Southwestern students attend the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music Conference


Students and faculty of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s School of Church Music and Worship (SCMW) made academic presentations and participated in panel discussions and musical performances during the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music Conference at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, March 2-4.

Reflecting on the contributions from the SCMW at the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music Conference, Interim Provost Matt Queen said, “Their efforts have honored our school and our reputation among those in their guild.”

The Society for Christian Scholarship and Music Conference is a “cross-disciplinary society of people that study music from all kinds of different angles, but they’re all interested in the connection with Christianity, Christian history, Christian theology, etc,” said Joshua Waggener, professor of church music and worship and coordinator of research doctoral programs in church music and worship. “It has been a wonderful place for me to grow as a scholar of church music in a place friendly to Christians,” he added.

Joe Crider, dean of the SCMW, is “not only so grateful for the incredibly gifted students God is bringing to Southwestern, and for Dr. Waggener’s excellent mentoring of our students, but we are also thrilled that the SCMW has a seat at the table voicing clearly biblical perspectives among Christian music scholars from schools all over the country.”

“Under the guidance of Dr. Waggener, our School of Church Music research doctoral students made significant contributions at the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music,” Crider added.

During the conference, which included international representation from Canada, the United Kingdom, Nigeria, Israel, and China, Southwestern students, Jordan Covarelli, James Plenty, Daniel Webster, Sunny Choi, and James Cheesman, presented academic papers and led in performances.

Choi, a Doctor of Musical Arts in Church Music student at Southwestern, and Rachel Parker, a recent Doctor of Music Arts in Church Music graduate, “performed a recital on Saturday featuring Korean art songs and hymns and worship songs. That was very well received just above and beyond our expectations. The participants really enjoyed the presentation,” said Waggener.

James Plenty, a professor and department chair of music at Morris Brown College and a School of Church Music and Worship Doctor of Philosophy student from Atlanta, Georgia, attended the SCSM conference for the first time. He found it to be a rewarding experience. “The thing that continues to resonate with me was just the sense of camaraderie and support across the attendees. The conference was very much an academic space but also a very supportive space, which I really appreciate being a graduate student and attending a conference where there are people who are already practitioners and academicians in the field,” said Plenty.

Plenty had several motives for attending the SCSM conference and recognizes the unique space it provides for “individuals who are looking to contribute to sacred music scholarship.” He wanted to “hear about some of the research that’s being done in the field regarding Christian music” and was “introduced to the conference” by Waggener and “encouraged” to have presentations at the conference.

Plenty is a conductor with a performance background and did a 30-minute poster presentation titled Halleluja!: Analyzing Theological Compositional Approaches in Bruckner’s Psalm 150. “I recently studied Psalm 150 and wanted to explore some of the theological implications of the piece with the hope of better understanding and better preparing the piece for presentation in the future,” he explained.

Attending the SCSM conference inspired Plenty in many ways. “The conference for me illuminated so many gaps in literature that in performance practice that I think would benefit the context in which I serve so it will benefit my students that I teach at the college but also will benefit the different churches that I have an opportunity to serve as well,” he said. Upon returning from the conference, Plenty said he has been “encouraged” to “continue to engage in the work of scholarship and research.”

James Cheesman, a Ph.D. in Church Music and Worship student, from Cuero, Texas, who is also the associate pastor and worship leader at First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Texas, and the music director for the 2023 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, led a virtual presentation titled From Life’s First Cry to Final BreathExamining How the Narrative Hymns of Getty and Townsend Captured the Church’s Attention in the New Millennium. He explained his paper examined “the three early hymns by Keith Getty and Stuart Tenant and how they capitalized on writing hymns that had a narrative because there was not a lot of church music in the 1990s that had any type of story elements in them.”

“Stories kind of speak to people emotionally so it was about how stories and songs can connect to people’s emotions may be better than other songs at times. That’s why they chose to write some of their early hymns with narrative as the key centerpiece,” said Cheesman. He expressed thanks to Waggener for his encouragement and help in giving “good ideas on how to craft the proposals. I’m so very grateful to have his leadership and guidance to help us get into conferences like this.”

Waggener moderated a panel discussion that included professors from Duke University, Yale University, and Bowling Green University, where they discussed a book presentation on the new book Sacred and Secular Intersections in Music of the Long Nineteenth Century: Church, Stage, and Concert Hall, published by Lexington books, of which Waggener contributed a chapter on a symphony by Felix Mendelssohn.

He said the book is “a look at historical music from all kinds of different traditions, that is considered sacred in some way, but it’s not music that is written for the church. Many of the pieces are pieces to be performed on a concert stage.”

Waggener, who has been involved with the SCSM conference since 2010, appreciates that the conference goes beyond talking about things to seeing some of their ideas and words brought to life at the conference. “I think our conference is special because we not just talk about the music, but we have some people make music and even do a little bit of singing,” he noted.

Waggener has found inspiration from the conference by seeing “the success of the students” and “opportunities” they have found “both in this society as well as others such as the Evangelical Theological Society.” Waggener appreciates the initiative the Southwestern students involved in SCSM take in “getting out there” while they are doing “their scholarship” and “research as part of their Southwestern studies. They did not wait until they graduated to try to present something or publish something. Their work is being recognized,” he said.