Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Welcome to Pub CHurch

Image from public Facebook Page for Pub Church in Buffalo NY
I began an online conversation with church leaders, theologians, and seminarians on Monday over at the Duke Divinity Call and Response Blog (part of their Leadership Education program) on the phenomena of "Pub Church."

The Pub Church is broadly defined there "as spiritual discussions held in 'open spaces' like bars, pubs, coffeehouses, and restaurants."

From a sociological perspective, this represents an interesting form of social assembly for religious purposes.  From a theological perspective, there are several issues about whether such meetings should be considered "church" at all.

I invite you to check out the post there and contribute your comments.  I especially appreciate the links provided on Theology Pubs and the experience of participants in their own versions of Pub Church.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Meeting with Congregational Scholars in Miami Beach

VTS Immanuel ChapelImage via Wikipedia
I recently returned from several days meeting in Miami Beach with members of the Congregational Scholars Team, an outstanding group who focus on working on the conceptual and practical problems of understanding congregations.  These are all highly respected academics (nearly all have produced "classic" books in their fields) with many years of immersive experiences in various congregations across all faiths.

They are all very nice people too.

With warmer weather and plenty of good restaurants, we met at a Jewish synagogue for much of the day pondering the future of religious gatherings and followed up conversations at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  The first day started with everyone sharing updates on their own research, and then moved to a focus on approaches to the study of congregations. Much of our three days together was filled with trying to capture perspectives on emerging dynamics in American religious gatherings.  What does it mean to study "congregations"?

We all agreed that the focus on brick-and-mortar buildings and their weekly services is insufficient for tracking the richness of congregational dynamics.  For some time now, scholars have been attentive to the broader interactions occurring between parishioners, clergy, and local communities.  Even more, scholars are taking into account broader historical contexts that include race, immigration, government subsidies, technological developments, etc.  A growing number of sensitivities are  finding their way into work on how religious life is shaping in the United States and abroad.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16:  The exterior o...Image by Getty Images via @daylife
One example is my own discussion on the growing phenomenon of "pub churches" in the US and UK. Pub churches are ways of doing "church" in non-churchly ways.  They are not obvious as they are "spiritual conversations" happening in bars, restaurants, and coffeehouses that stress open dialogue and egalitarian structures.  As I described these structures, some questioned whether "pub churches" qualify as a congregation at all.  Is this what we're studying?  And yet, most of us agree that attention to such developments is part of our job as scholars.  We are trying to pay attention to how congregational structures are constantly negotiated in response to societal developments and, often, as a critique to mainstream religion.

The field of congregational studies remains wide open.  It is not intended to be a narrow focus on events in established buildings or rented warehouses.  Congregations implies that face-to-face religious gatherings remain important to religion and are strategic units of measurement.  Scholars are not limited to the common sense analysis of such structures as theoretical nuance stretches our analytical skills.  Congregational scholars strive to encompass as much of the reality of how people believe, worship, evangelize, and serve through religious structures both new and old.  And the careful critique of each other's work is part of the process of pushing each other towards even further depth.


Footnote: The Congregational Team members currently include Nancy Ammerman (Boston University), Larry Mamiya (Vassar College), Bill McKinney (Pacific School of Religion), Omar McRoberts (University of Chicago), James Nieman (Hartford Seminary) Robert Schreiter (Catholic Theological Union), Stephen Warner (University of Illinois, Chicago), and Jack Wertheimer (Jewish Theological Seminary).  Special guests with me at this week included Anthea Butler (University of Pennsylvania) and Joyce Ann Mercer (Virginia Theological Seminary).
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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Submitted to Press - New Book "Worship Across the Racial Divide: Notions of Race and the Practices of Religious Music in Multiracial Churches"

SHANGHAI, CHINA - DECEMBER 31:  Fireworks expl...Image by Getty Images via @daylife
Last week, I submitted the complete manuscript under contract with Oxford University Press!

[Insert fireworks and happy dance about here.]

Worship Across the Racial Divide examines how music and worship "work" in successfully diverse congregations.

Research for this book began in 2005 as I was completing my ethnography on Oasis, a black-white congregation ministering to workers in the Entertainment Industry and released as Hollywood Faith (Rutgers University Press).  With over a dozen churches, 170+ interviews, and reams of background information from scholars and practitioners, I am pleased with the result.  Assuming all goes smoothly, I expect the book to be available in 2012.

This book goes into detail on what happens in the worship and music experience of diverse congregations.  I decided to focus on this because worship and music are believed to provide "strategic" moments for churches to stimulate racial and ethnic diversity.

Inevitably, what may seem like a simple idea ("Let's bring in some multicultural music...") inevitably involves a complex of tricky notions of representation, ethnic difference, racial authenticity, and the always pragmatic considerations of church leaders who need to be ready for church services on a week to week basis.

The Choir give an energetic performanceImage via Wikipedia
When I began to explore the background, I quickly found that the research on race and music is huge. One of the reasons it took so long to write this book is sifting through a pile of reading.  I had to constantly make decisions about what mattered most.  All too often, even the most significant material had to be cut away in the final months as at around 140,000 words, the manuscript was much too long.  The (intriguing) digressions were far too frequent, and the need to finish became very much a priority.

I would have liked to say much more about African American and Latino notions of "their music" and how this developed in the history of music and race in the United States.  No space, no time!

I also found the literature on worship and race utterly fascinating.  In reading documents from the mid-1800s, I saw how notions of African Americans as inherently religious (which is tied to their presumed "emotionality") continues to affect even the most informal discussion on racial worship.  Black people worship differently -- so it is said.  And the fact that church leaders and attenders BELIEVE blacks worship differently invokes the construction of sacred scenes which demand that blacks PERFORM worship differently.  Some of this talk can sound like a lot of sociological mumbo-jumbo.  But my observations and interviews reveal a fascinating dichotomy between blacks as they are expected to act when they are in the pews of diverse congregations and how they are expected to act when they are on the platform.

The interviews and stories from these congregations are striking.  The book includes page after page of pastors, worship directors, and attenders talking about their experiences of worship, their views on diversity, and their connections of race and music in church.  The ironies and unexpected insights continued to surprise me even in the final weeks of adding material and revising the manuscript.

The final draft of the book still weighs in at 100,000 words when you add footnotes and all.  I think it is far too short.  The amount of thinking left to do on worship, race, music, diversity, etc., is a rich arena of study.  I'm glad I stumbled into it.  So, whatever shortcomings may be in the book, it is so interesting and so important, I expect many others will pick up threads and make their own distinctive contribution.
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