Etiquette in African American Churches

The church is an important institution for multiple generations of African Americans.
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The African American church is the longest-standing institution in the community, with its origins in slavery. African American churches are sites where visitors will learn much about black culture. Not every church with a large number of African Americans qualifies as an African American church. The African American church properly refers to seven major Protestant denominations that existed as separate black institutions during the slavery and racial segregation eras. These churches still carry on many of the past traditions. Proper service etiquette in these denominations may differ vastly from what many churchgoers have experienced.

1 Call and Response

The preacher in an African American church wants to hear the crowd respond to the sermon.
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Talking during the service is allowed, even encouraged; in fact, the presiding minister anticipates talking and interruptions from the crowd. Preachers in African American churches use a call-and-response technique. The preacher employs voice inflections and rhetorical flourishes to engender spontaneous responses and shouts from parishioners. Full participation in the service requires shouts of encouragement in response to the sermon, such as, “amen” and “preach it, brother.” The call-and-response during church is an integral part of African American communal solidarity that began during slavery and has its roots in West African cultural traditions.

2 Formal Attire

Women dressed in Sunday formal whites outside the church.
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Dressing in your “Sunday best” is a reality in the black church. Sporting formal attire is an outward sign of the social respectability all African American churches expect members to exude. Church attendance practically requires formal dress to distinguish members from the non-churchgoers of the community.

3 Long Services

During slavery, Sunday was often the only day that enslaved blacks did not have to work. The Sabbath became a full day of preaching, community building and socializing. The African American church still maintains this practice of an elongated worship day with longer services and sermons than most other religious groups. The majority of African American church services last longer than ninety minutes. Furthermore, the sermons alone usually last more than thirty minutes. Most people remain for the entirety so leaving early is hardly inconspicuous.

4 Music and Dance

Gospel choir inciting the people.
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It is acceptable to move one’s body to the rhythm of the choir music. Music is an integral part of the church service. Most African American churches have a large gospel choir, usually complemented by a piano or organ. In the past, especially during slavery, blacks would actually stand and dance during religious ceremonies, in a performance known as the ring shout. Contemporary African American church attendees are more than likely seen swaying to the music in their seats. This body movement is highly acceptable and demonstrates an appreciation for the performance.

David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.