To Whoop or Not to Whoop?

An e-mail that’s been circulating in the past couple of weeks links to a story from CNN’s “Black in America” series. You’ll find the video below; here’s a link to the accompanying article “Black preachers who ‘whoop’ — minstrels or ministers?”. The story deals with “whooping” in the historically black church, a preaching style with a rousing and emotional conclusion that’s part song and part sermon.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5DQJ1HQlxA

Whooping is rooted in the African tradition of call and response, with the leader or storyteller making an exuberant point and the hearers responding with equal exuberance. Just as “involuntary immigrants” from Africa brought everything from okra to the banjo with them to America’s shores, they also brought the whoop that connected with and inspired black worshipers in the praise houses and brush arbors of the antebellum south. Whooping has also generated its share of controversy. A pastor that I knew in my youth dismissed it as “country preaching,” although my mother said that he didn’t like it because he wasn’t good at it and was jealous of those who were!

That controversy raged in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the years following the Civil War. Charleston, SC born Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne, who founded Wilberforce University and re-established the AME church in South Carolina, advocated newly freed slaves abandoning their African traditions to achieve acceptance in the majority society. Payne saw whooping as uncouth and called what we now revere as Negro spirituals “cornfield ditties.” Abbeville, SC born Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, the first black U.S. Army Chaplain and founder of the AME Church in Georgia, took a different view. Turner saw the African traditions embodied in the whoop and in spirituals as sources of identity and strength and championed their use and preservation as essential to African-American survival in an era of newly achieved freedom.

Whooping still lives and is widely accepted and practiced in – and now beyond – the historically black church. Some majority white “megachurch” pastors have adopted the practice as well! Whooping is a legitimate cultural art form and expression of spiritual power, as long as it embraces a couple of useful standards.

The first is that it should be genuine and natural. I said in my last blog that sermons in the historically black church are a lot like the blues – down to earth, very real, and best appreciated by those who’ve “been in the storm” and come through by the grace of God. Whooping is best done by those who “feel it” and are led by the Holy Spirit to do it. It doesn’t work well if it’s preplanned to generate emotion or used as a “crutch” to prop up a shaky sermon. Preachers who don’t acknowledge that – like a seminary classmate of mine who practiced his “whoop” on Saturday night – come across as phonies.

The second standard is that whooping should not be an end in itself. An old theological axiom in the historically black church is that you serve up the “meat” of the sermon before pouring on the emotional “gravy” to provide balanced spiritual nutrition. The “meat” is in doing the necessary Scriptural research and preparation to convey the word of God in a way that enables the hearers to relate God’s word to their contemporary challenges, see their shortcomings, and see that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ goes beyond our shortcomings. The “gravy” is the exuberant spiritual celebration of God’s grace at the end of the sermon. A sermon that’s all “meat” can be dry, while a sermon that’s all “gravy” may be emotionally tasty but leaves the hearers spiritually malnourished. One of my preaching mentors said that if a sermon doesn’t make sense in a conversational voice, then shouting won’t make it a good sermon.

Let me finally confess that I don’t “whoop” – not because I don’t like it, but because I’ve never felt led to do so by the Holy Spirit – in addition to the fact that I can hardly carry a good tune under the best of circumstances. On the other hand, I keep in mind a conversation I had with one of my preacher-uncles when I eventually and reluctantly answered the call to preach. I told him, “I’ll preach, but don’t expect me to do any shouting or jumping or stomping in the pulpit – that’s just not me.” He simply smiled and said, “That’s what you say – time will tell what God says.” Who knows – if the Holy Spirit says so, I may just “whoop” one day too!

1 thought on “To Whoop or Not to Whoop?”

  1. I believe there is too much emphasis on how to whoop than on why God sent His only begotten son. the Love of God and His son should be lifted up not our style of preaching. can you imagine Jesus whooping to get the emotions of the peoplee stirred up. Some how that picture is not conceivable. But to each its own. Just give me Jesus and I will tll everyone to come see a man, and His name is Jesus!!!

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