At their best, churches, Christian universities and seminaries work symbiotically: Christian higher education prepares students to be astute professionals, and — as part of the educational process — calibrates students to be competent disciples. Churches, in turn, benefit from well-educated, mature adults who graduate from Christian higher education and help lead in their local churches.
That relationship has been disrupted over the past decade, however, as mistrust between universities and churches grows. As young people grow increasingly religiously disaffiliated, students in Christian higher education are grappling with broader questions about faith, culture and the gospel — and those questions can often be threatening to local churches, who hope to send their children to colleges that don’t deconstruct their Christian worldview but reinforce it.
But new seedlings of collaboration are reminding onlookers that the church-academia partnership is not only salvageable but holds new possibilities in our religiously-suspicious cultural moment.
That belief is a central tenet of the work of worshipleaderresearch.com, a site founded by a roster of collaborators — including Reverend Dr. Mike Tapper — who are working together to explore the relationship between qualitative and quantitative data around both the worship music industry and worship leaders in local congregations.
Their first round of study, published broadly in Christianity Today, Church Leaders and The Washington Post, and picked up by Julie Roys, examined the similarity of many of the worship songs published in the last several years and found much of this “sameness” tied to the fact that very few large churches / networks produce the majority of Western worship music. Follow-up articles have taken on various topics, including the worship industry, music publication, and the biases and selection processes congregational worship leaders use as they build a roster of songs their church regularly sings in corporate worship.
“For me, research happens best when it’s done in community,” says Dr. Tapper, chair of the School of Religion and Humanities and professor of religion at Southern Wesleyan University (SWU).
This team’s work is unique not only in its field of study (focus on both production and utilization of worship music), but also in the collaborative process the team used to produce it. The project has brought together worship leaders in local congregations and professors in institutions of higher education in a way that few other studies have.
“This team met over a year and a half, deciding what questions to ask and what we might do with the research after we asked the questions,” recalled Dr. Tapper. “That purposefulness ahead of time — along with a team that knows how to write academic research in a way that can be read at the level of popular literature — helped us write something that ultimately communicates well with those in the local church.”
For Pastor Marc Jolicoeur, a collaborator and worship and creative arts pastor at Moncton Wesleyan Church in New Brunswick, Canada, the work has been deeply relevant to his own leadership within his local context. As Pastor Marc leads with a mindset geared toward the intersection of academic rigor and whole-person formation, his awareness of the theology, production and popularization of worship music is something he both feels and studies through this collaborative work.
The collaboration itself has been a value-add for Pastor Marc, who says one of the most appealing components has been the opportunity to work with and learn from a great team. When he thinks of the tremendous traction their work has received, Pastor Marc reflects, “People seem to care a lot about worship and are personally invested in seeing this done well; so, this is fertile soil for a robust discussion.”
As they look forward, Dr. Tapper and Pastor Marc are excited about the next phase of their research, which will be releasing later in summer 2023. But for now, they are excited about how their research can inspire other collaborations between church and academic leaders in conversations that matter for the future of the church.
“We’re learning as we talk about important topics that when you hitch yourself to a ‘winner’ (a consequential topic that matters to people’s lives), you tend to get a win,” said Pastor Marc.
For more stories about how God’s moving in Wesleyan churches and Christian higher education, visit wesleyan.org/news.
Ethan Linder is the pastor of discipleship at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana, and contributing editor at The Wesleyan Church’s Education and Clergy Development Division.