Music, culture & urban church: a response

Dave Williams has written an interesting post on music, culture and the urban church over at faithroots. You can read his article here.

An interesting discussion broke out via twitter on this issue among some of us working in deprived communities. What kicked this off was an article by John Piper regarding the Christian rapper Lecrae (you can read that article here). Apparently my views on hip-hop – the assumption being that Oldham was replete with undiscovered rap talent – were particularly valuable in this whole discussion. My entire view on rap is essentially summed up here by Stewart Lee:

Whilst it is clearly the case that Oldham is a deprived town – the most deprived in England in fact – I’m not sure it is healthy or correct to assume that poor/urban equals black culture. Whilst there are black people in Oldham, ‘black culture’ (such that we can make sweeping generalisations as to what that is) isn’t dominant. Overwhelmingly, the town is made up of first and second generation South Asians – largely from Pakistan or Bangladesh – and white British. There are significant numbers of Eastern Europeans too.

Our area of Glodwick is overwhelmingly made up of first and second generation South Asians. Rap culture simply is not that prevalent – particularly for many of the Muslim women with whom we have good contact. I think too many of us immediately think of Straight Outta Compton when we think about the urban poor. If we’re a bit more British about it, we think of Saaf Landan (that’s, South London if your from the North). But the sort of culture that dominates those areas is not the same as that of the urban poor in Oldham and Rochdale. If we started employing rap in churches in Oldham it would be just as odd as sending some Morris Dancers to a church in Peckham in the vain hope of connecting with the yoof.

Nonetheless, I think Dave raises some points that are worth thinking about. I think he made three particular points that bear considering:

  1. What we sing in our churches rarely reflects what people are listening to outside
  2. We often assume music is culturally neutral when it isn’t
  3. Do we inflict our music tastes on those coming in simply because it is our preference?

These points don’t stand alone but interact with one another.

For example, it is absolutely true that churches are not singing what most people are listening to outside. Nonetheless, as Dave rightly notes, we often assume music is culturally neutral when it isn’t. Whilst hymnody is clearly imbued with its own cultural significance, so too is every other musical form. [1] The question, then, is how far should culturally loaded, secular music styles influence what we sing in the church?

I also struggle with the third point. Most of what is sung in the churches I have attended can be categorised either as staid and traditional hymnody, saccharin modern pop-style songs, or – in rare cases – genteel soft rock. Suffice to say, most of it is musically not my bag. I have rarely, if ever, been in a church that reflected my musical preferences. I’m yet to attend the church that is aping the musical form of the obscure indie, post-punk, arthouse or alt-rock I tend to like. Nor have I ever been to church that has set hymns to the punk and ska music for which I have had an affection.

What was, perhaps, lost in the discussion was the more vital question of, does it really matter? Why should my musical preferences be represented in the church? Presuming somebody’s musical preferences are reflected in modern hymnody, I am always preferring somebody else’s musical preference in church. The question I have, then, is why should I prefer one particular group’s musical preference e.g. rap over, say, the people who prefer a bit of Cliff Richard, or those who would rather hear something more like Jimmy Cliff? Why focus on the music of urban youth (leaving aside the assumption that they all love rap – they really don’t!) at the expense of the music of the urban over 60s, or the urban immigrant, or the urban me?

Even before we ask whether anybody has written congregational songs in any of these styles – which they often haven’t, making the point moot because the songs aren’t there to be sung – isn’t a focus on the style of music rather emphasising the wrong thing? If we are all on board with the idea that we should put our own musical preferences to one side, how are we helping those coming into the church to do this by remodelling our music based on whatever they happen to be into? More to the point, the reason I don’t mind singing songs that are not in the style I prefer is because I don’t sing them for their great tunes or wonderful musicality. I sing them because it is a way of calling to mind the truths they contain.

When I dipped my toes into learning Greek, one of the first things we did was learn a song to remember the letters of the alphabet. The song itself was musically rubbish. But we weren’t singing it because the tune was worthy of seeing at a gig or buying on a record. It was the sort of thing that acted as a device to help us remember letters. In the church, the music is not primarily there to act as a vehicle for selling records or for making me go, ‘I loved that tune’. It is there as means of teaching truth and helping it to stick in our minds.

There is something about certain kinds of music – even sometimes aesthetically quite poor music – that lends itself to remembering truth. That is why we sing. It is a vehicle for calling to mind scriptural truth. I am under no illusions that people do not go home singing my 40-minute sermon. But, even when the music is not to their taste, people do go home and sing the songs.

For that reason, even if the young people roundabout our church were immersed in rap, I probably wouldn’t use it in church. That has nothing to do with my preferences and everything to do with the fact that it is not congregationally easy to sing nor the most helpful vehicle in calling to mind truth for the average person. Our worship songs may not be what I’d pay to see performed at a gig, but it is better for singing together and calling to mind later.

We do those coming in a favour when our music is perhaps not musically to their taste. We teach them that church is not about meeting their preferences and the songs are not about the brilliant tunes. We ask of them what we ask of everyone else – focus on the words, let the tune be a vehicle for calling those truths to mind and don’t let your preferences get in the way of serving others.


  1. This is not an issue of race or gender. Most of us have sung hymns from Europe, black American spirituals, white American rally songs as well as the famous hymns by (largely) white British men and women.


  1. If you are ever down in London it would be worthwhile attending Ecclesia Church, Lewisham or New Life Church, Roehampton to ask Efrem Buckle and Duncan Forbes about the cultural barriers they see in the way of young people joining the church.
    I have never attempted to use rap in church, but I have attempted to study hip-hop culture to understand parts of South London, just as I studied Chinese culture in Beijing. It is easy to preach to myself, rather that to my congregation. If the congregation are struggling with asceticism and ancestor worship, there is no use in me applying the Word to people’s lives to deal with my materialism and lack of filial piety.
    The Asian youth mindset near Manchester is likely a bit different from the Asian youth mindset in London. The British lads who carried out the executions for Isis were all into rap music, with one of them a popular YouTube star. Hip-hop is much more than a music beat, it is a whole “rebel from the margins” worldview. It’s worth reading up on. One of those philosophies that doesn’t get taught at Oakhill 🙂
    You can appreciate the philosophy without enjoying the music….

    1. Despite my exaggeration for comic effect, I’m not totally unversed in hip-hop. It’s not for me as a genre, but – as I mentioned – I am sympathetic to the cultural context out of which it has arisen. It would be very interesting to do a comparative study on the cultural contexts that gave rise to UK punk and American hip-hop. I suspect you will find some similar issues played out according to the overarching class/race issue most prevalent in the respective context.

      The point, that there are cultural barriers to people coming into the church is a valid one, of course. But it will (a) differ from place to place and is (b) not limited to culture as expressed through music.

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