By Jacqueline J. Holness
One of my favorite movies is Forrest Gump, because in some ways, I’ve always felt like the underdog—partly because I was known as a geek in my childhood. (Don’t worry. I won’t be discussing my “inner child.”)
Forrest Gump, a slow-witted man played adeptly by Tom Hanks, is the quintessential example of a triumphant underdog. I love how the director juxtaposed Gump’s life with important moments in American history and pop culture—from the allure of Elvis Presley, to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, to the confusion of the Vietnam War.
One of the movie’s funniest scenes features Gump, who at the suggestion of his business partner, Lieutenant Dan, attends church after fruitlessly attempting to find shrimp off the coast of Bayou La Batre, Alabama. Without shrimp, he cannot start their shrimp business. So Gump goes to church—not to find the Lord, but to find the location of shrimp through a revelation from the Lord.
In the next scene we see Gump, a white man donning a choir robe, in the middle of a black gospel choir. While he looks like a fish out of water so to speak, he moves from side to side in tempo with the rocking of the choir. Lieutenant Dan, the only other white person in the church, doesn’t even attempt to fit in, scowling from the back row.
Let’s face it. Different worship styles appeal to different races, and most people tend to congregate where their race is the majority. As a minister’s daughter, I have visited several churches and have been exposed to varied worship styles. But I must admit I always brace myself when I see a white guy in a casual shirt and an electric guitar in hand at the front of a church. I know we will inevitably sing some sort of rock song about Jesus. And while I have enjoyed some rock music, I’m not particularly fond of rock music with Christian lyrics.
A girlfriend of mine, who is white, is looking for a new church to attend with the Hispanic guy she is dating. She confessed she did not feel comfortable in one church she visited that was mostly black with a black worship style, although she agreed with the doctrine of the church. And her boyfriend doesn’t feel comfortable in a mostly white church they are visiting where he is the only Hispanic person. While I can always manage to feel some kinship with any Christ-centered congregation, the worship style goes a long way in ushering me into God’s presence.
It would seem King David in the Bible preferred an expressive worship style as he was known for “leaping and dancing before the Lord.” (When was the last time you saw someone leaping and dancing in church?) Psalm 150 presents a very lively worship style complete with instruments and dancing.
I recently read an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune titled, “Spirit Moves ‘Church Hoppers,’” where the cultural trend of church hopping was explored. According to the article, more and more churchgoers are attending different churches on Sunday to sample their worship styles.
Scott Thumma, a researcher at the Hartford Institute for Religious Research in Connecticut, who tracks church attendance, observed that church hopping is “absolutely prevalent” and added, “It’s absolutely clear that increasingly Americans commodify all their life.”
One churchgoer in the article said she visits an Ethiopian church, a Lutheran church, and a Christian and Missionary Alliance church for their diverse worship styles and programs.
While a church could never be all things to all people, what worship styles can churches employ so Christians of all races and backgrounds—and those new to church—can be made to feel at home?
Blogger Kenny Lamm, a senior consultant for worship and music, offers some answers in his 10-part “Worship Wars” posts. Primarily, he suggests taking cues from the demographics in the community surrounding the church that may involve incorporating worship styles of different age groups and races.
I don’t believe any worship style is superior, but I believe all worship styles should consider Paul’s charge in 1 Corinthians 9:22, 23: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel.”
Jacqueline J. Holness, a member of Central Christian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, is a correspondent for Courthouse News Service,
an online, national news service for attorneys.