Worship INC part 1

In the midst of the rise of social movements like Black Lives Matter, predominantly white churches have been startlingly silent on issues of social and racial justice. In this series, I will argue that there is a correlation between the increasing commodification of worship music and an erosion of justice theology in predominantly white evangelical and charismatic spaces.  In a time that desperately needs prophetic and authentic worship art, we are outsourcing our liturgies to an economic system that is deeply complicit in the creation of systemic poverty, racism and oppression.

I. Background

There are two pieces of context that are crucial to understanding the intersection of racial justice and the worshipping practice of evangelical churches.  We will begin with how the music industry came to be so deeply involved with the production of worship music.

The digital disruptions of the early 2000s that shook the music industry as a whole, have decimated Contemporary Christian Music or CCM.  At its peak, the industry was moving 50 million albums a year.  By 2014, that figure was 17 million.  With the precipitous drop-off in sales, the industry lost its taste for experimentation, diversity, and daring.  They circled the wagons around the surest bet of all, music sung in church.  Big name CCM acts began to cash in on the worship phenomenon.  Michael W. Smith released worship albums in 2001 and 2002 and had sold over two million copies by 2008.  Acts like Third Day followed suit with similar success.  With artists with these profiles moving into the worship music arena, it accelerated the kind of marketing and branding that created “worship celebrities” and superstar worship leaders.  Worship remains big business with Bethel Music, Elevation Church and Hillsong releasing number 1 albums on Billboard.

The second piece of context involves analyzing the attitudes of white Christians towards racial justice issues.  After the police killings of two unarmed African-Americans in September of 2016, Assistant Professor of Communications at the University of Memphis Andre Johnson noted something very important.  Throughout the litany of police killings of people of colour, there was a discernible lack of outrage coming from white clergy at these injustices.  He took to twitter September 21 to start a conversation using the hashtag #whitechurchquiet.  That evening the hashtag was trending on twitter and new tweets continue to pop up as this paper is being written.  They detail a troubling history of silence and complicity to racial injustice.  Black Lives Matter and other movements involving justice for people of colour have been met with indifference at best and hostility at worst by the white church.  The Barna Group, a widely respected research and resource company focused on the intersection of faith and culture, released an illuminating study titled “Black Lives Matter and Racial Tension in America” on May 5, 2016.  Brooke Hempell, vice president of research at Barna Group had this to say about what they found:

“Our research confirms the fear that the church (or the people in it) may be part of the problem in the hard work of racial reconciliation,” says Brooke Hempell, vice president of research at Barna Group. “If you’re a white, evangelical, Republican, you are less likely to think race is a problem, but more likely to think you are a victim of reverse racism. You are also less convinced that people of color are socially disadvantaged. Yet these same groups believe the church plays an important role in reconciliation. This dilemma demonstrates that those supposedly most equipped for reconciliation do not see the need for it.  “More than any other segment of the population, white evangelical Christians demonstrate a blindness to the struggle of their African American brothers and sisters.” [says Hempell]

II. Methodology

I will be evaluating worship songs that reached number 1 on the Billboard “Hot Christian Songs” chart from January 2010 to January 2017 as well as the top 10 trending songs on CCLI.  Christian Copyright Licensing International is a private company that licenses worship songs to churches.    Firstly, we must define what the nature of a “worship song.”  For our purposes, and the music industry’s for that matter, a worship song is a pop song written to be sung as part of the corporate liturgy of a church body.  Most worship songs retain modern pop sensibilities but focus on including Jesus/God-oriented lyrical content.  These songs are often marketed to white, middle-class suburbanites attending either evangelical or charismatic churches.  I will include an evaluation of the style in order to highlight the kind of pop songwriting group think that tends to dominate the creation of these songs.  I will be drawing on industry sources as well as my own 13+ years of experience as a touring musician, worship leader, and professional songwriter to evaluate these songs.  The lyrical content of these songs will also be analyzed to determine which parts of the biblical narrative appear most often and to see if they contain any justice-oriented content.

As racial justice figures prominently in this analysis, I will be employing some principles from critical race theory in order to tease out some key implications of my findings.  Critical Race Theory is defined as follows:

“CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color.”

 In developing an analysis of the racial justice implications of the for-profit worship model, I will be examining the racial identities of both the songwriters and artists who dominate the worship music currently being marketed and used in evangelical and charismatic church spaces.  The general premise is this: racial identity matters whether or not the individual “intends” explicit racial bias.  Rather, it is the implicit participation in a system that is of interest here.

III. Analysis

We will begin with the data surrounding the racial identities of the artists and songwriters creating these songs.  After researching these songs, I discovered that:

  • All of the songwriters were white.
  • All of the principal artists were white with one exception
  • In that exception, the leaders were white and those with a different racialized identity were limited to auxiliary roles.

Lyric and content analysis revealed that most songs reflected an individualist bent using “me” and “I” pronouns.  In terms of themes, personal redemption, the character and power of God, and creation metaphors were dominant throughout.  Two songs (“Blessings” and “The Hurt and the Healer”) did tackle the subject of pain.  However this was definitely an exception.  This is consistent with the findings of a study done on fivethirtyeight.com.  Richard Beck, a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University calls this the “Walt Disney-fication” of contemporary Christian music.”     “Blessings” and another song, “Where I Belong” revealed that the remedy to dealing with pain was that the earth was not the home of the believer.  This kind of “just passing through” theology is highly problematic and can lead proponents to ignore the sufferings of their fellows because “heaven is just around the corner.”

There was no mention of justice issues in any of the songs.  While there were one or two throwaway lines regarding “setting the captives free,” this was only mentioned in the larger context of personal redemption rather than obligation to the marginalized.  There was no mention of God’s mandate towards the poor, the orphan or the widow.  None of these songs touched on issues of race either. The style of the songs never veers very far away from an established pop-rock format.  Chord progressions are often very similar and formulaic.  The structure of most, if not all, of the songs listened to followed a standard Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus structure.

(As an editorial aside, the mind-numbing sameness of the material reviewed may have caused this writer to want to thump his head against a desk.)  

There were no non-white musical influences evident in the material.  Middle of the road pop seems to rule the day here.

(Worship INC. part 2: The problem of For-Profit Worship Music)



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