It all starts with listening

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This article first appeared in the May issue of the Anglican Journal.

Music was a deeply formative part of my adolescence. Along with Bible reading and daily prayer, my Christian music collection was incredibly meaningful to me. Audio Adrenaline, Amy Grant, DC Talk, Michael W. Smith, Petra and White Cross were just some of the bands in my collection.

I remember being on a bus trip one time, on my way to see Australia’s Newsboys in concert. I overheard one of my friends explaining to a new member of our youth group that going to see this band was going to be a way better experience than going to see R.E.M. Why? They were Christian.

In my adolescence, this was the litmus test. Not the musicianship, not the creative spark, not the way in which music engaged the complexities of the world around us, or opened up new possibilities. The test for good music was simply this: was it of the spirit or the flesh? Was it sacred or secular? Would listening to this music put you on the stairway to heaven or the highway to hell?

Over the past decade, I’ve had an incredible opportunity to minister among young people across this country. In parishes and dioceses, as a guest speaker at youth retreats and programs like Ask & Imagine, I’ve had the chance to engage young people in deep conversations about music, faith and creativity.

And I’m always curious to hear what they’re listening to. I’m always intrigued by the music that serves as a soundtrack to their lives. What do they listen to when they’re out with friends? What do they listen to when they’re coping with stress in their lives and they’ve reached their limits? What buoys them or carries them through?

Growing up in the world that I did, scripture was the place to start looking for such answers. My Bible had an index of places to look when I was facing a particular challenge or situation in my life. Such an approach seems far less common in the Anglican churches I’ve had a chance to visit in Canada. Where, then, do young people turn?

So often, when faced with their own limits, the young people I meet turn to music. They turn to the artists who can articulate (perhaps more clearly than they can) precisely what they’re feeling. So how do we engage?

It all starts with listening. It always starts with listening. Listening to young people, listening to their music and listening to the struggles and joys of their daily lives.

What comes next is the hard part: accompanying young people in the midst of the pains and struggles of everyday life, and welcoming them into the story we call our own: the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

I said earlier that this is hard. But it shouldn’t be. In fact, in my experience, it isn’t hard at all. Looking for companions when forced to confront the limits of human existence, young people constantly blow me away with their deep desire for some good news. We’re good-news people. We’ve got plenty to share.

And yet we need to start by listening. We must listen to the depth of the wrestling in our young people’s thoughts and emotions. We must listen continually, because they might not tell us right away. And yet, what if we asked the question: “What music do you put on when life is getting you down?”

It might not be Michael W. Smith’s “Friends Are Friends Forever,” but whatever it is, it might just be the beginning of an incredible conversation.

Andrew Stephens-Rennie is a member of the national youth initiatives team of the Anglican Church of Canada.

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Andrew Stephens-Rennie is a member of the national youth initiatives team of the Anglican Church of Canada.

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