Music Sacred and Profane: Exploring the Use of Popular Music in Evangelical Worship Services

By Vega, April | Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Music Sacred and Profane: Exploring the Use of Popular Music in Evangelical Worship Services


Vega, April, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture


In early 2010, I visited a church in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. that hosts approximately 300 people on Sunday mornings. This majority-white church uses a fairly typical "contemporary worship"-style liturgy with projection screens, a lengthy sermon, and a rock band. They celebrate communion every Sunday, and on the day I was visiting, a man with a guitar came on stage and greeted the congregation as they filed from their seats to receive the bread and wine. "This next song," he said, "may not be one that you typically hear in church, but I thought that the words could really speak to us as Christians as we take communion." The song was "Falling Slowly" by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, from the soundtrack of the movie Once (Hansard and Irglova 2007). The lyrics for the chorus are as follows: "Take this sinking boat and point it home / We've still got time / Raise your hopeful voice you have a choice/You've made it known." The lyrics make no reference to any traditional or recognizable Christian symbols but were expressive of intense emotion and were ambiguous enough to be interpreted in different ways. After the song ended, the congregation sang songs with recognizably Christian lyrics until the end of the service. It was a typical worship service, with the exception of this one song during what is often considered the high point of Christian liturgy, the celebration of communion. Despite the non-religious lyrics, it appeared, as people came forward and some knelt at the cross to pray, to be a powerful moment for the congregation.

It may seem like a cliche to discuss the "power of music," but recent research into the psychology and sociology of music demonstrates the affect of this power. Tia DeNora argues that music "makes available ways of feeling, being, moving and thinking ... it animates us ... it keeps us 'awake.'" (DeNora 2000, 157). She writes that the music one chooses to listen to at any given point can be seen as a resource of emotion, a way to influence one's own inner life, and that music is also used to interpret and understand social situations; it helps us define where we are, to locate ourselves in our environment (DeNora 2000, 13). Finally, she asserts, music helps us to locate ourselves in ourselves. That is to say, music is a part of identity, both reflecting and forming our perception of ourselves. DeNora argues,

   Thus, in turning to different musics and the meaningful particles
   that "reflect" and register self-identity that provide a template
   of self, individuals are also choosing music that produces
   self-images that are tenable, that seem doable, habitable.
   Respondents seem to access the music of 'who they are' through an
   elective affinity, through a feeling for what seems comfortable and
   what is exemplary (2000, 73).

What one chooses to listen to, then, reflects both who one is and whom one hopes to be. Listening to music not only helps us access desired states and make sense of social situations, but it helps us access and make sense of ourselves.

The significance of these insights for religious practice is straightforward. DeNora identifies music as "an accomplice in attaining, enhancing and maintaining desired states of feeling and bodily energy," and through her studies on how people use music in their lives, argues that the rhythms, harmonies, and styles of music are used by people as representations of where they would like to be emotionally and physically, and, I would add, spiritually (2000, 53). In a religious service, one function of music is to bring the congregation into a heightened state of spiritual awareness. Recent studies in neuroscience indicate the possibility that religious and aesthetic experiences are actually different manifestations of the same core neurological experience, and this supports the applicability of DeNora's findings (Alma 2008, 28). Music is used in religious settings to bring people closer to the perceived presence of the Divine. …

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