It wasn't until my senior year at Wheaton, in 2005, that my friends and I signed up for Facebook. "Status updates" weren't yet an option. Twitter wasn't even launched until after I graduated from Wheaton. This means that my peers and I didn't have an instant social media forum to share our opinions.
Even in our oh-so-ancient pre-Twitter era, we still found a way to communicate, converse, and share opinions on campus, but I bet the advent of smartphones and easily-accessible social media has dramatically changed how information flows in such a tight-knit community. One such change is students tweeting during chapel services, using the #chapeltweets hashtag.
Each February, usually in honor of black history month, Wheaton has a chapel dubbed "Rhythm and Praise," in which students (of all backgrounds, but the majority are black) lead a "gospel-style" worship service. Keep in mind that the college is overwhelmingly white, with very few students of color. Last Friday, some white students sent out a series of racially insensitive and derisive tweets during this particular chapel. Noah Toly, an urban studies professor and director of the Urban Studies Program, summarized the tweets here.
My heart is heavy for the students who led worship that day. I can't imagine how painful it must be to know that your fellow Christians take your worship style lightly, or wish for a return to business-as-usual.
As I'm no longer on campus, I don't want to portray the events incorrectly. However, I did want to comment on many white students' and alumni's responses I've seen online. What may seem like an isolated incident at a Christian college reveals, to me, a bigger issue within white evangelicalism as a whole. One white professor thinks we should be quiet about the incident, because "talking it out" sometimes piles on to the hurt. One presumably white alum sees nothing wrong with stating a preference toward "traditional" worship styles.
White evangelicals have a complicated, uncomfortable history with our black neighbors, and we don't come to a historically-neutral table. Christian Smith has asked believers to "stop excluding, dismissing, discounting, and ignoring other Christians" who don't belong to their own "in-group." Speaking of in-groups, many white evangelicals have created an "insider" culture, with our own unwritten grammar of conduct and nuances of cultural idiom.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a preference for a European or white U.S. American style of worship. But when we white evangelicals convince ourselves that our worship services, music, preaching style, and other aspects of church life are simply "neutral" or "traditional," we effectively shut out Christians of color, even if excluding others is not our intent. When Christians of color point out how hurtful it can be to "joke around" about a particular worship style--even when the comment was made with no harm intended--a defensive response only makes the wound grow deeper.
Anthropology professor Brian Howell, who was extremely influential during my own time at Wheaton, explains that a seemingly neutral statement or preference can still perpetuate hurtful racism, even if the person who makes such a statement or has such a preference isn't a racist:
When someone listens to gospel music and declares it "disorganized," (true example from #chapeltweets), he may just be intending to say that he doesn't know where to look; there's a lot going on; he is confused. At the level of intention and reference, nothing racial there. But indexically there are some layers here. Mind you, the performance in question did not involve people forgetting the lyrics, bumping into each other, or not knowing who should step up to the mic. At that level it was orderly. But it was more complex than some other (European based) forms of music. To call it "disorderly" is to make a comparison. To what? To "orderly" worship. To "normal" worship. To "white" worship.
On a broader scale, I wonder what white evangelicals could learn from this teachable moment. Perhaps we could realize that worship styles and church services are not race-neutral. Worship and the theology that underlies it are rooted in a specific context, which includes race. White evangelicals may not think our views about church or worship have a racial influence. We instead consider them race-neutral. Only allowing space or only legitimizing white, suburban, middle-class preferences, then, can speak volumes.
When it comes to worship, one of the most vulnerable times in the practice of one's faith, perhaps we should unpack our preferences and question our assumptions, as Dr. Howell mentioned. What seems completely natural to one group of believers may have a different meaning for another. At the foot of the cross, why would we make value judgments or insist that one's preferences are somehow neutral?