Duncan Macleod

Music in Two Minds
by Duncan MacleodI read a review of the Sweetwaters Music Festival last week, in Metro magazine. The writer talked about the demise of the huge music festival era of the 1970s, explaining that we no longer think that musicians have the answers for our society. At first I wasn’t impressed. Who does this guy think he is, to write off the personal contributions of my favourite songwriters?

But then I thought some more. Society has become more discerning. Our society is much slower to make idols out of singers and songwriters. We’ve seen the discrepancies between their messages and their lifestyles too often. And I think that’s healthy. At the same time, we continue to buy the music, listen to it, watch it, promote it, download it, and reproduce it.

Heart to heart communication

We use popular music in youth ministry for good reasons. Music is one of the most powerful “heart languages” in any culture. Youth cultures in particular often find their identity through an orientation to certain styles of music. Think about the subcultures that have developed around rap music, classical music, punk, heavy metal and rave.We’re following in the footsteps of Jesus when we enter the culture of young people we serve and explore their ways of expressing reality.

I believe that the Holy Spirit equips the church today with the use of popular music as a communication tool. In Acts 2 we read about the disciples of Jesus being given an opportunity to share the gospel in the native language of several ethnic groups on the street.


Even though I am passionate about being creative with music in youth ministry, I have a number of concerns about how that is done.

True to life

My first concern is authenticity. There are times when the content of the music we listen to is at odds with the gospel message we wish to proclaim. If the songs we play merely reflect the self-centred philosophy of our consumerist society, we jeopardise not only our integrity, but also the maturity of the young people we serve.Let’s be careful not to be swallowed by the superficial values of commercial media: being humorous, entertaining, articulate, rich and timely. I think we should be humorous, entertaining, articulate, rich and timely. But entertainment based solely on these values will give no real satisfaction or transformation in the lives of young people.
(See article on Gen X and entertainment)

Music for Consumption

Another concern I have is the temptation to be merely consumers. I’ve noticed that some young people in my youth group prefer watching music to making it. At times I go along with that. Let’s use music videos and attend concerts. And then why should we have to force non-singers to experience Jesus in a singing-focused worship experience? There must be other ways to actively worship God.But there is a danger in all this. If worshipping consists of watching someone else singing, what is going on? Katherine Bergeron asks the question “What do you get when you cross performance with worship?” Her answer: “Virtual liturgy”.
See Tom Beaudoin’s book Virtual Faith

Does the music actually bring us closer to each other, closer to God? Does it change our lives? Or is it merely a drug to make things feel good?

Music as Soundtrack

One popular form of music among young people is the soundtrack. Take two movies that have come out over the past four years: Titanic and Romeo and Juliet. During the movie, the music gives the cues for atmosphere, and emotions. Without the music, the movie would be dead! When you listen to the CD later, you can relive those feelings of empathy, fear, anticipation, anger, and excitement.

I’ve used the soundtrack idea in my local youth group. This last Sunday night we featured Enigma‘s Cross of Changes. We played hacky ball and dodge ball with Enigma blasting through the speakers. We listened to the opening two tracks as we entered our Atmosphere worship experience with a visual backdrop of spring scenery on the TV. The music provided both experiences with energy and expectancy.Even though I often use background music in youth ministry programmes, I wonder where to draw the line on enjoyment and dependency. I’m worried when I see young people (and older) going through the day with their walkmans on, missing out on the music of life around them. It’s like living in a movie with the cues being provided by the music.

Music as Filler

Bill Easum makes the comment that a service with silences longer than 5 seconds is out of synch with Generation X culture and younger. I agree. If the radio or television has a gap in the programme for five seconds we lose our respect for the programming abilities of the producers.We’re used to fillers and filters, whether they be visual or sound bites. But is this approach going to sustain us in the long term? Life, believe it or not, does have spaces for silence and reflection, where our attention is not being grabbed.


Youth ministry is full of these two-sided opportunities. We can find entry-points into the cultures of young people. At the same time we are challenged to stay true to the whole gospel of Jesus Christ.