Evangelical Worship: An American Mosaic
By Melanie C. Ross
Who should read this? This book will be interesting to anyone wanting to explore ways that Evangelicalism is shaped in the American context.
What’s the main point? American Evangelical congregations adhere to a few points of theological unity and display great variety in how they express their beliefs, especially through worship.
Why is this book significant? Ross provides a careful ethnographic account of the theologies and practices that undergird the approaches to worship and mission in seven geographically dispersed congregations. She uses the work of significant theologians, historians, and philosophers to sharpen her research methods and her interpretations of the congregations she studied. Her ethnographic work addresses a significant gap of “on the ground” research in the larger field of liturgical and worship studies.
What intrigued me (the reviewer) the most? Where it was relevant in her reports, Ross points out the continuing influence of John Nelson Darby’s dispensational theology in shaping local worship practices. I was not aware of the degree that dispensationalism continues to have salience in Evangelical congregations.
Kudos. Ross demonstrates command of a range of historical, liturgical, philosophical, and theological resources that aid in her interpretation of the character of worship in American Evangelicalism. Her use of various interpretive frameworks highlights the theological continuities and contrasts found among the congregations she studied. As a faithful insider of the Evangelical world, Boss offers perspectives that have integrity built on her experience; as a disciplined researcher she identifies the strengths, tensions, and inconsistencies demonstrated among the congregations with clarity, honesty, and hope. Her work helps those outside the world of American Evangelicalism appreciate its depth and diversity.
Quibbles. I have not decided whether Ross’s opening autobiographical chapter is important for this book project, even though it is interesting and informative. The chapter locates her life experiences with church music and her current convictions about congregational singing. She provides a useful overview of how different styles of congregational singing that emerged in the 1970s in the Evangelical world continue as influences into the present. In the subsequent chapters of congregational reports, Boss points out comparisons between the principles and approaches to corporate singing used by music leaders she interviewed, but she does not draw connections to her own opening chapter. I wondered why.
Next steps. I hope that Ross’s future work will account for the range of affective characteristics that are shaped through worship in American Evangelicalism. The changes in congregational singing style since the 1970s have widen the affective expressions of faith in many congregational settings – Evangelical and beyond. A clearer understanding of these affective characteristics shaped through corporate worship could offer deeper insight into how American Evangelical congregations live into the beliefs and values that unite them.
Ross, Melanie C. Evangelical Worship: An American Mosaic. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. 308 pages. $34.95. ISBN: 9780197530757.