Wholistic Worship: an African-Rooted Paradigm

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This article applies the principles of Wholistic Worship, part 1, to the African-influenced worship experience. Please read The Theater, the Laboratory, the Playground first.

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If worship is an expression of love to God, then it must be done with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. It must involve the emotive, the cognitive, and the physical. It must be whole to be a full and true expression of worship.

Biblical worship, especially as expressed and described in the Psalms and in Revelation 4 and 5, is a paradigm of what wholistic liturgical expression should look like. This was lost as the Christian church made the cultural shift to the West. The second century break with Judaism and the dominance of Greco-Roman culture in the church as it expanded north and west led to a worldview in theology and praxis that was not fully biblical.

The biblical worldview was whole. The Hellenistic worldview that influenced later Christianity was dichotomized. In the case of the former life, practice and belief involved the totality of a person – the heart and soul, the body, and the mind. The Greek and European worldview had these in compartments and elevated some above the others. Thus, the mind, the heart, and the soul were superior to the body; the emotions were inferior to the cerebral. One should be suppressed, the other enhanced, not only in life but especially in things relating to God, such as worship.

The dominance of Western Christianity for nearly 2,000 years has belied the fact that traditional worship practices and forms are not close to the biblical norm. On the contrary, as noted above, the biblical world is Palestinian and Eastern. Our traditional practices are Western, European and dichotomized. Interestingly, as the Christian church has grown and shifted from the global north to the global south, and especially to Africa, there has been a recapturing of the wholistic expression of spirituality and worship as delineated in the Bible.

We must note at the outset that the recapturing is not only taking place in churches with African roots. Churches that are Caucasian and growing are incorporating practices that involve the whole person in their liturgy. However, African American, Caribbean, Hispanic, and traditional African Christian worship that utilizes the whole being in the liturgy, grows out of a natural and ancient Eastern cultural worldview and conforms closest to the biblical norms.

Africa has bequeathed to Christianity a way of worship that is rich, not only in content, but in form and expression. African music in the Americas (spirituals, gospel, folk hymns, etc); rhythmic instrumentation; kratophonic and dramatic preaching of the Word; strength, depth, and musicality of prayer; communal and ecstatic engagement in “call and response”; antiphony; the shout; the falling out – these all have enriched Christian worship for the last two to three hundred years.

The African Diaspora in the Americas enabled people to integrate their African worldview and practice with the Christianity that was passed on to them by western missionaries and slave masters. They took the message and remodeled it. They took the European forms and transformed them into liturgical practices that were oriented to their African way of life.

A classic example of this reshaping can be seen in the metered hymns that have been popular since slave worship in the hidden “hush harbors.” The slaves would take a traditional hymn (especially one from Isaac Watts, thus the style was popularly known as “Dr. Watts”), reshape it with a more rhythmic beat and “line out” the words (that is, the leader would give the line of each hymn as it was being sung) in the African tradition of polyphony and call-response mode.

Two things should be noted in this transformation of the traditional, straight-forward hymn: first, by rhythmitizing the music, the physical – the body – was brought into play in the experience. Thus it is natural for worshipers in African-rooted services to sway and dance while singing or participating in the music of worship.

Second, the “lining-out” of the song was practical because of the illiteracy of the slaves. But we should also not ignore the African nature of the practice. There is constant interchange between the pulpit and the pew. There is continuous antiphony in the worship. The congregants are not spectators; they are active, responding participants.

This call-response is only one aspect of the responsive nature of worship with African roots. The genius of African-rooted worship is its openness to the creative power of God that allows the worshipers to free themselves, and as one preacher noted, “to turn themselves loose” as the Spirit leads. The response can be formal and informal, personal and communal, spontaneous and regularized. The worshiper is free to worship and respond physically, vocally, and communally, and not only meditatively and individually. Worshipers are free to dance whenever the Spirit moves them, and to respond vocally or nonverbally as the mind and the emotions are stirred.

These responses are vital components in the event of preaching. Preaching is a two-way street. The response of the congregation lets the preacher loose and sends him or her to a high plane of grandeur as the Word is expounded. Words and expressions such as the following are typical: “Well,” “Take your time!” “Bring it home!” “Go ahead, Sister Preacher!” “Help him Lord!” “Praise the Lord!” “Hallelujah!” “Amen!” Non-articulate responses such as moaning, humming, nodding the head, shedding a tear, clapping, waving the hand, swaying, or making unidentifiable sounds, or simple silence, are also part and parcel of the wholistic experience of the preaching event and the proclamative moment.

But there is much more to preaching than the call and response. The content and substance are significant. The prophetic nature of the oration in the pulpit places the preacher in the tradition of the Old Testament seer who proclaims “Thus saith the Lord.” There is no “homily” on a Sabbath or Sunday morning. Sin is called by its right name, and liberation and hope are proclaimed to the captives, the oppressed, the marginal, and all who come to have their burdens lifted.

And there is more. Not only is the content and response important, but so is the delivery. There must be no dichotomy between content and style. Both “what” is proclaimed and “how” it is proclaimed are vital components of the sermonic moment. Effective preaching has drama and musicality. All the senses of the congregant are engaged as the preacher delivers the message with vividness and power.

This is what we mean when we say that black preaching is “kratophany.” Just as “theophany” is the deity manifested in concrete earthly objects, “kratophany” is the manifestation of power through the spoken work, replete with drama and musicality. Such kratophonic delivery moves the worshiper not only cerebrally, but emotively and physically as well. The whole being is caught up to a third heaven of ecstasy and deeper devotion to the Great God, who is the one and only object of worship.

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Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid, Th.D., is Assistant to the President for Diversity and Professor of Biblical Studies and Missiology at Walla Walla University in Washington State. He is the author of Diverse Worship: African-American, Caribbean & Hispanic Perspectives, InterVarsity Press, 2000.

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