The shrinking lifespan of popular worship music

Earlier in the week, I read about the likelihood that Adele’s new album will fade more quickly from the public consciousness because music today does not last as long. This may also be the case for popular worship songs sung in churches:

Photo by Luis Quintero on

Worship songs don’t last as long as they used to. The average lifespan of a widely sung worship song is about a third of what it was 30 years ago, according to a study that will be published in the magazine Worship Leader in January.

For the study, Mike Tapper, a religion professor at Southern Wesleyan University, brought together two data analysts and two worship ministers to look at decades of records from Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI). The licensing organization provides copyright coverage for about 160,000 churches in North America and receives rotating reports on the worship music that is sung in those churches, tracking about 10,000 congregations at a time.

Looking at the top songs at those churches from 1988 to 2020, the researchers were able to identify a common life cycle for popular worship music, Tapper told CT. A song typically appears on the charts, rises, peaks, and then fades away as worship teams drop it from their Sunday morning set lists.

But the average arc of a worship song’s popularity has dramatically shortened, from 10 to 12 years to a mere 3 or 4. The researchers don’t know why.

Along with the possible reasons listed in the article for this change (social media, pressure to incorporate new music faster. remote church), this might also go along with an increased speed of social change more broadly. There are more cultural works accessible to more people at a quicker speed. Any cultural work may struggle today to stand out and endure in such a flood of possibilities. I could imagine it would be fruitful to bring a sociological of culture lens to the same data and research question to get at what factors have led to these changes.

Additionally, this hints at the cultural speed at which congregations feel they may have to operate. Is religious faith and practice timeless or must it keep up with the times? American evangelicals are distinctive in part because of their interest in engaging with culture while attempting to retain what they see as traditional and important beliefs. How does the speed of new music affect this tension?

Can an old church be converted into a boring McMansion?

Curbed presents an example of an old church building with a so-called boring McMansion interior:

In a harrowing example of conversions gone wrong—or if not wrong at least boring—this stunning landmark church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio seems to have fallen victim to one very unholy makeover. Currently on the market for $439K, the three-bedroom, 2,635-square-foot home looks the same as always from the outside, but offers the dullest, boxiest new interiors imaginable—with a veritable sea of beige walls and oatmeal colored carpeting. Even the massive windows—the crowning glory of most church-to-home conversions—seem to be sporting some sort of weird framing over the lovely original glass. Sure, some of the blame can probably be shifted to the staging, but there’s just no getting around the general awkwardness of the layout.

Here is the problem with claiming that this is a McMansion: typically, the term McMansion is applied to exteriors. In that sense, this home has done everything right. They took an old church, presumably one that was no longer being used as a home for a religious congregation, kept the historic exterior, and only renovated the interior. The home is not ridiculously large; the listing says it is just over 2,600 square feet and the size is masked a bit by the building’s exterior. The church is in an older neighborhood so this renovation avoided either a teardown situation or building another McMansion on the exurban fringe. The home can’t immediately impress the average passer-by, supposedly a key feature for status-hungry McMansion owners, as they would probably think it is a church rather than a home.

Is an interior enough to make this renovated church a McMansion? I think one could complain about the interior design, particularly if it misses an opportunity to take advantage of a unique building, without placing it the category of McMansion which carries with it all sorts of other connotations.

Painting the church of Walmart

Lots of “normal” activities take place at Walmart so why not spiritual matters as well? Artist Brenden O’Connell has taken up the subject:

For the past decade, O’Connell has been snapping photographs inside dozens of Wal-Marts. The images have served as inspiration for an ongoing series of paintings of everyday life — much of which involves shopping, which O’Connell calls “that great contemporary pastime.”

“Wal-Mart was an obvious place” to look for inspiration, he tells The Salt. “It’s sort of the house that holds all American brands.”…

Wal-Mart stores, he notes, are “probably one of the most trafficked interior spaces in the world.” In the tall, open, cathedral-like ceilings of Wal-Mart’s big-box stores, he sees parallels to church interiors of old.

“There is something in us that aspires to some kind of transcendence,” he told me back in February. “And as we’ve culturally turned from religious things, we’ve turned our transcendence to acquisition and satisfying desires.”

In conversation, O’Connell comes across as thoughtful and urbane. He’s well aware that, as a company, Wal-Mart can be polarizing. But “regardless of your feelings about it,” he told me back then, “it just is. It’s like an irrevocable reality that’s part of our experience.”

On the occasions that we go to church and then Walmart afterward, I have joked that we are visiting America’s two kinds of churches. This may not be too far from reality considering the number of shoppers at Walmart, its yearly sales, and the power of its brand. But, it is really that surprising that a retail store could be the contemporary version of a spiritual space when our country is so devoted to consumption and shopping?

Is an emotional experience in church really like a drug?

Several sociologists of religion make an interesting claim about worship experiences: they are like drugs.

Wellman and co-authors Katie E. Corcoran and Kate Stockly-Meyerdirk analyzed 470 interviews and about 16,000 surveys on megachurch members’ emotional experiences with their churches. Four themes emerged: salvation/spirituality, acceptance/belonging, admiration for and guidance from the leader, and morality and purpose through service.

Many participants used the word “contagious” to describe the feeling of a megachurch service where members arrive hungry for emotional experiences and leave energized, the study says.

One church member said, “(T)he Holy Spirit goes through the crowd like a football team doing the wave. …Never seen it in any other church.”

Wellman said, “That’s what you see when you go into megachurches — you see smiling people; people who are dancing in the aisles, and, in one San Diego megachurch, an interracial mix I’ve never seen anywhere in my time doing research on American churches. “We see this experience of unalloyed joy over and over again in megachurches. That’s why we say it’s like a drug.”

I haven’t seen this full study but I wonder about this comparison. here is what it could mean:

1. It is just a metaphor. Drugs can give people euphoric experiences and religious experiences can also generate euphoria.

1a. Some sociologists might argue that this kind of euphoria is generated more by a collective effervescence (Durkheim) or collective emotional energy (Collins) than religion itself. Put enough people together, give them a common focus, and you might be able to generate similar feelings in a sports stadium, at a rock concert, in a mob, etc.

Indeed, the researchers seem to be building on this. From another report on this study:

Megachurch services feature a come-as-you-are atmosphere, rock music, and what Wellman calls a “multisensory mélange” of visuals and other elements to stimulate the senses, as well as small-group participation and a shared focus on the message from a charismatic pastor.
The researchers hypothesized that such rituals are successful in imparting emotional energy in the megachurch setting — “creating membership feelings and symbols charged with emotional significance, and a heightened sense of spirituality,” they wrote.

2. There could be a suggestion that churches have a sort of power over people. In other words, the conditions are set up so that people are pushed into these upbeat experiences. Outside of this megachurch setting where people’s senses are bombarded, people may not have such experiences.

3. This seems like a great time to include neuroimaging in a sociology study. One could compare the physical response in the brain to drugs versus the physical response to certain worship settings. Do they both engage the same areas of the brain and to the same level? If they do, it doesn’t mean there still isn’t a sociological phenomenon to study but it does link physiological responses with social interactions and outcomes. I suspect we’ll see more and more of this sort of matching of social and physical data in the coming years.

Quick Review: When God Talks Back

Anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann examines how evangelicals relate to God in this new book titled When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God. Here are a few thoughts about this fascinating read:

1. Luhrmann’s main argument is that evangelicals are trained to perceive the world in particular ways and this reinforces and upholds their belief in a personal God who cares about them. For example: evangelicals learn to pray in such a way that they believe they are interacting with God and can “hear” God. Another example is that evangelicals tend to read the Bible in such a way that every passage has an immediate application or relevance for their current circumstances. This kind of prayer and Bible reading does not necessarily come naturally: people have to be trained and it can take years to learn the process. Luhrmann spent more than four years in Vineyard churches listening to sermons, participating in small groups, and talking with and interviewing evangelicals.

2. The historical argument is interesting but underdeveloped. Luhrmann argues that the more individualized approach to Christian faith common in evangelicalism developed in Vineyard type (more charismatic) churches in the late 1960s and 1970s and then trickled down to all of evangelicalism. I have little doubt that most of this is true; I recently heard a sermon in an Episcopal church that shared many of the same themes of God’s immediacy and power. At the same time, the main mechanism by which Luhrmann suggests this approach spread is Fuller Seminary. While Fuller has had an impact, I wondered about several things: how did all evangelicals respond to this? Was/is there a backlash against this approach? What about evangelicals who wouldn’t claim this Vineyard/Jesus People background?

3. Luhrmann is an anthropologist but intriguingly is a psychological anthropologist. This means that there is a lot in this book about perceptions, thoughts, and how the brain adjusts to different ways of seeing the world. There even is a chapter that involves an experiment Luhrmann conducted on prayer to see if people can be trained to perceive God more vividly (and they could). Throughout the book there is a mix of anthropological observations, psychological experiments and explanations, and historical context.

4. The book is pretty evenhanded about the question of whether evangelicals believe in something real. There is a chapter that suggests that evangelicals (and other religious people) are not crazy for perceiving supernatural forces. I suspect this will help the book gain some traction in the religious world though it will be interesting to see the reactions. At the same time, I wonder if some will see this book as an attempt to explain away religious belief as a psychological trick that people can learn. Additionally, wow would theologians respond?

5. I suspect this book could be one that helps evangelicals understand themselves better.

6. This was not mentioned much in the book: how are children trained in this approach? The book contains a number of stories of teenager or young adult converts to faith who then have to learn this particular approach to God. However, it has little to say about people who grow up with this approach to God and how this affects adult spirituality.

Overall, this book discusses how evangelicals come to see the world in a certain way as they learn to talk to and hear from God and how to interpret events as God’s intervention. This is the value of this text: it goes beyond describing the evangelical viewpoint and argues for how this viewpoint is developed and maintained. This is an example of what good social science can do: explain why things are the way they are.


“This [car] is bound for glory…”

Megan Garber of the Atlantic explains the car-centric origins of Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral:

The efficiencies of the [Orange Drive-In Theatre where Rev. Schuller first held services in 1955 in Orange County, CA] were obvious: For cinematic purposes, the drive-in was useful only in the darkness, which meant that it could play an effortlessly dual role, theater by night and church by day. The architecture and technological system built for entertainment could be repurposed, hacked even, to deliver a religious ceremony for the golden age of the car. An early advertisement announced the new ministry’s appeal: “The Orange Church meets in the Orange Drive-In Theater where even the handicapped, hard of hearing, aged and infirm can see and hear the entire service without leaving their family car….”

The Schullers, and their contemporary entrepreneurs of religiosity, had happened into an idea that made particular cultural sense at its particular cultural moment: In the mid-1950s, Americans found themselves in the honeymoon stages of their romances with both the automobile and the television. And they found themselves seeking forms of fellowship that mirrored the community and individuality that those technologies encouraged….It was, with its peculiar yet practical combination of openness and enclosure, an improvised idea that happened to fit its time. The Schullers’ motto? “Come as you are in the family car.”

As the article goes on to note, Schuller eventually moved out of the drive-in and into his Crystal Cathedral, which has been “in the news most recently for its financial troubles — culminating in bankruptcy, a controversial shift in the the church’s leadership structure, and, finally, the sale of the Cathedral itself to a neighboring (Catholic) diocese.”  I guess things went a little off the rails at some point.

More seriously, however, I find Schuller’s integration of the automobile into Christian liturgy fascinating (and more than a little disturbing).  Megan’s article makes it clear that, by and large, Schuller’s drive-in congregants remained in their cars throughout services (“Church rubrics, the guidebooks for services, included instructions not only about when to sing, speak, and stay silent, but also for mounting the speakers onto car windows”).  It’s hard to understand how attendees could have Christian communion–in either the literal or general sense–by themselves from the walled-off comfort of their own cars.

The church should respond to Going Solo

In Going Solo (a summary of the argument here), Eric Klinenberg documents a growing trend in American social life: more and more people are living alone. As I read this book and thought through the idea that this is an unusual trend in human history, I was somewhat surprised that there was very little about a religious approach to this issue. Klinenberg mentions at a few places how a few “singletons” are sustained by their faith and how a few religious organizations are serving elderly singletons but there is no bigger mention of how religious faiths address this issue. Although I don’t study this area, I believe this is a golden opportunity for evangelicals and others in the church to respond to this growing trend. Here are a few thoughts about the issue at hand and how churches can begin to tackle the issue.

Many churches, particularly the average evangelical church, are built around the family. Many programs are geared toward kids and families. Sermons are much more likely to be about family relationships that about living alone. In my own experience, you often don’t “fit” in these churches unless you are married and have kids. Even being married is not enough: I’ve felt this in multiple churches, that you aren’t fully a participant unless you have children who are involved in kid’s ministries. If I didn’t volunteer to serve or seek out relationships, simply being part of a married couple isn’t going to get me far. While we have been invited to some events and groups, we have rarely been invited to the house of a couple who has kids. (I am more than willing to admit that this may have more to do with me than my family status.)

This is not just a feature of the church. As Klinenberg points out, the societal expectation is that people will get married and have children. Not following that course leads to questions and sometimes bewilderment. I’ve heard the idea from others that having children allows one to more easily make connections with other adults. For example, having kids in school or in a neighborhood means that parents will inevitably meet other parents as their children interact. Without children (or perhaps a pet?), it can be difficult to strike up conversations even with people we see on a regular basis in the neighborhood, in public places, or at church.

I’ve thought at times that some churches verge on placing families higher than God. Which one is mentioned more? What are the subtle and not-so-subtle messages broadcast to people who attend? I wonder how much of this is driven by a perceived demographic need, a feeling among evangelicals that the best way to continue our churches and our faith is to raise children in this faith. A great example of this is a supposed statistic sociologist Christian Smith pointed out a few years ago: “only 4 percent of today’s teenagers would be evangelical believers by the time they became adults.” As Smith notes, this statistic is not true but it fits a mindset where there is a continuous battle between evangelicals and the rest of the world. One of the best ways to fight back is to have children who will continue the fight. Of course, Smith’s later work in books like Souls In Transition suggests that parents do indeed matter for a lasting religiosity.

While supporting marriage and families is a good thing (though I am reminded of sociologist Mark Regnerus’ arguments several years ago in an article titled “The Case for Early Marriage“), this leaves a lot of people out: younger adults, the widowed, the divorced, the separated, those who haven’t married. A common message is that once you leave these categories and get married, you are “normal” in the church’s eyes. Otherwise, you are more on the margin.

One possible solution to some of these issues is to have more intergenerational classes and activities. Churches often group people by life stages, often literally separating groups from the main activities from the church (like in youth groups). I’ve never been a fan of this: both personally and as a sociologist, I see a lot of value in interacting with and learning from those who have more experience and wisdom than I do. There is much to be gained by building relationships with those who are experiencing similar issues related to age but it also emphasizes certain landmarks. For example, singles’ ministries or small groups based on childless couples can be odd in that the unstated goal is to leave these groups. Why not treat people as whole people who can learn from other whole people rather than pushing ourselves into easily defined and sorted groups? Simply worshiping together in a large service doesn’t lead to deeper relationships in the way that consistent intergenerational interaction can.

Another possible solution is to broaden the focus away from nuclear families and to a more expansive definition of “families” and “neighbors.” This does not have to look like the final scene from the movie About A Boy where the lonely teenager Marcus and the lonely middle-aged man Will have found a group of people they like and that like them who they now define as their “family.” Rather, this could and should include people we wouldn’t immediately gravitate to, people who aren’t necessarily easy to make initial connections with. We can be reminded that the suburban nuclear family that many churches are built around is a relatively recent invention in human history. The Biblical characters we uphold in church would have seen themselves as part of larger families, clans, and tribes. As historian Robert Fishman points out in Bourgeois Utopias, William Wilberforce and friends, renowned persons of faith, contributed to this in the late 1700s by moving their families to one of the first Western suburbs, Clapham outside of London, in order to preserve their wives and children from the evils of the city (much more could be said about this topic). Retreating to a suburban family life with limited contact with the world may limit some dangers but it might also introduce some others.

Third, this trend presents a chance for the church to push for and truly live out the ideals of “community, ” a word oft discussed in Christian circles but much harder to put into practice. What does this really look like? How many people are really striving for this? Or is it something that tends to come up in times of trouble? Even further, Klinenberg argues that behind the trend of living alone are American cultural values are self-reliance and individualism. Neither of these are Christian virtues and yet we Americans need to be reminded, as one of my former pastors was fond of saying, “there are no solo Christians.” This broader Christian community should care for all, just as the sociologist Rodney Stark argues the early Christians effectively did. Sure, this is an uphill battle in a world of many single-family homes, cars, long work hours, and growing opposition to organized religion but it is a battle worth fighting.

In sum, this is an opportunity for Christians to uphold values of marriage and family while also addressing the trends of American social life toward singleness. It will not be enough for churches to argue that people should simply get married and then support those people. In dealing with issues like loneliness and searching for meaning that Klinenberg suggests are common along those living alone (and frankly, most people), the church should be leading the way. The church can be a place where close relationships with others are created and nurtured. The church can challenge ideas about self-reliance and independence, ideas about having to be tough to face the world as solitary people. If there is any place where the single and married, young and old, people of different classes, races, and ages should be able to come together, it should be in the places that claim that “God so loved the world” and whose followers are called to “love their neighbors as themselves.”

Sociologist: seasonal or occasional church attenders will decide the fate of organized religion in Canada

A Canadian sociologist argues that the fate of organized religion in Canada will be decided those who attend church occasionally:

Indeed, a new report finds rumours of the death of religion have been greatly exaggerated, with national data suggesting about 12 million Canadians will attend church this long weekend. And it’s the unfamiliar faces — the 30 per cent who attend either monthly or seasonally — who will have the biggest influence on organized religion going forward, according to Reginald Bibby, a University of Lethbridge sociologist.

“Numerically-speaking, they will determine who constitutes a majority: people who embrace faith, or those who reject it,” said Bibby, who’s been studying religious trends since the mid-1970s.

“At this point in time, about 60 per cent say they’re open to greater involvement if they can find it worthwhile for themselves and their families. Which direction they go will depend largely on whether or not religious groups can demonstrate the value of greater involvement.”

National data, released by Statistics Canada’s general social survey and analyzed by Bibby, suggests the core 20 per cent of weekly church attendees will be joined this Easter by many of the 10 per cent of monthly attendees and a good number of the 20 per cent of seasonal attendees.

Interesting argument: these occasional attendees are like swing voters, capable of creating a majority if they continue to attend occasionally. Presumably, if this group stopped attending at all, religion could lose some social influence.

I’m intrigued by this statement: the “direction they go will depend largely on whether or not religious groups can demonstrate the value of greater involvement.” Are religious groups prepared to tackle this question? Which church approach works the best in addressing this group of occasional attendees.

How much does this describe the situation in the United States? Depending on what figures you look at, roughly 30-40% of Americans regularly attend church even as many more claim to be “spiritual” or “believe in God.” Generally, how willing are non-church attending yet spiritual Americans willing to talk about and/or defend religion in the public sphere?

The Presidents who can’t go to church

Much has been made of American’s desire for the President to have religious faith and/or attend church. But what happens if the hoopla that comes with the President going anywhere means that they can’t go to church?

It’s hard to imagine any future President being able to attend church–much less teach Sunday School–without an attendant hullabaloo. And that’s too bad. The men and women we put in that office will confront serious questions on life-and-death issues and find themselves under enormous amounts of stress. For those for whom religion has been important, it could be helpful to have the outlet of a congregation where they could reflect and be renewed. The individuals who serve as President give up many personal freedoms in order to do so. A community of worship shouldn’t have to be one of them.


How Americans would respond to a new large religious building nearby

I’ll post a Quick Review of American Grace soon (see an earlier post here) but I wanted look at an excerpt about another topic I have written about recently: how suburban governments respond to requests for the construction of religious buildings (this includes churches and mosques). Here is a description of findings from the 2007 Faith Matters Survey (pages 512-514)

How Americans respond to land use matters involving religious groups depends on the religion in questions. According to the 2007 Faith Matter survey, an overwhelming majority of Americans (92 percent) say that the construction of a large Christian church in their community would either not both them (55 percent) or is something they would welcome (37 percent). This level of acceptance is high even among the most secular tenth of the population (87 percent), although their reaction is far less supportive. Eighty-two percent of the highly secular say that they would merely “not be bothered” by a large Christian church, while just 5 percent would explicitly welcome it.

Because of the near-ubiquity of Christian churches in American communities, we were also interested in reactions to a religious facility that would unfamiliar to many Americans, and so we asked about the construction of a “large Buddhist temple.”…

The point of asking about both kinds of religious structures it to distinguish among different reasons for opposing their construction. Some people might oppose both a large Christian church and a large Buddhist temple because they object to the construction of any sizable structure in their neighborhood, whether it be a church, a temple, a restaurant, a store. Or it could be because they have an aversion to religion of any kind. However, opposition to a Buddhist temple but not a Christian church would suggest that the concern lies with Buddhism specifically or perhaps “exotic” (or non-Christian) religions more generally.

For Buddhists who might be planning to build a temple, our results contain good news and bad news. The good news is the high overall support, at least in the abstract for a Buddhist temple. Three quarters of Americans (76 percent) say they have no problem with the construction of a large Buddhist temple in their neighborhood. The bad news is that only a small number (15 percent) would explicitly welcome it in their midst. Even worse news for the Buddhists is that one in five Americans (20 percent) say that they have no problem with a large Christian church but would object to a Buddhist temple…Approval of a Buddhist temple drops precipitously as personal religiosity increases…

These are interesting findings that suggest Americans are pretty favorable toward large new churches in their community and a majority would be favorable toward a large Buddhist temple. A few thoughts about these findings:

1. The interchanging of the term “community” and “neighborhood” bothers me. The original survey questions (see here) ask about buildings built in a community. I would assume many survey respondents would perceive a neighborhood as a smaller, closer geographic area and might respond differently. It would be one thing for a Naperville resident to express support for a Buddhist temple on the other side of the community, perhaps 7-8 miles away, compared to expressing support for a temple within a 15 minute walk.

2. I would suspect that more Americans would be less supportive if the questions asked about large religious buildings very close to their home. Residential neighbors often get worked up about such structures, not people from the other side of the community (unless it is a smaller community). This would be NIMBY in action.

3. The word “large” in the survey questions is a bit unclear here: are we talking about a megachurch or a congregation of 300? The sorts of problems Americans complain about regarding large structures, such as traffic, are larger with bigger buildings.

4. It’s too bad there isn’t a third question asking about responses to a proposal for a large mosque. While both Buddhists and Muslims are rated low according to larger American religious groups (see pages 501-509), I wonder if many Americans wouldn’t see Islam as more foreign than Buddhism.

On the whole, I am a bit skeptical that these survey results reflect zoning and municipal discussions regarding large religious congregations. Perhaps a very vocal minority tends to oppose such buildings – this tends to characterize a lot of local development discussions. But when residents feel threatened by such large structures, their magnanimity may decrease.