Melanie Ross, assistant professor of liturgical studies at the Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School, has been awarded a $40,000 Sabbatical Grant for Researchers from the Louisville Institute. The Lilly Endowment-funded grant program enables academics engaged in study of the church and scholarly religious leaders to conduct a major study that can contribute to the vitality of Christianity in North America. The program is based at Louisville Seminary in Kentucky.
Additionally, Professor Ross has also been named a Henry Luce III Fellow in Theology for 2014-15. Supported by grants of up to $75,000 each, the Fellows engage in year-long theological research projects and present their findings for publication. Established in 1993, the program of the Henry Luce III Fellows in Theology supports the research of junior and senior scholars whose projects offer significant and innovative contributions to theological studies. The program seeks to foster excellence in theological scholarship, and to strengthen the links among theological research, churches, and wider publics.
These grants will enable Ross to devote the 2014-2015 academic year to conduct research for a book project, entitled Varieties of Evangelical Worship: An American Mosaic. Ross notes that American religious historians and sociologists describe evangelicalism as a mosaic, kaleidoscope, or patchwork quilt—colorful metaphors that accentuate the movement’s internal complexity and theological plurality. In contrast, liturgical scholars’ descriptions of evangelical worship life are disappointingly monochromatic. Ross laments that journalistic and academic accounts alike seem to rely on the same stock photo: “middle class worshipers, usually white, in coporate-looking auditoriums or sanctuaries, swaying to the electrified music of ‘praise bands,’ their eyes closed, their enraptured faces tilted heavenward, a hand (or hands) raised to the sky.” As a liturgical scholar who regularly worships in evangelical churches, Ross rejects the reductionism and homogeneity of this snapshot. She claims that there is pressing need for new work that brings together the best of liturgical scholarship with the best historical scholarship on American evangelicalism, and puts both in conversation with the worship practices of contemporary congregations. Her project sets out to address this lacuna.
During the course of her sabbatical year, Ross plans to conduct ten ethnographic studies of diverse evangelical congregations across the United States. In each location, she will conduct interviews, attend services, and observe musical choices, patterns of prayer, homiletic practices, and approaches to baptism and communion. The findings from this research will enable her to construct a nuanced theology of worship that deconstructs harmful stereotypes, enlivens ecumenical understanding, and does justice to the problems and possibilities inherent to evangelical worship in the twenty-first century.