Spreading the gospel in today’s world comes with a creative gamble. There are those who still take to streets with hugs and messages from the Bible and there are others who have found ways to include today’s biggest artists into scripture. Insert Beyoncé Mass, a church service mixed with inspirational songs from the Grammy-winning singer.
The alternative service was created in 2018 by Rev. Yolanda Norton, who taught the class “Beyoncé and The Hebrew Bible” at San Fransico Theology Seminary. In an effort to teach students about black women and their relationship to the gospel, Bey’s use of spiritual and religious imagery in her work came to mind. “We’re talking about respectability politics, the commodification of the body, sexuality, motherhood and relationships because these are all very real to black women,” she tells VIBE about the womanist worship service. “We build from that to talk about how all of these issues show up in the Bible.”
The class found its way to the church pews in 2018 with much fanfare. With scripture from the Old Testament, Rev. Norton and her team strategically weaved through Beyoncé’s vast discography to curate a service with some of the singer’s most moving records.
The first service at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral brought out over 500 people, a huge difference from the normal 50 attendees. While some saw the mass as a “spiritually awakening experience,” critics questioned the presence of secular music in the church. There’s also the immediate likeness to Kanye West’s Sunday Service where the artist blends his discography with gospel hymns. But Rev. Norton says the two have nothing in common.
“I’ve been in ministry for 12 years,” she says. “I’ve been ordained for six years and I’m a trained theologian. I have a decade’s worth of education in the field. I lead with theology and the mission of Christ. Again, it’s a very different thing. He’s a performer—I’m not. That doesn’t work for what I’m doing. What I can do is attempt to construct a meaningful conversation about God and Christianity.”
Check out our chat with Rev. Norton where she breaks down the future of Beyoncé Mass and more.
How did Beyoncé Mass come about and how does it connect to your class “Beyoncé and the Hebrew Bible?”
Rev. Yolanda Norton: First, I’m a Hebrew Bible scholar who teaches what popular vernacular call The Old Testament. I’m finishing up my Ph.D. at Vanderbilt, my doctoral studies focused on the Hebrew Bible but I also have a secondary resource interest in ethics and homiletics which is the study of preaching.
My work is interdisciplinary and I’m always seeking how African-American women encounter the Bible, Christianity and how the intersection of patriarchy and racism has influenced the development of Christian faith. So thinking about that work, I developed this class called “Beyonce and the Hebrew Bible.”
It uses womanist theories to highlight the realities of black women. It’s a term that pulls inspiration from Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens and with that, I used womanist theological theory to frame for my students the issues black women face and how we encounter the Bible. In particular, I used that theory to inform conversations about the music and persona of Beyoncé so that we can talk about the issues black women face. We’re talking about respectability politics, the commodification of the body, sexuality, motherhood and relationships because all these things are very real to black women. Then we build from that to talk about how all of these issues show up in the Bible.
I'm very clear that this is a Christian worship service and we're just using the music to tell a story about black women and to provide an alternative vision of who and what the church can be.
Rev. Yolanda Norton
Beyoncé Mass came about because one of my students [Sam Lundquist] was interning at a church in San Francisco and asked us to lead service in their midweek capital, which is their prime gauge/alternative worship service. We agreed to do it and I went away to a wedding. When I came back, Beyoncé Mass Service had gone viral. Since then, we’ve taken the small team to Portugal, Southern California and now here we are in New York.
How was the service in Portugal?
It was amazing. I really didn’t know what was going to happen in Portugal more than any other place. I thought, “I don’t know if this translates right.” I know there are intersections between the kind of problems we face in the United States but I don’t know how close that is.
We were supposed to do it at one church but once it hit the media, they got a lot of pushback and they pulled out. We found a Catholic church and so repurposed it for the mass. We didn’t know who was going to show up until that night because the church only held about 350 people. Let’s just say we broke some fire codes both nights.
We had people sitting on the side of the pews and on the floor. So it has been quite amazing to think about the impact of the mass and the populations of people who are who were able to reach.
How do you feel about the criticism you’ve received about Beyoncé Mass?
You know, people are entitled to think what they want to think. I’m not worshipping Beyoncé and I’m not encouraging anyone to worship her. I’m very clear that this is a Christian worship service and we’re just using the music to tell a story about black women and to provide an alternative vision of who and what the church can be and we know that can be intimidating to people.
I know that message doesn’t resonate for everyone but for as long as there is a population of people who find affirmation and healing and flow in this work, then I’m just going to keep doing it and I can’t be concerned about what people who have this kind of blanket critique. I have a community of scholarly women and black female friends that give me solid feedback along the way. I do my best to live in community with that feedback and that critique, but for people who have decided to dismiss it? I can’t give you that energy.
How do you handle the comparisons to Kanye West’s Sunday services and given stan culture among the Beyhive, do you worry that people will misinterpret the message behind the service?
We’ve seen increasing comparisons between the Beyoncé Mass and Kanye’s Sunday service. I’ve never been to one, but my very basic answer is that I’ve been in ministry for 12 years. I’ve been ordained for six years and I’m a trained theologian. I have a decade’s worth of education in the field. I lead with theology and the mission of Christ.
Again, it’s a very different thing. He’s a performer—I’m not. That doesn’t work for what I’m doing. What I can do is attempt to construct a meaningful conversation about God and Christianity.
When it comes to the Beyhive, I get it. I’m beyond a fan, but my focus is on the mission of Jesus Christ. I know there are people who come to the mass who aren’t devout Christians at all. They’re atheists, agnostics, people who have been hurt by the church, and it reminds me of an opinion piece that was written by a gay man who felt emotionally abused by the church and decided to abandon it. He attended our San Francisco service and realized there’s a difference between who God is and what the church does.
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So I think there are a lot of people who come to the mass for various reasons. The best that I can do is to create a meaningful worship center that hopefully provides some healing and centers people on what I think is God’s mission in the world.
When you think about the mission of Beyoncé Mass, black women immediately come to mind. Will the New York services share lessons about black women in the Bible?
The Hebrew Bible scholar in me has to say, we have to be attentive to the fact that race was not operative in the biblical world, right? So these distinctions of black and white are not there in the Bible. What is there for me as a Bible scholar is that there are communities that were being formed and there are some people who are celebrated and belong in the text and there are some people who don’t. So it’s not about talking about black women in the Bible, but it is about how black women can find themselves in the Bible.
It’s a thin distinction but a very real distinction. I’m clear that in the reception history of the Hebrew Bible, black women, in particular, have been excluded. So my work is to retrieve a voice for black women. It’s just a matter of doing that in the ways that I feel is the most faithful to the scholarship and my discipline.
Where do you see Beyoncé Mass heading?
My goal is, you know, trying to pinpoint a set of cities to do the math in. While doing that I want to increase our outreach capacity. When we can find inclusive, affirming states and worship for all of God’s people, we can go out into the world and do the work of justice. I want it to develop this network.
We found the right church in Harlem. Their minister Rev. Derrick McQueen is an out gay male and has a Ph.D. in ethics. We’re also working with Brooklyn’s First Presberyian Baptist Church that’s ministered by a black woman. These are spaces where people see them for who they are and love them because that’s the mission that God has given us.
What are four songs from Beyoncé’s discography that speak to the messages in the service?
The song we always use is “Flaws and All.” It’s so raw and honest. [The lyrics say,] “I’m a train wreck in the morning, I’m a b***h in the afternoon.” I’m all of those things and you can turn that into a conversation with God. We aren’t perfect and we have a bunch of flaws, but God loves us. We may never understand the mystery of why God loves us beyond our imperfections but God does.
Another one would be “Formation.” It’s a sense of working together as one. We have to work together to be “in formation” and while she’s doing that, she’s talking about her love, not for her own self but other black bodies [Jackson 5 nostrils lyric].
There’s also “Halo” and of course, “Love on Top.”