by Eddie Pipkin

Last week I wrote about the Oscars, so this week it’s only fair that I give a shout-out to the recently-aired Grammys.  For my wife and me, the Grammy Awards is our favorite televised awards celebration of the year.  Known as “music’s biggest night,” it’s the annual celebration of popular music hosted by the Recording Academy, and it features the handing out of gilded, golden gramophones for musical achievement across a wide spectrum of genres.  We love watching because 1) it’s famous for its live performances and 2) we usually only recognize about half the featured artists, and it’s a chance for us to refresh our pop knowledge.  The Grammys does its best to showcase artists from pop to rap to country to classic rock.  That means there are young, breakout stars alongside musical elders, old time favorites and current hits sharing the same stage.  Churches should watch and listen and  learn.

Let’s state for the record that worship gatherings are not intended to be entertainment extravaganzas. They serve a higher, sacred purpose—although you would not have any trouble whatsoever lining up parallel articles bemoaning the precipitous drop in interest in awards shows (measured in viewership) and the precipitous drop in interest for worship services (measured in attendance, particularly among the younger generations).  My main point in this space is the way the Grammys telecast works intentionally to appeal to multiple generations.

The Grammys balance new music AND classic hits.  The catalog of popular music is vast and is familiar to all.  Young listeners are well-acquainted with the chart toppers of yore, even if they don’t have them cued up at the top of their playlists.  That’s because that old music forms the backbone of shared pop culture (from movie soundtracks to commercial jingles to the DJ selections at grandma’s birthday party).  The hits of bygone eras also form the foundation of all the music that has followed since, so for anybody who cares about music, a certain level of familiarity is required to have cultural fluency.  Such cultural familiarity leads to shared moments of joy and connection across generations—and that’s a good thing.

In our worship spaces, we can do more to mix the old and the new, keeping the familiar—arguably sacred—touchstones of how things have been done for generations, but finding new ways to represent and communicate the foundational truths, share scripture, join together in prayer, and experience the power of the Gospel message.

By the way, as a sidebar (but maybe not really a sidebar), it is my strong belief that we older folks should occasionally drop in on what’s happening on the current music scene, so that we can better relate to younger generations and the general vibe of the culture around us.  In other words, it’s one of the tools for staying relevant — and as I stated earlier, one of the reasons my wife and I enjoy the Grammy performances.  I have an awesome friend who still has a pristine collection of the vinyl albums he collected in the 60s and 70s.  He has a great space for pulling them from their cardboard sleeves and placing them carefully on a turntable — a turntable! — and reveling in a pure audiophile experience.  But he’ll have to spend some time sampling the Spotify “current hits” stream to fully relate to his now-entering-middle-school granddaughters.  In terms of general existence, it’s up to us whether we want to expend the energy to relate to the alien entertainments and philosophical concerns of the young folks, but as ministry leaders, it’s bad policy to skip that project.  Our workaround is usually leaving that to the youth ministry folks, but we are richer if we don’t delegate the totality of that connectional work.  For me, some of the most amazing and eye-opening conversations I have is when I ask young people about what they’re listening to, reading, watching, thinking about, and ‘liking’ on their social feeds (that’s a new one, right?).  We assume we have a lot to teach them, but I am regularly blown away by how much they have to teach us.

And that’s why, circling back around to my earlier comments about generational connections and worship, it’s important to note that those connections are not only strengthened by fresh presentations of inspirational content, but by who does the presenting.  We’ve advocated many times in this space that vitality in our ministries is directly related to giving young people the floor / the microphone / the leadership / the stage.  The Grammys does that!  If you weren’t familiar with either Billie Eilish or Olivia Rodrigo before watching the energy and artistry of their live performances at the Grammys, you got some insight into why they are such young superstars.  It was infectious.  Our ministries are full of superstars, Spirit-led young people ready to burst onto the ministry stage, and we should give them platforms for sharing their stories their ways.  Even when we do celebrate them now, we are prone to wanting to narrate their stories for them.  Let them tell their own stories.  It may not be exactly the way we would frame those stories, but isn’t that the point?

Such opportunities for leadership are not limited to worship either.  We default to the model of a wizened, long-in-the-tooth elder as our definition of the sage Bible study leader, but imagine a 17-year-old leading a Bible study and prayer group.  It may not be exactly what we’re expecting in the format that we are expecting — let’s be honest, it probably won’t be perfect — but imagine the joy of a fresh face giving us a new take on things.

I am continually confounded, by the way, at how local churches have older people running their social media strategies.  We are not digital natives, people.  We don’t have any business figuring out the church’s TikTok strategy!  There’s a whole new planet of social media engagement to be explored and colonized, and we have a generation that is eager to take on that challenge.  We should empower them to lead us.

In a lot of ways, it’s a difference – a celebration – of a diversity of styles.  The Grammys highlighted music from all the genres: there was Chris Stapleton playing soulful country and BTS bringing the K-Pop dance moves.  Worship for many of us gets locked in on one style, but the worship world is full of many options, and the pews are full of people who connect in many ways.

And when we talk about diversity, although we generally mean – and it’s good to mean – a diversity of ages, ethnicities, cultures, gender perspectives, and life experiences, we should also consider the possibility of a diversity of theological viewpoints.  Granted, not everybody agrees with that last point.  Some people think it’s a preposterous idea on its face.  Theological clarity is the one thing a spiritual leader is responsible to provide, many say.  But if you are reading this blog, you are likely experienced enough in ministry to be familiar with the many flavors of theology and biblical analysis, even within your chosen denomination.  Most local churches would benefit from acknowledging this reality and helping people process the different ways to understand their faith through robust exploration and inquiry.  If your congregation has the happy fortune to be composed of people from diverse backgrounds, you can make a strong case for embracing this variety of experience, even celebrating it.

The United Methodists arguably should have done so.  The “united” part seems well on its way to relegation as a historical footnote as churches align themselves into silos of theological uniformity.  But most of the churches where I have worshiped and served have always been communities of individuals on a spectrum of theological understandings.  That could be a source of strength rather than a point of contention.  There are awards shows for country music and awards shows for hip hop, but how wonderful that there is still an awards show that honors them all in the spirit of what they share: the joy of the music.

One last observation about the Grammys.  It’s a broadcast that has worked over the past several years to focus on what people come for: the performances.  They have cut the talking bits and concentrated on providing more music.  I want to be careful here, regarding worship, to not equate worship leadership to performance – we have written in this space about avoiding that pitfall – but eliminating the sometimes interminable talky portions of our  Sunday morning in favor of ‘getting back to the heart of worship’ keeps people connected (we’re looking at you, announcements, and also you, fifteen minute detailed explanation of how to turn in a stewardship pledge card).  The very definition of disengagement is the numbing of attention spans that results from rambling at the microphone.  (By the way, such rambling stems from a variety of causes: poor planning with no pre-thought script, speakers who love the limelight and often estimate their own patter to be highly entertaining, presenters who haven’t been coached, and presenters who don’t understand their role in the moment.)  The old Grammys production had those problems, too, until they made a concerted effort to tighten the broadcast and lean into what makes the gathering great.  People come to worship to praise, pray, learn, and be inspired.  Everything we do should lean into those goals.

How’s it going at your local church?  More like the Grammys or more like a Discovery channel documentary on snails (not saying that snails can’t also be fascinating—but you get my drift)?  How are you combining the old and new, promoting diverse perspectives and experiences, and helping the generations to connect in meaningful ways?  Share your own stories!