In an era when fewer and fewer people go to church, it is often the song, not the sermon, speech or blog that touches people’s lives in a deep and meaningful way. Houses of faith may embody ethics, morality and good deeds; but the church can learn more of these same things from the street, perhaps as much as the street can learn from the church.
The Beatles, for example, are proof that spirituality flows both ways. As a child being raised in a troubled home; religion and spirituality were discussed about as often as we discussed opera, which was never. Music and, to a lesser degree, nature were my sole soulful companions. One day, I turned on the radio and heard a hit song that began, “Help! I need somebody! Help! Not just anybody! Help! You know I need someone! Help!”
I was a twelve year old boy and, like John Lennon, I also needed help, but I didn’t know where to turn. I did not have a girlfriend, therapist, church or relationship with this “concept” called God to turn to. So I turned to the Beatles, none of whom professed or practiced Christianity and yet they wrote and recorded song after song that came from a place of deep spirituality. And so it was not Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, L. Ron Hubbard, Sigmund Freud, Higher Power, Jehovah or G.O.D. (Good Orderly Direction) that led me to hope for some “Help!” It was the Beatles. George Harrison was a Hare Krishna who wrote “My Sweet Lord” and “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)”; John Lennon wrote “Eleanor Rigby”; “Imagine” & “Give Peace a Chance.” Paul McCartney wrote “Lady Madonna”; “Black Bird”; “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude.”
I didn’t have a church but thank God I had a radio and a record player. It was popular music that impressed, inspired, inoculated and inundated by soul until, by the grace of God, I was led to a church for the first time in my life at age 34 ~ and church became my spiritual home. Nine years later I was baptized and four years after that I was ordained by the United Church of Christ. And then one day ~ over 15 years after becoming a pastor ~ I was late in picking up my son from school because I was stuck in rush hour traffic. I was not ~ to put it mildly ~ using this plight as an opportunity to practice prayer and serenity. I was angry, resentful, impatient and going nowhere. My son would be worried; dinner would be late; and I would be rushed to make it to a church meeting I was leading and for which I was under-prepared. Flying down the highway at three miles per hour; I slammed my hand against the dashboard and turned on the radio.
And then it happened. I heard the first few measures of a favorite song from my youth. Suddenly a single tear meandered its way down my cheek. Feelings of love, sweet longing and wholeness encompassed me. What happened? Music happened!
That was when the genesis of a series of musical events came to me. The series is now in its fifth year. We use the Spirituality of Popular Music as a key to unlock the door that often separates people who go to church from those who don’t by allowing music ~ not doctrine, creed or dogma ~ to begin an exploration of the relationship between music, musicians and spirituality. The series is also an invitation for people to consider, perhaps for the first time in a long time, what in their spirit was awakened by a particular song and why. It is held in the church; but is not for a specifically Christian “audience” ~ just as music need not be in order to reach people’s spirit. It is (but need not necessarily be) based on live performances. And it is most certainly not preachy, expensive, or an attempt to plant and harvest new members.
Rather, The Spirituality of Popular Music is a very rewarding and enjoyable way to fund the feedings programs of the church (we have not had to ask church members or the government for any funds to assist the operations of our soup kitchen and food pantry in the five years since the series began). I write the “libretto” (script) that introduces and places the songs like beads on a necklace. I choose the songs and the order in which they are played and make it available, for a nominal fee, to churches that would like a replicate or adapt the series to fit their own circumstances. The suggested admission fee is reasonable and, ultimately, optional; in that we clearly announce in advance advertising as well as at the door that “no one will ever be turned-away for lack of money.” A few pay less than the suggested fee, and many pay more. All guests are welcomed and acknowledged equally, graciously, and hospitably.
We have raised tens of thousands of dollars and the events have drawn thousands of guests and over 100 musicians who petition to be part of the next event. They perform for free, although some are broke and we always discretely offer honorariums for them to accept or reject. Some of the attendees have joined the church, most have not. Nonetheless, they form a “congregation” of the spirit that can be counted on to assist the church virtually whenever we ask and they are available. People who attend are roughly 50% returnees and 50% first-timers, meaning that we are constantly refreshing and renewing our audiences. About three-quarters of the people who attend this spirituality series do not regularly attend church, synagogue or fellowship. Many have not attended a church service for ten, twenty, or thirty years. And yet they come. They know it is not a concert (after all, the title begins, “The Spirituality of…”). They are clearly seeking a spiritual connection to… something. We meet them wherever they are on their spiritual journey and consider it a good beginning that they may or may not choose to pursue further.
I often wonder if they are seeking a spiritual connection with the music itself? Are they seeking a spiritual connection to a person or event in their earlier life that was triggered by the music? Are they somehow, in some way, consciously or not ~ seeking connection with God? I don’t know. I don’t know if they knew either. I don’t know if it matters. But I do know it is working.
I am deeply grateful that the church I serve is willing to be physically and spiritually open to the community by sponsoring events in the church whose primary purpose is to assist people in connecting with the God of their understanding; whether that God be called Jesus, Yahweh, Higher Power, Big Bang, To Whom It May Concern, or some other name for the awe and mystery at the center of creation and creativity. It is a great thing that the musicians and “congregation” that exists primarily outside of the church are willing to share their spirituality with us ~ so that we as a church may remain flexible and teachable and may continue our own growth along spiritual lines. We all have much to learn.
Churches, music directors, choirs, deacons, educators, mission and ministry teams involved in social outreach and social justice, and many others may be inspired by the financial, spiritual, joyful and ecumenical success of this ongoing series.
If you are interested in learning more or possibly adapting this series (or solo event) for your church; I will be leading a webinar on “The Spirituality of Popular Music” under the auspices of the Practical Resources for Churches (PRC) on Tuesday, January 24th at 7:00 in the evening (Eastern Standard Time). For information, contact: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/3098104187832652036
Dwight Lee Wolter is pastor of the Congregational Church of Patchogue on Long Island, New York. He is the author of several books. He blogs at dwightleewolter.com and tweets @dwightleewolter