If you know anything about the traditional black church, you know that it’s a culture unto itself, with its own language, gestures, dress code, politics, and social regime. These cultural markers are sometimes referred to as “churchy” behaviors or ideas. They’re traditions taught and mimicked at church but are not necessarily tied to worship or core belief. Holding a finger up and “tipping out” when you have to leave church early is one example. Whatever’s going on with the singers in this video is another example:
Depending on denomination, the rules may vary, but even folks who are no longer attending church at all recognize the language and gestures enough to reference and joke about them. Watch any mainstream black comedian’s set for longer than ten minutes and you’re likely to find a series of church jokes that land with the audience precisely because of their insider perspective. “Churchy” behavior is often played for laughs, but sometimes, people are genuine and earnest. It never occurs to them that “cutting a step” because the organ sounds good (or even playing that organ riff just so that people get the chance to cut a step during service) isn’t an inherently Christian behavior, but instead a cultural practice. For some, churchy behavior legitimizes their faith. For others, it’s an ironic wink and a way to establish a cultural connection with one’s peers.
Whatever the motivation, “church comedy” goes a long way at lampooning certain churchy practices. Consider this recent video, “How to sing a solo in a black church”:
It’s hilarious–and also an example of how we internalize so many gestures and practices at church (from prefacing songs with excuses about vocal deficiencies to berating the sound department in song).
Check out the following list of churchy behaviors. If you’re a church attendee, how many do you engage in on a regular basis:
1. “Touch/Look at/Slap/High-Five your neighbor.”
This command is usually issued by a preacher when he’s making a particularly climactic point during his sermon. He’d like you to make contact with the person beside you and repeat the point he’s just made. If you’re churchy, you love this point in the service. If you’re really churchy, this moment makes it into your daily non-church life. You say it among friends and a ton of other things like it (e.g. “Can I get an amen or an ouch?”).
Quickening is a body tremor that occurs when something said or done in church “bears witness with your spirit.” It can be contained to the quaking of a hand or it can result in a full body shake. It’s done as often in jest as in seriousness.
“Shouting” can be synonymous with “cutting a step,” “getting happy,” or “catching the Holy Ghost.” Like quickening, it can be involuntary or proactive, and it basically involves vigorous dancing in response to a sermon or a song.
4. Telling people they’re going to hell.
When someone makes a politically incorrect joke or admits to a “shameful” action or experience, jokingly saying, “Oh, you goin’ to hell.” can, in fact, be considered churchy behavior.
Bear in mind that this is a lighthearted post that in no way intends to mock anyone’s faith practices. Rather, this post aims to take an uncritical look at black church culture and what it means to its practitioners.
Are you churchy? Do you know of any “churchy” sayings or practices you’d like to add to this list?