the community is empowered to live the good news in the world.
Second, they share the reality of a common historical taproot, which extends deep into the nurturing center of the African soil. The community of faith can attest to the strength and sturdiness of this root by the nurturing it continues to provide Africans in diaspora. Although the African heritage is not a monolithic entity, there are shared African primal world views that provide fundamental ways of knowing and experiencing God. For most African societies, humans live in a religious universe, so that natural phenomena, objects, and all of life are associated with acts of God. Life is thus viewed holistically rather than in separate compartments as created by a secular-sacred dichotomy. These world views and other aspects of African cultures continued to exist as new world views and cultures were developing. Although languages, religions, customs, and institutions were diverse, many African societies shared certain virtues, ideals, cultural expressions, and outlooks on past, present, and future, which provided spiritual armor capable of surviving the impact of slavery.
Some branches of the African heritage include direct involvement in the shaping of Judeo-Christian worship traditions. From the time Abraham came out of Ur and settled in Egypt, through the time when the church wrestled with the formulation of theological statements and the shaping of significant creeds, Africa has played a critical role. Nine Africans were among the prominent leaders in this struggle: Clement, Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian, Dionysius, Athanasius, Didymus, Augustine, and Cyril.
A third common particularity of African Americans gathered for worship is their history of struggle for survival as African people in America. In a strange and alien land, they were enslaved, marginalized, denied respect, and oppressed by the very people who introduced them to Christianity! This unique history allows the gathered Christian community to freely call itself by whatever name it chooses. African American, Black, and Afro-American have replaced the names spuriously given by Euro-American evangelizers. This history also served to deepen the need for communities of refuge, which happen naturally when people gather around a common cause. The gathered community, first in secrecy as "invisible communities of faith," found that the separate environments were conducive to authentic communication with God and with one another.
There was little if any concern during this early period for adherence to denominational polity, recitation of creeds, or "acceptable" employment of superimposed, predetermined liturgical actions. There was concern for the exposition and hearing of biblical truths that had meaning for an enslaved people. Since the Word of God was heard in their particular contexts, responses were very often spontaneous reflections of the primal world views still very much alive. Symbols and ritual actions were gradually shaped around socially shared patterns, customs, and forms, with an apparent awareness of the human need to respond with one's whole being!
The "invisible" environment allowed free space, God's space, where enslaved worshipers could hear an anticipated message of hope in God's word. The personhood of each worshiper could be affirmed. The community could experience freedom—divine freedom—in Christ. Each time a member of the community of faith experienced freedom from bondage or a physical healing moment, the total community would vicariously experience a newfound freedom. Conversion experiences and baptisms were important times for the communal sharing of faith. The spiritual gifts and artistic talents of individuals that edified the community were acknowledged and encouraged in worship. In separate, sacred spaces, gifts and talents were not subjected to evaluation and scrutiny by Europeans and Americans. Worship gatherings, especially where elements of the oral tradition are at work, are opportunities for the community of faith to continually reconstitute and reinforce the spiritual bond within and between congregations.
Under the power of the Holy Spirit, a new theology was forged and flamed while the church worshiped. The methodology used was honed from "folk methods" common to Africans and transported wherever Africans are in diaspora. Music, song, and storytelling by the griot (a West African term for "one who is gifted in the art of communicating wisdom, ideas, historical events, morals, etc.") became the major means of shaping, documenting, and distributing folk theology. This common heritage continues to be a channel through which the Spirit of God edifies and empowers the body of Christ. Gathered and scattered as African American Christians in the present age, believers are provided sustenance by this rich heritage that propels believers, with hope, into the future.
From the African taproot, the early shapers of Black folk religion forged a Christian world view, or "sacred cosmos," that permeates all of life. Everyday living is not separate from worship. The reality of human corruption, oppression, and inequality anywhere in the world provides a hermeneutical principle, a lens through which the Word of God is seen, heard, understood, felt, and interpreted in worship.
Although African Americans share many common worship practices, one should not assume that all African American congregations will or should exhibit homogeneous styles of worship. Different situations and circumstances under which exposure to Christianity took place for each congregation, denomination (history and theological orientation), geography, and social lifestyles are significant determinants of worship.
The traditional manner of "labeling" denominational differences among African American worshipers has not always been accurate, nor has it been helpful. The stereotyping of ritual action has not always taken into consideration the sociological factors of cross-ritual assimilation between denominations, especially in small communities in the South. There are also differences in ritual action within denominations. To assume, for instance, that all African American Presbyterians should be numbered among the "frozen-chosen" is to ignore the dynamics of "Spirit-filled" churches such as those in rural sections of North and South Carolina and Georgia. To claim that all African American Baptist worship services are highly emotional is to negate the "modulated" liturgical experiences and expressions of some African American Baptists in both urban and rural settings. The trend from the late 1960s forward among some African American congregations traditionally labeled "frozen," "staid," or "unemotional" has been toward a more expressive worship. Some African American Catholic, Episcopalian, United Methodist, Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, Lutheran, and Presbyterian worshipers are rediscovering and reclaiming their common Afrocentric theological roots. More will be said about this in a later chapter.
The common elements of history and traditions provide a starting point for a discourse on African American liturgical theology. Whereas different denominational polities may indeed affect the ordering of worship elements, many liturgical practices originated from basic beliefs of African peoples. Some of the ritual action that may appear to be an adherence to the institutional practices of Western-oriented theologies may, in fact, be based on certain African practices that have been transmitted through the oral tradition. This is one indication that many core beliefs remain operative across denominational lines.
We are indebted to the oral and written records of African Americans who attempted to interpret the meaning of the Christian faith amid the struggles for liberation in America. The faith stories of individuals and communities are the major sources of African American theology. We are equally indebted to the rigorous efforts of African American scholars who continue to research and publish significant data needed to theologize from within the African American experience.
The concept of "Black Theology," which emerged during the second half of the 1960s, stimulated sufficient African/African American ecumenical dialogue to affirm common threads of history and theology. Since the 1960s, African American scholars in a variety of academic disciplines have continued to contribute to the discussion evolving from the question, What does it mean to be African American and Christian? Documentation gathered from personal trips to Africa and from African scholars supports the thesis that the African taproot is not only deep but is also very much alive and being nurtured by African Americans in worship and life. Theological reflections and publications in a variety of academic disciplines in African American seminaries provide opportunities for reflection-praxis continuity between lived realities and "the academy."
A holistic approach is required for examining worship from within the African American experience. African peoples perceive reality as one related whole rather than as separate compartments. There is no separation of secular and sacred. The "rhythm of life" is bound up in the cosmos—a harmonious world, created and ordered by Almighty God. People of African descent were thinking holistically long before Teilhard de Chardin constructed a Christian cosmogony as a synthesis of love for God bound to love for the world. While postmodernist schools of thought are now returning to the interrelatedness of disciplines in theologizing, folk beliefs that issue from the "soul of Black folks" have continuously reflected this method of theologizing.
African "primordial," or primal, world views that shaped foundational belief systems also undergird African American theologies of worship. World views determine and affect cultural symbols and symbolisms through which beliefs are expressed and transmitted. Prevailing African cosmological views can be summarized as follows:
—God created an orderly world and remains present and is dynamically involved in ongoing creation throughout the inhabited world.
—Human beings are part of God's creation and are, therefore, divinely linked, related to, and involved with all of creation. This cosmological perspective allows an understanding of being (ontology) that is relational and communal.
—An understanding of the "sacred cosmos" that is relevant for the individual must be internalized if one is to find meaning and purpose in life.
—Communal solidarity is expressed in terms of kinship and extended family, both vertically and horizontally.
—Bound by an understanding of the sacredness of God's creation, humans relate holistically to God, to one another, to the cosmos, and to plant and animal life.
—Cosmic rhythm is the embodiment of divine order, harmony, and permanence; cosmic rhythm is the foundation for the "rhythm of life."
Although there are some differences in understandings of the presence and activity of God, creation is undoubtedly the work of God. The cosmos, God's divine creation, is understood as a whole unit or body that is alive, sacred, and the foundation of religious values. Modalities of the sacred and of being are revealed through the natural world and cosmic rhythms. The harmonious structure of the cosmos is a means by which God's transcendence is remembered. "Divine connectedness" is activated through symbols and symbolism. Water, for instance, symbolizes the origin and sustenance of life as well as death and rebirth. Contact with water signifies a return or reincorporation into creation or precreation.
African peoples respond to God's presence in a variety of ways. Responses may be formal or informal, spontaneous or regularized, personal or communal. Worship is generally expressed vocally and physically rather than meditationally. Beliefs as well as ritual actions are related to the lived experiences of the community. Worship is more experiential than rationalistic. Its focus is on the communal sharing of reality rather than simply the transmission of information. Since the focus is primarily experiential, common symbols, shaped by the community, are the major means of communication. Through symbols the community expresses what might be difficult to verbalize. Symbols help "free" the mind of clutter so that clarity can be given to phenomena that might otherwise be incomprehensible. Music, movement, physical gestures, colors, shapes, and the gifts of nature common to the community are very important symbols.
A composite of basic beliefs based on primordial, or "primal," world views has emerged as African Americans make deliberate efforts to theologize from within the African American experience. "Primal" is understood as fundamental or "a priori" rather than the usual concept of "primitive" or undeveloped. Primal beliefs refer to those forms of comprehensive reference-systems that are observable among a variety of religions, and may have been basic to the overall religious history of humankind. All cultures have convictions of reality that are based on traditional ways that the particular world is viewed in the light of circumstances. Thus it is the contention of African American liturgical theology that African primal world views, which lie buried within persons and communities of faith, coexist with and remain operable in Christian theology. In fact, for the African American, the adapting of Christian beliefs necessitated a recasting of concepts taught to an enslaved people, in understandable, functional terms.
Nicholas C. Cooper-Lewter and Henry H. Mitchell are helpful in their exploration of the African American belief systems through case studies of "core beliefs" in action. They contend:
Core beliefs are much more than easily mouthed shibboleths or conformist creeds. They are bedrock attitudes that govern all deliberate behavior and relationships and also spontaneous responses to crises ... if indeed ... expressed at all, core beliefs are our working out opinions about whether God can be trusted.... The issue is not the correctness of formulation but the adequacy of trust of the Creator.
A persistent negative attitude toward African primal religions has made it difficult to acknowledge the inheritance of primal world views and core beliefs. Nevertheless, there are sufficient data to substantiate the "primal" acceptance of the unity and wholeness of life, which is evident in African American communal life, religion and worship, music, art, politics, and culture. The outward expressions of feelings and emotions, the tendency to "move with the beat," the similarity of music for worship and music for entertainment all speak to the functioning of an underlying belief system. A system of beliefs imposed by the dominant culture could not and cannot be a viable belief system for a marginalized people. A belief system, already well established in African traditions, continues to help an oppressed community find meaning and make sense of life, maintain community identity and continuity, find direction, and provide healing and empowerment.
Excerpted from African American Christian Worship by Melva Wilson Costen. Copyright © 2007 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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