New Dimensions in Singing and Shouting
Monique M. Ingalls’s Singing the Congregation and Ari Y. Kelman’s Shout to the Lord
Josh Langhoff

Quick: Which kind of shovel is best? That’s meant to be a ridiculous question. Everyday gardeners will give a different answer than landscapers, who’ll disagree with fence installers, who’ll answer differently than snow removers or stable boys. The best tool is whatever someone needs to accomplish their task. But change the question from the noble task of shoveling to that of worshiping—“What’s the best kind of worship music?”—and the answers turn more absolute. “While every generation thinks its contribution is undoubtedly worthy, some contributions are better than others,” said the eminent Lutheran composer Carl Schalk in a 2009 interview. He continued, “My guess is that many of the hymns touted today as the answer to what the church’s song ought to be will quickly fall out of use. Look at what has happened to ‘popular’ hymns from the 1960s such as ‘They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love’...” (Gebauer, 9). As it happens, I still lead that hymn in worship a couple times a year, to enthusiastic singing from all ages—but I also confess that wading through the leading database of 100,000 contemporary worship songs can feel like entering the Augean stables.


Worshiping isn’t shoveling. Rephrase the answer to my initial question (“It depends what you’re shoveling”), apply it to worship music (“It depends who you’re worshiping”), and people’s fraught responses make more sense. What if people who sing plainchant, hymn concertati, spirituals, or Chris Tomlin’s praise choruses are actually worshiping different gods? Less starkly, what if some kinds of worship reveal deep-seated misconceptions about who God is and how God acts? The question of “which worship music is best” starts feeling far less ridiculous.

Arguments about worship music often substitute for arguments about other, deeper things. This is just one insight from two recent books exploring how worship music works in the lives of evangelical congregations and musicians. “Differences in musical style, performance practice, and musical leadership that play out on the musical stage during worship reveal disagreements within the community that often map onto divergent political leanings,” writes Monique M. Ingalls in Singing the Congregation: How Contemporary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community (216). Ingalls, an ethnomusicologist at Baylor University, proposes that contemporary worship music has created five models of evangelical “congregation,” each with its own complex internal logic and conflicts. Besides the familiar church-based worship community, she analyzes worship concerts, praise conferences like Atlanta’s annual Passion Conference, public parades and marches, and online videos. In Shout to the Lord: Making Worship Music in Evangelical America, Ari Y. Kelman, a professor of education and Jewish studies at Stanford, takes a different tack, interviewing musicians about their behind-the-scenes work. He finds similar conflicts. “Music is often the register for larger debates about what counts and what does not count as worship,” he writes—and these debates shape not just the songs people sing, but the theologies they live (6).

With its amplified rock bands and multi-part pop song structures, contemporary worship music is a long way from the simple Catholic folk of “They’ll Know We Are Christians.” Its appeal, though, rests on some of the same assumptions. Both Ingalls and Kelman situate praise songs in what sociomusicologist Simon Frith calls the “folk discourse”—the idea that “there is no separation of art and life” (Frith, 39). For praise musicians, projecting an air of unmediated authenticity is vital. Kelman quotes a magazine article by the worship leader Paul Baloche, who claims he’s “just singing [his] prayers,” but whose Holy Week classic “Above All” is as tightly crafted as any product of the Brill Building or Nashville’s Music Row. The article’s aw-shucks title? “Stop Trying to Write Songs.”


Following Frith, both writers convey healthy skepticism about the folk discourse and its appeals to authenticity. Witnessing a collection of global worship artists singing Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God,” Ingalls gently mocks their performance. Whether they hail from India, Russia, or Brazil, “[n]ot only are the vocal styles of all the lead singers remarkably similar to one another, so also is the range of performative gestures, including the signature ‘worship leader grimace,’ a facial expression intended to evoke intense sincerity…” (212). Kelman details how songwriters, including Baloche, deliberately develop their craft. He suggests they cling to a facade of artlessness partly to help worshipers suspend disbelief, and partly as an escape hatch. “The folk discourse guards against suspicion that a song might be too slick to serve as worship,” he writes, “or that a songwriter might be motivated by something other than their own faith…” (60). Having heard those criticisms before, worship artists try to head them off through fervent prayer and, yes, grimacing.

No matter how sincere the grimace, everyone learns to grimace from someone else. (Singing includes a lovely anecdote about watching a teenage boy tentatively mimic the worship gestures of some older boys at a concert.) Kelman’s larger point—that cultural conventions produce any art form, no matter how desperately the art aspires to unmediated expression—partly explains the heated rhetoric and sore feelings surrounding the “worship wars” of the late ’90s, when Protestant congregations fought, and sometimes split, over worship practices. As Daniel Silliman revealed in the Lent 2019 Cresset, such wars existed even in the eighteenth century, when young Puritans gravitated to newly composed hymns over psalms because “[t]he hymns spoke to and from the heart, the psalms for a tradition passed.” Criticisms of favorite hymns can feel like attacks on everything that went into making and singing them, from intelligence and musical literacy to the singers’ egos and their beliefs about God. If a piece of worship music is inferior, says our anxious subconscious, maybe the culture behind it is to blame.

The biggest impression you get from Kelman’s book is that evangelical worship leaders are riddled with anxiety. Though the modern worship wars have mostly subsided, they loom in the background of Shout, which often reads as a defensive apology for contemporary worship leaders—look how hard they’re working, how much they care, how thoroughly they’ve considered their responsibilities! Over and over, Kelman depicts worship leaders struggling to maintain a difficult balance. They have to be good at their work… but not too good. “The better the songs are,” he writes, “the more likely they will fall short of worship because they might become too pleasurable to sing and stop people from worshipping directly to God” (4). Songwriters “approach songwriting with no small measure of reverence, understanding that their songs must not be so affecting that they fail as worship”—that congregations will start admiring the song rather than worshiping God (64). Worship bands are in a similar bind. If they play poorly, the songs will be hard to sing. On the other hand, “worship always aspires to expressions that are larger than the music itself,” writes Kelman, and so, “worship leaders understand… that, in a sense, they should fail at making music in order to make space for worship” (93).

If that’s what worship leaders understand, it’s nonsense. No hymn has ever “fall[en] short of worship” because it was “too pleasurable to sing.” From “Above All” to “Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart,” perfect hymns are hymns people love to sing. We could hardly expect them to drill their theology into people’s minds if they gave less pleasure. If a hymn’s language obscures God, it’s a bad hymn, not one that’s somehow “so affecting” it fails as worship. Like any musical genre—like any type of shovel, for that matter—contemporary worship music has unique standards of goodness and badness. Good worship bands develop grooves that propel the congregation’s voices, highlight key phrases with instrumental fills, and use strategic harmonic lines to make melodies resonate. Such bands “make space for worship,” but in no sense do they “fail at making music.” Kelman or his interviewees are striving to find a paradox where none exists.

Ingalls finds actual paradoxes where worship intersects with commerce. Studying how worship singers strain to deflect audiences’ adulation onto God, she delves into the recent phenomenon of hymns about “making Jesus famous” and making God an “audience of One” for the people’s praises. “God becomes the celebrity, the Divine Performer,” she writes, but “God is also (and sometimes simultaneously) conceived of as the Divine Audience, who sits back on the heavenly throne and listens.” Whether this is a case of confused theology, or whether God simply transcends our hapless attempts at metaphor, remains an open question. Ingalls generously suggests these metaphors represent new, self-referential ways of seeing God, using “the stardom of popular music performance as a lens through which to understand the Christian virtue of humility” (63). They’re spiritual descendants of Fred Pratt Green’s hymn “When In Our Music God Is Glorified.”

Neither book devotes much space to precise musical descriptions of what worship musicians do. Shout includes two such passages: a delightful vignette of a student bandleader giving his bandmates playing tips, and, in the endnotes, a sharp three-paragraph analysis of Tomlin’s hymn “Holy Is the Lord.” I longed for more bits like these, but Kelman has other analytical fish to fry. He charts the rise of the British band Delirious?, offering a captivating chronology of how worship music came to dominate America’s Christian music industry in the ’90s. (He misstates the meter of the band’s biggest hit, though: “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” is in 4/4, not “rhythmic 6/8 time.”) He also links worship practice to concepts from several different fields, making good use of Antonio Gramsci’s “organic intellectual” and Jerome Bruner’s “instructional scaffolding.” Shout lays out the history and philosophical tensions of worship music; but if you want to know why worship musicians make specific sounds—why guitarists use so much reverb, or why everyone plays so many add9 chords—you may need to consult Worship Leader magazine.

Singing doesn’t answer those musical questions, either, but Ingalls’s case studies have other strengths. She’s refreshingly willing to call out worship leaders for poor theology. In one cringe-inducing vignette from the Passion Conference, Pastor Louie Giglio encourages the assembly to “seek to bring freedom” to victims of human trafficking. To do so, he has everyone don cardboard masks bearing photographs of mostly nonwhite faces while singing Tomlin’s song “God of Angel Armies.” As an attempt to identify with the marginalized Other, Ingalls writes, this performance “construes the Other entirely in terms of victimhood as the traditional object of charity in need of a (white) Savior” (96). (Many of the faces wind up in the garbage.) She contrasts this with a healthier solidarity exercise at St. Louis’s Urbana Conference. There, participants take to the arena floor to construct medical kits for Swaziland’s HIV patients while learning a call-and-response Swazi song. In the next chapter, Ingalls focuses on St. Bartholemew’s in Nashville, an “evangelical Episcopal” congregation that blends Episcopal hymnody with contemporary praise and worship songs. St. B’s music minister gives examples of songs he deems “inappropriate for corporate worship… despite how popular they had become in other evangelical churches” (125). (Alas, she doesn’t share those examples.) These critiques offer some welcome nuance. As anyone who’s led worship knows, not every song is good, not every liturgy works, and a crucial part of the job is identifying why.

Reading over the preceding paragraphs, I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m down on contemporary worship music. In fact, I love singing and leading much of it. In its thirty to fifty years of existence, depending where you start counting, this industry has produced several dozen timeless hymns, an entirely respectable batting average. (If you can name several dozen Lutheran chorales you love to sing, I’m impressed and a little concerned.) Worship music has the weird position of being loved by untold millions of adherents and disdained or dismissed by pretty much everyone else. As a pariah, it still needs justifications like Kelman’s, but that doesn’t mean we should let worship music off the hook. It’s an industry, after all, leading merchants to the doors of the temple, so it deserves our skeptical interrogation. As both books make clear, though, dismissing this music outright is a mistake. A gift of the same God glorified by Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine Winkworth, contemporary worship music is not just an increasingly useful tool. It can open up a new dimension in the world of sound, moving us to a more profound “Alleluia!”


Josh Langhoff is a church musician living in the Chicago area. He is also the founder of NorteñoBlog, a mostly English-language website devoted to Mexican music.


Works Cited

Frith, Simon. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Gebauer, Victor. “An Interview With Carl Schalk.” CrossAccent: Journal of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians 17.3 (2009), 4-12.

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