As a grade-school kid, I have vivid memories of my father sitting at the foot of my bed at night, six-string guitar in hand, singing me to sleep with beautiful lullabies. They were not, however, typical bedtime fare. Leave it to my Dad to soothe me to sleep with The Doors’ “Light My Fire” and “House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals! Somehow it worked, and I loved it.
Not only did my dad help me sleep at night, but he taught me an important message about music: that it transcends the classifications and compartments we often try to impose. Supposedly Plato said, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” You can’t put that sort of thing in a box.
These days I enjoy discovering spiritual musings in what we typically refer to as “secular” songs— music that is not written, produced, packaged, marketed or distributed for an overtly religious purpose. I like the challenge of hearing what lies beneath the surface, making me work for it a bit. I find it not only gratifying personally but helpful in ministry, providing a way to equip folks in our 21st century context to encounter God in surprising places. And my sense is that they are eager to join in.
Recently I posed this question to the Facebook masses: What are some “secular” songs that you find genuinely deep spiritual meaning in? Within hours it garnered just shy of 150 responses. Seems like that exercise struck a chord (pun intended).
In the church we have an amazing opportunity, I think, to invite people into this winding journey; one that empowers folks to become part of the music themselves. Let me offer a few thoughts on ways to help youth groups, Sunday school classes, and Bible studies engage secular music in ministry.
BROADEN YOUR EXPECTATIONS, OR BETTER YET, LET GO OF THEM ALTOGETHER
When it comes to spiritual music, we often have certain expectations: a particular type of sound, reference to God or Jesus, a positive or hopeful message. When we let go of these expectations, we find we’re not only surprised by the spirituality we encounter in secular music, but how deep it goes.
I try to listen less for trigger words and phrases that, on the surface, appear to make a song more religious. I also make a point of leaning into, rather than away from, songs that have a message that is not upbeat. The Psalms (songs themselves, of course) are some of the more spiritual writings of scripture, and not all of them are praise or thanksgiving. You don’t have to look hard to find lament, heartache, anger, frustration, even rage. The fact that these voices have a home in our canon is evidence enough that there is deep spirituality in the struggle.
DON’T MESS WITH THE LYRICS
Find a song that works, but not quite? Resist the urge to tweak lyrics to make them more user-friendly in religious contexts. Music is a form of art, and it’s important to respect the artist’s work as it’s presented. It’s the same reason someone doesn’t change the color scheme of van Gogh’s “Starry Night” just because they think “it needs a little less blue.” If you can’t use the art in the way the artist originally presented it, best not to use it at all.
The options are endless, because music pushes us to the truth, and most songwriters today are writing about things that matter. I refer back to that Facebook post with all the suggestions, which you can check out HERE. Some of the more frequently mentioned were Arcade Fire, Bob Dylan, Indigo Girls, Marvin Gaye, Ben Harper, U2, Mumford & Sons, Twenty-One Pilots, Coldplay, The Avett Brothers, Bruce Springsteen. You get the picture. Listen widely. Find music that grabs your attention and just listen.
HOW BEST TO USE WHAT YOU FIND
Singing in a worship or retreat context is an obvious use of this music. Creating a Sunday school or youth group program would be good as well. You might ask them in advance to bring a song that speaks to them spiritually and share with the group. Playing some of these songs as background music for a fellowship event could be a subtle way of inviting people into the conversation.
What are songs from the secular world speak to your faith? How have you engaged those songs in the life and work of the church?
Steve Lindsley is a singer/songwriter who has released five studio albums and led music for over a hundred youth retreats and conferences. Currently he serves as the senior minister at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. To learn more, visit www.stevelindsley.com.