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David Lemley on Becoming What We Sing

David Lemley’s book "Becoming What We Sing: Formation through Contemporary Worship Music" recognizes that contemporary worship music [CWM] helps Christians around the world feel close to God. Lemley looks at whether or how CWM moves worshipers from adoration to participation in the mission of God’s church.

David Lemley teaches religion at Seaver College of Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. He is also a contributing author and hymn editor for A Teaching Hymnal: Ecumenical and Evangelical. In this edited conversation, he talks about his book Becoming What We Sing: Formation through Contemporary Worship Music.

Who do you see as your book’s primary and secondary audiences? How do you hope they’ll use it? 

I see this book as most useful to scholars and seminarians because of its “dissertation-ness.” I hope it will contribute to how they think about liturgical spirituality being embodied in the ways we worship—especially in the songs we choose for congregational worship. Scholars Lester Ruth and Monique Ingalls have written wonderful resources on contemporary worship music (CWM). I hope Becoming What We Sing contributes pastoral implications of using CWM.

People in the pews who’ve read my book say it’s challenging for them. But I’ve had the opportunity to share the book’s concepts while meeting with classes in churches. We talk about worship, about what we sing, and how that forms us.

How do you explain some of your book’s concepts—worship and the three lexes—to Christians who aren’t scholars?

Worship is a response to God’s loving initiative, a rehearsal of God’s kingdom, a means of conscious participation in God’s life, and vital to participation in the mission of God’s church. Truly participating in God’s life is transformative because of how God works within and among us.

Regarding the lexes, using those terms helps me bridge from Roman Catholic scholarship to other Christian traditions, including my own Churches of Christ tradition, which is also Pepperdine University’s tradition. Many people are familiar with the idea of believe/belong/behave. Belief (lex credendi) on its own isn’t valuable. Jesus and the Prophets always challenge us to connect what we say we believe to how we express ourselves in worship (lex orandi) and how we live our lives (lex vivendi). 

How do the lexes apply to pop culture and CWM?

My book explores how pop music culture, including CWM, has its own laws. The law of song (pop credendi) indicates that one’s participation in a text shapes one’s view of oneself and the world. The law of performance (pop orandi) describes how listeners choose a musical style that fits with how they see the world and want to live, identify with others who share their tastes, and construct their fan identities according to how they approve or disapprove of celebrity performers. The law of lifestyle (pop vivendi) sets boundaries on who is considered “in” or “out” of the community. It also creates a consumer subculture of style, fashion, insider terms, social media, and economic consumption. 

How does CWM help worshipers rehearse God’s kingdom and carry out God’s mission for the church?

A lot of discussion in my book comes back to recognizing that the way we participate in popular music culture is generally about “having an experience that I value because of how it makes me feel.” CWM is very effective at getting straight to the act of offering thanks and praise directly to God. These pop songs are neatly crafted to bring the believer into an immediate, intimate encounter with the God they already know. Increasingly, the Christian experience that CWM describes is the act of worship itself. 

An affective sense of belonging is important. Singing together that God’s love is joyful and sufficient matters when my life may seem isolated and lonely. Yet I hope and believe that CWM can also move congregations to rehearse, announce, and live out their love of God in discipleship and mission. 

What clue might show whether a specific CWM song centers the Christian life in shared music experience instead of living out Christian faith within and beyond Christ’s body, the church?

Lyric density is a key qualifier of CWM’s ability to move adoring worshipers to kingdom action. Many popular CWM songs seem a weak vessel for the weight of lived worship. Overwhelmingly, CWM songs are about singing: what worship rehearses is CWM. Look at CCLI top songs lists: songs dominate and quickly fade, more like infatuation than long-lasting love. Few emphasize central Christian teachings, such as the Trinity, fellowship, unity, discipleship, and care for the poor. Nor do they describe the biblical call to live differently. Few CCLI top songs express pain, sorrow, or lament. 

Of course, CWM songs can be lyrically and theologically dense and go beyond voicing romantic feelings about God. Examples include Sandra McCracken’s “Trinity Song,” Matt and Beth Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name,” and Hillsong’s “Mighty to Save.”

Is there another clue?

In relying on pop’s cultural liturgy, CWM can silence unmarketable voices and gloss over the particular lived experience of each worshiper. So you can also look at how well a CWM song relates to a specific worshiping community. If a song about community is not original to your community or lacks concrete language, then it’s hard to identify how that sung experience of God relates to who you are as an individual or how authentic Christian community extends beyond the church walls.

How might a pastor or worship leader reorient worshipers to how God is calling their congregation into particular ways of making God’s kingdom visible?

As a matter of hospitality, they can widen their repertoire to include musical preferences beyond CWM. They can, like Mosaic in Los Angeles, write all their own songs. Of course, not all churches have that ability. But they can follow the example of Reality Church of Los Angeles and backlight the performers so worship doesn’t feel like a concert. Instead it emphasizes that they are accompanying everybody in shared worship.

CWM often depends on musicians and soloists. Most Churches of Christ congregations only sing acapella. So do Churches of Christ use CWM?

Actually, most have a strong connection to CWM. Probably only ten percent of songs in our services are older than the CWM movement. We’re kind of averse to soloists because our tradition values having everyone offer their voice, just as we all belong to the body of Christ. In my church, we often sing “Come Share the Lord” to remind us what we are doing together and to witness to people new to or outside the church. Sometimes we will turn to and sing to each other. This demonstrates that the kingdom of God operates on different values than the surrounding culture, which values what’s most beautiful, efficient, or special. 

We generally adapt CWM songs to our local and a cappella styles. We might simplify a song so it’s easier for children or for older people who don’t have the instrumental version playing along in the radios of their minds. Professors in our congregation who lead a CWM song are very careful to lead it as written on the page rather than as how it is recorded in a performance. The page is doing its best to represent an artist’s recording. The two are often quite different. For example, where a recorded or instrumental version of Matt Redman’s “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)” pauses for an instrumental interlude, we just clap out the beat. 

What else can you say about the Churches of Christ?

We are not a denomination and don’t have a creed or ordination system, but we do have a network of twenty colleges and universities. These schools hold lectureships and events that bring in a cappella CWM. As independent congregations, we share a deep commitment to the Bible and doing things the way New Testament Christians did, which is why—except for a very small percentage of Churches of Christ congregations—we generally don’t use instruments in worship. However, our university congregation sings in parts and projects notes on a screen. Given the decline of hymnals, church singing schools, and K–12 music education, fewer people can read music. They learn by ear, so churches often make recordings of their versions of CWM songs so members can learn. 

Also, many congregations and campus groups use instruments for a prelude before Sunday morning worship, during college orientations, and in youth gatherings. 


Read Becoming What We Sing: Formation through Contemporary Worship Music, which is part of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies series. David Lemley recommends these books to lay the foundation for thinking about why we worship or sing as we do: Missional Worship, Worshipful Mission: Gathering as God’s People, Going Out in God’s Name, by Ruth A. Meyers; Worship with Gladness: Understanding Worship from the Heart, by Joyce Zimmerman; and The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services, by Constance Cherry.