Yale University, Melanie Ross

New Haven, Connecticut

To research the worship music industry, Christian higher education, and congregational ministry, in order to explore the intersection of liturgy and economics, to provide a history of how worship became part of the commercial music and entertainment industry, and to understand the ways that congregations and Christian colleges that train future worship leaders have responded to this shift.

Feel free to adjust this summary from your application for this particular audience, which includes Project Directors of grants to Worshiping Communities and other Teacher-Scholars. 

The evangelical understanding of “worship music” shifted in the twenty-first century.  My ethnographically-based project, tentatively titled “Worship, Inc.”, is situated at the intersection of liturgy and economics and has a twofold aim: 1) to provide a history of how “worship” – once a church-based, theological concept – evolved to become a multi-billion-dollar segment of the commercial music and entertainment industry, and 2) to understand the variety of ways that congregations and the Christian colleges that train future worship leaders have responded to this shift.  What has been gained and what has been lost in the past 20 years of change? 

What questions about worship and your discipline will be guiding your project?

Historically, liturgical scholars have suggested that shifts in congregational understandings in worship happen internally and gradually – almost imperceptibly – over long periods of time.  This project pushes further by asking how powerful influences such as Christian radio, YouTube, and the worship concert industry also drive congregational life.  How do external forces, including the economic interests of the music business industry, shape local theological decisions about worship? 

How do you envision this project will strengthen the worship life of congregations?

As long as “worship” is something that can be sold and licensed, it will change and adapt to industry ideals and consumer demands.  I hope that my research will help strengthen the public worship life by giving leaders tools to think wisely about the long-term ramifications of the musical choices they make on behalf of their congregations. 

What do you expect might be your greatest challenges (or challenging opportunities)?

I anticipate at least two big challenges with this project.  The first is balancing depth with breadth.  The worship music industry has so many moving parts, and I will need to make difficult decisions about whether to touch lightly on many of them, or to single out a few for in-depth treatment.  The second challenge is with genre.  I want this book to be helpful to lay leaders and congregations, but also something that contributes to furthering academic conversations in the field of liturgical studies.  That’s a tough balance to strike! 

What do you hope to learn from the Grants Event and other grant recipients?

I think that we are in a fascinating historical moment, as the pandemic has forced all churches to evaluate and adapt their priorities in worship.  I look forward to learning from my colleagues about ways the ecclesial landscape has shifted in recent years, and to hearing best-practice strategies and advice from those who have completed their grant work.