Bringing a cultural production perspective to the industry of Christian worship music

The Christian worship charts are dominated by relatively few artists. Why might this be the case?

“If a song is going up the charts, there’s pressure on the worship leader to play that song,” said John J. Thompson, who worked with Christian artists as creative director for Capitol CMG Publishing and now runs the website truetunes.com.

Because songs must be catchy, they focus on simplified melodic structures, fewer words, and limited emotional range, with the goal that the congregation can catch on to new songs by the second verse, said Thompson, now the associate dean of the Trevecca School of Music and Worship Arts and the author of Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate; Crafting a Hand Made Faith in a Mass Market World

Most of the songs on the list were written by Caucasians. Thematically, the songs tend to stay in the realm of praise and adoration without venturing too far into more complex themes like confession, doubt, and suffering.

Sandra Van Opstal, pastor, liturgist, and author of The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World previously told CT, “…The worship industrial complex has become so influential that millions of people around the world are being discipled via iTunes. The narrative of God and faith is in the hands of a few worship movements who aren’t talking about how their social location, cultural values, and racial privilege shape their faith.”

In many culture industries, it can be difficult to predict what will become hits. There are hundreds, likely thousands, of worship tracks produced each year. There are ways that all industries try to hedge their bets. One route is to promote and support stars. In the list provided of popular songs, this means Chris Tomlin or Hillsong are better bets for hits compared to lesser-known artists. Another route is to try to cross-promote across platforms. Radio, even as a dying medium, can help drive traffic to streaming music and use of music in churches. Performing the songs in church can help drive congregants to the music and radio.

But, there are more factors at play. How does an artist become popular in the first place? At one point, Chris Tomlin was an unknown and the Hillsong movement had a limited reach. Stars can put out average or bad music. New artists can arise. The cross-promotion can fail to produce. Tastes and trends in music can change. Technology can change in both how music is made and delivered, boosting some and hurting others. How congregations view and utilize worship music could change. And so on.

More broadly, how culture and cultural objects come about is a complex process involving multiple social forces and institutions. In other words, this is not necessarily the way the Christian worship industry works at the moment or into the future. It is hard to know what kind of worship music will dominate ten or fifty years from now. Certain artists may be the music du jour today and be gone tomorrow.

1960s white religious leaders: God told us to love our neighbors but did not mean to pick our neighbors for us

My history colleague Karen Johnson recently delivered the first Faith and Learning lecture on the Wheaton College campus titled “Place Matters:  The vocation of where we live and how we live there.” See the talk here.

One quote from her talk (roughly 35:50 into the talk) stuck with me. In opposing open housing efforts in the 1960s through the Illinois Association of Real Estate Boards, white religious leaders said:

“We don’t doubt the words of Him who said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ but we do doubt, gentlemen, that He meant to disturb our American heritage and freedoms by picking these neighbors for us.”
Three features of this stand out:
1. I suspect this logic is still in use in many American communities today. Individual liberty about where to live is more prized than government intervention to help those who cannot move to certain places unless they have help (usually for reasons connected to social class and race and ethnicity). While it is couched in religious terms in this quote, I don’t think it needs religious backing to be widely supported by many suburbanites or wealthier residents.
2. Connected to the first point, few white and wealthier residents would today explicitly say that their opposition to affordable housing or government intervention to bring new people to communities is because of race and ethnicity (some government intervention in housing is more than acceptable as long as it helps the right people). They might talk in terms of social class or the character of the community. But, it still often comes down to race and who are desirable neighbors.
3. The mixing of American and religious values is strong. For American Christians, where do individual liberties end and Christian responsibilities begin? Which takes precedence? All religious groups have to think about which ideas and values to take on within particular contexts (whether nations, communities, or subgroups). A good portion of the critique of conservative Protestants often seems to involve the blurring of these lines: can these Christians see when their own stated religious commitments do not align with particular American commitments?

Divorce down, marriage down, telling a full story

Recent sociological work highlights how looking past the initial findings – divorce rates are down in America – reveals a more complicated reality:

In the past 10 years, the percentage of American marriages that end in divorce has fallen, and in a new paper, the University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen quantified the drop-off: Between 2008 and 2016, the divorce rate declined by 18 percent overall…

The point he was making was that people with college degrees are now more likely to get married than those who have no more than a high-school education. And the key to understanding the declining divorce rate, Cherlin says, is that it is “going down some for everybody,” but “the decline has been steepest for the college graduates.”

The reason that’s the case is that college graduates tend to wait longer to get married as they focus on their career. And they tend to have the financial independence to postpone marriage until they’re more confident it will work. This has translated to lower rates of divorce: “If you’re older, you’re more mature … you probably have a better job, and those things make it less likely that you’ll get into arguments with your spouse,” Cherlin says…

Chen connects this trend to the decline of well-paying jobs for those without college degrees, which, he argues, makes it harder to form more stable relationships. Indeed, Cohen writes in his paper that marriage is “an increasingly central component of the structure of social inequality.” The state of it today is both a reflection of the opportunities unlocked by a college degree and a force that, by allowing couples to pool their incomes, itself widens economic gaps.

It would be interesting to see how many of those who might celebrate the finding that divorce rates are going down also discuss the reasons linked to financial stability, education levels, and inequality.

Take more conservative Christian churches as a possible example. Evangelical Protestants are often proudly in favor of marriage (between a man and a woman). They work hard to provide programs for families as well as classes and sermons about marriage and family life. They would generally be opposed to divorce or at least view it as less than ideal. But, having conversations about how marriage is less attainable for some Americans or the evolving idea that one needs to be financially independent before marrying might be less common. How often do topics of social class and inequality come up from the front in many congregations? Or, discussions could turn to why Americans do not make correct individual choices rather than focusing on social pressures and structures (financial independence, it is more acceptable to cohabit) that influence all Americans (including conservative Christians). Ultimately, the findings may not be that good for evangelicals: divorce is down because Americans are getting married less and cohabiting more. If they want to encourage more marriage, they would have to respond to these larger social forces at work.

The end of global evangelists?

The passing of Billy Graham led me to ponder whether another religious leader can rise to a similar stature in today’s world. On one hand, the world is more connected than ever. When Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama are on Twitter, it is not hard to follow religious leaders or to find their words and actions in news sources. An increasingly connected world means that any leader, religious or otherwise, could quickly connect with billions around the globe.

Yet, it strikes me that there were certain conditions in play that helped contribute to the rise of Billy Graham. These would be difficult to duplicate:

  1. The end of World War II and the prosperity of the United States. As an American, Graham emerged from the country that helped end World War II and became the global democratic superpower. Graham could push against communism and project American strength and cool.
  2. The rise of the United States was accompanied by a religious resurgence in the US. As Finke and Stark argue in The Churching of America, church attendance rose through the 1950s before leveling off in the 1960s.
  3. A rising middle-class individualism in the United States that Graham could appeal to. While he often addressed social issues, the path to solving these problems started with changing individual hearts. This individualistic appeal – not new in American religion – now had a broad audience.
  4. A particular evangelistic and global missionary zeal in the United States where fundamentalists and evangelicals had both the resources and energy to try to spread the Gospel. This has cooled off to some degree.
  5. The emergence of evangelicals as a category from the dust heap of fundamentalism which had been pushed to the sidelines of American society in the early 1900s.
  6. The rise of mass media, particularly television, and the regular access billions had to it. Graham was telegenic enough. Yet, this mass media was not the same as today: it had a limited number of outlets so the audience was not as fragmented as later on.

This is not to say that religion is an inert force in today’s world or that new religious leaders could not emerge. Yet, they will do so in different conditions than that experienced by Graham and several generations of world citizens.

Five decades later, white evangelicals commonly invoking MLK

In recent years, I think I noticed something within white evangelical circles: a regular use of the words of Martin Luther King Jr. I do not know if this is a certifiable trend or not; it simply popped into my mind after a few recent experiences.

On one hand, this could be viewed as a positive sign. White evangelicals are turning around to addressing issues of race and justice. They recognize the importance of the work of MLK. They are willing to learn from others outside of their theological tradition.

On the other hand, I wonder if this is all five decades too late. Are the evangelicals of today the same “white moderates” King criticizes in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail“? Is King now acceptable for use because his words and ideas are a normal part of American society? Are those invoking King today willing to go to the same lengths as King and other Christians to fight injustice?

May this Martin Luther King Day help lead to true justice.

 

Pastor: “The suburbs are essentially an attempt to create an alternate Kingdom”

A pastor from South Africa describes what ministry in the suburbs should entail and then concludes this way:

The suburbs are essentially an attempt to create an alternate Kingdom. A place of peace and security here on earth. As such, it is a noble endeavor, but it does it through exclusion and not through the power of God’s grace and truth.

It strikes me that this critique from a conservative Protestant may not be that different from the standard critique of suburbs since at least the early 1920s. This standard critique goes something like this: suburbia tries to make everything look pleasant – from being able to purchase a home, keeping the lawn neat and green, and having a wholesome life centered around your family – but underneath this surface are human beings striving to break free from conformity, dullness, and consumerism. Conservative Christians who critique the suburbs make a similar case that the comfortable suburban life dulls people’s senses to their need for spiritual renewal. Of course, the two groups have very different outcomes in mind: the first critique often hopes for a return to diverse and exciting cities while the conservative Christians place less emphasis on where one lives in the end and care more about their spiritual state wherever they may be.

Evangelicals and sociology: possibilities

The last two posts have explored the patterns in how evangelicals approach sociology and the problems with those patterns. In the third post of the series, here are some ways that evangelicals can begin to solve the problems they have with sociology:

  1. Encourage more conservative Protestants to study, read, and apply sociology. If evangelicals are serious about engaging society, a better understanding of social groups and interactions could prove very helpful. For example, ministry work is more than just theological knowledge and often involves much interaction with people. Couldn’t a required sociology course help prepare Christians going into all fields to better love their neighbors?
  2. Don’t just cherry-pick sociological findings that confirm an evangelical perspective. This is difficult for any group or individual to do as we tend to seek out information that supports our view of the world. However, interacting with sociological work beyond what immediately seems useful would be a good thing.
  3. In recent decades, there have been a number of respected Christians doing sociology whose work is well regarded in the discipline. At the same time, I don’t think sociology as a field has had a transformative figure for conservative Protestants like a James Dobson in psychology. I don’t know the full history of psychology but the field became safe for evangelicals because one of their own helped them see it differently. (Psychology might be unique in other ways; since it is less interested than sociology in groups and societies, psychology might fit better with an individualistic approach favored by evangelicals.)
  4. Develop a stronger idea of what Christian engagement with sociology would be. The approach should be developed further than Christians simply doing sociology or Christians doing work that supports Christian perspectives.
  5. Strive to see the world from a structural perspective. While this may be unusual for many American conservative Protestants, one way to do this would be to try to read the Bible the way those who originally read it would read it. Western modern notions of individuality were not really in play for the original recipients of the sacred texts. Another option to combat the individualistic perspective would be to listen more to Christians around the world who share theological beliefs but interpret scripture through a more structural lens.

In sum, the divide between sociology and conservative Protestantism is not an unbridgeable one even as the two groups often have different purposes and see the world from different perspectives (structural vs. individual, politically liberal vs. politically conservative).

Note: these observations are based on years of interaction with conservative Protestant congregations, institutions, sermons, media, and individuals.