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The Reconciling, Sanctifying, Energizing Power of Worship's Urban Beat

East End Fellowship in Richmond, Virginia, started an urban songwriting internship and a gospel choir to reflect its congregational values of incarnation and reconciliation.

People from around the world had gathered to worship and learn. They were singing in each other’s languages—Arabic, English, Korean, Spanish, and Shona. Along with piano and guitar, percussionists were clapping wooden claves, striking double-headed djun djuns, and slapping djembes. David Bailey was wailing on his saxophone.

And then it hit him.

Bailey recalls thinking, “At all these multicultural worship conferences, we talk about mission and reconciliation. But who is doing music from an urban African American context? We might sing songs from Africa or Andre Crouch, which is ’70s music, or Richard Smallwood, which is really ’80s/’90s. Young inner-city African Americans might know Kirk Franklin from the radio, but radio songs aren’t always the best for congregational worship…”

Bailey decided to begin addressing this cultural gap back home in Richmond, Virginia, at East End Fellowship, where he is the music director.

Congregational music by “different rules”

Like many people at East End Fellowship (EEF), Bailey lives in the Church Hill neighborhood. He describes it as “majority black,” with high rates of poverty, single parents, and unemployment. Parts of the neighborhood are being gentrified.

“Our church has been multiculturally and economically diverse since it began. We did gospel songs, hymns, and contemporary Christian music. The mix was really comfortable for people like me—educated, in our 20s or 30s, and with some degree of cross-cultural experience and travel. But we realized our music didn’t represent African American teens and young adults in the neighborhood, or older people who listen to black gospel choirs,” Bailey says. [See “Gospel Choir as Spiritual Transformation.”]

He explains that most congregational music grows out of a “Western musical hierarchy” that values simple melodies based on traditional European harmonies and structures. “Harmony should support the melody. Rhythm should be simple and, preferably, not too syncopated.

“In urban music, everything follows from the beat. Because people tend not to read music, melodies can be very syncopated. Urban music is more intuitive to the culture, so, as long as it ‘grooves’ and makes your head bop, it can work,” he says.

EEF also values rich theology. Bailey easily finds black music about “overcoming, deliverance, and praise,” but this biblical content doesn’t always apply to sermons. “I don’t know of a better way to say this, but the more broadly theologically-rich song has been perceived as a white medium,” he says.

Urban songwriting internship

EEF needed music that engaged urban youth, dealt with neighborhood issues, and reflected theological values of justice, incarnation, and reconciliation. Creating this music risked two kinds of discomfort.

“Most people are not overtly racist today but would rather not change the way they do a song, because it’s uncomfortable. One of our EEF mantras has been that if you find yourself comfortable more than 70 percent of the time, then something is wrong,” Bailey says.

The congregation also had to face structures that perpetuate inequality. Co-pastor Don Coleman is black. He grew up in Church Hill as a foster child and has been praying for some neighbors since they were kids. He doesn’t have the connections to raise nearly as much money as co-pastor Corey Widmer, a white Princeton Seminary grad and PhD candidate, or Percy Strickland, who founded the nonprofit Church Hill Activities and Tutoring (CHAT).

“Percy grew up poor on a hog farm. But once he went to Duke University and lost his accent, he could easily assimilate into upper-end white culture. He moved here because of Don Coleman. Percy is good at fundraising and has brought in lots of white university students to our church through CHAT. We didn’t have a pipeline for getting college-educated blacks to Church Hill and EEF,” Bailey says.

He cites research on how it’s harder for people of color to raise money from family and friends. “Asians have good networks, but their social narrative says it’s shameful to ask for money. Black people haven’t had the opportunity to sit around thinking theologically about the content and medium of songs. The people who recorded with Motown or Stax had to make a living. They didn’t have the opportunity to be like John Cage and say, ‘Hey, what if my song has long silences?’” Bailey says.

That’s why he and EEF founded the Urban Songwriting Summer Internship, which pays a stipend instead of requiring interns to raise their own support. When people ask whether that money might be better spent on feeding the homeless, Bailey replies, “If we really value reconciliation, there needs to be mutuality. White people have had the luxury to explore music and worship academically. This internship is a small contribution in a context that has excluded nonwhites.”

Singing justice and reconciliation

“For our church to commit to this urban songwriting process has been beautiful and redemptive. Now we do everything from ‘In Christ Alone’ to hip hop,” Bailey says.

The 2011 and 2012 teams each had four black interns and one white intern. They studied biblical theology, and the histories of Western worship practices and African American music. The teams wrote music and helped lead worship. EEF is still singing what they wrote.

Many of the new songs use hip-hop sampled beats. “The Balance” laments “brokenness in our homes,” shooting, pride, consumption, and corruption, “from the big to the small.” It asks God, “How long? How long?” for scales that break the poor, ignore the sick, and perpetuate strife and hatred. Yet the song repeatedly affirms, “You hold the balance in your hand…. We have hope in you, trusting that your peace will shift the balance.”

“Shalom” professes God’s goodness and promises. It “longs for harmony and community” as we live “in the in-between, the already, and what has not been seen.” “Earth Shall Know” looks to when “every nation, tribe, creed, and color….and the earth will sing the grace, mercy, and love of God.” It calls worshipers to “make a change, heal the land, meet the need, set the captive free.” “These Chains” praises God for breaking the bonds of slavery and working good from evil.

“We grieve for what happened with slavery and Ku Klux Klan terrorism in the South. But if not for that pain and oppression, blacks wouldn’t have migrated north. Migration let us African Americans give our great gifts of jazz, blues, and gospel to the world,” Bailey says.

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Learn More

Read this conversation with David Bailey about multicultural power dynamics. He is a member of International Council of Ethnodoxologists. Bailey describes Bob Kauflin’s book Worship Matters: Leading Others to Discover the Greatness of God as “really formative for contextualizing songs.”

Learn more about the Urban Songwriting Summer Internship at East End Fellowship. Read interns’ blog posts about what they read and discussed. David Bailey plans to make a professional recording of songs produced by internship teams. Meanwhile, you can listen to 2012 intern Christopher Mazen singing He’ll Never Change with his group, Ekklesia. 

Samuel L. Perry researched and wrote “Diversity, Donations, and Disadvantage: The Implications of Personal Fundraising for Racial Diversity in Evangelical Outreach Ministries.” His chapter of the same name appears in the book Reflecting God’s Glory Together: Diversity in Evangelical Mission.

Read By their Strange Fruit’s interview with David Bailey about Arrabon: Learning Reconciliation through Community and Worship Music, his book-and-CD resource for multicultural ministry.

EEF meets for worship in Robinson Theater Community Arts Center. This Christianity Today story details joys and challenges of middle class Christians who moved to the Church Hill neighborhood and worship at EEF.

Start a Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your church staff, board, music, or worship meeting. These questions may help your group identify unconscious messages about who and what your congregation values:

  • In what ways does (or could) your worship engage urban youth?
  • What opportunities do you see for growth through discomfort in your church and community? What might God bring about through these changes?
  • If the medium is the message, what do worshipers learn from who’s upfront leading worship or from your choice of music and worship practices?