Studying Worship #2: The art of congregational analysis

OK, I’m back, but with Summer assignments handed in. Now, where was I??? You can read my first post here…. Increasingly, Christian contemporary music is becoming a buzz topic in leading universities globally. This is partly due to interest in emotion (turn to affect) in Sociology, and ritual in Anthropology. Christian worship provides lots of data for both – a third of the planet identify as Christian, so we could produce studies for a long time to come!!

But, it’s a relatively new thing for blogs to throw around Stanford studies on worship. I don’t think Christians know how to read scholarly studies on this topic, which means it’s easy to be manipulated into agreeing with the latest big theory. So, here are some thoughts on studying Christian worship, after having submitted my own M.Phil thesis in 2010, and enrolling in a PhD in a similar field. I’ve made lots of mistakes. So whether you’re reading a blog about Christian music, or you’re researching, here are four things to look out for in academic studies of worship.

1. Questions of Faith should be on the table. Firstly, the relationship of a scholar to the faith they examine should be noted. Straight up I’ll say here that scholarly investigation is different to preaching, the main way of conveying Christian content. Preaching, in my view, requires Christian belief, or it’s problematic. Preaching is deficient if the preacher doesn’t believe in Christianity. But, academics is different. If scholars couldn’t describe the practices of religions they didn’t subscribe to, then the richest studies would not have been produced. We wouldn’t have an ethnography of the Nuer  by Victor Turner, or account of the warfare rituals of the Tsembaga Maring by Roy Rappaport – both of which are still quoted because they explain reality better than anything else can yet. If we weren’t able to study faiths we didn’t believe in, most anthropological and sociological works in libraries would need to be burned – but I don’t think this is necessary. It’s possible to research a faith you don’t subscribe to, and outsider eyes should be welcomed. Scholars need freedom to examine and put forward theories in ritual studies. But, I think it’s important that the person should make their beliefs (should they hold any) explicit.

This blog: So, in the blogpost that inspired my post #1, it’s important to recognize that Kelman is a self-professing Jewish writer.

2. Descriptive? Evaluative? Prescriptive? as well as studies about Christianity from outsiders (ritual studies), a smaller group of Christian scholars write on worship (liturgical studies; the study of Christian liturgy or worship, by Christians). For this group, John Witvliet outlines three possible approaches. The first is a naïve, “value-free approach”, where a scholar believes their personal values irrelevant to the work they are doing. The second is “value-aware”, where a researcher acknowledges their own frame, knowing it will impact the research.  Thus, when they visit a denomination or a church they’ve never worshiped in, they are carefully responsive, knowing no-one is entirely free of bias. The third is a “value-committed” approach, where a person commits to their own approach, and from this critiques other worship styles. Witvliet thinks this is best for liturgical studies which he suggests is,

“not only to describe existing ritual practice but also to envision a liturgical ideal, to diagnose ritual pathology, to discern exemplary ritual improvements and to prescribe appropriate ritual adaptation” (in Bradshaw and Melloh. 2007, p24).

I like Witvliet’s work in general. But here, he’s saying that Christian scholars should be given freedom to critique Christian worship whenever they want, on their own terms – because they are committed to their own position. This, in my opinion, is flawed.

Within denominations using prayerbooks, a group of expert liturgists are given the role of discerning appropriate songs and prayers for use in local churches. Some movements are strict about their liturgy, some lenient. However, in the last 100 years, contemporary churches got around the hierarchy by using the market to distribute songs and prayers for use in church. Worship pastors in these denominations (or “non-denominations”) download mp3s, google prayers and use online sites in addition to, if they want it, the prayerbook. In such churches, I’ve found resistance against “worship experts” making wide-scale recommendations. This is a reaction against the idea that people sitting around any table in a seminary or head office can understand the local needs of the church better than that church itself.

I hope you can see tensions here… The first research view Witvliet presents is naïve, but the third position seems to me like calling “open season” for liturgical theologians (generally older, white males) to pronounce prescriptive judgements upon worship practices in traditions they don’t adhere to – from their own commitments. As the places that train and employ “liturgists” are mainly traditional denominations, this is like calling open season on contemporary worship, and immigrant congregations. Personally, I like liturgical studies research to fall in the middle group of “value-aware“. I get bored of preface declaratory commitments to Neo-Reformed doctrine before a white hipster student launches into a rant against a contemporary Asian church for using television screens or singing less psalms than Calvin. I think there’s need for Christians to communicate deep respect to each other, despite our differing values. Somehow a little sting in the tail of liturgical research has become the best bit for new scholars, and an end flourish makes it worth reading (a.k.a Gerardo Marti’s “… everyone in L.A. desires an African American worship leader which is ridiculous and I conclude, race has little to do with worship”).

Can I here add a disclaimer that contemporary worship is far from perfect?! Theologically, stylistically, pastorally, culturally … Believe me. I’ve got my sleeves rolled up and I’m at work as a practitioner, and trying to make sense of it all. But I disagree that evaluative judgements help churches as the recipients of liturgical studies criticism. We have to see the church as more than just competing franchises, some of which deliver inferior burgers. There is diversity in the body, a part of the biblical picture presented in 1 Cor 12. If a Christian scholar is genuinely concerned about the spiritual health of a congregation they’ve studied, that’s great! And kind advice delivered inter-personally could be awesome … but I don’t think pastors respond to blogs (or academic writing) do they?

This blog: I’m not sure if it’s a journalism spin on the piece, but it sounds like a prescriptive project with end pronouncement: “Christian music needs to get back to its roots and stop selling the heck out of itself”. I think I’d be asking another question; “What can we learn from all these songwriters, and their experience in writing and leading worship?”

That brings me to my next point, project methodology.

3. Methodological Issues… an enormous part of any scholarly research is method. Journalists write their articles on a hunch, or an informant’s casual comment. But scholars are different. Not only are they supposed to show how they got to a conclusion, following their directions should, if conducted in the same way at another time, get the same results. Of course, this idea is semi-ridiculous for The Humanities. Nevertheless, methodological information is an important area I would examine in any academic research.

This blog: all the information available on method is that Kelman used interviews. It seems like he sought out key players in the contemporary music industry, and he says,

“The very musicians, songwriters and music producers who create the music are increasingly sensitive to the “precarious relationship between rock music and worship,”

I’ve found more integrity examining the way local Christian communities apply worship songs in their context than wide-scale reviews of people that write songs for these communities. I’m not sure you can get a true representative sample of “the songwriters of North America”; there are so many factors that go into a ‘hit’ song – almost all are anomalies. But I can guarantee that, despite the popularity of Nigerian worship here and in the heartlands of the faith, there are no Nigerians interviewed. Probably there aren’t many Spanish-speaking or Latino writers either. I wonder if there are African American writers in his study. And yet these songs are also on the songlists of Christian communities. Interviewing CCLI songwriters is *kind* of helpful – they have power, given by the moguls that pull the strings of the industry. And some of them even become moguls pulling the strings of the industry. I can explain more if anyone actually wants to know… yawn. But anyways…. I think this research method is cute… well, and awkward. Because Christian musicians *have* to acknowledge a precarious position between the commercial and sacred natures of what they do. The tensions of a religious market economy is well documented in the academic literature, which brings me to….

4. Power Issues: useful to this discussion is infamous Michel Foucault, who helps us see people as tricky. We have two impulses, the first is self disclosure (exomologesis) and the second is the renunciation of the self (exagoresis). If self-disclosure is the act of expressing oneself through a particularly vulnerable social media post, then self-renunciation is the act of decrying any power to make truthful statements in a meaningful way through social media. Both impulses are useful to songwriters.

The first person to decry the Christian Contemporary Music industry was its icon, Keith Green. He was receiving a large income in royalties at the point he decided to give away his music for free. Still admirable. But this set a precedent where Christian artists both sell and resent selling music. Not only that, but the public expect this now from songwriters. Whether or not it’s genuine. My friends who are very successful writers are masters at this tension. But I personally found it difficult last year when I wrote a post on my frustration with a (relatively good!) music review of my latest album ‘Grace’, and the response got over 750 hits in 24 hours. I’ve tried to write the most authentic songs I can to help the church. For me, this is less about getting ambient guitar sounds right and more about writing from an authentic place of listening. I used my months as a researcher working in disability studies as a springboard towards my album. But people got furious at me for mentioning it would helpful to me if they bought the album… so I could make more music! Anyways, I feel like I learned my lesson, and next time, I’ll stay silent and work on winning them with my ambient guitar sounds! Some people said I should give away my music for free, and trust God to provide money for me to live. Interesting. We all do that, don’t we? Each day, we turn up and work for free, believing God will provide our money for rent through our boss…. But I’m not going to impose that view upon you. I learned that, to be perceived as authentic, never, ever, talk about the financial challenges of being an artist/academic. You have to decry the industry and all income that comes with it. And only ever make vulnerable assertions about things that are culturally acceptable; family members, primarily.

Back to the topic…. Catherine Bell notes that for Foucault,

“…. power is contingent, local, imprecise, relational and organizational … In other words, [he] broke with the long-standing Western tradition that sees power as substantive, centralized, sovereign or hypostatised (e.g. in the person of a monarch). Instead, power is distributed all over the social body; it is a matter of techniques and discursive practices that comprise the micropolitics of everyday life'” (Bell, 1992, 126)

Basically, this means we can admit politics doesn’t only happen in the Whitehouse, but in our everyday. And we can even use this term “politics” in reference to all choices people make… it can even be discovered in contemporary worship, as admit that there are people invested in saying certain things, and having certain things said. This is also admitting complexity, and it doesn’t mean we have to run around yelling that these people are ‘sinful’ or ‘wrong’. Some people make music that makes a lot of money. Some people make music that helps local and global communities worship Jesus. And some people make music that helps local and global communities worship Jesus and this makes them a lot of money. All quite irrelevant to worship, which is an act of the people of God.

This blog: seems to question whether Christians selling music can become worship. Well…. I think we have to investigate the underlying premises – is *worship* only when the author doesn’t benefit? Or if the author doesn’t get rich? Or only if the author gets rich secretly, and then loudly gives away all the rest of their recordings for free, like Keith Green? Or, does worship have anything to do with the author at all??!??!

5) The Embodied Nature of Worship: Finally, there is a question of the role of music plays in Christian worship. A *lot* of blogposts circulate on the theology of Christian music. Now, I believe the words of songs are important. And, there are a lot of blogposts circulating about the sound of the music. But few blogposts circulate about the function of the music. This is kind of the most important bit. It’s not enough for us to only sing about God correctly (orthodoxy) or to have the right kind of styles, we need our hearts to be broken by what breaks God’s (orthopathy) and to do something about it (orthopraxy). These aspects of worship are underrated, undervalued and undernoticed.

I read a blog that said “when do we sing about ‘togetherness?'” I like the guy who wrote it. But why do we need to always sing about worship when we are doing worship together. Isn’t that enough? Western rational thinking wants to hear it said… or I could just stand next to you, random stranger in my pew, and hear your notes rise and fall with mine, and as I do this, I am linked to you in a way that I would not be linked otherwise. Bell says this… “ritual is thus perceived as bodily inscription, as embodied practice, rehearsal, routine” (Bell, 2007, 112). Our bodies remember the experience of singing together. We may tense up with some music, and release in others. We remember emotions of ecstasy and we enjoy re-singing these songs. It’s not just our mind worshiping, and it’s sad when we suggest lyrics are the main part of the ritual of worship. Our emotions, our body are all used. We can’t get out of our bodies, so why act like they hinder our connection with God? Surely there is a way of being inside them in a worshipful way? Not only that, but Bell suggests,  “ritual’s role is to teach the body how to develop spiritual virtues by material means” (Bell, 2007, 112). So, there is a function of worship that is to develop embodied spiritual virtues. Perhaps it is listening. Or loving. Or perhaps (hopefully) it is feeding the poor and hugging the homeless.

This blog: In only studying the songwriters who make music in Nashville, we are celebrifying people who are not nearly as cool as YOU, the ordinary worshiper who is growing and learning and loving and growing into a better Christian. And that, my friends, is the goal of worship – for each of us in our communities to lift Jesus high, and to be transformed to be more like Him.


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