Without a doubt, COVID-19 has brought new realities into music and worship practices in the church around the globe. However, even long before the pandemic curtain began to rise last year, the music and worship of the church had experienced some challenges, perhaps because churches are now living in what historians call “a post-Christian world.” To understand this concept, consider the 2014 Pew Research Center survey “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” which reported that the number of American adults who consider themselves “religiously unaffiliated” has risen from just 19 million (or 36.6%) in 2007 to approximately 56 million (or 55.8 %) in 2014. This increase is coupled with another indicator from the same report: 85% of American adults were raised as Christians, but nearly a quarter of the people in this group no longer identify as Christians.
In a series of teleconference interviews with church music scholars, educators, and practitioners in February 2021, the idea that we are now living in a post-Christian society re-emerged. For music and worship leaders, four insights coming out of these interviews are worth hearing.
1. Leadership matters, but so does culture
One of the most important insights came from John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In response to the question “What are the challenges facing the music and worship of the church in today’s world?”, Witvliet said, “We often make theological judgments about what is better or worse, but what we’re often really talking about is cultural difference.”
That’s an important distinction when teaching or when leading music or worship in groups of people with various cultural and geographic backgrounds because leadership styles are affected by culture too. “Do you lead in a kind of commanding way, or do you lead worship sort of from within the body?” Witvliet wondered. And cultures even differ from one congregation or denomination to another, so there are good ways and bad ways to exercise leadership in different contexts. So the first step to understanding cultural difference is learning to see each difference as a beautiful variation of God’s people.
Tanya Riches, a worship theologian at Hillsong College in Norwest, Australia, also highlighted the importance of understanding different leadership cultures in our churches. She brought up an example from the recent leadership crises in her church network that came from a “celebrity culture” among their pastors and how there has since been a moment of reckoning. Part of the solution, Riches said, is to identify celebrity culture where it exists, understand how it becomes a problem, and then work from there.
Because leadership happens within specific cultural contexts, worship and music practitioners are called not only to serve or make music, but also to explore the culture of their own congregations.
2. Local church matters, but so does the global church
Another insight from the interviews is the idea that the Christian faith is broader than what we often think. Riches shared that part of her teaching ministry is “to help people realize there are structures other than just Jesus and you, and at this point, I think that we’re moving from a very evangelical, individualized Christianity toward something that is recognizing the global nature of our [faith].”
A similar sentiment came from Gordon-Conwell Seminary professor Emmett G. Price III, who lamented how some Christians in America often wrongly separate the American church from the church worldwide. ”It shouldn’t be the American church and the global church. It should be the global church as represented or felt or experienced in the United States.”
These concerns are not baseless. One of the realities of our post-Christian world is that the Western Hemisphere is no longer the epicenter of Christianity. In 1910, Europe and the Americas accounted for 93 percent of the world’s Christians, but a century later, they represented only 63 percent due to the explosive growth of Christianity in Africa and Asia (Pew Research Center, 2011).
Brazilian church music scholar Marcell Steuernagel reminded us that in this hyperconnected global village, there is “a level of proximity that we have with those who would otherwise live in separate worlds.”
When we sing hymns or songs in our local churches, then, “we’ve got to think about whether God only resides here [or] across or even bigger than the world?” Price said. “When we see ourselves as a reflection [of] the global church, then what happens in Indonesia becomes important to me, what happens in Ghana becomes important to me, what happens in Michigan becomes important to me, and what happens in Pennsylvania also becomes important to me.”
3. Music is God’s gift not only for the church, but for the community
Music and worship face new challenges and opportunities in a post-Christian world. The idea that music and arts ministries are to be presented only within the church is quite passé, global hymnody scholar Michael Hawn said, because people no longer come to church buildings as in the past. Instead, he asked, “What would music and arts ministry look like in your congregation if fifty percent of it took place outside the building, in the community? There are gifts the church congregation has to offer, and the community has needs, and our job is to match those up.”
The COVID-19 pandemic too has altered every facet of the life of the church. Some churches found it harder to adapt, but the turn to digital media “leveled the playing field” among congregations seeking to minister to their communities, Steuernagel said. It’s fairly easy to access resources for online music and worship—“You can go on YouTube and figure that out by yourself in ten minutes,” Steuernagel said.
What’s more challenging though, is that churches “have to figure out modes of community, including church music communities that are hospitable toward digital mediation,” Steurnagel said. How do we exercise hospitality in the digital world where people can visit different neighborhoods or churches with the click of a mouse?
4. Cultivate conversations with both Christians and non-Christians
Conversations among Christians are critical in an increasingly complex worship ecosystem where the commercial music industry holds so much power. Indonesian liturgical scholar Ester Pudjo Widiasih encouraged a practice of mutual learning and dialogue among Christians to broaden our understanding of worship. “This is a call for Christians, for seminaries, for NGOs, for ecumenical bodies, for each local congregation to open ourselves to different traditions, to learn from each other, but also to provide the means of communication that can reach many people—as many as possible—so that we are not just driven by one force,” she said.
Congregational music scholar Monique Ingalls believes we should be having those conversations with non-Christians too.
Ingalls is a cofounder of Christian Congregational Music, a biennial conference on congregational music making. Participants include church music practitioners but also anthropologists and sociologists, including non-Christians.
Perspectives from outside Christianity provide “a form of distance” that’s just as valuable as learning from Christians in other cultures, Ingalls said. “We really need to . . . gather insight [by] creating and maintaining relationships with people from other religions and outside Christianity to say, ‘What does it look like from out there? Are there some questions that you think that we should be using to reflect?’”
Music and worship don’t happen in a vacuum, but in a diverse, interconnected, post-Christian world. With the help of the Holy Spirit and these suggestions from worship experts, we can adapt our practices to fit these new realities.