Songs of Innocence: Using Popular Music to Engage and Inform Youth Sunday School

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On Tuesday, as almost an afterthought to its announcement of a new iPhone, the Irish rock band U2 dropped a surprise new album, Songs of Innocence. (And Apple is giving it away for free…so head to your iTunes account now!) The arrival of a new U2 album is an event, as it has been for more than thirty years. What is quite remarkable for a band with this sustained level of popularity is the fact that three-quarters of the band members are professed Christians and that their music has always held overtones of biblical themes and spirituality. Songs of Innocence, with a title that echoes William Blake, is no different. The lyrics, which often pay tribute to the people and places that inspired the band in their formative days, are yet steeped in the Christian traditions of spiritual introspection and reconciliation.

With thoughtful work by the teacher, U2’s music can be employed in the Sunday school classroom to explore a variety of scriptural themes. In fact, whether your class members are into rock or rap, hip-hop or country, popular music of many varieties can be utilized to great success by teachers seeking to connect the scriptural story to the lives of the youth who make up their Sunday school or small group Bible study classes. Below are some ideas on how to use popular music to enliven a lesson:

Let Scripture inform the music, not the opposite. It’s often best to start with music and then move to Scripture for the decisive word on a topic. While artists from Bob Dylan to Kanye West might have much to say about love or social justice that a maturing Christian can appreciate, we want to make sure youth come to understand songs they enjoy in the context of God’s word, rather than the reverse.

Connect through biblical allusions. Catalog for yourself popular songs you know which reference specific biblical texts. You will likely find more of these allusions for the story-laden Old Testament than you will for the New. (Of course, count in heavy metal allusions to the book of Revelation and perhaps the tally evens a bit.) Any such references are enough to spark a connection for your youth between the stories of Scripture and those told by artists they know.

Allow youth the opportunity to make their own connections. No one will be more connected to today’s music than youth themselves. Inform your youth about future lessons so they have a chance to hear their music with informed ears. Before long, they’ll be doing this without even being told and bringing in music of their own to share.

Use printed lyrics. Printed lyrics offer a point of focus and of reference for youth as they listen to relevant music. If youth will be bringing in their own examples, require that they provide printed lyrics and that they email them to you at least a day in advance.

Remember quality Christian music. While contemporary praise and worship music is based on certain biblical values, much is not of sufficient depth or popular appeal to consider for class discussion among many youth Sunday school groups. Instead, consider such quality contemporary Christian songwriters as Kate Campbell or Kyle Matthews. Kyle offers useful commentaries on many of his songs on his website.

Don’t be afraid to challenge a musical message. As we know, much of what youth listen to offers little of Christian value. Simply condemning such music is more likely to result in your voice not being heard rather than the opposite. Instead, teach youth to listen to music with ears informed by the scriptural witness, not so that they will condemn what they hear, but so that they can better translate the messages that the world-at-large are conveying. When we allow Scripture and biblical lessons to bleed over into how we listen and understand the music around us…and the same must be said for how we view others types of media as well…our youth will feel the presence of Christ engaged with their culture, not simply against it.

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