When we worship together, we all look the same: How worship fights racial bias

I’m happy to see that multiethnic worship is rising in popularity in the U.S. church.  My inbox is full of pastors and ministry leaders who are looking for ways to use worship to break down cultural biases in the body of Christ. We know that there are scriptural bases (e.g., Revelations 7:9-17) for this interest, but how does worship help to bring about unity?  What happens when we worship with people who are different than us? I’ve written about how shared subjective experiences can help us to bond with people who are totally different than us.  Certainly, worship can serve as a profound shared experience that makes us feel closer to those whom we might otherwise perceive as “Other.”  This alone can work to break down unhelpful racial divisions that work to keep us apart.  In addition, recent research suggests that worship can be an effective tool for racial unity because it can stimulate positive emotion which, in turn, breaks down some of the us/them distinctions that lead to what I call the "THEY all look the same" effect.

Social psychologists Kareem Johnson and Barbara Frederickson recently conducted a study[i] in which participants watched short films that made them feel joyful, fearful or neutral.  Then, participants completed a facial recognition test.  Johnson and Frederickson predicted that participants who felt neutral or fearful would engage in the “all black people look the same” effect. In other words, they would easily recognize faces of people who were in their race but have a hard time recognizing faces of other races. However, the researchers predicted that participants who watched the “joyful” movie and were experiencing positive emotions would show no racial bias and would be equally good at recognizing own-race or other-race faces.

Voila! Their predictions were correct. Positive emotions allowed people to view other-race faces less like categories and more like individuals. While reading this research report, I thought to myself, “Why can’t worship work to induce positive emotions that break down racial bias?”  I believe that it can if:

A)     It takes place in a multi-ethnic context such that during and immediately after the worship session people are given the opportunity to interact cross-culturally

B)      It actually induces positive emotions for all involved.  In a multi-ethnic context, this likely means doing authentic multi-ethnic (possibly multi-lingual) music that honors the diverse participants by including all and enabling all to share their unique worship traditions. (Check out multi-ethnic worship ministries Proskuneo or Heart of the City for ideas on how to do this well.)

[i] Johnson, K.J., & Frederickson, B.L. (2005). We all look the same to me: Positive emotions eliminate own-race bias in face recognition. Psychological Science, 16, 875-81.