Music and Worship

(Volume 25, Issue 7, December 2019/January 2020)

As a pastor, I have long been an interested observer of the ever-changing ebb and flow of music as related to the church and, specifically, worship.  As a Baby Boomer, I have personally experienced the birth of “rock and roll,” the “English invasion” spearheaded by the Beatles, and all that has followed.  This radical shift in secular music in the 1960s and 1970s was quickly mimicked by the Christian community in the late 1960s as believers attempted to reach a generation that was “turned-on and tuned-out” to the values and lifestyles of past generations.  It was assumed, first by a few but eventually by many, that the best way to engage this new, rebellious generation was to accept and adopt many of its philosophies, methods, and especially its music.  What would later be termed Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) was born on the streets of San Francisco and similar locations, as attempts to reach the “hippies” snowballed.  With the backing of new paradigm churches such as Calvary Chapel and numerous parachurch organizations, a new genre of rock and folk-laced music became popular, even as the hippie sub-culture faded into history.  By the mid-1970s several music publishing and recording houses had been created to market and promote CCM music bands and musicians.  With the rise of the seeker-sensitive church, which itself emerged from earlier efforts to reach young Baby Boomers and their commitment to CCM, a transformation in worship music had begun in local churches.  For the next 15 years or so, due to the outward success of market-driven churches, such as Willow Creek and its network, CCM found ever-increasing acceptance in local churches of all stripes.  Eventually, advocates of more traditional Christian music and supporters of CCM clashed.  Music historians see 1993 as the year when the “worship wars” began, as both sides marshaled their forces.  By 1999, the same historians believe the war was over, and CCM had triumphed.[1]

While pockets of resistance to this adaptation continue to exist, CCM has marched to dominance, not only in American churches but throughout most of the world.  As a first-hand observer of this phenomenon, I have formed my own critiques of the changes that have ensued, however, most of my critiques have been largely untested, and based on limited anecdotal exposure.  While I have read several books and articles addressing modern Christian music and its effect on worship, most of these works are dated, unduly biased, or have little to offer.  Enter Monique Ingalls’s scholarly volume published in 2018, Singing in the Congregation.  Ingalls’s research spanned 2006-2013, then she spent the next five years writing her book, for a total of approximately twelve years of careful, scholarly examination of modern Christian music.  Ingalls declared that “the central aim of this book is to identify how the collective performance of contemporary worship music shapes the activities that evangelicals define as ‘worship’ and how these musically centered performances have brought into being new social constellations” (p. 4).  She specifically examined five modes of congregating and how each has influenced modern worship: “concerts, conferences, churches, public, and online congregations” (p. 4).  One important distinction should be immediately mentioned, namely how Ingalls separates CCM from contemporary worship music (CWM).  CCM, as Ingalls understands it, is a “presentationally oriented religious popular music genre intended for performance by solo artists and bands to listening audiences rather than for participatory congregational singing” (p. 6).  CWM is defined as a global Christian congregational song repertory modeled on mainstream western popular music styles” (p. 5).  In general, CCM is geared more toward public performance and private devotion, while CWM is concerned primarily with corporate worship experiences (p. 4).  Since the late 1990s, the lines have blurred between CWM and CCM.  However, CWM (sometimes called Praise and Worship music) is a term used by pentecostal (a word Ingalls never capitalizes, so I will follow her lead in this paper) and other charismatics.  She writes, [CWM] “refers to a particular philosophy of worship, aiming toward a personal encounter with God” (p. 8).  Since CWM has been so heavily influenced by pentecostal leaders and musicians, their forms of worship, including hand-raising, distinctive prayer postures, and facial expressions also have become increasingly common (p. 8).  This brief paper can only scratch the surface in addressing the modern CWM and CCM phenomenon but, hopefully, it can provide a framework for evaluating this movement.


We begin first with Scripture.  Finding the appropriate role for music to play in our worship and churches must begin with what the Bible says.  In the context of the local church, the careful reader of the New Testament must admit that music played a very minor part in the formation and function of the early church.  The book of Acts, which covered approximately the first 30 years of church history, never mentions music or singing as part of the church gathered.  In the epistles, only Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 give instruction on the use of music and both say essentially the same thing:  music, used within the realm of the church gathered, was for the purpose of instructing and admonishing one another in biblical truth.  Music, in the New Testament church, played an obvious minor, supplemental role to that of the teaching of Scripture, prayer, and fellowship (Acts 2:43).   No early Christian attended a church to have a worship “experience” centered around music, and certainly none sought involvement in a local church based on musical preference.  Music did not dominate the New Testament worship scene, and it clearly did not define it.  How out of step with Scripture is musical dominance today.  Ostensibly, when it comes to worship, everything else, including preaching, prayer, and the Lord’s Supper, plays a secondary role at best, to music in many 21st century congregations.  The discerning Christian needs to step back and deal honestly with this incongruity.  To allow music to either control or define worship is to miss both the clear teaching and practice found in the New Testament.  Throughout church history, music has reinforced the truths of Scripture, especially as most, until modern times, did not own their own Bibles, and could not read them if they did.  Music at its best, worked hand-in-glove with preaching and teaching, and this is still true today.


With this understanding in mind, we are ready to investigate CWM and its influence on the modern church and its worship.  I must walk a careful line at this point.  I do not want to disparage music’s vital function in church life, nor do I want to stake out a certain genre of music as inherently superior to other genres.  While the so-called worship wars draw battle lines over style and preference, I believe doing so is the wrong front for engagement.  The more important discussion (beside the lyrical doctrines being expressed) revolves around how CWM is shaping contemporary expressions of worship, and in turn the church.  Ingalls’ research reveals, “Within North American evangelical Protestantism, the presence of participator music-making [i.e. CWM] has become, in some cases, the sole component that defines the activity as ‘worship’” (p. 17).  She traces the root of this refinement of worship to the 1970s in which “worship became a category of experience that was increasingly indistinguishable from music…as evangelicals accepted the practices and associated beliefs grounded in pentecostal-charismatic theologies of worship as divine encounter, their own understanding of worship shifted in the process…[CWM] has become for many contemporary evangelicals the sum total of worship” (p. 18).  Accompanying this new understanding of worship is a new expression of worship also drawn from pentecostal-charismatic practices: “A depiction of a single worshiper or groups of worshipers, shown with arms outstretched in prayer…hands upraised…has become more or less the universal evangelical symbol for worship” (p. 183).  Ingalls’ research documents that both pentecostal-charismatic doctrines and methodologies heavily flavor CWM music and worship.  Through music, the understanding of the Christian life, theology, the local church, and its expressions of worship are being formed into the image of pentecostalism.  This formation is not recent.  It can be traced back to the Jesus People Movement of the 1960s-1970s, which was primarily grounded in pentecostal doctrines disseminated by a new style of music modeled after the secular rock artists of that era.

If, in fact, this scenario is correct, what has been the conduit for introducing pentecostal influence via music into non-charismatic evangelical churches?  After all, most non-pentecostal Christians have not normally been exposed to these beliefs and expressions in their local churches.  The answer is that CWM influences are introduced in other venues that make an end-run around the local church, including concerts, conferences, and ecumenical marches.  But before we briefly examine these avenues we must back up further to the root of CCM and CWM, which have increasingly overlapped recently, according to her study.  Ingalls’s research documents that CCM/CWM “draws from current popular music styles” and therefore is “always in danger of running afoul of the boundaries between entertainment and worship” (p. 30).  She writes, “Through musical style, song lyrics, and extramusical discourse, many of the activities associated with stadium rock concerts are ritualized and reframed as acts of public worship” (p. 42).  Giving the example of a Chris Tomlin concert, Ingalls details the strong resemblance between worship concerts and stadium rock concerts, both having “extravagant multimedia and lighting displays, rock band instrumentation and amplification, and performer-audience interaction that characterizes musical entertainment events such as cheering and applause” (p. 41).  Thus, those who are comfortable at rock concerts will be at home in most CCM/CWM concerts.  Two distinctions, however, should be evident:  the lyrics (what does the song actually teach theologically), and the focus.  Since actual biblical teaching should be a given, the focus needs more examination.  Whereas the focus of a rock concert is on the performer(s), many Christian artists take pains to remind the audience that, “There is only one star of this show: the Lord Jesus!” (p. 41).  Whether the audience can maintain a focus on Christ amid the light show, excessive volume, visual effects and performance of those on stage remains questionable, but it is impossible to gauge in general.  The point is that CCM/CWM bands and performers are mimicking secular styles and methods and then sanctifying them by pointing to Jesus as the audience of one, as well as modifying the lyrics to proclaim Christian themes.



This strategy has been most successful in three forums, according to Ingalls:  concerts, conferences, and marches.  First up is concerts, which may vary from Christ-honoring to pure entertainment, from true worship to exercises in emotional and theological exploitation.  The subject at hand is how CCM/CWM concerts are shaping modern Christian worship, and their impact on the local church. Ingalls’ study confirms Christian concert’s influence on worship.  She writes, “Understanding the concert gathering as worship shapes evangelical expectations of the ‘worship experience,’ influencing aesthetic ideas and expectation of local church music-making” (p. 30).  In other words, local churches are increasingly under pressure to conform to expectations modeled at CCM/CWM concerts.  Most of the larger concerts, and more popular bands, not only use the methods detailed above, but also introduce expressions of worship that stem almost exclusively from pentecostal-charismatic practices.  The contemporary worship concerts provide a space free from the constraint of home churches and the perceived structures and worship traditions (p. 55; cf p. 60).  In her on-the-ground research, Ingalls claims, “she saw how church leaders and ‘congregants’ experiences at concerts, camps and conferences influenced what songs were chosen for Sunday morning worship, what musical styles were permissible, and what movements and gestures (or lack thereof) were used to accompany them” (p. 23).  Ingalls sees “pressure on congregations of all sizes to conform to expectations set by a limited set of powerful players in the evangelical media industry” (p. 203).  Those churches unwilling, or unable, to conform to the standards and methods of concert performers, will face the loss of membership or even extinction.  While numerous bands are setting the pace currently, two have taken the lead: Hillsong and Bethel/Jesus Culture.  Unfortunately, these groups are deeply rooted in hyper-pentecostalism and the prosperity gospel.  As a result, the music they produce and the performances they give are leading unsuspecting followers down the doctrinally errant pentecostal-charismatic trail.  Worse, attendees and supporters of their music and concerts are bringing pentecostal ecstatic worship practices and charismatic teachings back to their churches (p. 113).  What the careful Christian needs to appreciate is not only that many, through the influence of CCM/CWM music and musicians, are embracing new expressions of music, but they are also bringing home false doctrines, which are unquestionably linked to pentecostal-charismatic worship practices.

Second in influence only to the concerts are the large conferences, which seem to be everywhere these days.  Even many of the conferences which feature solid Bible preaching and teaching will often turn to CCM/CWM musicians to lead music.  But others such as IHOP, Passion and Urbana show little discernment, either in teaching or music.  At Passion, for example, prosperity teacher Judah Smith may follow Reformed pastor John Piper.  Its musical performers are just as varied, although the CCM/CWM pop-rock style of worship is consistent (p. 85).  The Passion conference bills the “worship sets” as attempts to foster the idea that their event will be an “experience of the heavenly community on earth” (p. 78).

Finally, marches for Jesus have promoted the same understanding of worship. Briefly, these large praise marches, boasting up to 25,000 participants, have been held throughout the world, but primarily in England, Canada, and the United States.  While diverse, they are often staged for the purpose of waging demonic-spiritual warfare in order to take back territory from Satan.  They are strongly pentecostal and dominionist in theology and showcase CCM/CWM in an attempt to “blast out evil through sonically permeating musical volume and texture” (p. 155).

The Worship Experience

All of these influences have certain commonalities: musically they all draw from the secular pop-rock culture, are dominated by pentecostal-charismatic expressions and theology, and are offering a particular “worship experience.”  The worship experience is the goal of the CWM adherents.  Again, drawing from pentecostal theology the “‘worship experience’ is defined as a divine encounter” (p. 44).  The design of worship, given this understanding, is not necessarily to glorify, adore or honor God—it is to encounter Him.  To encounter God is to experience Him, and to experience God is to encounter Him.  It is to call for the Lord to come down and fall among His people as He did on occasion in the Old Testament.  CCM/CWM has structured its music and expression in such a way as to produce this type of supposed encounter.  Feeling pressure from CCM/CWM concerts and conferences, local churches have increasingly “replaced ‘worship service’ with ‘worship experience’” (p. 44).  That worship experience can be produced, packaged, and sold is not lost on contemporary evangelicals, Ingalls laments.  “Worship music producers promise their products will transform any profane or secular space into a sacred ‘sanctuary’ and transform the listener spiritually by transporting him or her into the presence of God…They also reinforce the discourse that worship is an ‘experience’ that should ‘overwhelm’ the listener with feeling” (p. 195).  So successful has been the CCM/CWM efforts that Ingalls, in her research, sees evidence of “worship junkies” willing to go anywhere and anyplace to get their “worship fix” (pp. 203-204).  And since most small and mid-sized churches cannot but offer subpar experiences by comparison (p. 203), “migratory behavior” has become a pattern for some in search of their worship fix (pp. 204-205).  Immature Christians will seek the best opportunity for worship experiences, regardless of the theology or teaching of the supplier.

What Is Worship?

One of the highlights of Ingalls’ book is a short recap of a 1999 article written by Marshall Shelley and published in Christian Leadership magazine.  Shelley offers three diagnostic questions to determine if our worship is authentic:  First, are we worshipping the real God, one not created by our own imagination or preference?  Ingalls’ concern here is that through the impact of CCM/CWM, many have come to link formerly charismatic practices such as hand raising, swaying or hopping in place (p. 54), the only appropriate expressions of sincerity (p. 55).  If so, the worshipper may lose focus on God while they mimic the learned expressions.  Second, is the participation of the people real (not a charade or mere ritual)?  Finally, is the response real?  That is, authentic worship must be transformative—it must have a lasting effect outside the event itself.  True worship should change lives, not just produce an emotional catharsis (pp. 49-67).


Typically throughout Protestant church history, pastors and theologians were at the forefront of writing and leading Christian music.  Today that role has been handed to musicians, many of whom have little biblical training or theological insight.  Besides, most popular writers/performers constantly travel and have little vital connection with a solid local church.  Not only is this situation spiritually unhealthy, it is also unique in the history of the church.  As Ingalls asks, “Can celebrity ‘worship leaders’ be trusted to write songs useful in church worship if they are constantly touring rather than serving in a local church” (p. 48)?  Since the late 1960s music and performers have moved from the place of servant to that of master.  Where once music played a key but subordinate function in church life and public worship, it now dominates and determines what a church is and who attends.  “Music has become the touchstone of evangelical religious life” (p. 2).  As Ingalls’ research has revealed, “Within North American evangelical Protestantism, the presence of participatory music-making [CWM] has become, in some cases, the sole component that defines the activity as ‘worship’” (p. 17).  And, “As evangelicals accepted the practices and associated beliefs, grounded in pentecostal-charismatic theologies of worship as divine encounter, their own understanding of worship shifted in the process…the affective, collective practice of singing contemporary worship songs, then, has become for many contemporary evangelicals the sum total of worship” (p. 18).

Neither the extensive research in Monique Ingalls’ book, Singing the Congregation, How Contemporary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community, nor my short article, is a call to retreat from or abandon all forms of contemporary Christian music.  Some good material is being produced and I am especially encouraged by several excellent hymns that have been written recently, as well as the “returned hymn” or rehymn movement in which older hymns are given new, updated arrangements (p. 214).  But her work, and mine, call for careful reflection on and evaluation of, current trends in music and worship. Of serious concern to the conservative evangelical is Ingalls’s documentation of the infiltration of pentecostal-charismatic theologies and worship practices.  Music and the worship experience has become a conduit through which much errant teaching on many subjects, including worship, has seeped into the church unnoticed.  It is unwise to turn a blind eye to this evidence because one enjoys CWM and its brand.  As always, we need discernment.   A serious study of music and worship as found in the pages of Scripture is the starting place.  Without this foundation, we have no anchor to determine God’s design and are at the mercy of the winds of preference and fads.  Too long has much of evangelicalism been adrift.  Music and worship should not be determined by personal taste nor should either be allowed to define the local church. Both must be grounded in the Word of God.

[1] Monique M. Ingalls, Singing the Congregation, How Contemporary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 6-7.

by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher, Southern View Chapel


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