Singing the Congregation

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Monique M. Ingalls
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Singing the Congregation, Monique Ingalls asks: what turns a group of people into a congregation in evangelical Christianity? Throughout her book, Ingalls argues that the process is primarily socio-musical. She suggests that the principal force in creating a congregation is a specific kind of participatory worship wherein evangelical doctrine, theology, and belief are set to the “expressive language of rock” in Praise and Worship or Contemporary Christian Music  (53). The image is familiar: a large audience sings along, hands raised and eyes closed, as a rock-style band performs chart-topping praise songs. Decades after guitar-strumming “Jesus People” brought hippie culture into American churches, and in the wake of contentious “worship wars” over the place of popular music in church, Praise and Worship and Contemporary Christian Music have become mainstays of evangelical Christianity. In a thorough, wide-reaching ethnomusicological study, Ingalls demonstrates that these musical modes of worship not only redefine the gathered people as a congregation instead of an audience, but also they are often the primary socio-cultural markers of evangelical Christianity.  

The argument that musical participation creates and allows people to experience interpersonal connection is familiar in ethnomusicology where scholars have long agreed that collective musical performance forms the interpersonal bonds of community. In particular, those studying music and religion have examined how socio-musical processes both define and are defined by facets of belief, ritual, theology, and the personal and collective experiences of prayer and spirituality. Ingalls applies these discourses in an under-examined area. Interestingly, as she assigns congregation-making processes to musical rather than religious markers, she demonstrates that congregations occur both within and well outside of the typical boundaries and authority of churches. From the concert hall to the conference center to the outdoor revival, she examines specific musical markers such as style, collective participation, and presentational modes that turn music into worship and, therefore, turn a group of people into a congregation.

Ingalls applies a sensitive, sympathetic ethnographic approach that emphasizes participants’ own frameworks of meaning and experiences of worship while avoiding any divisive topics or intensive theological or socio-political critiques of evangelicalism. Scholars, church leaders, and music ministers are likely to find a wealth of socio-cultural insights uncovering the deep interpersonal functions of worship music. However, readers less sympathetic to the theology, socio-politics, and practices of evangelicalism will likely want to look elsewhere for a deeper critical engagement with these topics.

Beginning from the assertion that a congregation is defined by the act of collective worship, each chapter starts with a richly described ethnographic vignette. The first chapter takes up the concert setting, examining how musicians, who are often famous and extremely successful, redirect the focus from themselves toward God. The question here is: how does music become worship and, thus, turn an audience into a congregation? Ingalls suggests that bodily, physically demonstrative participation—hands raised, singing aloud, eyes closed—is expected of concertgoers in order to foster authentic worship for the entire gathered audience. Questions of “sincerity” and “authenticity” are deeply subjective and difficult to engage, especially in a religious context, but Ingalls takes her informants at their word as she argues that sincere and authentic worship becomes “sonically attached to certain musical aspects…performative expressions and gestures” in collective musical participation (53).

Ingalls then applies this to the conference setting to argue that the “intense spiritual experiences” fostered therein forge a unique congregation outside of the purview of religious authority. Often musical in nature, these experiences create unique kinds of congregations she describes as eschatological gatherings of worshippers who “sing heaven down to earth” as they imagine both their own and the heavenly community (73). Here Ingalls moves beyond the familiar claim that worship music fosters community to suggest that, through musical participation, worshippers claim religious and eschatological authority for themselves. This adds an additional dimension to issues of sincerity and authenticity by showing what is at stake for worshippers in their choice to participate in these kinds of musical-religious expressions. Any music minister or scholar of religious music is likely to find this an intriguing argument about the role and function of church music in terms of the power dynamics of Christianity, and anyone on the organ-and-hymns side of the worship wars would doubtless reject that this can be appropriately accomplished by electric guitars and drum sets in a hotel conference center, but this is exactly Ingalls argument: through a very particular kind of musical participation, worshippers not only establish their own congregations, but also they claim the power of eschatological authority for themselves.

In the final chapters, Ingalls further applies these insights to interdenominational use of contemporary Christian music, so-called “praise marches,” and the virtual connections of mediated worship. In each context, she shows how distinctive musical processes, choices, expressions, and experiences create congregations within and outside of traditional church boundaries. She shows that evangelical congregations are constantly in a process of creating, constructing, and contesting their identities and positions within Christianity. While some readers might want her to engage more critically with many of the dimensions of evangelicalism that appear in her work—the dynamics of the “praise march” cry out for a discussion of the socio-cultural and political issues inherent in such a public performance of an evangelical worldview—this sensitive, thorough study offers a much-needed extension of the discourses on congregational Christianity and opens up many opportunities for further discussions of contemporary evangelical congregations.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Maria S. Guarino is a Lecturer of Musicology at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
February 20, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Monique M. Ingalls is Assistant Professor of Music at Baylor University. Her work on music in Christian communities has been published in the fields of ethnomusicology, media studies, hymnology, and religious studies. She is Series Editor for Routledge's Congregational Music Studies book series and is co-founder and program chair of the biennial international conference "Christian Congregational Music: Local and Global Perspectives."


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