Using Music to Create On-ramps for Gospel Witness

by Sandra Van Opstal

music and worship, worship and evangelism, Sandra Van OpstalMusic and Movement

What do you have on repeat on your smartphone or computer? I listen to Juegmos en el Campo at least five times a day. My toddler loves to sing with la vaca “moo” and la oveja “baa”. He can’t speak, but he is bi-lingual when it comes to understanding animals and what those wheels on that bus do all through the “taaawn”.

Songs have always been a powerful medium to tell stories and share information. Educators have long expressed that if you can put things to music, the melody helps people to remember the content. Whether “Abc’s” or “Books of the Bible,” songs can help you to retain information. Music is not only powerful for learning, but also has a way of moving the soul. Particular sounds, keys, scales, and instrumentation can create an atmosphere and change the mood of a room. Songs touch people’s intellect and emotions in a way that very few forms of communication can. So what might it look like for music to create on-ramps for proclaiming the good news?

Music and Message

Sitting in a Starbucks checking email was not the moment I expected to encounter someone singing the words to “Good Good Father” by Chris Tomlin. I realized halfway through the song that the woman next to me seemed to know the words. Throughout her conversation with her friend, it was very clear to me that she was not Christian, so I asked her if she recognized the artist of the song. She did not know the singer or the name of the song.

Here is where I’d like to say that I took the conversation further and explained to her about God as her good father. I’d like to say that I quoted James 1:17 and Matthew 7:11 and shared with her about the goodness of Christ. I didn’t. It would have made for a potential Holy Spirit encounter and a great story, but I was in shock. In a context where Christian music and movies are mostly mocked, I was not prepared to lean into that conversation with her. But what if I had?

Christian artists are being showcased in public forums, and their catchy tunes are sticking with people as they hear them, even via the Muzak at Starbucks. Within the last two years artists like Hillsong have been featured on morning shows like Today with their hit song “Oceans” and Lecrae on Good Morning America and Jimmy Fallon. They are providing us opportunities to lean into conversations with our co-workers and friends about the songs they are hearing. At the least, we can ask, “Is it weird that Christian music is being played here? What do you think people think this song is about?”

Some Christian songwriters capture many facets of their journey. They may write about faith, or they may write about what happens when it blows up and life is hard. Their songs capture the breath of humanity and experiences. These even represent other opportunities for their story of God to be heard.

Quest Church in Seattle developed a non-profit community café featuring local art, live music, and community events. The idea was to develop a place where people could showcase the songs they had written. Grace and Peace Community in Chicago hosted an Open Mic for youth to invite their artist friends to sing, share spoken word, and share songs they have written to communicate their story. It features young people from the church as well as their classmates.

In creative places like this, stories can be shared that provide opportunity to witness. When Christians play and sing outside the context of the church, they represent and worship God through their craft as much as an accountant or a carpenter worships God in their work. That work and worship does not go unnoticed. This can be a creative way to open up conversation, particularly in a society that thinks it is extreme to share your faith.

According to the book Good Faith, 60% of U.S. adults feel it is extreme to “attempt to convert others to their faith” or “preach a religious message in a public space.” Check out these other artists/movements that seek to proclaim the good news about God’s work in their lives:

Music and Mobilization

Another way to create an on-ramp for proclaiming the good news is to shape people’s understanding of God’s mission through worship. Theology is caught via worship. Justo González says, “Too often  the  theme  of  worship  is  excluded  or  set  aside  from   theological matters, when in fact theology and praise, doctrine and worship, are so interwoven that if we separate them they both lose  much  of  their  significance  and  value.”[1]

We can utilize song to mobilize our congregations for evangelism. This requires training that develops worship leaders who are intentional about songs selections and liturgy around mission and evangelism. While it is hard to find songs that focus on mission and evangelism, there are new resources being created. We can design spaces of worship that invite people in our communities to consider God’s mission in the world to make all people and things new.

Imagine intentionally-crafted songs, prayers, and sermons that highlight the glory of God being made known to all the nations. Imagine people singing songs so many times that they memorize Psalms and scripture that narrate God’s heart to be reconciled to people. What might people do with songs that envision for them a people of every tribe tongue and language worshiping at the throne of God? We can help make that a reality with careful worship planning.

Consider the following collections of songs and albums from new writers and leaders:

Since starting this post my son has already learned three new animal sounds and the hand motions for the seemingly endless verses of “The Wheels on the Bus.” These catchy tunes have helped him learn so much. What are we teaching people both outside and inside the church with our music?


[1] González, The  Story  Luke  Tells:  Luke’s  Unique  Witness  to  the  Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, , 2015), 93.

(Editor’s note: For more information about creating intentional atmospheres of worship, read Sandra’s new book of The Next Worship:Glorifying God in a Diverse World)

Sandra-Vanopstal-2Sandra Maria Van Opstal (@sandravanopstal) pastors Grace and Peace Community in Chicago, and is the author of The Next Worship. A liturgist and activist, she is passionate about creating atmospheres that mobilize for reconciliation and justice. She frequently consults, speaks and writes on topics of racial identity and global mission.