Back to the Heart of Worship: Praise and Worship Music in a Los Angeles African-American Megachurch

By Johnson, Birgitta J. | Black Music Research Journal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Back to the Heart of Worship: Praise and Worship Music in a Los Angeles African-American Megachurch


Johnson, Birgitta J., Black Music Research Journal


It is five minutes after ten o'clock on a Sunday morning, and half the Great Western Forum's parking lot is full. As one approaches the fabled sports arena's doors, the faint sound of a live band playing a mix of gospel, jazz, and funk seeps out into the parking lot to meet people hurriedly trying to get inside. With Bibles in hand (or in uniquely designed carrying cases), they quickly greet each other, barely taking their eyes off which of the large doors they can enter the quickest. Upon entering the building's inner corridors, the groove-based rhythms are even louder, but are joined by the sounds of an audience of thousands singing along with a small vocal ensemble. The call-and-response style of music is evident as people in the hall begin singing along with those in the main room before they enter a series of openings adorned with deep-blue curtains. They've been welcomed by a half dozen greeters on their way in and are now seeking the assistance of one of the legion of ushers, quickly finding empty seats among the standing, swaying, singing, dancing, and clapping thousands who've been in the 17,000-seat arena since ten o'clock.

The atmosphere inside the arena is electric and rivals anything that occurred during the building's heyday during the 1980s, hosting the Los Angeles Lakers or the Rolling Stones. One could assume this gathering in Inglewood, California, was some type of religious crusade, complete with spirited group singing, pleading to convert as many lost souls at one time as possible. However, the mood of the room is celebratory in a markedly different way. Less like a crusade, it is more like a big party after a family reunion; the people high-five and hug each other at the mere suggestion of the lead singer, who, with his small group of nine singers, are standing over twenty feet away from the nearest audience member. From the vantage point of midlevel loge seats, which are over thirty feet from the main floor, one sees a large rectangular platform where a fifty-voiced choir stands, rocking in rhythm with the small vocal ensemble and a quintet of head-bobbing musicians.

Hanging from the ceiling on both sides of the large platform are two projection screens, which show the lead singer and the lyrics to the song that have the attention of nearly every person in the room. Had one not noticed the lyrics on the screen or dozens of people bringing Bibles into the arena, this event could easily be mistaken for a rhythm-and-blues review or soul music concert. The people singing to each other and lifting their hands acknowledging a deity greater than themselves are not a group of pop music fans. Rather, they are members of the Faithful Central Bible Church and the high-spirited, Jesus-centered praise they are taking part in is only the beginning of their weekly church services. The congregation will continue in this mood of reverence and celebration for at least twenty more minutes before sitting.

This narrative represents some of my first impressions attending Faithful Central Bible Church in 2001, after the predominantly African-American congregation made history by purchasing a sports arena to accommodate its rapidly growing Sunday morning service. At the time, I was unaware that the church and its contemporary style of music and worship would be the subject of a project for one of my graduate seminars at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the subject of my doctoral research, conducted between May 2003 and September 2006, on music in Los Angeles African-American megachurches (see Johnson 2008).

Located in the city of Inglewood in the southwest corner of Greater Los Angeles, Faithful Central's congregation experienced the exponential growth associated with the megachurch phenomenon in the United States, growing from about two hundred members in 1984 to approximately thirteen thousand in 2001. After purchasing the Great Western Forum in late

2000, the church began holding Sunday morning services in the former sports and entertainment arena in 2001, where the average weekly attendance was between 6,500 and 7,000 congregants. …

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