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Worship as “Letting Go”

While studying successful multiethnic Protestant churches in metro Los Angeles, Gerardo Marti experienced tremendous variations in worship. “The churches ranged from highly liturgical and mainline to wildly charismatic and Pentecostal.

While studying successful multiethnic Protestant churches in metro Los Angeles, Gerardo Marti experienced tremendous variations in worship. “The churches ranged from highly liturgical and mainline to wildly charismatic and Pentecostal.

“But I noticed a uniformity in the way people in these churches described worship. Every person described worship as an abandoning or giving up of the self, as letting go,” says Marti, an ordained pastor who teaches sociology at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina. He is the author of A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church and Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church (Rutgers University Press, Summer 2008).

Marti’s well aware that “letting go” is not a universal experience of worship. Yet it struck him as significant that people in successfully multiethnic churches described worship that way.

“They talked about a radically quiet, private experience. This personal, intimate experience of worship is produced in a public, social setting that requires lots of time, energy, preparation, and coordination of people.

“People come into church. They put down their Bible, keys, and purses. Then they hone in, center, let go of the present. They talk about an intense orientation of trying to meet or see or experience God. They say this regardless of the style, tone, or place of worship,” Marti says.

Some multiracial churches he studied have ecstatic worship, marked by greater physicality. People stand, raise their hands, shout, or jump. Others have non-ecstatic worship, where people rarely close their eyes while singing.

“Yet even in highly liturgical and structured services, people still talk about being caught up in the organ music or processions or ritualistic elements. They lose themselves in whatever’s going on up front. They feel lifted up out of their mundane setting, away from distractions and worries, to focus wholly and sincerely on their personal connection to God,” Marti says.

In a recent lecture at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Marti explained how “worship as letting go” plays out at Oasis Christian Center. Most Oasis people are young blacks and whites trying to make it in the entertainment industry.

He said that both African Americans and Christian actors understand the pain of not being accepted. They meet in that struggle at Oasis, “creating family-like bonds and spiritual kinships that strengthen racially diverse strangers as they attempt to make it in risky careers.”

Oasis helps people see themselves as champions of life who overcome. Whites and blacks support each other in the desire to get ahead.

“Eighty percent of the music is original to Oasis. But there’s a consistency of sound. It’s high quality, energizing, foot stomping, body swaying, hand raising worship. It encourages Spirit-filled believers to accomplish great things in the world as sons and daughters of the King. To be there is to stand, clap, sway, and smile,” Marti said.

He recalled speaking with a 20-something white musician who says Oasis worship always recharges him. A woman told Marti that learning to worship was her first hurdle to becoming a “champion of life.” She confided it was a huge step to raise her hands during the music.

“I felt self-conscious so decided to close my eyes, not think of the people around me, and just be with God. Letting go like that was the first step of my believing I was in God’s hands. It was a way to communicate that understanding back to God,” she told Marti.

If there’s a reason why people in multiracial churches speak of worship as abandoning themselves to God, perhaps it has to do with control.

Church members who value diversity need to humbly welcome other people’s understanding of how church should look, sound, or feel. They have to quit trying to control things, quit trying on their own to create programs to attract “those” people.

So maybe it’s natural that they’re also willing to give up control of their emotions in a public worship setting. Instead, as Marti said in his lecture, they “abandon themselves to participate in the divine.”