Ears To Hear

By Dn Michael Anderson

To be involved with youth ministry today is inevitably to become aware of the music to which our youth listen. Very often when we engage in discussions about “today’s music,” we hear it described as non-Christian or “secular” at best, and destructive or even downright satanic. We all have heard people declaring that rock-and-roll is the tool of Satan, promoting sexual immorality, drug-use and rebellion against any and all authority. Unfortunately, they are often correct. Many songs do teach these kinds of value. The temptation is to want to dismiss it altogether, and encourage young people to do so as well. To succumb to this temptation, however, is to miss an incredible opportunity to preach the Gospel to young people.

“Snapshots” Of The Current Culture

Today’s music, like the music of every age, is filled with “snapshots” of current culture and can function as a sort of “barometer” for the issues that young people are being exposed to and need to address. It expresses genuine feelings and issues with which not only the non-Orthodox world is dealing, but also our Orthodox young people as well. Today’s music is filled with feelings of isolation, despair, anger, along with longing for truth, love, and meaning in life. Not one of these feelings is foreign to Orthodox young people. We need to listen to the songs with which they identify and discern the issues with which they and our young people are wrestling. As stewards of the mysteries of God, it is our job to show young people that there are answers to these questions, help for these troubles, and solutions for these problems: namely, life in Christ and His Church.

Orthodox youth ministry, as all of the Church’s ministry, addresses the entire life of youth. In fact, one of the challenges of the Gospel is for each person to integrate his or her whole person, his or her entire life, in accordance with the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We continually pray during all of our divine services, “to commend ourselves, each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.” That means the time they spend in school and with friends, as well as the hours spent in Church or in Church-related activities. Like it our not, we must come to terms with the fact that our young people spend much more time listening to contemporary music than chanting liturgical hymns. They identify with these songs because they express feelings that our young people and, in fact, all of us feel. Those of us in Orthodox youth ministry must be willing to learn about and hear these feelings and issues, and be willing to address them. If we choose to ignore the issues addressed in today’s songs we ignore the power the Gospel has to restore our lives and the lives of our young people.

Expresses Teachings Of The Faith

A surprising aspect of today’s music to some people is that, on occasion, it can express teachings of the Faith. The Orthodox Church’s approach to mission throughout history has been to incorporate (or “baptize”) whenever possible native customs which, when seen and heard through the eyes and ears of faith, could be used to express the Gospel of our Lord. There are many songs that speak about the search for genuine love and true meaning in life. These songs can provide the venue to discuss God’s love and His true meaning for our lives. St. Basil, himself, debated a similar issue when he argued that it was not against Christian teaching for young people to study the pagan Greek classics. Many people insisted that the content of these books (pagan gods who often engaged in or promoted immoral acts) would be damaging to young people. In his letter, On the Study of Classical Greek Literature, St. Basil writes, “But we shall take rather those passages of theirs in which they have praised virtue or condemned vice. For just as in the case of other beings, enjoyment of flowers is limited to fragrance and colour, but the bees, as we see, possess the power to get honey from them as well, so it is possible here also for those who are pursuing not merely what is sweet and pleasant in writings to store away from them some benefit also for their souls” (translated by R. J. Deferrari and M. R. McGuire, St. Basil: The Letters, Loeb Classical Library [Cambridge, Mass., 1934], vol. 4, pp. 387-93 and 431). Like St. Basil, we need to train ourselves and our youth to listen to today’s music and discern from it what is good for their souls, to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

Lastly, we should not address today’s music out of fear, but boldly with faith in what our Lord tells us in the book of Revelation: “Behold, I make all things new.” St. Paul in his address to the people in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) found himself surrounded with pagan idols, objects of pagan worship. He did not condemn the Athenians for their idolatry, but instead praised their piety and directed their attention to an altar dedicated “to an unknown god” (Acts 17:16-34). It was from this pagan altar that he began to preach the risen Christ. Rather than running from today’s music, we in the Church need to courageously engage it. By using music in our youth ministry, we can help teach youth not to live in an isolated world, and not to live in fear of how the culture will rub off on them. Instead, we can equip and encourage young people to go out and rub off on their culture, to make a difference.

Below are listed some categories into which many of today’s songs can fit. Next to each category are some Church teachings that can be discussed in light of that particular type of song. This list is by no means definitive or exhaustive, but is provided as an aid.

Songs of anger and criticism

“Be angry but sin not”

Christ turning the tables of the money changers in the Temple

Songs of love (distorted and healthy): Different ideas of love

Love vs. lust

1 Cor. 13:4-8a

The ultimate image of love being Christ on the Cross

Songs of despair

“I have overcome the world”

Christ’s words on the Cross

Psalm 22

The sacraments of baptism, confession, and the eucharist

Songs of hope

See “Songs of despair” above, also

“Behold I make all things new”

The lives of St. Mary of Egypt, St. Moses the Black, etc.

Songs of searching

Biblical account of Zaccheus

The Kingdom of God

The mansion of many rooms

What is popular now is quickly branded “old.” While a long list of songs could be included after each of the above categories, the following tips are included instead as a guide to help a leader use contemporary music in Orthodox youth ministry.

1. Have all the song lyrics typed out clearly. Young people are very audio-visual. If the lyrics are typed out and everyone has a copy, you can go back and discuss different parts of the songs.

2. Don’t worry about choosing songs that appeal to every young person in your group. Today’s music is extremely diverse and so is the personal taste of young people. If a song is something they may hear on the radio, is somewhat popular, and most importantly, speaks about a real issue in their lives, feel free to use it. It can even be somewhat “old.”

3. Allow young people to offer their interpretation of the song. It may be different from yours. What is important is that they learn that Christ and His Church have something to say to that issue.