On the evening of January 4, 2010, the Australian worship band Hillsong United led nearly twenty thousand attendees of the Passion Conference in singing their 2008 song “With Everything.” Over the first four minutes, the band slowly built up to an earsplitting climax until suddenly, the lyrics of the song completely disappeared. Instead of a text, the band and worshippers all began to chant a simple diatonic melody on “oh.” As they sang, the song faded back to the muted energy of the beginning before slowly building up to an even bigger climax than the first. By the time it finally ended, the congregation had been singing for nearly five continuous minutes without any text whatsoever.
The textual nature of theology as a discipline and the significance of “worship” as a theological category—especially within contemporary evangelicalism—has led to an over-investment in the lyrics of congregational songs that is often not reflected in the pieties of actual believers. In worship services and other church gatherings, evangelical belief is consistently negotiated through experiences and metaphors of sound. Moments of textless music-making like the one described earlier remind us of the importance musical structure has when accounting for the theological work of congregational song. Christian communities rely on a repertoire of shared musico-formal structures to organize access to the divine at the level of sensory experience. By using the tools of music analysis, my chapter explores the ways that these musical materials function as a powerful and primary theological discourse in the formation of believers.