What gospel singers can teach the church about oneness
This column is part of our ongoing opinion piece on faith, called Living our faith. Find the complete series here.
It is an exercise in pure exuberance that many gospel music artists continue to enjoy.
An artist chooses a particularly energized moment on set, stands center stage, and shouts, â€œAre there any Pentecostals here tonight who love Jesus ?!
A resounding roar follows. The singer nods, apparently unimpressed.
â€œI said, ‘Are there any COGICs here tonight that love Jesus? “
Another roar, maybe even louder.
â€œBaptists who love Jesus? “
And so on until the singer arrives at the Episcopalians, where the two Episcopalians present shout their assent, to the laughter and applause of the rest of the crowd.
The most famous incident in this tradition involved gospel superstar Andrae Crouch. Crouch, who was legendary focused on evangelism, did not follow politics so closely. Its bass player, Jaymes Edward Felix, told me about a long European tour that saw the band perform in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Crouching, energized by the response, shouted, â€œAre there Catholics in the house tonight who love Jesus ?!
The singers and musicians gasped, but the predominantly Protestant audience responded with laughter and cheers.
Black gospel music has long been a shared and communal event, with songs, tropes, expressions, practices, even movements passed down from generation to generation, both through denominations in a direct, almost apostolic line.
But today, American Christianity is entering what my colleagues at Truett Theological Seminary call a “post-confessional” age. As denominational membership continues to decline, many new believers now identify with non-denominational churches, including some of the largest mega-churches in the country. When this happens, the shared wisdom and irreplaceable knowledge of the Saints who sustained and nurtured some of our oldest churches can be lost forever.
The post-denominational trend has also crept into many African American denominations, although perhaps at a somewhat slower pace than among predominantly white groups. It would be deeply saddening and troubling many of us if this trend also meant the loss of the rituals and wisdom of these denominations.
As many authors and commentators have noted, the experience of the Black Church has been the great supporting institution of the African American community. It started before the Civil War, continued through the modern civil rights movement, through the horrific incidents that spawned the Black Lives Matter movement and continues to this day.
The Black Church has been the great unifier, the great nurturing community presence, shelter from the storm, for millions of African Americans.
Aretha Franklin chose to give her second and final gospel live album the heavy title of One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism in 1987 to celebrate this same continuity. Faith lasts better in community.
Now the Black and White Church in America faces yet another, perhaps even more dangerous, problem that has brought prayer warriors of all faiths to their knees. At the heart of the problem is the continuing division of individual denominations and churches.
Churches, of course, have regularly erupted. This is what the Protestant churches have been doing from the start. American Baptists were divided first over slavery, then over the role of women, and now the schism over the place of the LGBTQ community in their sanctuaries.
In 2021, those rifts have grown bigger, deeper, and more damaging. A fierce division between conservatives and liberals (and I hate those labels) is tearing apart both Catholics and the various Protestant denominations. Both sides have taken a decidedly political stance, one aligned with the Republicans and the other with the Democratic Party.
As a result, the good-humored Thanksgiving and Christmas jokes that once took place between, for example, members of the Baptist and Methodist family, believers lovingly teasing each other about the peculiarities of each other’s church, have given way to venomous accusations, court duels and hateful signs and posts on Facebook. It is not just churches that divide, families divide too, not on points of doctrine, but on questions of liberal and conservative politics.
We are now more divided as a nation than we have ever been since the Civil War.
But you knew it.
How that must sadden the heart of Jesus who told us to love our enemies, to forgive those who have offended us, even if – especially if – these offenses are more imaginary than real. For non-believers, this war between Christians makes all believers stupid, mean and a little dangerous.
At some point we will have to stop tagging people we disagree with, stop insulting, making unfounded accusations and demonizing the other side. At some point we will need to fix our eyes on the Jesus we claim to believe and follow.
And the best place to begin this reconciliation is in the triumphant and universal church.
My wife, Mary Landon Darden, and I have traveled extensively to research the influence of sacred black music on the civil rights movement. We have visited many African American churches. And to me, they embody the pattern that we should follow as believers.
In black churches we always feel personally and sincerely welcomed. We are escorted, annoyed and often even asked to give a “word”. We are always welcomed into a family – the family of Jesus Christ on earth.
May it always be so.
Franklin’s One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism features a duet with my all-time favorite singer, Mavis Staples, herself an American treasure, an artist who has made hearts beat and tapped since the Civil Rights movement.
On his own album, the premonitory title You’re not alone as of 2010, she and producer Jeff Tweedy include an old, old hymn, one I don’t hear much in churches anymore, Black or white: â€œIn Christ there is neither East nor West.
And in the voice and deep well of passion of Staples and his collaborators (who adapt and rework certain lyrics), it becomes more than a hymn, it becomes a fervent prayer for unity, which echoes the very words. of our savior.
Listening to him again in the dying days of 2021, he has never been more relevant, more essential than now:
In Christ there is neither East nor West
Neither North nor South
One great love
Inside and outside
Join hands and have faith,
Whatever your race
Who serves my Father like a Son
Is surely related to me
In Christ now meet east and west,
There is neither black nor white
One great love
Hate cannot divide
Join hands and have faith,
Forgive your enemy
Surely we are all a part
From a big family
Robert Darden is Professor of Journalism and Public Relations at Baylor University. His most recent book is “Nothing But Love in God’s Water, Volume 2: Black Sacred Music from Sit-Ins to Resurrection City”. He is currently working with Stephen Newby on a book about music and ministry by gospel artist Andrae Crouch. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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