Orange Alert

Syracuse University Scholar Investigates ‘Media-Savvy Evangelicalism’

Deborah Justice says churches are increasingly turning to popular music, digital media to attract followers

May 16, 2014, by Rob Enslin

Deborah Justice
Deborah Justice
The intersection of church and cinema is the subject of a major article by a faculty member in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Deborah Justice, the Carole and Alvin I. Schragis Faculty Fellow in the Department of Art and Music Histories (AMH), is the author of “When Church and Cinema Combine: Blurring Boundaries Through Media-Savvy Evangelicalism” in the Journal of Religion, Media, and Digital Culture (JRMDC). The article is part of a special JRMDC issue titled “Film, Television, and the Body.”

“This publication is a major accomplishment for Deborah and the department,” says Theo Cateforis, associate professor and chair of AMH. “It is an innovative piece of research, one that examines, with great insight, the growing influence of digital media in Sunday morning worship. The article brilliantly showcases the nature of Deborah's scholarship—the perceived tensions between the old and new and between pluralism and authenticity.”

Justice uses two case studies to illustrate her point. One involves CityChurch, a free evangelical faith community that meets in a movie theater in the Bavarian town of Würzburg (Germany); the other is the Lives Changed by Christ (LCBC) Church, one of the United States’ largest megachurches, with six locations in eastern Pennsylvania.

Although both churches rely on popular music and digital media to attract and retain followers, CityChurch and LCBC consider themselves culturally alternative and spiritually authentic.

“By engaging with international flows of worship music, films, and viral internet sensations, new media-centered faith communities, such as CityChurch and LCBC, reconfigure established sacred soundscapes,” says Justice, an expert in ethnomusicology and sacred music. “The use of social media, in particular, creates opportunities for new religious groups to assert themselves in contrast to established religious institutions.”

At CityChurch, music and media are used not only to distinguish the church from its traditional German counterparts, but also to forge connections with a virtual global community. A rock band plays German- and English-language praise music. The pastor uses PowerPoint and Hollywood film clips to drive home his points. Congregants text and email him questions during the service.

The result is what Justice calls a feeling of “contemporary hipness.”

“While the congregation is multigenerational, the ‘our generation’ sense pervades, and other age groups conform to what they perceive to be those cultural norms,” writes Justice, who earned a Ph.D. from Indiana University.

Halfway around the world, LCBC interweaves live sermons (streamed from the “main campus” to the other locations) with pop music, video clips, and light shows. Just like the restaurant and retail chains surrounding it, each branch campus offers a common brand of religious consumer experience.

Experts refer to it as “post-suburban sacrality.”  

“Analyzing the dynamics of music and media in these new worship spaces assumes growing importance, as transnational music and media choices play an increasingly central role in locally differentiating emergent worship communities from historically hegemonic religious neighbors,” Justice says. “In a theology of immanent divine omnipresence, the mundane media of the everyday takes on sacred significance.”

AMH is one of the oldest academic departments of its kind in the country. The department offers a variety of graduate and undergraduate programs in the study of the arts in relation to their cultural, social, economic, and political contexts.

Media Contact

Rob Enslin