Becoming What We Sing


Following American Idol’s season 7 “Idol Gives Back” episode on FOX, viewers raced online to react to pop-star competition. Contestants performing Darlene Zschech’s contemporary worship staple. “Shout to the Lord.” Some regarded this performance, which was on the sixth-highest-ranked television program of that week. As a sign of impending religious revival. Others criticized the performance of contemporary worship music (CWM) on a secular program. Some thought it was overt proselytization; others believed it was inauthentic worship.

This flurry of online commentators demonstrated a twenty-first-century reality about music’s place in worship and culture.

“Shout to the Lord” was not only a widely recognizable worship song, but it was also a popular commodity with proven marketability. Idol considered “Shout to the Lord” not only a musical fit for their performers but also a demographic fit for their audience and advertisers. The song choice initiated a process of obtaining necessary permissions and rehearsing performers to meet the expectations of authenticity for this musical style. Fans’ interactions online, the performance’s ranking as iTunes’ fifth-highest download the following week. The song’s appearance among the top-ten-copyrighted worship songs reported in congregational use through 2009 (CCLI) encompassed everyone who interacted with the episode as a participant in the worship song. 

Although not a historical first, Idol’s inclusion of “Shout to the Lord” was a watershed moment that revealed the cultural shift in liturgical participation in music. How was this performance of “Shout to the Lord” a worship song? Was it in the relationship of the song to its license-holders’ purpose? Or, sas it in the authenticity of those on stage who believed it? Was it in the millions of listeners’ reception to the song? Perhaps it was it in the social-media response and individual downloads? Was it in the hearts of the listeners who made it the soundtrack of the next few days? 

These questions rise from two premises, one cultural and one theological.

For the viewing audience, the experience of music extends far beyond the performance of a song into a wide range of everyday activities set within a larger cultural horizon. Our microlevel practices, like the activities contributing to participation in the performance above. Cohere in a social imaginary grounding our everyday assumptions, habits, actions, and decisions. It is meaningful for us to share the experience of a performance with other participants or extend the experience through our consumer choices. Ethnomusicologists suggest that musical performance is only one act in an ecology or geography of macrolevel cultural patterns. That give music and our means of participation in music meaning.

Theologically, we pose questions about this performance as worship because we assume worship is more than a song alone. Music is one act that focuses our response to God. But worship is a life offered to God in every thought and deed. Worship is also part of a participatory geography that gives it meaning: the kingdom of God. When our worship intersects with our cultural practices, new possibilities emerge within the idea that all of life is worship. In contemporary worship music, our Christian liturgies and cultural liturgies converge. 

Many North American traditions rely heavily on CWM in corporate worship. That emphasis is an invitation to “Shout to the Lord” and to participate in a cultural economy comprised of worshipers, performers, producers, and distributors who produce not only sound and meaning but also pop-culture lifestyles that foster Christian and consumer communities alike. CWM is a new liturgical symbol that requires conscientious reflection on commodity and consumption, along with the gift and grace it facilitates. 

Excerpted from Becoming What We Sing: Formation through Contemporary Worship Music by David Lemley ©2021 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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