Worship, Music, and Religious Identity

Project Number: 
Start Date: 
Tue, 09/01/1992
End Date: 
Thu, 10/31/1996

Linda Clark directed this study on “Worship, Music, and Religious Identity” that explored the “style of the liturgical piety” of three congregations in and around Boston in order to understand how a congregation’s style—particularly in terms of its music and worship patterns—served as a manifestation of its “inner, collective, spiritual home,” that is, its Christian faith and identity. Though the three churches studied shared a common Methodist heritage – two were United Methodist while the third belonged to the AME Zion tradition – their music and worship styles evidenced divergent views of God and the meaning of worship, suggesting style itself as a source for the “culture clashes” found between congregations, and between congregations and their seminary-trained musicians. This project furthered Clark’s earlier work on the Program for Congregational Life.
<p>The research team consisted of Clark, a church musician and historical musicologist, Mark Stamm, a Methodist liturgical scholar, Joanne Swenson, a theologian, and Greg Allen, a biblical scholar. Their methodology sought to answer the question, “What role does worship and music style play in the corporate religious identity of this congregation?” The project design included these steps: (1) team members visited the churches as participant/observers for one year and collected demographic and historical information on the church and its community, (2) team members professionally videotaping the worship services, (3) team members showed the videotape to the church, and sought feedback in focus groups, (4) questionnaires were sent to parish rolls and interviews of target people in the congregation, (5) the organization and analysis of the data, and (6) team members returned to the congregation to check the accuracy of the team’s interpretations.
<p>From their study of the Methodist churches, the team concluded the following: (1) on Sunday morning, each church was involved in the same religious process in differing guises, that is, each engaged in a search for conversion, (2) the images of God and of the faithful that were embedded in their styles of worship differed, and sometimes profoundly, (3) worship in each church bore a transcendent “break-out,” that is, times when their human homes were the “habitation of the Most High,” and (4) their worship experiences also proved at times to be a barrier to experiencing God's fullness, something the researchers termed "breakdown." Clark’s team found that worship and music styles could not be interchanged because they uniquely reflected the content of the congregation’s identity and Christian faith.</p>