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On Taxonomies of Music/Worship Philosophies

There have been several interesting taxonomies of music/worship philosophies developed recently that have spurred me to think through classifying various positions. They intrigued me mostly because I found them unhelpful and missing key nuances, but each has merit that I think should be considered.

The first was a recently published counterpoint book published by Broadman and Holman titled, Perspectives on Christian Worship: Five Views.1 I really found the categories in this book quite unhelpful. The categories were, Liturgical Worship (Timothy C. J. Quill), Traditional Evangelical Worship (J. Ligon Duncan), Contemporary Worship (Dan Wilt), Blended Worship (Mark Dever), and Emerging Worship (Dan Kimball). One of the most silly elements of this classification system was that Duncan and Dever essentially agreed with each other in every chapter, only nuancing their positions once or twice. Plus Dever’s philosophy really doesn’t fit the classic definition of “blended.”

Additionally, I think this classification misses an important group that has similarities with, but differs significantly from the others, a classification that includes music that is rich theologically yet progressive musically (Sovereign Grace Music would fit here). While certainly sounding similar musically, it differs from the “Contemporary Worship” classification in both doctrinal content and motivation. It also is much more congregational in nature than typical CCM or Praise & Worship. Likewise, while perhaps resembling traditional philosophies in its God-centeredness and Godward, congregational motivation, its adoption of pop music forms distinguish it from that group as well. Ignoring this group provides this taxonomy’s most significant weakness.

Another more recent taxonomy was provided by Jeff Straub in a broader context of classifying brands of evangelicalism and fundmantalism.2 My aim here is not to comment on the broader classification, but as part of the exercise, Straub included comments about the musical positions of each category of evangelicalism/fundamentalism. His classification on this point is described below:

Broad Evangelicalism: Little concerns for music issues
Evangelical Right: Mixed view of music from CCM to traditional
New Image Fundamentalism: Acceptance of some contemporary music
Historic Fundamentalism: Old populist view of music
Hyper Fundamentalism: Mixture of old populist and new populist music

I have several problems with this taxonomy. First, as with Joel Tetrau’s “Three lines in the sand,”3 I do not believe that music/worship philosophies are necessarily connected with specific brands of evangelicalism/fundamentalism. These various brands reference particular views of separation only, in my opinion, and various conservative or progressive music/worship positions find themselves spread equally among all of these brands. For instance, you can find pure conservatives in Straub’s “Evangelical Right” and “Historic Fundamentalism” if not also “New Image Fundamentalism.”

Second, while Straub rightly identifies the philosophy of much of fundamentalism as some kind of “populist view,” he doesn’t classify pure conservatism anywhere in his taxonomy.

In other words, it would have probably been best to just leave music out of his evangelicalism/fundamentalism taxonomy.

The third taxonomy that was probably the most accurate and helpful, in my opinion, was one that was presented by Ben Everson at the Northland Heart Conference in February of 2009 in a session called, “Mountains and Molehills in Music.”

Everson’s objective was to classify various music/worship positions, and he paid careful attention to nuances within the broader so-called “traditional/conservative” camp. Everson is right that such a category is really too broad, with significant differences within that camp. He actually contacted me several months ahead of his presentation in order to be sure that he was presenting what he discerned as my position accurately. I think he did that for the most part.

Everson lists the positions on a scale moving from “Anything goes” to “Increasingly open” to “Extremely conservative.” He divided the “traditional/conservative” camp into “Classic Conservatives” and “Reclaimationists.” His descriptions are as follows:

Classic Conservatives – “Those who see biblical correlations between Bible principles and style of music and attempt to discern the good and bad in the current culture. This is possible because they believe music possesses inherent moral qualities. This is by no means a unanimous category; but it is defined as a category by the recognition of inherent morality in music.” He included Majesty Music, Garlock, the Wilds, and BJU in this classification.

Reclaimationists – “Those who maintain that music philosophy as a whole has been fundamentally flawed since the gospel songs evolution in the mid 1800’s and demonstrate a need to recover this lost ground. In fairness, this category would not reject ALL gospel music, but consider the gospel song outdated pop music, that is, the pop music of yesteryear and therefore unfit.” He included Kevin Bauder and me in this classification.

They say that the best labels are those that someone else places on you, and I think in this case Everson did a pretty good job. “Reclaimationist” may just fit the bill. The biggest weakness in his description of our position is that he makes it sound like our position is centered on a concern about gospel songs, when it really is quite a bit broader than that.

I think that there are a lot of strengths to Everson’s taxonomy. As I mentioned already, nuancing the common “conservative” positions is a real strength. I do see some weaknesses as well. Personally, I would have called the first group “traditional” and the second “conservative,” but I agree that perhaps “conservative” has unfortunately lost any real meaning, and so Everson’s “Reclaimationism” label is good. I don’t think, though, that “Classic Conservatives” quite fits the group he was describing.

The biggest weakness of all of these taxonomies is a common one: I’m not sure various positions on worship/music can really be put on a sliding scale as he does, particularly because text choice, motivation, and musical styles are all quite mixed among positions.

It is exactly for that reason that my classification system (a work in progress) is less of a taxonomy per se, and more of categories of descriptive terms that can be mixed and matched to most correctly describe one’s position on music and worship. Each person’s philosophy has a governing motivation, text characteristic, and music characteristic.

Engaging Worship
Modest Worship

Doctrinally weighty
Doctrinally simple

Cautious Progressive

Most of the terms in this classification system are probably self-explanatory, but some may require explanation, mostly under the music category. The outer two terms are clear – progressives accept the newest, most novel forms of music as legitimate while conservatives prefer classic forms and are suspicious (though not necessarily always rejective) of new forms. I felt like I needed intermediate categories, though, because there are rather large groups who are nuanced forms of these positions. Some groups are somewhat uneasy with full progressivism, but aren’t happy with pure conservatism either. Within that category, there are some who lean more toward progressive forms, while others are suspicious of current pop culture but have adopted more innocuous pop forms of the past.

The terms under each of these categories could be set on a continuum from one extreme to another (e.g. the closer terms are in the list, the more related they are to each other), but terms under different headings are not necessarily connected. For instance, I think I could fairly describe Rick Warren’s motivation as Evangelism, his text characteristic as doctrinally simple, and his music as progressive. Bob Kauflin would share the progressive music characteristic, but his motivation would be worship that engages with God and his texts are doctrinally weighty. I share a text characteristic of doctrinal weight with Kauflin, but my music is conservative; and while both of us are motivated by worship concerns (rather than evangelism or revivalism), mine would be described more as modest than engaging. Many churches are motivated by either concerns for evangelism or revivalism (often both) and therefore have simple texts. The music could go one of two ways here, either a full progressivism or a connection to a tradition, although usually an old populist style. I have friends who have concerns for weighty texts, but whose motivation is more that of engaging worship and music that is cautiously progressive.

In other words, these descriptive terms help to categorize various philosophies, but music/worship philosophies don’t fit well on a sliding scale; these terms can be mixed.

This classification system is a work in progress, and I welcome comments and suggestions. I do think this way of classifying is better than a continuum model that works for other subjects.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. J. Matthew Pinson, ed. (2009). []
  2. “The Fundamentalist Challenge At the Turn of This Century: Do We Have a Future?”, presented at the 2009 Conference on the Church for God’s Glory, Rockford, IL, May 18, 2009). []
  3. This article is not presently posted online. []