If there’s one Bible verse that summarizes how Marcell Steuernagel embraces his multi-faceted, multicultural life, it’s Isaiah 30:21: “Whether you turn to the right or you turn to the left, your ears will hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’”
“That’s kind of been my motto for over 20 years now, because it emphasizes the unpredictability of life,” he said. “One of the temptations of the Christian journey is to posture as if we know what God is doing. This verse is a good picture of my relationship with God throughout the journey of life.”
And what a journey it has been. Originally from Brazil, Steuernagel served for over a decade as the Worship, Arts and Communication minister at a Lutheran church in Brazil. He and his family moved to the United States five years ago when he began his Ph.D. studies at Baylor University — with no intention of staying in Texas or the U.S.
“I’m very much a Brazilian and a Latin American at heart,” he said. “For me, to live here means more than just uprooting my life and moving somewhere else. It’s about fully embracing multiculturality. I’m happy because Perkins is a place where I get to do that. I can speak Spanish with colleagues. Sometimes I’ll pray in Portuguese during meetings and it’s fine. I’m grateful for this place and the work we get to do.”
If you don’t hear his Brazilian accent, that’s because Steuernagel spent several years in Chicago as a child, while his father earned a Ph.D. in theology.
“I was five when we got there, and I guess English just stuck in my ear,” he said.
Steuernagel just finished a manuscript in July, Church Music through the Lens of Performance. The book will be published by Routledge, a British academic press, likely next year.
“’Performance’ is a bad word in church,” he said. “There’s this idea that performance is not sincere, it’s not real worship. So, you might hear, ‘This is not a concert, it’s a worship service.’ But from the perspective of performance theory, everyone who goes to church is performing. Not just those on the platform but also the ushers and the people in the pews. We’re performing together.”
A simple example illustrates this dynamic. Should people clap in church? A Euro-American mindset that emphasizes modesty in church as an appropriate response to the Divine might answer “no.” But at a Pentecostal church, clapping is an expression of endorsement and appreciation.
“If we assume that we’re all performing, then we need a vocabulary to talk about worship as performance,” he added. “I’m not interested in prescribing what churches should do. As a scholar, I’m more fascinated by how different churches and traditions negotiate these questions.”
Steuernagel sings and plays piano, guitar and percussion, but most of his time is devoted to either conducting or composing, his key areas of expertise. His work often takes him beyond the SMU campus. He composes music, both popular and for the concert hall, plays at area churches, at the churches of area alumni, and also at his own church, Life in Deep Ellum.
This fall semester, he’s also diving deep into the digital space. Along with Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of the Global Theological Education Program at Perkins, Steuernagel is co-teaching a new course entitled “Social Innovation: Creating World Changers with Emerging Digital Ministries.” The course is designed to help students develop theological reflection about “online” or digitally mediated ministries (DMMs) and draws on expertise from Perkins faculty —who have created nationally distributed resources during the COVID-19 pandemic—and other global experts. (Read more about the class here.)
“This is not just a response to COVID-19, but also a recognition that training people for ministry needs to include an online, digital component,” he said. “We’re focusing not so much on the technology as on the theological update that has to accompany digital ministry.”
Church music, performance studies, intercultural worship, global song, global hymnody and decolonial church music scholarship. Composition in church music. Contemporary worship music in the U.S. and globally, and the intersection of music, culture and Christian music culture.
Books on His Nightstand
Steuernagel recently finished The Narnian, an intellectual biography of C.S. Lewis, by Baylor professor Alan Jacobs (2008) and Clubland: The Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture by Frank Owen (2003), about the rise of club culture in New York in the 80s and 90s. He’s also reading Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms by Nicolette Hahn Niman (2009).
Steuernagel and his wife Caroline have been married for more than 16 years and have three kids: Arthur, 12, Davi, 10 and Alice, 9.
Steuernagel loves to cook, and before COVID-19, he and his wife entertained a lot at home– Brazilian-style. “In the U.S., if you go to someone’s home for dinner, you arrive, eat and leave after maybe two hours,” he said. “In Brazilian culture, on a weeknight, you might have people arrive for dinner at 8:30 p.m. and leave at 1 a.m. When we moved to Dallas, we took it upon ourselves to entertain the Brazilian way. We sit on our balcony and talk for hours.”
Pizza, ossobuco and venison burgers.
Personal Spiritual Practice
Steuernagel has been practicing martial arts for almost 25 years, earning a black belt in kung fu and a purple belt in jiu jitsu. “It became part of my identity,” he said. “I try to train twice a day, mornings and evenings, six days a week. I got started when I was young. I was getting mugged all the time. I just got tired of it. Martial arts teaches you how to manage situations so you don’t have to get into a physical altercation. My kung fu practice is a very prayer-filled moment, a deep spiritual time with God.”