Every Sunday around the country pastors use Christian-themed rock music to engage their parishioners. Sounding much like standard top-40 pop music fare, these scripture-based tunes are also becoming more popular on the radio and with consumers.

However, as popular Christian worship music gains a larger audience, Ari Kelman, associate professor of education at Stanford, has uncovered a surprising paradox. The very musicians, songwriters and music producers who create the music are increasingly sensitive to the "precarious relationship between rock music and worship," Kelman said.

Kelman, the director of a new doctoral program in Stanford's Graduate School of Education that integrates education and Jewish studies, has found that evangelical musicians, like any other musical artists, aim to make the very best music they can. They hope their music will "at best, lead people in prayer, and at least, not mislead them," Kelman said.

Secularization of religious music

But it is this decidedly secular approach to music production that causes industry professionals who produce spiritual music to question the role that worship songs have assumed in the church.

Through the course of his research Kelman learned that these specialized musicians feel they are embracing a secular culture that threatens to undermine the "prayerful purpose" of the music.

Kelman, whose current research focuses on the intersection of religion and pop culture, interviewed more than 75 songwriters, worship leaders and music producers and has also participated in numerous workshops and conferences on worship music.

Songwriters and performers "ultimately hope that the sacred purpose will trump the music's secular origins," he said. "The music ends up echoing with both sacred and secular overtones – one never trumps the other."

But Kelman quotes Martin Smith, the lead singer and primary songwriter of the Christian rock band Delirious, as saying, "As the genre of worship music developed into something more popular, it lost focus. We've become too song focused and in truth, we need to become more worship focused."

Kelman points to Bob Kauflin, a longtime Christian songwriter and teacher, as an example of someone who creates worship music, yet is fully aware of the power of worship music to derail spiritual aims.

"Music is a gift from God to deepen and develop the relationship with him," Kauflin said. However, when the song "becomes an idol … when the performer becomes the mediator … when people can't worship God unless the music sounds a certain way, when they can't worship God unless they sing these certain songs," then the songwriters "have messed it up," he said.

Kelman underscored the powerful role musicians and music producers assume in faith practices. "If people sing their faith, then those who write, perform and produce this music" become central to worship performance and practice.

Worship songs, Kelman noted, seek to model a "heavenly version of prayer" derived from Christian scripture. They attempt to deliver theology while leading the audience through a performance by listening and singing along to a scriptural message.

Not all professional worship leaders and musicians attempt to address these issues. When Kelman was doing fieldwork at a school for worship leaders, he joined a class in which participants learned how to work with a worship band.

The rehearsal classes focused on instrumentation and arrangements, leaving "almost no room for questions about the religious purpose of their playing together."

Exploring the music, prayer connection

Kelman first envisioned this project as a reflection on what "the connection was between music and prayer, and the feeling of transcendence or powerful presence that music often evoked" in him.

Kelman, who is Jewish, grew up going to synagogue, where he first encountered music in a religious setting. However, he describes this experience as less inspiring than attending rock concerts, where "often great, inspiring and uplifting things" happened.

Kelman developed an interest in worship music through his research on synagogues. He found that when he asked Jewish people about their music, they would often reply, "It's spiritual" or "It's so meaningful." However, personally, the music didn't impress Kelman as "particularly interesting or innovative." So he began thinking, "Who in the world is asking questions about music and spirituality in sophisticated ways?" This, Kelman explained, "led me to church."

Kelman did not set out to debunk any widely held myths about evangelical culture. However, he encountered some, nonetheless. He explained, "Lots of people have said to me, 'Oh, you must have to listen to such terrible music.'" But he maintains that "much of the music is really good."

Kelman's research on evangelical worship music culture will be presented in his forthcoming book, tentatively titled Shout to the Lord: Music and Worship in Evangelical America.

Ashley Walters is a doctoral student in Jewish history at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience. This story was first published in the Stanford News