Contemporary worship music, as a distinct genre, has come into its own over the last 50 years. Monique M. Ingalls, assistant professor of music at Baylor University, studies this phenomenon as an ethnomusicologist, looking at the intersection of different social and musical trends. In Singing the Congregation: How Contemporary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community, Ingalls identifies five distinct types of “congregations” that worship together in song. Constance Cherry, professor of worship and pastoral ministry at Indiana Wesleyan University, spoke with Ingalls about how contemporary worship music has reshaped our understanding of worship itself.

Can you describe the different “singing congregations” you studied?

Contemporary worship music has a global profile, but it’s performed in a variety of local contexts, which means that it permeates many different spheres of evangelical life. In the book, I mention five distinct “modes of congregating”: local congregations, concerts, conferences, praise marches, and worship on screen. I try to emphasize how these forms of worship are interconnected and influence each other. Contemporary worship music bridges public and private devotional practices. It connects online and offline communities. And it brings a variety of personal, institutional, and commercial interests into the same domain.

For many believers, this music and the experience of participating in it have come to define what worship is. This is the music they sing during a Sunday church service. It’s what they belt out in a crowd of thousands at traveling worship concerts. It’s what’s on their lips as they progress down the street in a Christian praise march. And it’s what they sing in their hearts (or aloud) as they sit in front of their mobile phones or computers, watching a live-streamed worship event.

As a result, worship has become embedded within a range of other activities and has taken on a host of new associations. And contemporary worship music provides the experiential glue between these activities.

Among the five “congregations” you identify, the local church congregation is often seen as the most significant for worship and spiritual formation. How would you assess their relative importance?

Most Christians I talked to participate in local church congregations. But there are plenty of other spaces where people gather for worship and feel like part of a Christian community. That may be a Bible study, a college group, a particular conference, or a concert performed by a celebrity worship leader.

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I often find that academics and church leaders assume the local church has more authority than it has in the lives of everyday Christians. I’m not making a theological argument that the local church ought to be more or less important than other modes of congregating and shaping Christian faith. I’m simply observing that for many people I’ve spoken with, it seems like large-scale worship conferences, social media posts from prominent worship leaders, and the latest recordings of popular worship bands are more influential than ministers or local congregations. In fact, I’ve heard two different college students quote something they believed their minister or worship leader had said, when the quote actually had come from a Christian celebrity worship leader.

Worship music is so pervasive today that you can call it a “shared cultural product.” Has this ever been the case before?

Of course, there have been other moments when congregational singing has connected people across geographical and cultural boundaries. The printing press helped spread Reformation-era hymns across the countryside. The Genevan Psalter made certain psalm tunes popular in Europe and then around the world. And toward the end of the 19th century, a powerful commercial publishing industry helped spread the popular congregational music of the day.

What’s unique about this particular moment, I think, is the sheer scale of the phenomenon and the speed with which new songs make it to worshipers. Most contemporary worship music is produced in Anglophone centers—America, the UK, and Australia. But it has a truly global audience. If there are somewhere between 500 and 700 million evangelicals and Pentecostals in the world—and if even half of them are singing contemporary worship music, although I would guess the number is much higher—then you’re looking at nearly a third of a billion people for whom this music is the language of prayer and worship. And because of the social media and communications technologies we enjoy today, most of them gain access to it as soon as it’s produced.

You note that in some instances the phrase “worship experience” has replaced “worship service.” What are the advantages or disadvantages of this terminology?

Many evangelicals have been critical of the term “worship experience.” An experience, after all, is just a kind of commodity, updated for the 21st century. It is something packaged for consumption and sold. When I describe evangelical worship experiences, one of the books I reference is The Experience Economy. The authors describe a sea change in the marketing of goods: from emphasizing the product to emphasizing the experience the product helps to produce. So an experience, by definition, makes you feel something, and it also holds out the tantalizing possibility of transformation.

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Worship service, by contrast, can sound old, stuffy, and ritualistic—at least to certain evangelicals. One gets the impression of going through the motions, without experiencing any growth or transformation. I think the irony here, however, is that worship experiences can fall prey to the same tendencies. They can ritualize a certain set of feelings as preconditions of worship. In other words, as long as you experience this set of feelings, you’ve really worshiped. You don’t have to do the hard work of examining whether your life shows the fruits of the Spirit.

You argue that the mainstreaming of contemporary worship music in the West conditions how Christians in other parts of the world understand and practice worship. How does this trend affect indigenous worship music?

Believers around the globe are figuring out how to navigate the glut of music coming from evangelical and charismatic networks in North America, the UK, and Australia—and from major worship brands like Passion and Hillsong. We shouldn’t forget, though, that people can take these resources and transform them in different ways, sometimes with some pretty counterintuitive consequences.

An ethnomusicologist colleague of mine who works with aboriginal Australian Pentecostals tells a story about an older man who was really taken with a particular Chris Tomlin song. One night he had a dream in which he perceived that God was using this song to convince him that his church should incorporate more indigenous instruments into its worship repertoire. Not the outcome you might expect from someone encountering a Chris Tomlin song on YouTube.

You mention a growing disillusionment among young worship leaders with the commercialized, performance-driven, and even colonialist nature of mainstream worship music. What changes do you anticipate?

It’s difficult to make prognostications, but I think there is reason for optimism. In my closing chapter, I quote a young man from Nashville who made it clear he spoke for lots of people his age when he said, “I’m kind of disillusioned with contemporary worship music, but I hope I’m disillusioned for the right reason.” He didn’t want to slip into cynicism.

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I’ve been encouraged by organizations like the Hymn Society that have done admirable work supporting women and people of color in worship leadership and expanding the repertoire of songs available to the church. My hope lies in a kind of new eclecticism that results from deep engagement between different communities and cultures.

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Singing the Congregation: How Contemporary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community
Singing the Congregation: How Contemporary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community
Oxford University Press
272 pp., 42.77
Buy Singing the Congregation: How Contemporary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community from Amazon