I am currently researching the rise and transformation of contemporary worship music in America. My research revolves around a central question: How did American Christians, over the last 50 years, move from a rejection of rock and roll on moral and racial grounds, to an embrace of it in their worship services? In other words, how did rock and roll, the best music for “worshiping the devil,” become the finest music for worshiping God?
As I narrate this transformation, I am considering the cultural and theological contexts for the emergence and evolution of contemporary worship music from the 1960s to 2010. How did American Christians – and in particular, American evangelicals – conceive of rock and pop forms as a part of the liturgy? For some, contemporary worship music was a means to an end, an evangelistic tool to attract the unchurched and grow congregations. For others, the affective nature of rock music allowed the Holy Spirit to move with emotional power among the congregation, freeing souls to worship God with their minds, bodies, and emotions.
Finally, I am interested in the ramifications of the embrace of contemporary worship music for American Christianity, even global Christianity. The rise of contemporary worship music parallels the import of pentecostal and charismatic liturgical forms and sensibilities into the wider world of global Christianity in the late 20th century. So how has the adoption of musical forms first constructed in charismatic and pentecostal traditions affected the liturgical and theological outlook of other traditions? Further, the industrial apparatus that has emerged to produce and distribute contemporary worship music has commercialized Christian worship services in an unprecedented fashion. Has the development of this massive worship music market – modeled on secular entertainment industries – and the subsequent influx of money into the Christian liturgical imagination, changed the ways that Christians worship? In sum, what were the consequences – intended or unintended – of embracing the “devil’s music” in God’s house?
(Forthcoming 2017) Wen Reagan. “‘The Music that Just About Everyone Sings’: Hillsong in American Evangelical Media.” In You Call Me Out Upon the Waters: Critical Perspectives on the Hillsong Movement, edited by Tanya Riches and Tom Wagner. London: Palgrave MacMillan.
Wen Reagan, 2016. “Contemporary Christian Music,” “Church Growth Movement,” “Christian Copyright Licensing, Int.,” “The Gospel Coalition” in Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States, edited by Thomas Kurian and Mark Lamport. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Wen Reagan. "Needles in a Hymnstack." Christianity Today, April 2015: 80-81.
Wen Reagan. 2015. “Blessed to be a Blessing: Israel Houghton & the Prosperity Gospel in Contemporary Worship Music” In The Spirit of Praise: Music and Worship in Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity, edited by Monique Ingalls and Amos Yong. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Kate Bowler and Wen Reagan. 2014. “Bigger, Better, Louder: The Prosperity Gospel’s Impact on Contemporary Christian Music.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol. 24, Issue 2, pp. 186-230. PDF Link