The phenomenon of the modern American megachurch is an anomaly of late twentieth and current twenty-first century Christianity that is slowly changing the very theological landscape of the American Christian church. Today megachurches are producing prolific amounts of music used for worship on a worldwide scale. Based on information available through the CCLI database and the 2010 United States Religion Census, it is possible to see the scope and influence major voices of the megachurch movement have on the American Christian church.
As of 2010, Megachurches accounted for about .4% of Christian churches in America. That .4% produces a significant percentage of the songs being sung by the other 99.6% of churches. Bethel, Hillsong, and Passion are 3 distinct churches making up about .000001% of the churches in the United States and yet are producing approximately 44% of the Christian music influencing worshippers across the nation (CCLI).
The reason I am so interested in the musical influence of the megachurch is because I believe that music is currently the primary teacher of theology in the average American Christian congregation because it holds the formerly liturgical position of repetition in the weekly service. The history of the workings of the church is notoriously repetitive. Liturgy is the first instance of repetition worth noting. Liturgical traditions of the church reigned supreme in the Christian religion prior to the modern age of the church. In the early liturgical traditions, repetition was often contained in prayers and chants that the church recited congregationally.
Repetition was contained within liturgical practices before the Second Great Awakening on the American frontier. After the Second Great Awakening, a series of movements moved repetition into the music of the Church with the introduction of the refrain and the later introduction of contemporary praise chorus music. The services of the church were still mostly liturgical, but the camp meetings and revival services were more repetitive in music than in liturgy. The camp meetings were connected to the church and were often under the leadership of the church, but were not subject to the same liturgical rigidity as the traditional worship service. According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the next shift occurred in the Jesus Movement of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Music culture evolved parallel to major transitional changes within the structure of the church service, specifically the introduction of extemporaneous prayer, the Bible translation expansion boom of the 1970’s, and the drastic denominational restructuring following Vatican II. Contemporary Worship Music seemingly sprung up out of a repetition shift, perhaps in order to fill a liturgical void.
Psychologically, repetition is known to have several implications on the composition of the brain. The neurological study of neuroplasticity has found that the brain changes constantly during events. The brain has the remarkable ability to form connections between memories, experiences, and concepts. These connections are called synapse. Synapses are physical neural connections in the cells that give the cell its function. Synapse and neuroplasticity are what allow for the process of learning. Every time a memory is recalled, an action is performed, or a statement is made, the brain forms a new neural connection. Each word, action, and memory has a physical affect on the brain.
Modern Theologian, Catherine Pickstock, has begun the work of understanding the importance of liturgy as a tool of teaching in the Christian belief system. Her work comes closest to discussing the importance of repetition within the theological realm of worship. She agrees that liturgy, which by definition is repetitive, is formative and necessary for the development of true knowledge of God. She goes on to say that there must be something intrinsically embodied, in the senses, about liturgy in order for it to truly transform us. Indirectly, Pickstock is connecting the theological belief system to embodied repetition that is neurologically significant. She indirectly states that traditional liturgy is the repetitive teacher of the Catholic and Eastern orthodox congregations of the present and of the Evangelical Protestant church prior to the mid-20th century. The formative nature of liturgy is not absent because traditional liturgy has been ejected from modern evangelical tradition. The formative nature has simply been transferred to the most prominent form of repetition: music.
The scope of the influence of the megachurch expands its walls through the music it produces. History affirms that the Evangelical Protestant church is continuing to move away from liturgical repetition and into predominantly lyrical and musical repetition. If worship music continues to be the prominent voice of the lyrical repetition movement of Contemporary Worship, a weight of influence must rest upon the shoulders of composers and musicians relevant to the Evangelical tradition, such as those within the modern megachurch. The brains of believers will physically embody the theological significance of this cultural shift, positively or negatively. The most memorable (neurologically) theological voice of repetition is declared in the music portion of the evangelical worship service. From a neurological and psychological standpoint, the scope of influence of the music of the modern megachurch is more serious than we have contemplated up to now. Every word we sing must be true to the theology we claim to believe. It matters less who produces the music but it is crucial to consider what the music says of who we are, what we believe, and most importantly who God is.
Chloe McLaughlin is a graduating senior at Indiana Wesleyan University studying Christian Worship and Humanities within the John Wesley Honors College. She is a native of Frankfort, Indiana. Chloe is pursuing career options in worship leadership and hopes to do further research and higher education in the area of worship.
2010 United States Religion Census. ASARB. May 1, 2010.
“CCLI Top 100.” Welcome To CCLI. 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2014. <ccli.com>.
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- J. C. Pickstock, “Liturgy and the Senses,” South Atlantic Quarterly 109, no. 4 (September 27, 2010): 719–739.
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Ruth, Lester. “The History of the Term ‘Contemporary Worship’,” Exploring Contemporary and Alternative Worship Seminar Group, North American Academy of Liturgy, Minneapolis, Minnesota, January 2, 2015. Powerpoint presentation.
Thumma, Scott, and Dave Travis. Beyond Megachurch Myths. 1st ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2007. Print.