In the church I go to, we have a preacher who preaches very loudly. If the congregation feels he is speaking directly to them by the unction of the Holy Spirit, someone may answer him back by saying, “Halleljah!” or “Oh praise His Name!” or “Preach!” or “Teach!” In this way the pastor knows his congregation is “feelin'” him, or connecting with him on a one on one basis. They are understanding him, and they are getting how he wants his audience to apply it to their lives. If he talks about letting a relationship go that is not the will of God, for instance, I will say, “Preach Pastor!”That is because I have been through a relationship that was ungodly, and I remember not only the physical and emotional abuse I suffered at her hands, but also the way that her very presence kept me from really growing in my relationship with Jesus Christ.
In this type of church environment, relationship–with the Man or Woman of God, that is, is precisely the thing that is important. They trust him to preach and teach the word week after week, and make it relevant to them. And he trusts that they are going to let him know that they have wholeheartedly received it, and they plan to apply it. In fact, the Set Gift of that church might feel insulted if you sit there in silence and play the role of spectator, or one who listens to a sermon and fails to internalise it.
Call and response does NOT originate with the Black Church. It has been part of our culture for generations. In fact did you know that the enslaved blacks used call and response as a form of communication–be it on Sunday morning, when preachers called “exhorters” would bring the message of God, or in day-to day communication when they would sing hymns to one another. This form of communication became very important as it was used to plan escapes via the Underground Railroad or whatever. They would plan escapes from slavery to the North, or even to Canada. One slave would begin to sing a song like, “Crossing the River Jordan.” The others would respond with an answer verse. A perfect example of this is “Wade in the Water.” It can be sung this way:
Wade in the Water,
Wade in the Water, children,
Wade in the Water…
and the chorus’ s response may go something like this:
God is gonna trouble
Usually sung in the key of E minor, this song is a spiritual song which at the same time has the elements of what we have come to know as the blues. The repetitive nature of the lyrics, the mournful sound of the minor chords, is very suggestive of what we have heard in such hit songs as “The Thrill is Gone,” B. B. King’s 1969 hit single.
But as it was used back in slavery days,this was a form of code. Of course it would not make good common sense for them to openly speak so their masters, the plantantion owners, could hear them. So they would sing, “Goin’ up yonder.” The masters and the whites around them would have never guessed that they might have been talking about Canada, or the North. The general consensus would be that they were talking about Heaven.
And we church folk have sung those songs for generations thinking that it meant heaven. The thing about these old, revered Negro Spirituals, as they have been called, these songs are in fact secular in a very real way. While it could be said that they were making reference to the afterlife–they were reminding each other that there was a place of freedom right here on Earth. They were speaking of a life up North where they would arrive in Michigan, New York, or someplace up North, and start themselves a brand new life.1
This became a very popular style used in mainstream British white music during the 60s. As Wikipedia points out, the Who’s “Talking ‘Bout My Generation,” is a perfect example of call and response. Roger Daltrey might scream out, “People try to put us d-d-down,” and the other singers in the group come back with
“Talkin’ bout my generation.” Then Daltrey counters with “Just because we g-g-get around.” This sequence is repeated over and over.2
So in the local black Church today, this system of communication between pastor and congregation is common. When certain pastors are giving their weekly homily, when they get to the part of the service when their “Help” starts coming–the Holy Spirit’s Anointing begins to fall on them heavily, the Man of God may begin to take very deep, loud breaths between his phrases. He begins to repeat certain phrases, and start singing more than speaking. The minister of music will try to match the key of the organ to the one the pastor is preaching in. And once this happens–this is really a way of getting people to shout back at you! Detroit preacher J. Drew Sheard is a master at this.
And if the preacher is really preaching, indeed, the man deserves some props. The call and response system provides strength and encourage to the Servant of God. Men and women of the pulpit pour out so much. Once they are done preaching that particular Sunday or Wednesday night, they are often exhausted. The call and response system, then, affords a platform to tell the Man of God, “You are not alone, Reverend. We feel you, we are with you, and we want to go where you wish to take us!”
1. Miles, Dr. Class/Seminar on the Black Church. Winter Semester, 1989, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
2.Daltrey, Roger. The Who, “My Generation.” 1965
3. Wikipedia, article on call and response.