Cars. Food. Film. Social media. The people who created these products or cultural norms created them with purpose. Each of these products, experiences, or things we spend our time doing mediates a message to an eager and listening society.
For example, the automobile communicates mobility; the prefix, “auto,” communicates “self.” The car, in many ways, further engrains one of most American’s greatest beliefs: rugged individualism. Similarly, these other cultural artifacts speak a message related to their purpose.
Music’s faith and work message
Music, like these other cultural artifacts, communicates. Music can shape what we believe without realizing it. In my article, Hip Hop 101, I mention how hip hop music mediates such messages as misogyny, unbridled materialism, and justice against police brutality. Music also communicates ideas about faith and work.
Consider the lyrics of the late Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” (1979):
When the world is on your shoulder
Gotta straighten up your act and boogie down
If you can’t hang with the feelin’
Then there ain’t no room for you this part of town
‘Cause we’re the party people night and day
Livin’ crazy that’s the only way
So tonight gotta leave that nine to five upon the shelf
And just enjoy yourself
Groove, let the madness in the music get to you
Life ain’t so bad at all
If you live it off the wall
Life ain’t so bad at all (live life off the wall)
Live your life off the wall (live it off the wall)
Notice the line, “So tonight gotta leave that nine to five upon the shelf.” We inadvertently take in what music tells us to believe about certain topics. Is work an encumbrance? The fact that we “put it away” communicates a struggle with balance, desire, and purpose in our work.
As a kid, I also remember the lyrics to Rose Royce’s song, “Car Wash” (1976):
You might not ever get rich
But let me tell ya it’s better than diggin’ a ditch
There ain’t no tellin’ who you might meet
A movie star or maybe even an Indian chief
At the car wash
Workin’ at the car wash, girl
Come on and sing it with me
Sing it with the feelin’ y’all
(Car wash, yeah)
Come, some of the work gets kinda hard
This ain’t no place to be if you planned on bein’ a star
Let me tell you it’s always cool
And the boss don’t mind sometimes if you act the fool
These lyrics seem to suggest some realism, while also communicating gratitude for having a means to earn a paycheck. They also communicate that manual labor can be fun, too: “Let me tell you it’s always cool | And the boss don’t mind sometimes if you act a fool.”
There are many other songs that talk about work, and either the struggles or joys or interplay of both in our lives, proving that we sing — and write and read and speak — about what we believe and care about as humans.
A pastor’s response
Pastors might be asking, “Why use my time to listen to music?” William Romanowski, in his book, Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture answers, writing that “As representations of life, the popular arts can influence [our] behavior, shape attitudes, and opinions, and inform [our] perspective.” The messages in music influence us and the people you pastor. The messages in many genres of music communicate about faith, work, and economic wisdom that echo the true story of Scripture; other times, music communicates messages that are contrary to what we as Christians know to be true. The messages are not neutral; they shape your congregation’s behavior and beliefs about faith, work, and economic wisdom.
So, I strongly encourage pastors to become pop cultural exegetes — listen to and study music. Use examples in your sermons and teaching to participate in the renewing of the minds of your people (Romans 12:1-2).
A colleague of mine served as a youth pastor. He invited the members of his youth group to bring their favorite music to a youth group meeting. He asked them to share their music and discuss why it resonated with them so personally. I invite you, fellow pastor, to consider doing something similar.
Be curious, and ask your members what musicians and musical genres they listen to. Download this music and listen carefully to the lyrics. Listen for what can be affirmed as true and good and right about faith, work, and economic wisdom (Phil 4:8); and listen for the opposite as well for the common good of your people, because nothing is neutral.