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Why Play Secular Songs in Worship?

Why Play Secular Songs in Worship?

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A few times a month during worship, after the preacher gives the benediction and as families are heading out the door, the worship team will close with a fun, upbeat, positive ‘secular’ pop song to send people on their way. Every once in a while we’ll even begin worship together with an upbeat secular song. Things like Uptown Funk and Happy by Pherell, or Uptight by Stevie Wonder.

This week I had a good friend of mine ask why we play secular songs in worship instead of just overtly sacred songs. Here’ what I told him:

1. It Helps Unchurched People To Know They Belong. 
The biggest question each of us are asking anytime we step into a new group or an unfamiliar situation is – DO I BELONG HERE? This desire to be known and to belong is hard-wired into us. If someone is unchurched, and they’ve actually shown up to your worship service, they are taking a huge risk. There are many moments in the culture of a worship service when anyone unchurched is likely going to feel like an outsider, which leads them to feel alienated, like they don’t belong, and to question what they were thinking in trying to strange thing out in the first place. People raising their hands and closing their eyes to music, praying out loud, getting dunked in tubs of water, or drinking tiny cups of mediocre grace juice…all of those things that seem totally normal to ‘church people’ can seem really weird and alienating to unchurched people. My goal in throwing in a pop song at the beginning or the end of the service is to give that unchurched or dechurched person at least one moment within the service where they can say, ‘Hey, that’s my kind of music’. And hopefully just behind that comment is another one: ‘Hey, maybe in some way I DO belong here. Maybe this is as Other as I thought it was. Maybe I could see myself coming back again to see if there’s anything to this whole God thing’. A pop song isn’t going to offer healing or transformation or new life on its own, but, just maybe, it can give someone a reason (or an excuse) to stick around long enough to begin to experience what else God up to.

2. It RE-claims the song. 
Does anyone remember Oh Happy Day from Sister Act 2? It’s actually a gospel arrangement of an 18th-century hymn. But the real point is, I can’t hear Oh Happy Day without thinking of Whoopi Goldberg in a habit dancing around. I just can’t! That song is forever linked with Whoopi in my mind. It has been claimed by Whoopi. I hope that anytime Uptown Funk comes on the radio while a member of my congregation is in the grocery store, or the mall, or wherever else you hear top 40 radio, that when they hear the song they remember their worshiping community, and more importantly, the God that they worship in that community.

I have a friend who visited a monastery where every hour they would ring a bell on the property, and all the monks would take a moment to bow their head in prayer before going back to their daily tasks. A moment of prayer and mindfulness, of thankfulness, of remembering who they are and whose they are. I hope that every time these pop songs get played on the radio, our community will have a moment where they are reminded, however tangentially, that God is with them exactly where they are, wherever they are, when they hear the song. That we can forever re-claim the song.

3. It Helps when you’re trying to invite a friend to church.
Look. It’s awkward to invite someone to church. It just is. I think for a lot of us, we’re just not exactly sure what to say. Especially if the person we’re asking isn’t familiar with church culture. I hope that when we play pop songs it can be a point of natural conversation when we invite friends to church. That it’s at least there as an option so you have something to say. Something as simple as “yeah. it’s fun. They play {insert radio song here} sometimes! And the preacher is really good and has stuff to say about life and stuff”. Now I know that no one’s going to come to church just to hear a cover version of a song when they can pick up their phone and see a much better music video by the actual artist with a 4 million dollar production budget. But, again, the song isn’t about the song. The song is a way of saying, “You should check my church out. You BELONG here.” And what church is about is Belonging.

Travis Jeffords currently serves as the contemporary worship director and college ministry co-director at First United Methodist Church in Bloomington, IN.  Travis frequently arranges string and brass parts for use in worship, and they’re available for free download here.  He and his wife Ashlee are expecting their first child in March.

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