The power of congregational song to unify (or divide) people along various lines is well documented. Yet, how this process of uniting or dividing is accomplished has proven necessarily difficult to document. This paper examines the complex and polyvalent factors that contribute to the meaningfulness of congregational music making, seeking to offer a synthetic, conceptual framework with which to engage this often murky milieu.
While I was in seminary, one of my professors remarked that he no longer participated in “worship music” because he experienced the same sensations and feelings at a Radiohead concert as he did while singing on Sunday morning. His comments gave me pause; why do we sing in church? What does music contribute to our experiences of worship, and how can we account for the similarity of sensations between congregational song and concert performance?
In the years since the turn of the twenty-first century, a new form of music ministry has developed. Often characterized by rock and pop musics and especially by concert style production utilizing recent technological innovations, the new form has quickly grown to become one of the most popular and rapidly expanding models of evangelical protestant worship in the United States. Often historically associated with mega-churches such as Willow Creek and Gateway Church, and with charismatic and Pentecostal worship traditions, this sort of music ministry has been adopted by evangelical churches of all sizes and geographic regions, and has even had some influence in mainline congregations.
The importance of worship music in conversations about congregational health and growth is contested. The perception persists that worship music style is a primary means of determining comfort or belonging for “church shoppers” at a given congregation. Yet actual research shows that it has a more modest role than is assumed. Nevertheless, conversations regarding worship music abound, and with each passing publication we become more and more obsessed with finding and exploiting the correlates between worship music styles and ecclesial success.