Online Survey Seeks Black Church Worship Styles, Practices in Hymnal Study

March 24, 2010

By Tom Gillem*

NASHVILLE, Tenn.|GBOD — The distinctive worship styles and practices of 2,370 black United Methodist Churches in the United States are being identified in a study which is underway to determine if an official hymnal is needed to serve the more than 400,000 United Methodists of African descent in North America.
Lay members and clergy of black churches are being asked to complete an online survey as part of the broader Africana Hymnal Study, which is the joint work of the General Board of Discipleship, led by the Rev. Karen Greenwaldt, and the United Methodist Publishing House, led by Neil Alexander. Both agencies provide worship and ministry resources for black churches and are sharing management and cost of the study.
"The Africana Hymnal Study project has promise for enriching the worship life of Methodism in general and people of African descent in the Wesleyan family in particular," said the Rev. Dr. Julius C. Trimble, bishop of the Iowa Area, who heads the study group. "Our committee has been charged with gathering data and listening to voices that have a story to tell about the worship practices and needs of lay and clergy who have roots in Methodism and a religious history that traces its roots to Africa."
The four-year study to determine if there is a need for an official United Methodist Hymnal for North American Christians of African descent in the Wesleyan heritage was approved by General Conference 2008 (General Conference Petition 80217). Findings and recommendations will be submitted to GBOD and the UMPH for reporting to the 2012 General Conference.
"In a hymnal as extensive and as lovely as the official United Methodist Hymnal is, it would be impossible to include the full cannon of music for every culture that is represented in the church," said the Rev. Dr. Safiyah Fosua, director of Invitational Preaching Ministries at GBOD, who is providing primary staff support for the study group. "It was necessary for compilers of the present volume to 'sample' – otherwise the book couldn't be held in the pews."
Many black churches currently supplement the official hymnal with black sacred music written by members of the black community. Two songbooks many churches use are Songs of Zion and Zion Still Sings, Fosua said.
"We have beautiful collections of music for the black church, but do we also need to have a book that has the reception of new members, the rituals for marriages and funerals, and the rest of the liturgies of the church?" Fosua asked. "Do they all need to be included with those and other collections of music, and bound altogether in one book as a hymnal?"
The online survey, along with listening sessions in each of the five U.S Jurisdictions and shorter surveys completed by participants at events and national meetings, will help the study group determine how much the current official United Methodist Hymnal is being used in black churches, where and how much it is being supplemented, what the instrumentation is like in black churches, and what additional rituals, such as the ritual of friendship – passing of the peace – are being utilized.
"Are there practices that we in the black church have taken for granted that everyone else doesn't know about?" Fosua asked. "For example, in many black churches, visitors are welcomed with a welcome song written by the individual congregation. That's a black church phenomenon that I really haven't seen widely in other parts of the United Methodist connection."
The study group is looking for worship practices that, prior to this study, have not been explored, documented, and reported back to the larger United Methodist Church. "Then at the end of the study, we will make appropriate recommendations if the data indicates a need for a separate hymnal," she said.
In addition to Bishop Trimble, the study group includes two persons each, named by GBOD and the UMPH, one person named by Black Methodists for Church Renewal, and one person named by The Pan Methodist Commission.
"Church renewal and new ministry starts remain crucial for a denomination that seeks to grow in numbers and witness," Bishop Trimble said. "In the black community and Africana worship experience, vital worship marked by excellent music and powerful prophetic preaching continues to be an essential ingredient for revitalization.
"I see this project as part of the natural progression of a church that is willing to value cultural diversity and worship needs without defining difference as division. Should a new hymnal be birthed, it will only serve to add to the many resources United Methodists and others in the Wesleyan family, have at their disposal," Bishop Trimble said.
A blog where participants can make comments or raise issues to be considered in the research project will be available later this spring. It also will contain articles and video clips of a number of scholars and leading voices in Africana worship. The progress of this study can be followed at
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*Gillem is a Brentwood, Tennessee-based freelance writer for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.