A Practical Theology of Pop Music
group magazine: November-December, 2005
No art form shapes teenage culture, or teenage identity, more powerfully than music. That’s exactly why we need a practical theology to address its influence in kids’ lives.
This is the final installment in Walter Surdacki’s six-part series on the theological foundations for everyday youth ministry challenges.
by Walter Surdacki
Even in the hyper-consumer environment we’ve plunged our teenagers into, they still have very few real possessions. They don’t own a home, most don’t own a car, and even their bedroom furniture will likely stay put when they leave for college or the workforce. But the one thing most students really do own is their music. They shop for it, they choose it carefully, and they spend their own money to get it.
When you ask teenagers to describe themselves, they’ll often sprinkle their answers with references to their favorite music. For many, music is tightly woven into their identity, and their search for identity. That’s why it’s so important for us to think theologically about its influence in their lives.
1. Music can isolate kids and work against community.
When Sony invented the Walkman in 1980, people suddenly had the choice to “unplug” from the world around them. Now we can stand in a crowd of people and excuse ourselves from interacting with anyone. Headphones and ear buds send an unmistakable message to those around us: “I am not available—I’m plugged into my music.”
When God created Adam, he said, “It is not good
for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). But the way kids often interact with their music promotes isolation, not community. That’s why we ban personal music players on trips—we tell kids: “This is a group activity, and we want you to be part of the group!” If I see a student wearing headphones during an event, I ask if I can “borrow” the player; then I hold onto it until the end of the event.
2. Show kids that silence is (still) golden.
When Jesus spent the night in prayer or got away to “a lonely place,” he was honoring the crucial role of silence in a God-focused life. God himself couldn’t be clearer about this: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Time after time when I’ve given our teenagers the opportunity to be still without music or other distractions, God has used silent time to connect with them at a deeper level. Introduce your kids to the discipline of silence by inviting them to join you on a one-week “media fast.” There are two ways to do this. You could go for a week without listening to any music—spend your “music time” in silence instead. Or challenge them to listen only to worship music during that week. Either way, debrief the experience at your next youth meeting.
3. Challenge teenagers to study their music-listening habits.
Ask your kids to keep a detailed one-day record of the music they listen to—have them list how long they listen and the broad “messages” their music is communicating to them. Make sure they include any music they experience, including “background” stuff. Then have them get into small groups at your next meeting to compare lists. Ask kids to talk about things that surprised them. Then read aloud Philippians 4:8 and have them compare the list of things that Paul calls us to dwell on with the messages their music dwells on.
4. Give kids tools to help them make wise music choices.
Some teenagers simply gobble up what their radio serves them—they never discern “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” So train your kids (and their parents) to taste-test their music before they swallow it. Introduce them to GROUP’s subscription Web site www.MinistryandMedia.com—you’ll not only find sharp analysis of the most popular secular and Christian songs, you’ll get biblical discussion starters tied to the songs that will help your kids learn to think critically about their music influences.(1)
You can also check out sites such as www.cpyu.org, www.pluggedinonline.com, and www.decapolis.com for album reviews that will give you a good idea what’s on the CDs your teenagers are listening to. You may not agree with everything in their reviews, but you’ll at least get a taste of an album’s content. For information on song lyrics, go to www.lyrics.com, www.lyricsondemand.com or www.azlyrics.com. Use one of the sites to print the lyrics of the top 10 iTunes or Billboard songs; then challenge your kids to think critically about them by asking a simple question: “What are these songs teaching?”
5. Give teenagers alternatives.
If you’re looking for music that’s similar in style to your kids’ favorite artists, but without objectionable content, check out the music comparison chart on www.MinistryandMedia.com’s music home page, or go to sites such as www.CCMcom.com, www.TrueTunes.com, and www.interlinc-online.com.
Also, I play positive music at all our events so I can introduce students to new music. Many times I’ve had students at an event ask me, “Who is this?” Interlinc-online.com has a great Youth Leaders Only subscription that loads you up with all sorts of great music throughout the year, complete with music videos that you can show before or during an event, music-based Bible studies, and artist posters. You can also spend an hour a month taste-testing music at your local Christian bookstore. Many of them have listening stations so you can sample the music before you buy it.
6. Learn from the music choices your kids make.
Hand your kids a survey that asks them to list their top five songs or artists. You’ll learn a lot about what’s going on in their lives by studying the artists’ style and lyrics. This is also a great way to start off a new school year or a semester break—it will help you pinpoint changes your kids are going through.
7. Challenge the Christian-label-only mentality.
Last summer I was talking with a few friends about music. One of them said, “People are Christians, not music.” I agreed. Christian bookstores aren’t the only depositories of God-sanctioned music. Throughout the music industry artists are producing redemptive work. Paul used the Greek poets when he preached, and we can use our culture’s poets in similar ways.
Host a night in your home for students to bring their favorite music—ask them to each talk about a truth contained in their favorite song. Make a compilation CD of their favorite nonobjectionable songs to play on your next road trip.
Music is powerful because God created it to be powerful. The more we equip our teenagers with the information and tools they need to choose their music wisely, the better their spiritual health.
Walter Surdacki is a veteran youth and family minister in California. He enjoys taking his wife out to dinner, snowboarding, music, the beach, and leading his two daughters on a quest for the perfect doughnut. You can reach him at email@example.com.
1. MinistryandMedia.com also offers topical biblical discussion-starting ideas for films, breaking news, and video games. You can search the site’s huge database by artist, topic, and title. To take a free tour of the site, go to www.ministryandmedia.com, and click on the link at the top of the home page.