Scholarship on popular Christian music has come a long way in the past ten years. Until the publication of the 2013 edition of The Grove Dictionary of American Music, the major reference works in Western music contained no coverage of Christian rock or any of the various interconnected genres of Christian pop music. Entries on “Gospel” in the 2001 New Grove and 1997 Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Music concluded their coverage of popular and vernacular Christian musics in English-speaking North America in the 1950s. In 2019 the landscape shows change. Within the U.S., churches across the spectrum of Christianity appear to be shifting away from services based around choirs and pipe organs, to worship that employs guitars and drum sets.1 Commercial Christian popular music is a globalized repertory, with contemporary worship songs dominating the playlists of Christian radio and streaming services around the world. From the academic side, scholarship on Christian popular music, including contemporary worship, has gone from a handful of dissertations and conferences papers in the 2000s to a robust international and multi-disciplinary field in the 2010s. Importantly, much of this work has approached Christian popular music from cultural perspectives, including ethnomusicology, anthropology, cultural studies, cultural history, and religious studies. The books under review here provide three distinct perspectives on the ways Christians in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. incorporate repertoires of popular Christian music into a range of practices they experience as worshipful.
Ari Y. Kelman's Shout to the Lord concentrates on the production and creation side of pop-rock contemporary worship music, seeking to understand how artists and producers create a music that serves the needs of worshippers by enabling collective singing as well as individual prayer.
Kelman, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, connects his interest in Christian worship music to a broader interest in the dynamics of prayer, particularly the transformation of text and ritual into deeply experienced transcendence. He writes: “For me, the central experience was that of music that always seemed on the verge of becoming something else, and I wanted to know how the people who made music for worship did it” (xii). Kelman, whose previous book investigated the role of Yiddish radio in the formation of U.S. immigrant communities, zeroes in on the question that has drawn in so many scholars of music: how does this medium create such profound effects in people? Within the realm of sacred music studies, which investigates music that is intended to serve as an instrument of human-divine communication, these questions about the nature and power of music become particularly significant and meaningful.
Shout to the Lord centers on the foundational tension has been at the root of disputes over sacred music for centuries and what Kelman calls “the blessing and curse of worship music” (76): music's potential for transcendent spiritual power is inseparable from the danger the music could overwhelm sincere worshipful acts. How can one write a song that engenders authentic practices of worship while avoiding turning the music or music's human purveyors into idols? Kelman explains the book's attention to creators of worship music—songwriters (chapter two), worship leaders (chapter three), music industry executives (chapter four)—as necessary because these are the people tasked with the responsibility of guiding Christians in how to practice worship. Each chapter engages this issue of creating a form of music that can facilitate religious action from the angle of different creators who are basically united in worshipful intent. Says Kelman, all of these different kinds of creators of worship music create the “cultural curriculum of worship” by shaping “the ability of people to express themselves in prayer” and “scaffold[ing] both its experience and understanding” (45). Along the way, the book connects briefly with a variety of approaches to studying religious practice. For instance, to illuminate the concept of religious experience, chapter one brings in ideas from William James and Friedrich Schleiermacher, an essay on the band Neutral Milk Hotel, and another essay by artist Wassily Kandinsky. By offering an array of inroads, Kelman seeks to craft a general introduction to popular worship music that is accessible to a broad audience of readers, particularly those unfamiliar with these musical practices.
More questionable, though, is the weight Kelman gives to authorial intent—equating how well worship music's creators create and present the music with how well it can be understood (and used) as worship by others. Songwriters do well in their job, he says, when they approach their task with “pure” intent (59), while worship leaders must be “hyperattentive” about their intentions, “stepping aside or ‘disappearing’” in order to lead worship “effectively” (107–8). By marketing the music itself and not celebrity singers, Kelman says, music industry executives were able to “subtly assert the purpose and purity of the music” (120). Truly worshipful and prayerful music, then, happens when the creators get it (in their and Kelman's estimation) right. But it seems they can get it wrong, too. For instance, Kelman writes that songwriters must be “more careful about their lyrics so as not to perpetuate the problem” of creating songs that “misrepresent important ideas” or which are “theologically ‘weak’” (66). Kelman explains that songwriters need to pay careful attention to what they write: “To ensure the accuracy of their lyrics, songwriters often consult pastors or more learned colleagues who can offer a critically informed eye and can help to ensure that they do not contain any errors with respect to either theology or the Bible” (67). Perhaps his focus on author-based meaning can be understood via Kelman's approach to this music as prayer—as a humanly created communication for divine reception—in which case a more developed exploration of his perspective on the nature of prayer would have deepened readers' understanding of this approach.
Readers steeped in cultural studies and other analytical modes that question the sender-message-receiver model of communication will be more comfortable with approaches that understand truth, accuracy, etc. as contested values to be struggled over. Although sacred/profane, accuracy/error, true/false binaries are powerful organizing principles in many religions, including evangelical Christianity, Kelman's reliance on this tension to direct his analysis and his focus on the creators of the music as the directors of its meaning, means that some of the complex dynamics of the evangelical Christian musical world go missing. The notion that theological weakness is a “problem” that can be solved by rectifying errors or inaccuracies implies that evangelical doctrine is unified, and that there exists a clear and uncontroversial theological position that can be represented by popular worship songs. The popular media's use over the last several decades of the term “evangelical” has reinforced the idea that Christian evangelicalism is a cohesive, static set of beliefs and a connected set of people. Yet, evangelical Christianity is full of theological debates, some of them extremely heated, which are not only reflected in Christian popular musics but actively fed by them. For instance, Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth argue that Pentecostal advocates of Christian popular music in worship practice actively “constructed a biblical theology that provided a grounding for this emerging liturgical phenomenon” of popular worship music.2 Acknowledging and offering a brief guide to the intricate and dynamic nature of the belief systems within which this music circulates would have enriched Kelman's study.
In contrast, Mark Porter investigates how congregations experience music in worship in diverse ways and probes the tensions over musical worship practice that can, at their worst, lead to divisions and separations of communities. Porter, a Briton who is currently a fellow at the Max-Weber-Kolleg für kultur- und sozialwissenschaftliche Studien at the University of Erfurt, delves deep into the dynamic among worship leaders, congregations, and church leadership in his ethnomusicological case study, focusing on how individuals negotiate the intersections of their everyday musical lives with their experiences of organized worship services. Porter came to his scholarly investigation of worship music from the standpoint of a musician and worship leader troubled by an experience at a church in London where attempts to work with congregational musicians to produce a musically diverse worship service were met with resistance and a push to return to a single musical pop-rock “contemporary” musical style.
Contemporary Worship Music and Everyday Musical Lives is based in Porter's fieldwork at St. Aldate's, a large Church of England congregation in Oxford. Porter describes St. Aldate's as participating in a “charismatic evangelical tradition” whose musical identity is firmly centered on popular worship music styles (1).3 St. Aldate's is distinctive as a church serving a dynamic population of students, scholars, visitors, and locals from across the greater Oxford region, but many of the tensions and complexities that surround its worship practices are similar to those in worshipping communities around the globe. The first two chapters of Contemporary Worship Music and Everyday Musical Lives introduce the theoretical frameworks for Porter's investigation, laying out the themes that will drive his analysis. The next four chapters discuss in detail the complex ways participants in St. Aldate's worship make meaning, particularly the way they choose to relate their musical lives outside of church to their musical lives in church.
The congregants and worship leaders interviewed by Porter were all well-versed in the tension over worship music explained by Kelman: music facilitates acts of worship, but the focus of worshippers' attention should not be on the music itself but directed instead to God (20–30). Porter's interviewees reveal some of the complexities around bringing this to bear in worship practice. For instance, St. Aldate's worship leaders describe the challenge of finding a single musical style that enables all worshippers to engage in prayerful practice, so they seek a musical middle-ground that they hope is accessible and universal enough to facilitate the broadest possible participation (24–25). They deploy a strategic discourse of musical “neutrality” in order to deflect attention away from the music itself and from worshippers' personal music preferences so that music becomes an empty medium that can then facilitate individual spiritual actions (33). On the surface, a discourse of musical neutrality would seem to enable the very principles of “freedom,” “flexibility,” and “accessibility” (24) that many churches like St. Aldate's desire. Porter points out a meaningful paradox, however, stating that “a discourse which deflects attention from musical style is precisely the discourse which serves strongly to maintain a particular stylistic norm” (35).
Porter argues persuasively that worship music practices need to be analyzed from a “musico/ethical” perspective and envisioned as crucial places where congregations can (and perhaps ought) to engage in ongoing negotiations over diversity in order to maintain healthy community (41–43). When churches don't engage in discussions about music—when music is protected from scrutiny by virtue of being deemed a neutral vehicle for personal worship—particular forms of church authority can go unquestioned (35). For instance, Stephen, a fan of jazz and hip hop, desires to engage with musical worship but is mostly unmoved by the contemporary worship music style chosen by St. Aldate's, so he blames himself for not knowing how he is supposed to find the music compelling (112). Ben, a fan of funk, soul, reggae, and disco, goes even further to describe his experience of contemporary worship music at St. Aldate's as destructive of organic community by virtue of being inflexible, “regimented” and even “robotic” (quoted on 113). Rather than engendering greater forms of community, says Porter, downplaying or negating music's significance for individuals and social groups actually works to opposite ends; avoiding tough conversations about the complexities of worship music may enable congregations to avoid conflict but it may also discourage necessary conversations around human difference and theological diversity.
If Kelman thinks in terms of musicians bringing correct music to pre-existing social groups, and Porter shows us how the messiness of that process in practice reveals that there is no correct music or static/independent social group to which it can be brought, Monique M. Ingalls provides a framework for understanding these dynamics by seeing culture and group identity as fluid and co-constitutive. Ingalls's clever book title Singing the Congregation neatly encapsulates her thesis that practices of music-making bring Christian social groups into being. She argues that Christian popular musics, including popular worship music, “spill over the bounds of church services, thoroughly pervading evangelical public ritual and the devotional practices of everyday life” (2). Contemporary worship music is multiple and overlapping as commercial product, social practice, and site of religious experience.
Singing the Congregation expands the concept of a “congregation” beyond a community that is primarily or exclusively attached to an organized church. Instead, Ingalls, who teaches in the Center for Christian Music Studies at Baylor University, argues that communities can be constituted in many places through the practices of communal singing. Rather than approaching a “congregation” as a fixed and stable entity, she turns attention to the musical activities and social processes or “modes of congregating” (4). She explains that engaging with “contemporary worship music immediately marks an activity as ‘worship’” for participants, whether or not it takes place in an organized service, and that some participants even feel these extra-church events are even more significant than church worship experiences (22). The book covers a diverse array of these modes of congregating via ethnographic investigations into worship music concerts (chapter one), national youth gatherings or “conferences” (chapter two), so-called “praise marches” in public urban spaces (chapter four), and the networked and virtual worship communities who connect via social media (chapter five).
Within this deeply researched and broad-ranging book, the introduction stands out as particularly valuable for providing an accessible but detailed entry point into understanding contemporary worship music as a complex phenomenon that “has become a touchstone of evangelical life” (2). Ingalls provides a concise history of pop-rock style worship music's emergence as a global repertory, with an overview of the various shifting terms and labels that have been used to define both the sound and function of this music (6–9). Similarly, she discusses the label and category of “evangelical,” emphasizing the changes in usage and understanding of this term even over the course of the period detailed in the book, particularly its connections to Christian nationalism in the U.S. (12–14). This critical summary makes it possible for Ingalls to explain that approaching the socio/musical world of popular worship music through the lens of a single, narrow doctrine, denomination, or institution will “fail to capture” the myriad ways that people affiliate, identify, and engage with this music and Christian belief (15).
Ingalls shares Porter's perspective that the stakes of musical conformity in worship practice are high. She argues that music “is a multivalent medium that is a crucial component of evangelical positioning strategies,” and people “draw heavily on it in their efforts to create, maintain, and efface various social boundaries” (207). Indeed, she says, “music is the terrain on which” social, political, economic, and theological conflicts play out. Throughout the book Ingalls acknowledges the power this music has to motivate and inspire people. But she is also careful to note the ways that ideas about worship music and worship practices privilege certain actors, groups, and systems of inequality and exclusion. For instance, Ingalls writes that while many prefer to think of worship music practices as “apolitical” (215), it is crucial to understand that “privileging one musical style and one theology (or ideology) of worship often serves to bolster the authority of certain modes of congregating” (209). While much of the scholarship on pop-rock style commercial worship music has focused on the culture around people using this music in close geographical and cultural proximity to the music's origin sites in North America, Australia, and the UK, Ingalls brings a crucial global awareness to discussions of this music's power. As a particular “mainstream” commercial music circulates around the globe, so, too, do the certain practices of worship and their concomitant understandings of how to live one's faith individually and communally (209–10). The dangers of assimilating to a very specific cultural, theological, and musical norm for worship are an exoticization and erasure of human difference and diversity.
In conclusion, the publication of three books on Christian worship music by top scholarly presses doesn't just fill a scholarly gap in the literature, it demonstrates that this previously neglected musical culture is now a part of our conversation. For that reason alone, these books should be on your radar, if not your reading pile. All three reveal tensions over how music is made meaningful—who is this music for and what should it do? Even as music studies has gotten more comfortable with engaging questions of cultural meaning and social practices, these three volumes show that things get even more complicated when the music must also function to mediate between the human and divine. Furthermore, in a world that seems to be increasingly polarized in its party politics and cultural politics, we need to be paying attention to each other. For those who find a home in the world of Christian popular music, these books may show you detail and complexity (even levels of ambivalence) you've not yet seen. For those new to these musical cultures, consider this a chance to learn about the lives of your students and neighbors, for whom music shapes some of the most potent experiences of their lives.