Does Worship Have A Race Problem?

Posted by Craig Borlase on 10 June 2014

We can read each other’s testimonies, listen to each other’s sermons and acknowledge each other’s leaders, but when it comes to worship, we seem to be more likely to split along racial lines. ‘When did you last see a black worship leader backed up by a white band?’ asks Noel Robinson. He’s got a point, writes Craig Borlase.

It wasn’t until I was 18 that I made my first ‘different’ friend. He was called Dave. During our first conversations I was intensely aware of the extent to which our backgrounds were fundamentally dissimilar. I was fascinated by the idea that we’d grown up in the same country but had such dramatically opposing experiences. And I can remember my internal narrator popping up during those first chats, saying things like ‘hey, I wonder what we look like - Dave and I - chatting together like this? Do other people notice? Do we look different?

But the difference between Dave and me wasn’t one of race or colour. It was one of geography. You see, Dave was my first ever northern friend.

Twenty years later and I’m talking on the phone with another guy who shares the same country of birth, passport and mother-tongue. But this time the difference is racial. Or is it? Does it even matter that Noel’s black and that I’m white? When it comes to the worshipping church, aren’t we all colour-blind?

‘No,’ says Noel. ‘All of us are racist in some kind of way - we’ll always be drawn to what we identify with visually, we’ll always prefer our perceived cultural sound. It’s not a wrong thing but if it becomes a cultural thinking that dominates the essence of our Christian beliefs and does not allow a different expression to arise naturally then it is wrong. But culture isn’t always defined by skin colour. And just like when a black man and a white woman marry and have a child, that child is a fusion of that union and becomes identified as mixed race - neither black or white but both. The same thing’s happening now in our culture as races mix.’

If you’re looking for evidence of that mix, take a listen and a look at the charts, where black and white and Asian and so many others are fused together to make new sounds and styles. But while that might be true of mainstream music, when it comes to church the results are totally different.

‘We’ve not been prepared for the fusion that results when black church culture and white church culture mix,’ says Noel.

I guess Noel should know, being a gospel artist.

‘No! I’m not a gospel artist - I can do Gospel style as a form of music and vocally. But I’m a worship leader and musician who is a fusion of many things. If you’re white and see a black worship leader you automatically assume they’re Gospel. The term Gospel seems to be used not to denote the colour of your skin rather than a style of music. And so for many years the Christian church and worship industry has not embraced many of the black worship leaders that have come from the black church experience, whether African or Caribbean. Instead the church and worship industry seem to have perpetuated the division.’

‘It’s taken many years for the likes of myself and others to be recognized as worship leaders in the UK, rather than Gospel artists.’

It’s not controversial to suggest that the church is far less diverse than we might like to think. But this is not something to brush aside: our lack of connection breeds real problems. Because we spend too little time together, we can struggle to understand what each others’ intentions are. For example, I bring up a recent worship event at London’s O2 arena. Noel was playing with Israel Houghton and I’d been in the crowd. There had been a few occasions when I’d noticed myself feeling a little awkward. Like when I’d seen a worship leader smiling at members of his band. A bit of me was tempted to think that they were not being reverent. What did Noel see?

Noel: ‘I saw someone who was probably so excited about Jesus that his presence was enough to make them smile. I saw someone who was passionate about what they do.’

Me: ‘And when there were those big solos? I was tempted to feel as though I was in a gig and was being performed at.’

Noel: ‘I saw someone who had practised and prepared a cathedral of notes, rhythms and melody and was presenting them to God and His people. I do know people who go overboard at times but it’s not a problem - I can handle overboard as overboard is always about the heart.’

Me: ‘OK, but there was a bit of me that felt like the whole size of the event made my contribution meaningless. If I stood or sat, I was just a part of the crowd or spectators.’

Noel: ‘There’s a difference between praise and worship and it’s this: praise is always demonstrative, always visible. But you never really see worship; it is always personal. Two people could be in the same room experiencing the same thing but responding differently. Worship is always you and God and your response is personal it could be tears or even bowing of your knees, the lifting of your hands, being silent as the presence of God envelops you. Your heart responds to an awesome God. Praise is different! If you’re not used to the experience of big worship events then it can be tempting to be a spectator, but I don’t think that’s about black or white culture. I saw Take That the other night in at Wembley - 80,000 people from the beginning to end knew all those complicated harmonies and complicated rhythms and dancing. It made me feel sad for the church in general because people are frightened to let go and express heart felt Joy and elation that clearly shows a world that Christ is real!’

This makes me think. I’m reminded of the time when Abraham heads up the mountain with Isaac and a hunting knife. It’s the first time in Scripture we read the word translated as ‘worship’, and I’m guessing it’s got to be one of the best examples of that difference between how something appears on the outside and what’s really going on within.

We get back on track when the subject of this magazine comes up. I ask if Noel’s seen the first issue. He has. But he has a question: why where there no black worship leaders represented, even if there are American? I’m wondering too, and mumble something about editorial priorities.

‘That’s sad. So sad - it’s like me saying that you can’t speak into what we do.’

Do I feel as though I can speak into what’s going on in black churches? I don’t think I do. But isn’t that exactly what we’ve just been doing? Maybe it’s not so hard after all. But who am I kidding? Can we really hope to overcome the barriers?

Noel, as well as being honest, is fiercely optimistic. He points to the US as being far more progressive in some ways, and holds up the very event at the O2 that we both attended as a great sign of the commitment to the pursuit of unity shared by three of the UK’s largest churches.

Still, I feel an over whelming urge to apologise for all white christians everywhere. I guess it’s easier to stick with your own and I know that I’ve taken the smoother path many times in the past. But my apology is waved away:

‘We don’t apologise: we change. We just need to recognise the systems and work to change them. After all, worship was never meant to be about different cultures or colours - it was meant to be for God. Praise is the outward expression of kingdom thing. And all that really matters is the anointing and the presence of God.’

We end with Noel sharing a story from this year’s Spring Harvest. After his first session leading worship a woman approached him. She told him that she was from middle England and could not worship to his style. Digging the hole a little deeper she added “it’s nothing to do with the colour of your skin.”

Ouch. How did Noel react?

‘I said “If I could change the colour of my skin to help you worship I would, as being in the presence of God is the most important thing, but I can’t. And I don’t want to,”

‘Most of the stuff I’ve found is not racism, it’s just ignorance. If people don’t see something different then they’ll never experience it. So we pray that the next generation doesn’t have to go through the same thing. Worship is a gift given to the human race, black, white, brown, yellow. The object of our worship is for Yaheweh Himself, nobody else.

‘I don’t say what I say from frustration but from observation,’ says Noel. ‘I’m looking to the now, not the future for change! Our worship culture must never be industry driven but heart and spirit-led.’

Can we get an Amen to that?

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