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Monique Ingalls on Why Scholars Can Stop Worship Wars

So many worship conversations go awry because people and congregations don’t know how to talk about what they do or value in worship. Both Christian and non-Christian scholars can help.

Monique Ingalls is a researcher, network builder and musician teaching at Baylor University. Published in the fields of ethnomusicology, religious studies and media studies, she is series editor for Ashgate Press's new Congregational Music Studies book series and co-founder of the biennial Christian Congregational Music: Local and Global Perspectives conference. In this edited conversation, she talks about academic tools for understanding worship.

What are some of the best academic tools for understanding worship?

As an ethnomusicologist, I seek to understand music within its cultural context. Ethnomusicologists observe and participate within the musical cultures they study, and their work contributes to several fields of knowledge within the social sciences and humanities. Some of our best academic tools to understand worship stem from research methods and theoretical perspectives that are under-utilized or haven’t yet been applied. These often yield new insights and generate new questions about worship we haven’t thought to ask or haven’t had the capability to answer.

Scholars have long used methods from literary criticism, historical analysis and many branches of theology to examine worship texts—for example, the words of church liturgies and prayers, song lyrics and sermon themes. Studies that rely on these tools have produced many important insights; however, just like any tool, these methods have their limitations.

It’s comparatively new for scholars to use approaches from the social sciences or humanities, like media and cultural studies. These fields often refer to worship as “ritual,” “performance” or “devotional practice.” They offer ways to understand and study worship as a social practice, a collective activity through which people construct their lenses to interpret God’s work in the church and the world. Understanding worship as a social activity is an excellent way to apply Robert Webber’s key insight that worship is a verb.

What other interdisciplinary tools can deepen an understanding of worship?

We live in an exciting moment characterized by many attempts to start new cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary conversations. In 2002, Mary McGann, a Catholic liturgical scholar, wrote a short handbook that shows how integrating ethnomusicology, liturgical studies and theology can help us understand what takes place in worship. I use this gem, Exploring Music as Worship and Theology: Research in Liturgical Practice, in several of my graduate courses. Recently the Ethnography and Ecclesiology Research Network has promoted conversations between scholars using theological and qualitative social science methods. Their efforts resulted in a new journal, Ecclesial Practices, and an Eerdmans Publishing book series that features collaborations between theologians and social scientists.

I’ve attempted to build bridges through the Christian Congregational Music: Local and Global Perspectives conference and research network, which I and several UK colleagues co-founded in 2011. In this biennial event, we aim to promote international and interdisciplinary scholarship on Christian congregational music traditions around the world. We are partnering with Ashgate Press to produce the Congregational Music Studies book series. These monographs and edited volumes will expand the disciplinary perspectives, topic range and questions addressed by contemporary scholarship on congregational music making.

What interdisciplinary methods do you use most?

Ethnography is my primary approach for seeking to understand worship as a social practice. I interview people from within the worship “culture,” like congregation members, worship leaders, songwriters, publishers and record producers. I attend worship events as observer and participant, and I document these events for later close analysis, often via video or audio recording and scrawled notes. From there, depending on what the project calls for, I often do textual analysis. I might examine song videos, do content analysis of worship magazines and integrate insights from historical primary source documents. I often select from music analysis methods to understand the melody, harmony or rhythmic characteristics of any given song. Since my work focuses on contemporary worship music within US evangelicalism, I try to stay conversant with approaches and theories from the fields of popular music studies, performance studies and media studies. I find scholars in these fields often focus on parallel developments taking place within other musical scenes, so applying their perspectives can yield excellent insights.

Who are your conversation partners? 

I find it important to cultivate conversation partners both within and outside the church. I have multi-faceted relationships with many conversation partners within evangelical churches, because they are often also mentors, musical collaborators and friends. They’ve generously shared wisdom and insight that have enriched my academic work and shaped my perspective on worship. I’ve been encouraged spiritually over the years, too, by worship leaders and scholars of worship who understand pursuing academic questions as a part of their pastoral ministry. As these scholar-practitioners do, I aspire to enhance the church’s self-understanding. I try to hold up a mirror to practice. I highlight ideas and worship practices outside of mainstream discussion that church leaders and congregations can use.

It is equally important to me to cultivate friends and academic conversation partners who are non-Christians. Over the past ten years, there has been a groundswell of scholarship within ethnomusicology, performance studies, sociology and media & cultural studies. Many scholars now exploring various aspects of Christian worship have no particular religious affiliation. While my non-religious colleagues and I may disagree about how to interpret certain aspects of Christian worship and about its ultimate telos, their perspective has immense value. Its distance lets them see things that I, because of my proximity to the situation, may sometimes miss. They often ask questions that I wouldn’t think to ask, and they develop novel academic theories or methods that are beyond my knowledge and training.

What’s an example of a research insight that applies to a specific congregation?

I so often see the use of charged buzzwords to sidestep hard conversations. Worship buzzwords include “traditional,” “contemporary,” “performance,” “(in)authentic” and “ritual.” But the exact content of these terms shifts widely from place to place. You can’t ever assume you know what people mean without observing worship services and engaging leaders and congregation members alike in conversation. Most observers of worship know that “traditional” and “contemporary” can mean widely different things to different groups of people or congregations.

For example, I’ve worshiped at many Episcopal churches that use “contemporary music” to describe either 20th-century choral music or 1970s Catholic charismatic renewal songs. These terms caused much confusion for an Anglican Church of Canada colleague of mine who was tasked with starting an evening contemporary service. He tried (and failed) for several successive weeks to find the congregation’s expected style of “contemporary” music, turning from the current CCLI Top 25 to 1980s Maranatha! choruses to Gaither-style Southern gospel.

It turned out that what this particular congregation had desired all along was a Taize service. This to them was “contemporary” music, because it was fairly recent repertoire composed in the 20th century that encouraged congregational participation. Many teens and twenty-somethings never say “contemporary”—or, paradoxically, use it to describe pop-rock worship music styles that they consider dated. Whatever the church context, our dialogue about worship will deepen when we replace these charged, fuzzy terms with more concrete descriptions and honest evaluations of our worship practices.