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Singing the Congregation: How Contemporary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community

Monique M. Ingalls
Published by Oxford University Press in 2018

Reviewed by Adam Perez, Liturgical Studies, Duke Divinity School1

To the outsider, North American evangelical Christianity can seem rather opaque. Self-described evangelicals themselves often disagree on what constitutes the term. Monique M. Ingalls’s Singing the Congregation shines a light into the definitional disarray with clarity and ingenuity, describing evangelical Christianity in North America as a “discursive network that is articulated through concrete, embodied practices—in this case, the musical practices within the activity marked as ‘worship’” (17). Ingalls is a church music professor at Baylor University whose work as an ethnomusicologist in contemporary worship contexts has been foundational for the emerging field of Congregational Music Studies. To that end, Singing the Congregation is a landmark volume that provides an academic, ethnographic deep-dive into the socio-musical practices of contemporary worship music (CWM) while it weaves a theoretical web for understanding the construction(s) of evangelical Christianity in North America.

In the introduction, Ingalls explains the organizing principle for the project: a retooled and applied use of the language of “congregations” and “modes of congregating.” Ingalls uses these terms to describe how in each of her case studies, performing shared practices of CWM participates in constructing a performative North American evangelical Christian identity. Rather than treat evangelicalism as a “specific set of institutions or normative beliefs,” Ingalls argues that “contemporary worship music [is] a contingent social practice that both shapes and reflects the religious collectivities that create, circulate, perform, and critique it” (11). Because these social practices of music-making are contingent, it makes sense that Ingalls addresses each of the five case studies discretely in chapter-long treatments. In reappropriating the language of “congregation,” Ingalls expands, renews, and links the notion across CWM performance spaces and opens up the conversation for scholars across disciplinary boundaries.

The introduction does a lot of heavy lifting for detailing the scope of the project. Helpfully, Ingalls makes some important contributions here on the “state of the question” of perpetually contested terms like “contemporary worship music,” “praise and worship music,” and “modern worship.” Along with the book’s conclusion, the introduction constructs a framework for holding together Ingalls’s five case studies conducted over more than a decade. Each of the chapter-length ethnographies examines a different mode of congregating through worship gatherings: concerts, conferences, local churches, public events, and online sites. In addition to highlighting the range of “modes of congregating” across which evangelicals participate, Ingalls demonstrates keenly that each site itself is not monolithic in the way it shapes worshippers. Rather, each site is a shared space where participants engage in a range of practices and modes of sociality. Because CWM draws heavily on popular music styles and performance practices, one type of negotiation that is shared across sites is that participants (congregants) “actively negotiate the boundaries between participatory worship and popular music performance” (29).

Chapter 1 focuses on the worship concert congregation, highlighting how performers use opportunities for congregational singing to “differentiate it from a ’mere’ concert” (30). At worship concerts, evangelicals negotiate (and potentially conflate) their dual identities as fans and worshippers as the concert influences their aesthetic ideals for local worship gatherings, impacts their practices of consuming CWM commodities, and are thus formed by the Christian recording industry. It is appropriate that the book opens with this case study, as the work of the Christian recording industry in producing recordings of CWM sits behind or beside each of the following case studies. Chapter 2 explores the large evangelical (youth) conference congregation through ethnographies at the Passion conference in Atlanta and the Urbana conference in St. Louis. By comparing and contrasting these ethnographies, Ingalls develops a framework for understanding them as pilgrimage sites and eschatology communities, even as each conference has its own brand of worship music. Ingalls highlights how conference attendees are invited to imagine themselves in these mega-gatherings as a foretaste of the eschatological community. In so doing, conference leaders create a strong link between, or blueprint for, the music-making practices of the conference and the ethics of social relations inscribed on heavenly worship. Chapter 3 looks at the music repertory, style, and performance practices of CWM that enable one local church to navigate relationships with charismatic and evangelical church networks while remaining part of the Episcopal Church. By making choices about how to effectively use CWM, this church carves out a niche for its own style and identity distinct from other local churches.

Chapter 4 highlights two successive iterations of public praise marches in the city of Toronto. This mode of congregating is multi-faceted in its use and effects. At once, it displays spiritual and political power, negotiates the relationships among religious and other identities, rallies the evangelical community, emphasizes the diversity of its constituency, and promotes receptiveness to evangelical messages. Chapter 5 addresses the diffusion and extension of CWM into digital space through online live-streaming, user-generated YouTube videos, or pre-recorded audiovisual materials for use in “live” worship. Together, these various ways of engaging with CWM constitute their own networked mode of congregating that blurs boundaries between worship in public and in private and between the visual and aural dimensions of CWM. The conclusion provides a cogent summary of the themes of each chapter and points to further avenues of research. What is somewhat unexpected (and good) is that Ingalls identifies various sites from throughout the book that present potential concerns for CWM, particularly regarding negotiations with the mainstream of CWM. Among them are how CWM is a platform on which disagreements in politics and society are played out, how diversity is represented in performance practices, and how the mainstream of CWM “reflect(s) the beliefs, values, and practices of a North American middle-class white conservative bloc” (215).

In the field of ethnomusicology that is often somewhat opaque due to technical and self-referential prose, Ingalls maintains an uncommon and uncanny level of readability. I suspect this is in part a product of the years of honing this research for presentations and publications—significant portions of chapters 2, 4, and 5 have appeared in print elsewhere over the last 11 years since her Ph.D. dissertation (University of Pennsylvania, 2008). The writing is clear and readable even while it indexes discourses across an impressive breadth of research on contemporary worship, popular Christian worship music, congregational studies, American evangelicalism, and ecclesiology. Because the chapters originated as standalone ethnographies, they can be read apart from the larger frame of the book and retain a level of coherence. The number of discrete theoretical conversation partners that are invoked within each chapter can dizzy the reader. The use of other theorists never feels forced or gratuitous, but the reader is presented with the challenge of following the overarching argument across independent and discrete blocks of theoretical analysis in varying lengths.

The overall frame of the book provides a generative and creative way of thinking about the present state of evangelicalism in North America. Other recent attempts are helpful partners for thinking about the significance of Ingalls’s work. Melanie Ross, for example, following Martin Marty, describes “evangelical” as a term by highlighting that it unites people across denominational lines while at the same time dividing those within denominations—a distinction that has been important since the conservative vs. liberal controversies in the early twentieth century.2 Ingalls might agree with Ross that evangelical music-making is quintessentially “evangelical” and is thus capable of this dual move (uniting and dividing) that has been true since the eighteenth century, especially characteristic of Whitefieldian ecumenical evangelicalism in America. Shared piety, expressed and encoded musically, is akin to the kind of ecumenism (for Ross) that is most important to constituting the evangelical community across boundaries. Held together, we get a broader picture of the history of what evangelicalism is and has been, because pan-evangelical practices associated with contemporary worship music (such as singing) are not new. However, they are being newly articulated, in new spaces, and with new centers of power and authority. This is just one example of how Ingalls’s work expands and updates centuries-old identity questions and shows that “music studies has much to say about twenty-first-century evangelical Christianity” (Jeffers Englehardt, back cover).

Singing the Congregation offers an unprecedented generosity and patient attention to evangelicals at worship in music. Unfortunately, the field of scholarship on CWM, particularly in liturgical studies conversations, has been shaped by loud (and often shallow) critiques from prominent figures like Bryan Spinks, Gordon Lathrop, and Marva Dawn in advance of detailed scholarly treatments of the phenomenon. Ingalls’s work is not aimed at liturgical studies in particular, though it offers an engagement with the “primary theology” of contemporary worship music-making that is almost entirely absent from liturgical studies scholars (the work of Swee Hong Lim, Lester Ruth, and Melanie Ross are noteworthy here, though they largely do not employ ethnographies of CWM). Beyond liturgical studies, this volume intersects with practical theology, ecclesiology, ethnomusicology, and sociology of religion (especially American Christianity). Like Ingalls’s research subjects, her research itself is a major node in a network of scholars and publications that is actively constructing the new interdisciplinary field of Christian Congregational Music Studies. Routledge’s new CCMS book series (of which Ingalls is an editor) now has five volumes: two monographs and three edited volumes that have emerged out of the biennial Christian Congregational Music Conference at Ripon College, Cuddeson, Oxford, UK.

This volume is critical for making sense of contemporary worship music as more than a popular musical style or repertory. Ingalls describes CWM as “a set of distinct social constellations that participants often experience as being integrally connected” and that form contemporary worshippers far beyond the bounds of the weekly worship gatherings of local churches. This form of worship continues to grow in prominence and influence globally, unveiling the interconnectedness of evangelical “modes of congregating”—and thus modes of articulation and formation. Because this book sheds light so clearly on these multiple layers of concerns around CWM, Singing the Congregation is a landmark resource for students of ecclesiology, church music, and worship. As a nearly picture-perfect snap- shot of North American evangelical worship at the beginning of the twenty-first century, I trust the book will become an important resource central to understanding the state of music and worship today.

Cite this article
Adam Perez, “Singing the Congregation: How Contemporary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 49:4 , 426-429


  1. Adam Perez is currently writing his Th.D. dissertation in Liturgical Studies at Duke University, and Monique Ingalls recently joined his dissertation committee. However, the current review was commissioned and drafted before that professional relationship was established.
  2. Melanie C. Ross, Evangelical versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2014), 26.

Adam Perez

Duke University
Adam Perez is a student pursuing a doctorate in theology at Duke Divinity School.