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“Secular” Music as Worship

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being…” (Jn 1:1-3, NRSV).  The logos, the Word of God, can be thought of as the primordial sounding, the fundamental vibration which speaks and sings all things into existence.  As the beginning of John’s prologue tells us, we find God in this creative act of coming-into-being.  And when we create new structures by organizing these vibrational patterns in time, we get music.

Liturgical Studies professor Mary McGann suggests “God acts… through the idioms, perceptions, and insights of a people’s culture.”  Thus, music is a form of communication through which we can observe how God’s action is expressed and understood across all times and places.  As ethnomusicologist Steven Feld observed, “Songs are the collective and connective flow of individual lives and community histories.”  Through our music, we experience deep connections to God (and thus, our own identities), our families and communities, and the wider world.  Meaning is made and identity is formed through creating and making music, whether we label it as “secular” or “sacred,” and music offers us a primary way of connecting with the holy – with the immanent God.  

I find Benedictine monk Bede Griffith’s description of the movement of Creation to be incredibly beautiful: “The love-energy of God flows out to express itself in the universe.  God calls into being all the creatures of the universe to express [God]self, to manifest [God]self, to manifest [God’s] love and to bring forth that love in them.”  And I agree with 20th century philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich’s understanding that the religious dimension can be found in all aspects of culture related to our “ultimate concern” – the quest for the meaning of our being.  In the creative, expressive act of making music of all kinds, we declare an emphatic “Yes!” to being in a sonic manifestation of God’s love.

The regular use of traditional songs of faith, particularly those that are historically meaningful, is extremely important for any faith community in order to cultivate and maintain a shared identity – especially in the congregational songs we sing together.  And if we are able to break down the dividing wall between labeling music as “sacred” and “secular,” we may develop a shared identity that is open to new and different ways of understanding how God expresses Godself through our neighbors – and how we ourselves already worship! – beyond the walls of the church.  By understanding “secular” music as a form of worship that honors God’s creative action, we become better equipped to express God’s love by word and deed to all people.

Christian McIvor
Minister of Worship, Music, and the Arts

Resources Used for this Article:

Feld, Steven. “Acoustemology.” In Keywords in Sound, edited by David Novak and Matt 
Sakakeeny, 12-21. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.
Griffiths, Bede. A New Vision of Reality: Western Science, Eastern Mysticism and Christian Faith. Edited by Felicity Edwards. Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1989.
Hudgins, Tripp. “Sonic Theology.” Lecture, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, 
Winston-Salem, NC, October 25, 2019.
McGann, Mary E. Exploring Music as Worship and Theology: Research in Liturgical Practice
Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2002.
Tillich, Paul. Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions. New York: Columbia 
University Press, 1963.