Dismantling White Supremacy Culture in Worship

Imagine that you’re a worship associate working with an upcoming guest in your pulpit who asks to make changes in your typical order of service. They’d like to light the chalice in a new way and shift the offering to a different place in the service. Because they’re traveling, they can’t provide the sermon blurb that you need—and today is the newsletter deadline.

How do you feel? What would members of your worship team say? And what if our response to these kinds of challenges are the raw material for our anti-racism and anti-oppression work in worship?

Liturgy and rituals are important: routine offers comfort, while changes and delays can cause anxiety for a worship leader who’s “just trying to do my job.” But when we inherit routines that were established unconsciously through a white lens, or by white culture—routines that haven’t been challenged—then our comfort is rooted in the status quo.

In the background, a group of Black people stand on a church chancel. In the foreground, from behind, a black person stands in their pew with arms raised in a "praise" position.

The status quo is not radically inclusive.
The status quo is not Beloved Community.
The status quo is never going to get us free.

Decentering the status quo is important both as a goal and as a process. If we’re unable to change our liturgy, our expectations of worship, and how the container of worship is structured, how can we build our tolerance for decentering the status quo outside of worship?

We have both benefited greatly from Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun’s analysis of how white supremacy culture shows up in organizations. Their analysis informs our thoughts and this essay. In our experience, Unitarian Universalist congregations aren’t exempt from these patterns—in fact, they often provide textbook examples!

Here are some ways that characteristics of white supremacy culture sneak into our worship life, undermining our anti-racism efforts. For each pattern, we follow Jones and Okun’s approach of offering an antidote: ways to cultivate new forms of flexibility and practice. These antidotes are accretional; they strengthen over time. (That’s our way of warning you that change doesn’t happen overnight.)

CONTROL
The need for control in worship isn’t necessarily conscious, but it’s one of the most universal patterns of white culture. Control might be manifested through any of the following assumptions, feelings, or statements:

  • “We have to use the same words for chalice lighting every week.”
  • “Our worship service has to go exactly as planned, and end in an hour.”
  • “We don’t use that hymnal; we only use this hymnal.”

It’s helpful to know what’s coming in worship: What’s the reading? Which hymn will we sing at the end? But sometimes we confuse wanting to know with a need to know.

Antidote: Needing to know suggests a culture driven by the ethic of control, as opposed to an ethic of risk, or flexibility.* When we trust our community and we trust the folx leading worship each week, we surrender some of that need to know, and exercise the muscle of exploring what we don’t know that we don’t know.

ONLY ONE RIGHT WAY
Being over-attached to “the way we’ve always done it” is another symptom of white supremacy culture. It’s not truly inclusive to welcome people without a willingness to be changed by their inclusion. “Only one right way” can take the form of any of these thoughts or feelings:

  • “Our order of service is important, so we ask that you not make any significant changes.”
  • “This is a humanist congregation that will not appreciate use of the word ‘God.’”
  • “We always sing three hymns, and the sermon is always twelve minutes long.”

Given that we come from different social locations and different experiences, what is familiar and comforting is going to be different. If the “right way” is entrenched in white Protestant culture, the people who will feel comfortable are white people.

Antidote: Worship is an opportunity to explore discomfort in a familiar place. Changing the familiar is an exercise in our faith formation as UUs. Worship leaders have a prime opportunity to remind the congregation of this during worship itself. For example: “If you feel uncomfortable not having a paper order of service, or listening to Lizzo, or seeing a drag queen in worship, then I invite you to adjust your expectations about what ‘worship’ is—and what it can be. I encourage you to come outside of the ‘worship box’ with me.”

PRIORITIZING THOUGHT & INTELLECT > FEELING & EMBODIMENT
White people have been trained to hold their bodies still in church (and to value others who do, too); to listen attentively; and to refrain from verbal reaction. In addition, white Protestant culture has taught people to seek comfort in information, buttressing the myth of objectivity.

These values might show up in your worship life through any of the following assumptions or statements:

  • “We don’t clap in this church.”
  • “I come to learn and be intellectually stimulated by the sermon every Sunday.”
  • “We find that small children are disruptive and distracting in worship.”

Antidote: Our deepest anti-racism and anti-oppression work requires us to be in our bodies, and the feelings that come up in our bodies. If we practice being in our bodies in worship, we strengthen the muscles we will use in liberation and transformation work. Feelings are not as scary as we’ve been led to believe.

When we learn to dismantle the markers and habits of white supremacy in our congregations, we can take that learning to our communities, our workplaces, our schools, our families, and our own bodies. We get free, together.

Reflection Questions for Worshipers

If you're in the virtual or physical pews of a congregation, we invite you to ponder how you can support your worship team in expanding and exploring the ways we do worship. When you notice discomfort because something is new or different, we encourage you to engage that discomfort with curiosity and care.

Here are some reflection questions to engage by yourself, or with other congregation members:

  • If I’m feeling critical (“I don’t like this” or “I’m unhappy”):
    • Which of my needs aren’t getting met?
    • Why do I feel like disconnecting?
  • If I’m in a place of assessment (“Is this worth my participation?” or “Does this satisfy my tastes”?):
    • Can I find an opening for curiosity?
    • How is this helping shift the status quo?
  • If I’m feeling curious (“If this doesn’t serve me, personally, who might it serve?” or “What love/energy/time/vision went into this?”):
    • How can I keep moving toward appreciation?
    • How can I keep supporting preemptive radical inclusiveness?**
  • If I’m in a place of appreciation (“How does this invite me to grow and learn?” or “How does this serve our larger values?”):
    • How can I keep moving toward trust?
    • Have I shared my appreciation out loud with my congregation’s worship leaders?

Reflection Questions for Worship Teams

If you’re part of a congregational worship team—a minister, music director, choir member, or worship associate—the following questions might help you discern how to begin creating (or further) culture change in your congregation’s worship life:

  • If you are white, did you notice your body or breath tightening when you were reading or hearing the essay above? Can you articulate the thoughts accompanying those feelings?
  • What is my personal commitment to challenging the status quo, and am I living up to that commitment? Where does my discomfort prevent me from trying new things?
  • Which of the “symptoms” above (Control, Only one right way, and Prioritizing thought and intellect over feeling and embodiment) are most noticeable in your congregation? How do they manifest?
  • How deeply committed is your congregation to shifting patterns of white supremacy culture to patterns of equity, diversity, and inclusivity?
  • How might you collectively articulate your aspirations and goals (related to dismantling white supremacy culture in worship)? For example, “We want our worship life to…..” or “We aspire to create a worship life in which…..”
  • Are you willing to practice naming—perhaps by role-playing with one another—those goals, in response to feedback and complaints related to worship?
  • Together, brainstorm resources you know to be helpful in countering white fragility.

*Sharon Welch offers great insight on the ethic of risk in Toward a Feminist Ethic of Risk (1990). Here's a summary.

**With appreciation to CB Beal for this concept; explore more here.