This book is based on data collected from twelve successfully integrated churches in Southern California from 2005 through 2006 using participant observation, in-depth interviewing, and examination of available archived sources. My initial goal was to present a vivid understanding of the worship life of their attenders and the attempt (or lack of it) by leadership to cultivate a racially diverse congregation. Participation combined with in-depth interviews allows for a saturated understanding of particular sites that results in a more holistic understanding of the experiences of a group. I locate this understanding in the context of broader patterns of the “religious” streams in which they (knowingly or unknowingly) participate as well as the “secular” world in which they operate.
Rather than impose my understanding of the world onto these churches, I used qualitative research methods to earnestly attempt to uncover the understandings of leaders and attenders and bring conceptual order to what I find. By choosing a qualitative approach, I engage directly with people and understand through their “lived experience” how they appropriate, experience, and negotiate music in their church. In addition, interviews with decision makers and music performers allow me to understand the ongoing processes of musical construction. While the emphasis of this analysis is on those who regularly worshiped and provided leadership for worship in these diverse congregations, the implications about racial-ethnic groups not present or who fail to stay are addressed as well. Beyond what is said “officially” by leaders and attenders, I look at written records, observe ongoing interactions, and seek to discover the patterns of behavior rather than merely words and meanings. A picture is constructed that creates a whole out of the various pieces presented in my observation and the reported experiences of my respondents. When information does not match or is seemingly contradictory, I consider the source and weigh the evidence to obtain the best interpretive sense of what is happening sociologically. Using a combination of first-person narratives (p.220) and my own observations of church ministries and their services, I pursue a plausible and coherent interpretation of the organizational dynamics to explain the operation of music and worship in these churches.1
I interviewed 172 people in these churches. The most fundamental division of social groups within each church was between (a) clergy, music directors, singers, musicians, and technicians involved in the regular construction of worship and music and (b) attenders who regularly “worship” in each church but did not participate in planning or programmatic discussions regarding the liturgical services of their church. I conducted a total of 49 interviews with decision makers/music performers and 123 interviews of worship service attenders. In addition, I attempted within each church to maximize the variation among long-time members and recent attendees, men and women, young adults and senior citizens, single and married people, and the various racial and ethnic ancestral heritages within each church (to preserve the anonymity of respondents and significant figures in the history of the congregations, all have been given pseudonyms).
I supplemented these interviews with field notes gathered during ethnographic observation of worship services in each congregation. I consulted my own field notes purposely taken from experience in services in each church 2005–2006. To gain experiential context, I attended at least two weekly worship services (and any available mid-week services) in the main setting in which they typically occur. Interviews and field notes were transcribed, and qualitative software used to code and analyze data, seeking significant patterns of leader decisions and connections between respondent experience (like/dislike, stay/leave), music performance (music structure/structure of worship services), and racial/ethnic composition in diverse churches.
Finally, I pursued an understanding of each church's history (as short as two years to as long as over 150 years) based on the memories of long-term participants as they correlated with each other and with the few print resources available. Archived sources consisted of selected books, tapes given away or available for purchase, and pamphlets available from the church. I continued to collect data and provisionally interpreted it until a general picture emerged and was reaffirmed over and over again. I also made an attempt to be both descriptive and theoretical in the attempt to generate theory regarding congregational processes. The qualitative analysis software program NVIVO 8.0 was used to code and analyze data, seeking significant patterns of leader decisions and connections between respondent experience (like/dislike, stay/leave), music performance (music structure/structure of worship services), and ethnic composition. Coding and matrices were used to compare across interviews and field notes from different congregations. Competing explanations and discrepant data were especially noted.
Ethnographic sociological research enables an understanding of the use of music in certain space and among certain populations. On some occasions, I was able to take notes as if I were taking sermon or class notes; other notes were spoken into a tape (p.221) recorder on my way home or typed into the computer once I arrived. Through participant observation, researchers gather information by interacting with and among the people they wish to study. “For many practical and theoretical problems, we want to take account of as much of an organization's complexity as our theory will allow.”2 I worked toward an understanding of music and worship through ongoing interactions with participants on their home ground. My research effort involved an ongoing effort to “share firsthand the environment, problems, background, language, rituals, and social relations of a more-or-less bounded and specified group of people.”3 The data I collected and the life experiences I pursued were those most directly involved with each congregation.
The work of the participant observer is constantly the attempt to see the researched community from an insider's perspective and grasp the subtle nuances in meaning and then situate these meanings in a broader societal context. A core assumption by researchers who use participant observation is that “in the course of daily life, people make sense of the world around them; they give it meaning and they interact on the basis of these meanings.”4 This belief is drawn from a history of theoretical considerations, including old-school phenomenologists like Alfred Schutz, prototypical symbolic interactionists like Herbert Blumer, and contemporary qualitative researchers like Norman Denzin. Of course, people can be quite wrong about the actual meanings, occurrences, and causalities of the “real” world, yet the “real” world is in some part shaped by the belief of its participants so that even “wrong” beliefs can become “right” out of the coordinated actions of believing individuals. W. I. Thomas famously said, “If men define a situation as real, it is real in its consequences.” Moreover, people inhabit worlds of meaning that are very “real” such that different people in the same physical space can, and often do, live in very different “worlds” of meaning.5 “Participant observation, in other words, is a very special strategy and method for gaining access to the interior, seemingly subjective aspects of human existence.”6
The goal of the participant observer, then, is to make known the meanings people in a given social structure typically have, a world of meaning that is not typically understood or even sought to be understood by outsiders to that group. The concepts of the analysis emerge as much from the participants of the social setting as from the theoretical concepts of the investigators. Understanding of the setting is not limited to the viewpoint from the members of the group one wishes to study. They, like most human beings, do not seek to explain social interaction through systematic observation and comparative analysis. The great majority of people live routinized, ritualized lives that require little or no explicit analysis in order to live comfortably. Yet, the social scientist enters the study of a group (whether familiar or strange) with the explicit purpose to come to investigate the underlying, institutionalized patterns of social life and thus make a contribution to the general understanding of social life in other social structures.
The key is to seek the “ordinary, usual, typical, routine, or natural environment” of the social group in question. Written work of the researcher then provides an account of the community that emphasizes the unique cultural meanings with descriptive detail (p.222) and embeds those details within a broad interpretive framework from which to understand the meaning of what is presented. The benefit of participant observation is that although some were aware of my research agenda, the overall activities and structure of the congregation superseded any concern for my observation. Leaders and attenders sang, swayed, clapped, stood, sat, listened, laughed, and left routinely in their meeting-to-meeting involvement in the congregation. Things happened because this is what it means to “do church” together.
In all instances, I remained concerned for the privacy and confidentiality of people and avoided notations that would indicate people by name or other identifying characteristics. I have made an earnest attempt to maintain confidentiality, including that of congregational leaders, unless they spoke publicly, in print, or on recordings freely made available either on site for purchase or online.
In each church, I was a sociologist interested in people's experience and involvement in music and worship. Most people agreed when I asked to interview them. Overall, people were very willing to tell me about their church experiences before arriving at their church, their first encounters with the church, and the nature of their music and worship experience with their church since then. I kept open with them about my research goals as motivating my presence at the church. When I was asked about my own religious commitment, I explained that I had been a member of a large multiethnic church in Los Angeles that was Protestant and written a book about it. Members and leaders treated me as a curious observer who would never join the church. I did not require conversion as I claimed to already be a Christian; and I did not need a church since I was a member of another one. That left a friendly ambivalence about my activities. Those who understood my project were willing to offer helpful information about continuing activities of the church and occasionally asked me how I was enjoying my research. Those aware of my study were glad to have me come to their church to learn and share what I learned with others. Although I did not know what the overall findings of my analysis would be, I knew that I was concerned to provide a sociological view on music and worship in diverse congregations and attempt to analytically describe it. Even though I was a marginal member of the group, I attempted to strike a balance between interacting with people who were deeply committed to the church and those who were on the fringes.
In each church, I participated in weekend worship services (often arriving early and/or staying late) in the main place and time institutionalized by the church and regularly attended by regular members, new guests, and those in the process of joining the church. Also, I was often able to attend mid-week services that included music and worship once I found out about them. I took time in observing and speaking with people. I lingered around churches; I relaxed in interviews. The work was by no means accomplished care-free. With questions and focus, I burrowed through the environment of data that I found myself in and sought to observe with purpose. I almost always found people to be warm, relationally open, and interested in my research project. Numerous conversations occurred with staff members, guests, regular attenders, and long-time members as I was around church offices and their services.
(p.223) My familiarity with Southern California, the greater concentration of multiracial churches there, and a research affiliation with the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California led me to focus on the Los Angeles region. With this choice, I was able to maximize a compressed data collection schedule and limited research funds. My church experiences (both charismatic and non-charismatic) gave me the opportunity to enter each community by understanding various subtle rites and rituals, religious lingo used among local believers, and theological distinctions. Nevertheless, I made an earnest attempt to expand the scope of my observations to churches with which I had no prior relationship and which come from denominational traditions different from my own past experience. Churches selected were already multiracial and explicitly committed to diversity. Using academic networks in California and then following up on connections made with church leaders over the past several years, I personally contacted twenty-eight congregations said to be multiracial (i.e., having at least 20% of regular attenders being a different race/ethnicity than the dominant group) through a combination of mail, email, and telephone. Four churches were not sufficiently diverse to be considered multiracial; another ten did not respond to my efforts to speak with their worship and/or pastoral leaders. In the end, I focused on twelve Protestant congregations from a broad spectrum of denominational and theological traditions with a variety of racial-ethnic compositions. These observations are supplemented by observations gathered in my previous ethnographies on Mosaic and Oasis.7
In each church, some saw me as an outsider; others saw me as an insider. Overall, I occupied an ambivalent position as a person who was acknowledged to be another “believer” but not necessarily a person who is the same as Christians at each church. The position of researcher consistently set me apart from others. There were a few occasions when a staff member would introduce me to another as a person doing research. On a few occasions, a pastoral staff member would invite me to come sit in the front row, a place that is held in honor for visiting guests. I would politely decline, partly because my observations were richer from the back of the auditorium versus the front and partly because I feared alienating any non-staff attenders who might associate me as someone “important” and aligned somehow with the pastoral leadership. Pastoral attention often helped me gain access and legitimacy because I was recognized as having a sense of “permission” to be observing and asking questions. That meant that I lost anonymity among a small circle of people, but not for most. The majority of my interactions at church were with strangers and brief acquaintances, and very few came to know me by face without my research “agenda.”
An important question is whether the character of worship found in the racially/ethnically diverse churches I observed in Los Angeles is also found in diverse congregations elsewhere. Research shows that levels of segregation are not as high in Southern California as in the South and Midwest. We also know that diverse congregations are more common in the Western United States. Perhaps it does not take shared musical preferences to unite people in this region, whereas the need to overcome a racialized history in the South and Midwest may place a greater burden on the style of music. (p.224) How much is this a Los Angeles, southern California phenomenon? Qualitative researchers often balance the depth of exposure to congregations with the breadth of congregational experiences made possible. It is not unusual for broad samplings of churches to be limited to a region with the intent to uncover dynamics that would be true of all.8 I chose the sample out of my understanding of Los Angeles and my ability to get to as many churches as possible within the constraints of time and money for research. My contribution has greater depth on worship processes within a range of churches. By focusing on the internal processes of a particular set of congregations, I can only speculate on more general dynamics across the nation. Although I only have anecdotal evidence of other multiracial churches (my own visits, talking with pastors around the country, phone calls from reporters regarding churches in their cities, conferences with clergy and congregational members of diverse churches), I speculate that the increased urbanization of cities across the nation leads to similar dynamics of that found in Southern California. My conversations and observations since completing my data collection give me some assurance that the dynamics described here have broader applicability across the United States.
More data came from transcribed interviews. In-depth interviews allow researchers to solicit detailed life stories and life histories which cannot be gained by just observing or “hanging out.” As Lewis Minkin writes in pursuit of getting close to “the real picture” to affirm his growing understanding of a peculiarity, “I interview a lot of people and talk informally to them, often on repeated occasions.”9 Interviews provide an opportunity to see how people make sense of their own beliefs and practices. This continues a tradition within sociology that includes Max Weber, Alfred Schutz, George Herbert Mead, and Peter Berger that the ways in which people make sense of themselves and their worlds is critical to understanding the dynamics of any social setting.
For this study, I conducted a total of 172 interviews with church participants. Since the worship leader or the lead pastor were critical entry points for coming into the congregation, they were instrumental in coordinating people to interview. In all cases, the church allowed me to conduct interviews on site; in addition, I met with people wherever was most convenient to them, which were in homes, restaurants, or coffeehouses. In all cases, I met with the worship leader/music director. In all cases, I also met with people with no understanding or involvement in the musical construction of the services. Interviews were usually about 45 minutes long. The shortest was 20 minutes, the longest was almost 3 hours. In all cases, I met with a representative mixture of racial/ethnic groups of people attending the church.
In the end, 42% were Caucasian, 32% African American, 13% Hispanic, 5% Asian, 2% Middle Eastern, and 6% with mixed heritages who identified themselves as “multiracial.” The greater proportion of whites overall is due to the majority of staff and long-time members still in the congregation were white. In terms of educational background, 17% had (p.225) completed high school, 6% had Master's and Ph.D. degrees, and the rest had Bachelor's degrees or some college. Among my respondents, 14% were original immigrants to America, 10% were second and third generation, and the rest had a long ancestral history in the United States. Eighty-four percent of my sample was active in some type of ministry at the church. Although I sought out guests and new attenders, four out of five interviewees were members. Twenty-five percent came from non-denominational Christian backgrounds (often multiple churches), 35% came from specifically charismatic backgrounds, 15% came from Roman Catholic backgrounds, and 20% had mixed religious backgrounds including no religious background at all. In terms of tenure, 20% of my respondents had been attending less than two years, and 40% had been at their church five years or more. About 12% of my respondents made first-time commitments to become “Christians” at their church. While the average age of my respondents was 38 years, the youngest person interviewed was 19 and the oldest person who would tell me their age was 57. In sum, my respondents demonstrated a wide range of social demographic characteristics and came from a variety of lifestyles and life experiences.
As the number of my interviews grew, I continued to interview until I approached a saturation of experiences. Themes were repeating, and I found patterns that organized the experiences of worshipers that were later affirmed in my structured analysis of transcribed interview texts using qualitative-analysis software. In each church, I spoke with a range of attenders with various levels of tenure and involvement and, as insights began to become repetitious, collected a reasonable sample of life experiences for my analysis. Overall, scheduling interviews was not difficult. Most were eager to share their worship experiences. Their church involvement was for most a critical aspect of their religious commitments, and such a personally vital topic was worth their time to describe. My discussions were appropriately private. Elite interviews occurred with pastors and staff members who had been at each church for many years. Overall, my goal was to try to approximate the racial proportion of the congregation in the people I interviewed.
Interviews with decision makers and music performers allowed me to understand the ongoing processes of musical construction. How do leaders of multiracial congregations decide on the content and performance of worship music? What ideologies, theologies, and philosophies of music characterize the musical choices of multiracial churches? How do concerns for diversity affect the construction of worship services? How flexible are leaders in their choice of music? How are congregational reactions to music processed? Interviews with attenders focused on their experience of music and worship. How important is music to the choice of joining/leaving a church? Where does music rank in importance in comparison with other factors in the decision to join/leave a church (pastor, sermon, children's and other specialized programs, church location, theological tradition, overall ambience)? Does the salience of music differ among people of different races/ethnicities? Beyond music (i.e., words or sounds), what shapes the musical worship of a service? What defines the “worship experience” in the congregation? Interviews with music leaders were pre-arranged by phone/email, and (p.226) interviews with attenders were pre-arranged also by phone/email with the assistance of church staff. I was able to offer $50 to each research participant.
I had prepared an interview guide consisting of several core questions and then allowed myself the opportunity to explore experiences, connections, and implications through probes and follow-up questions as I learned more about my respondents and the congregation as a whole from the respondent within the interview and also, in later interviews. I assured each person of confidentiality and asked for the opportunity to share information gathered with scholars and church leaders interested in congregational diversity. All interviewees read a consent form and, if agreed, signed one copy for my records and a second copy for themselves. Every interview began with the question, “How did you get to your church?” With this question, every person had the opportunity to tell me their life history up to the point of their arriving at the congregation in their own terms. In telling me their story, most shared their family backgrounds, religious upbringing, church experiences, relationships both successful and unsuccessful, their schooling and occupational careers and other matters that explained their values and mindset. I asked about their first worship and musical experiences with the church. Regular attenders responded to questions regarding worship, while church leaders, music directors, singers, musicians, and any other person involved in the construction of church services responded to questions regarding their involvements and experiences in worship before, during, and after services. Some shared with me experiences with other members and leaders in the church. Some also shared important changes they have seen in the church throughout their tenure. While my core questions did not change in the course of interviewing people, later interviews included at the end of our time a few summaries of my gut reactions to findings at the churches that served as “member checks” of my initial conclusions. At the end of each interview, I asked whether there was anything else they wanted to share about their experience at of worship. Some did, while others said they did not think there was anything else they could add. I found most people to be quite open and willing to share.
People emphasized different aspects according to those things they found most relevant to understanding their worship and music experiences. Some talked at great length, while others were asked several follow-up questions for clarification. Although I followed an interview schedule, I changed my mode of exploration that consisted of dialogue as well as interrogation. These were “conversations with a purpose.”10 Minkin discusses interview flexibility when he writes,
Flexibility in response to the conversation … allowed me to make the solid information-seeking enquiries on which the creative scholar depends, but also, on occasions to make detours down interesting byways where I saw a connection or a revealing insight. It permitted me to explore an emerging pattern of cases, and to react, there and then, to the sudden appearance of the peculiarities that my nose told me could fruitfully be followed. Thus, I was happy to allow the conversation to take unexpected courses and, at times, to meander (p.227) along, risking that it would have its creative benefits, providing that I could, periodically and gently, return it towards the priority areas of enquiry.11
Therefore, while I had several critical things I needed to understand from them (where they grew up, previous religious experience, racial/ethnic affiliation), a more open-ended interview allowed me to learn about each person's own perceptions of their life experience.
Almost every interview was tape-recorded. I still asked explicit permission to share data from each person. I tried to maintain an attitude of being a student of their own life experiences, speaking as little as possible. In the process, a handful of people consisting between staff, lay leaders, and regular attenders were informants that called my attention to aspects of the procedures and settings that I may have otherwise overlooked.
In addition to my formal interviews, I conducted numerous informal discussions with attenders I came to know before, after, and during church services. This gave me glimpses into a wider range of guests and regular attenders than I was able to interview formally and hear about their experiences with the church.
In addition to observation and interviews, other sources of data included various printed and recorded materials available through the churches. Some leaders have published books and maintain tape libraries of sermon series that are sold. I added to my data selected books and tapes in seeking “structural corroboration” described by Elliot Eisner as “a means through which multiple types of data are related to each other to support or contradict the interpretation and evaluation of a state of affairs.”12 The few documentary sources consisted of guest information pamphlets, new member guides, copies of notable tape series, copies of music resources, and the church's website. All of the material used for analysis is publicly accessible. I also asked leaders to indicate recordings, musicians, books, leaders, and other resources that were considered important to them, and the few that were mentioned revealed certain critical aspects of the congregation's values and beliefs. Finally, the text draws selectively on available historical materials to account for the development of worship and music in Christianity, especially in the American context. (p.228)
(1.) In constructing an “explanation” for the operation of music and worship in multiracial congregations, I resonate with the approach to understanding social action described by John Levi Martin (2011).