Popular music can help us deliver a vocation message

Popular music can help us deliver a vocation message

Popular music and vocations: what do they have to say to each other? How can I even put the two in the same sentence? I gladly agreed to write on this topic because I think popular music has plenty to say about vocations. As someone who taught religion for 10 years before starting full-time vocation ministry, I have felt for a long time that my role is to help students find the language to describe their religious experience. I believe God is alive and active in their lives as much as in my own; yet sometimes religious expressions are foreign to them and disconnected from their lives. Contemporary music can overcome this disconnect and help young people and vocation ministers to explore vocation themes.

The pastoral plan from the Continental Congress on Vocations calls each one of us to help create a culture of vocation. In North American culture the concept of one’s life as a vocation has been largely replaced by such secular notions as success, fulfillment and selfrealization. The church urgently needs to translate into a language accessible to a new generation of Catholics the profound human and spiritual reality expressed by the term “vocation”—its abiding significance for our lives and for the future of the church. We need to look to the current culture—including the music our young people listen to—and present “vocation” from there first. All educators know they must begin where the student is and then move forward. Let’s begin with music culture and put on the lens of Jesus Christ, inviting students to recognize their call and response.

Use a variety of music styles

Before I discuss some ways I’ve used popular music in vocation ministry, let me give an important piece of advice. I will be using contemporary music as my vehicle. With the variety of musical styles and people’s wildly varying tastes (and the strength with which many hold true to those tastes), I may seem foolish to venture into the world of music. I am not a DJ (or even a VJ as I recently heard—video jockey). I like music, yet try to keep my likes and dislikes out of my presentations. I look for music with messages that fit into my vocation presentations. It’s that simple and that challenging. It is dangerous to present only one style of music—for example, to use strictly hiphop with a rap crowd, or only country with pop listeners. And so my first piece of advice is to use a variety of styles. I don’t necessarily have something for everyone, but I think it’s important to not limit my music selections to what I like or what the classroom teacher may like. Keep the music broad and on topic. And you may want to use my rule of thumb that songs not include swearing or disrespect.

Finding the music

I can already hear questions popping into my readers’ minds—where do you get all that music? How do you know the message is positive? How can you even understand the lyrics to some of it? It is true—starting is the toughest part. Having used music several times in my school and youth group presentations, I’ve found that a good follow-up activity is to ask for other music selections. (Teachers appreciate activities they can use after the presentation.) “What other songs could Sister use to reflect the themes she presented?” Students may even ask for an e-mail address. I offer it because I like to be open to their feedback. Sometimes I write my email address on the board so they can copy it into their notebooks. Students communicate more by e-mail than by phone these days, so when I provide my e-mail address,

I create a positive climate to continue the conversation. I often receive music recommendations this way from students. By the way, I don’t ask that students only recommend songs by Christian artists. Christian rock is very popular in some areas but not in others. In general, Christian rock has a very limited audience. So I tend to favor music that I can hear on the radio, which means mainstream music and not Christian rock.

Once I receive song recommendations from students, I can usually find a young adult who is able to locate the music for me, either online or on CD. I believe the $15-$18 investments in CDs are worth it if I’m going to use them. That’s a decision each vocation minister must make. In one local community, clearly recognized religious music can be purchased with the “house” budget. If this is your community’s policy, you might want to educate the women or men with whom you live, buy music with the house budget and use it at home also. Of course vocation budgets usually allow for materials and resources, so that’s another way to finance music purchases. Compilation CD’s are often a good deal. These offer a variety of artists, often on a particular theme. In Canada the “Women and Song” CD series, featuring top selections of several female artists, is excellent.

Incorporating music into presentations

Lately my presentations have improved technically. (Welcome to the 21st century!) Our bursar bought an LCD projector for the provincial administration, and I asked for one for vocation ministry too. I am now able to show the lyrics as I play songs. I play the whole song from the CD because students like to hear the music, and it gives me a break from them and them a break from me! Before hitting “play,” I tell them very little. It piques their curiosity and keeps them focused on the song. I do tell them that I’ll be asking what about this particular song fits in to my presentation.



Affirmation, CD by Savage Garden

All the Way: A decade of Songs, Let’s Talk About Love, CDs by Celine Dion

Breathe, CD by Faith Hill

But Seriously, CD by Phil Collins

“Circle of Life,” song by Elton John on The Lion King Soundtrack CD

“Farthest Shore,” “Hold It Up to the Light,” songs by David Wilcox on Big Horizon CD

“Growth,” song by India Arie on Voyage to India CD

“Hero,” song by Mariah Carey

Human Clay, Weathered, CDs by Creed

“I Hope You Dance,” song by Leanne Womack

“Pilgrim,” song by Enya in A Day Without Rain CD

“Something for Everybody,” song by Baz Luhrmann

“Superman,” song by Five for Fighting

“The Dark Night of the Soul,” song by Lorenna McKennit on The Mask and Mirror CD

“The Deer’s Cry,” song by The Pilgrim

“The River,” song by Garth Brooks


An introductory theme of “call”

Depending on the group’s age, grade level and prior exposure to vocations, I choose vocation themes that are appropriate. A good introductory theme is “call.” Too often “God’s call” has received bad press—it’s a mystery to be discovered, a problem to be solved. I ask the group to think about this: when we pray the “Our Father”—including “thy kingdom come, thy will be done”—how do I know what that is? Love is a good answer, I tell them. Here I might introduce the music of India Arie. She is a young, soul singer from the southern U.S. Her first CD was such a hit that in her second CD she reminds listeners of the values that are important to her. The first song on her second CD, Voyage to India, is called “Growth.” It has only one line, and I like to zero in on it: “The only thing constant in the world is change; that’s why, today, I take life as it comes.”

There is not much in our world these days that is pure—and music is no different. When students are challenged to put on the lens of faith to see where Jesus is, to hear what God is calling them to, they must be discriminating. In “Growth,” I agree and disagree with parts. I believe God’s love is constant but that its expression changes. How my grandmother knew God is different from how I will, which is different from how a 15-year-old will. And that’s a good thing! I suggest that by “taking life as it comes” one will live a stress-free life. Yet I’m not sure that God is calling us to be stress-free. I don’t see us kneeling or sitting in the chapel 24/7 taking life as it comes, waiting for a voice or an e-mail to tell us what God is asking. I do suggest that God wants us to get up off the couch, to step into the mix that is this wonderful world of ours, and see how we can contribute to making it better. Themes of community and conscious living

From call, a good transition topic is community—the idea that we do not have to do this alone. For me, as a Sister of the Congregation of Notre Dame, the good news is that for over 350 years women have been saying yes to God’s call to live as members of our community. What do we all have in common? Jesus Christ. We are to live our baptism as a verb—alive and visible day in and day out.

The band Creed has a song called “With Arms Wide Open” on their CD Human Clay. The vocal artist and his wife (yes, some still get married!) were getting ready to have their first baby when this song first came out. The singer’s hope was that he would be able to receive his child “with arms wide open.” The child would not be alone, but be part of a family, part of a community.

I also ask the students, who else loved us so much he opened his arms wide? Creed’s music is quite religious. I tell students that there is one line in the song that makes me sad: “If I had just one wish, only one desire—I hope he’s not like me. I hope he understands— that he can take this world and hold it by the hand and greet each day with arms wide open.” I find it sad that the father-to-be, looking back over his life, realizes that he did not greet each day with arms wide open. When I taught religion to 12th graders, an assignment I liked, but they did not, was to write their own obituary. “Sister, that’s gross. It’s so morbid!” they would complain. But I told them that now is the time to live the life we want to be remembered for. You want to be remembered as friendly person, a good listener, a loyal friend? Start now, I tell students. Life needs to be chosen each day, sometimes each minute of each day! But it is worth it. Go for it! Creed’s song helps us talk about making conscious choices about how we live.

Themes of ministry and belief

Having referred in my presentation to call, community and conscious living, now I move on to ministry, to the idea of making the world a better place by using the gifts God has given us. I ask students to consider what their gifts are. Then with the help of another song, I discuss the implications of putting those gifts to work. The group Five for Fighting has a song called “Superman.” (I thought Five for Fighting was a Canadian band until I saw their CD Americatown—oh well!) The very last line in "Superman" is one of the best: “It ain’t easy being me.” Even for Superman, it isn’t easy making a difference, deciding to be a contributor more than a debtor. A common misconception is that it is easier for me to pray, to be nice, because I am a sister—not! Even for Superman, red cape and everything, it’s tough to be involved with helping others.

A group called Savage Garden has a song with a similar theme. (You can imagine my mom’s expression when her daughter, the religious sister, once asked for a Savage Garden CD for Christmas. “My daughter has turned hard line!”) This duet from Australia has a CD called Affirmation that includes the song “Crash and Burn.” It acknowledges that life is tough, that things happen that are difficult to understand and accept. While there is truth here for everyone, this will always be particularly true for those who dedicate their lives to ministry, to tackling injustice and helping those in need. But again, the song reminds us that we aren’t alone in dealing with tough stuff: “When you crash and burn, I’ll be there.” Some verses say when you crash and burn; others say if. Bottom line? Life gets tough; I’m here to be with you.

The CD’s title song, also called “Affirmation,” is great for clarifying faith beliefs. Every line begins with “I believe.” For example: “I believe the sun should never set upon an argument; I believe we place our happiness in other people’s hands; I believe that junk food tastes so good because it’s bad for you; I believe your parents did the best job they knew how to do; I believe that beauty magazines promote low self esteem; I believe I’m loved when I'm completely by myself alone. I believe in Karma; what you give is what you get returned; I believe you can’t appreciate real love ’til you’ve been burned; I believe the grass is no more greener on the other side; I believe you don’t know what you’ve got until you say goodbye.” A nice follow-up activity after discussing this song is for students to create their own creed. The exercise forces them to consider what they believe and why.

Using music for meditation

Meditation has become very popular with young adults. This is a great tool when my visit is for a longer period than a regular classroom presentation, such as a retreat or an evening session with a parish youth group. I often challenge the group to see if they are able to quiet themselves inside and out. This is a good way to reach young people because they like quiet; they, like us, need quiet. I let peer pressure create the tone I’m looking for. The students are capable of responding and often are longing for the calm. Relaxation techniques leading into guided imagery offer a nice blend, and the imagery can lead to an encounter with Jesus about call. Ten-to-15 minutes is a good length of time. Music choices can vary. Some of the Gregorian chant pieces are helpful, or any mellow music will do. I caution against using CDs with nature sounds—birds chirping can lead to students giggling.

The musician Enya is good for meditation. Her CD, A Day Without Rain, has a song called “Pilgrim,” which is about a person’s journey for self-discovery. The lyrics include these lines, “Each heart is a pilgrim/ Each one wants to know/ The reason why the winds die/ And where the stories go./ Pilgrim, in your journey/ You may travel far/ For pilgrim it’s a long way/ To find out who you are./ Pilgrim, it’s a long way/ To find out who you are.” In vocation discernment and in youth ministry, an important message is that we continue the journey of discovery. God rarely is revealed in a one-shot deal. We need to encourage our youth (and ourselves) to persist in the journey.

I’ve offered here just a few ideas for using popular music in vocation presentations. Just as I encourage young people to persist in their faith journeys, I encourage you to persist in the journey of drawing on popular culture to communicate vocation themes. There are young people out there who want to make a difference, who know and love God and want that relationship to deepen. We, the “religion professionals” need to offer experiences that help nourish their relationship with Jesus Christ, that help them discern their call. Music can be a powerful tool. By looking at contemporary music with the lens of faith, we demonstrate a profound acceptance of young adults. They respond in a positive spirit when an adult affirms their culture, their likes. So let’s begin where our young people are and communicate using the language of song—their song.

At a recent community gathering my sisters and I began telling wild and wonderful stories of the women who have gone before us. One such story involved an Elvis Presley tour through Canada and how the sisters not only were forbidden to attend themselves but told their students not to go either. Times have changed. Today this Sister not only enjoys Elvis but has been known to go with students to the latest Shania Twain concert. Can popular culture and vocation ministry work together? You bet!

Susan Kidd, CND is a member of the Congregation of Notre Dame. A Toronto resident, she has been involved with high school teaching and chaplaincy work, as well as youth group and choir ministry. She is completing her third year on the NRVC Board.

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