Minority-Dominate Congregations are More Likely to be Intergenerational.

The other day I was rereading an article written by Michael Hawn “Singing Across the Generations: is there Hope?”and I came across this statement on page 20, “congregations that are virtually all African American or Latino most often worship together as multigenerational families.” He goes on to say that Anglo-dominated, middle-class congregations from 200-400 in attendance were more likely to offer two or three different patterns of worship (based on musical style). According to Hawn, minority-dominant congregations tend to worship intergenerationally. Hawn does not aim to explain why this data exists, but focuses on strategies for how churches can find unity in their musical worship.

I’m curious as to why. Why are Anglo-dominated congregations more likely to have multiple types of styles of services? The argument that a new, improved, more energetic contemporary service is going to bring the young families in doesn’t necessarily apply if the church isn’t an Anglo-dominated church. Many of our minority-dominated churches are thriving. The African American and Hispanic dominated congregations I’m familiar with aren’t dying…in fact they are growing! I’ve been to several Latin American churches (all intergenerational) that are THRIVING and the gospel is proclaimed and received.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking, praying, strategizing about how to bring musical elements that transcend generations into our worship context. I’m very interested how minority-dominated congregations have managed to avoid the “worship wars.” This post is not designed to find ways to bring multi-ethnic elements into a content. Anyone with Google can find hundred of articles and books on the subject. However, to begin the conversation, I want to discuss some traits I’ve found in minority-dominated churches that might give a few clues as to why these types of churches have chosen to worship intergerationally. I have a few ideas I’d like to share–all anecdotal although observed many times. As always, there are doubtless others. I’d appreciate feedback so the conversation may continue.

  1. Minority-dominated congregations are made of families that VALUE being together. Go to any Latin American country and you’ll see multiple generations living together. They value all; church is no different. Most non-Anglo cultures are ultra family-centric. The “it takes a village” mentality is evident. My observation is women in minority-dominate churches are taking care of many generations of children and raising in a “pack-mentality.” It’s not uncommon to find many Hispanic and African American grandmothers helping raise their own grandchildren.
  2. Minority-dominated congregations are not afraid of emotionally-driven, passionate times of worship. One of the reasons many Anglo-dominate churches have decided to add “contemporary” services alongside their “traditional” services has been that some feel that traditional worship is stuffy, uninspired, boring, and lacking passion. Those who find comfortable in the predictable liturgy of a traditional service find contemporary services irreverent. Minority-dominate churches just don’t have (my opinion) boring or dispassionate music. It’s always been passionate and will continue to be. Ergo, there is no need to separate services based on style.
  3. Minority-dominate churches cling to their ethnicity while embracing new.  The musical worship in these churches is rooted in who they are historically. While they aren’t afraid to embrace new styles of music, they would never create a worship service that excluded one musical style over another.
  4.  Participation comes from all generations in minority-dominate churches. Some of this is due to the size of the church. Many are small churches that need everyone to work together. However, my experience has been that even as these churches have gotten larger, (some of our largest churches in America are African- American dominated) they have not lost their intergenerational nature. All have a role in worship leadership.
  5. Choir participation in minority-dominate churches is still HIGH. I can’t think of an African-American dominate church today that doesn’t use a choir. This could be said for many other non-Anglo ethnic groups as well. While authors of the “National Congregations Study” (Chavez and Anderson 1998 and 2008) reported that choirs in churches has decreased from 72.3% in ’98 to 58% in ’08, I do not see evidence of decreased participation in minority-dominated congregations. In fact not only does it remain common, it is intentionality intergenerational (not just choirs of members with with white hair)! These churches have figured out how important a choir can still be relevant.  In fact many leaders of these churches depend on the energy that the choir brings to musical worship, an energy that cannot be replicated by any other means.

I’m positive I’ve only scratched the surface and there are always exceptions to these comments, but I can’t help but notice that it seems to me that only Anglo-dominated churches (and generally in America) think creating separate worship events which contains only one style of music and liturgy is ultimately healthy for the church. This can lead to generational separation, but more importantly, separate services also prevents the fusion of multi-ethnic musical variety. It is only through cooperation and inclusion of multiple styles that we may paint of picture of how heaven will truly be—all peoples worshiping together in many different ways, but worshiping…together

1Liturgy, 24 (3), 2009: 19-28.

Stop Trying to Be Something You’re Not

Quite often I’m asked the question, “how does your church do intergenerational worship?” I gather these well-intentioned folks really want to know what tools, music, service orders, etc. we employ to ensure that all generations in our church are “happy.” The truth is…you can’t DO intergenerational worship, being intergenerational is who you ARE. When a church IS intergenerational in nature, the leadership makes sure that worship services are structured with the intention of demonstrating value to all ages in the congregation. This over-arching philosophy isn’t a liturgical formula, nor is just using a blended style of music in your service. It is not a multi-generational approach to service planning where there is a little something for everyone either. It is a guiding principle upon which decisions, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, may be used to increase interaction among the generations within the church. Here are a few keys to creating an atmosphere of intergenerational behavior in worship settings for pastors and worship pastors:

*Know your people. It’s essential to know the make-up and history of the church you are serving. While you may have been hired to move things musically to another level, you’ve got to understand where your people have been. You must peruse the music library and study a few years of used congregational songs to figure out where to start. Any radical shift too soon may result in disaster. While this point may not sound like it should be included in a discussion of intergenerational behavior, remember–demonstrating value of all generations is important. To turn and “focus on a younger generation” without some education and care simply ostracizes the other generations. I’m all for investing in our next generations, but do so strategically. While your ultimate goal might be to push the envelope musically, don’t make a 180 degree turn overnight.

When I arrived at my current church, I asked lots of questions about the music and the people. I wanted to know the stories; I studied who people were and the journey that led them here. What I found out wasn’t shocking, but it was essential: our church wanted to remain family-centric and generationally diverse while being gospel centered. Basically, we want to do life together, to grow, serve, and share the love of Jesus as an intergenerational body of believers. While some of our processes (music included) have evolved, that simple idea rings ever true. This process never stops happening. As your church grows and morphs, the demographic shifts with it. Be ever-vigilant in your pursuit of knowing your people. Love them, shepherd them, and listen to them.

*Know your outside demographic. You SHOULD desire to reach your community with the gospel. You may think your music or preaching alone is going to do that, but I doubt it. What will? Ask yourself, “how excited are your current members about what God is doing in your church?” Strong morale (esprit de corps) is a powerful tool for encouraging your members to get out in the community and invite their lost friends to church.

It is also important to engage with your community at large with your physical presence as a leader. Get involved with the schools and community events as you are able. How you engage with others in the community will make a difference on your impact on the local church side.

As for the demographics within your church, you should aim to reflect the community in which you live. If not, why? I live in a fairly affluent, suburban area with a strong multi-cultural presence. There are people in our church that have lived here all their lives, but by in large, most in our area are transplants; many from all over the world. This is reflected in our area churches as well. We’ve seen more diversity over the last several years as well. This dichotomy affects who we are today, but we must be sure to be welcoming as our diversity blossoms.

Our people’s histories within the church are vast and varied. I’d say at least 60 percent of our members have been members less than 10 years, having lived somewhere else before our community. This means that a lot of our people have established preferences and specific ideas of how to do ministry. You might be surprised to find out that even with this varied experience, most newer folks have gotten on board with who we are. Yet another great reason to be sure who you are as a church. Otherwise, it might be a disaster with so many opinions. I want to say a special word about long time members…you show value to those members who’ve been here a long time is especially important because they’ve literally watched the landscape of their community change within the last twenty years. They get extra points in my book for being welcoming when their once familiar community became a popular place to live. As my pastor reminds our staff often, we’re “standing on the shoulders of their faithfulness.” Value their history and always remember the past as you look forward to the future.

*Worship music should reflect who you are. There is no magical formula for finding a ratio of modern worship songs and time-tested hymnody. It’s not possible on a global level. Gone are the days of simply using the denominational hymnal as our only source for congregational song. Should you sing lots of different music types? Yes. However, you shouldn’t “throw in” a hymn or a modern song just because you’re trying to please everyone. YOU WON’T. Stop trying to please everyone based on perceived wants. As I’ve stated before, it is more important to use songs that fit the make-up of your church. Look around you each week. Are people singing the songs you choose? If not, there’s a problem. My aim is to find a balance of choices (over time, not necessarily in one service) where most folks find something familiar. There are other obvious criteria for selection of music that have been written about numerous times, but the two most important I’ve found are: TEXT and DO-ABILITY. We never sing something that we can’t do well and we never sing something that is not textually strong.

I don’t believe it is necessary to emulate what other churches are doing around you. I don’t think it’s bad to see what they are doing and get ideas from them, but it MUST fit in your context. For instance, we are limited in our ability to do much with lighting in our worship space based on our ambient lighting. Sure, we could block all the windows and create a dark space, but our limitations stem from the fact that we value being able to see each other in corporate worship. We don’t want to create a performance venue space. This limits our ability to do some things that might be pretty neat, but it’s not who we are. We don’t make apologies for it either. We focus on what we do well and leave the rest to the other churches. There are plenty of fine churches around with FAR greater resources and space to accomplish the things that God has equipped them to do–we will be us.