Humble Believer – being a disciple in an increasingly diverse world

by Bruce Thompson.

I want to draw some threads from the encounter Jesus had with the Woman at the Well (John 4.5-42):

Firstly the fact that Jesus is well outside what would be considered the norm by his own community.

Jesus is a Jew; for those Christians who think otherwise get over it, he was a Jew.  She, the woman, is a Samaritan.

We need to appreciate the significance of these facts.  The Samaritan community claimed to have been the descendants of the tribe of Ephraim but had evolved during the Assyrian occupation while Israel was in exile in Babylon.  On return from exile a dispute arose regarding the rebuilding of the Temple.

Samaritans and Jews thereafter remained at loggerheads with two competing sites for the worship of God.  The Samaritans had built a Temple on Mt Gerizim while Mount Moriah in Jerusalem remained the Temple site for the returning Jews.

When the disciples returned to Jesus at the well they are said to be astonished that he had been talking to this woman.

But the message Jesus seeks to convey is that no one should be seen to be beyond our attention and care.

As Christian disciples we should not limit our sphere of activity to ‘our own’, in ministry we should not exclude those outside that tradition.

The second thread I wish to draw from this passage is that the encounter includes a dialogue not a monologue.

The woman gives as good as she gets.

According to the one who recorded the conversation the woman might later acknowledge that Jesus could be the Messiah, but I can’t overlook the fact that the woman is ministering to Jesus every bit as much as he is to her.

Jesus, you see, is thirsty.  But he cannot quench his thirst for he has no bucket.

Along comes the woman; a woman who apparently no self-respecting man from his tradition should be conversing with.  But she has a bucket and she is prepared to draw water.

The only chance Jesus has of his physical need being met is by asking her to give him a drink.  She, like the disciples later, is astonished that he should ask her.

I cannot count the number of times over the course of my ministry that I have gone to visit someone and instead of me ministering to them have found them to be ministering to me.

The terminally-ill woman who, on my very first visit to a hospice as a 27-year old, fresh out of college, wet-behind-the-ears minister, seemed more concerned about how my wife Karen and I were settling in to our first manse than she was about her impending death; the rabbi who opened up scripture to me like no Christian teacher ever has; the compassion, the care and concern shown toward me by those whom I had been called and appointed by the Church to serve.

It is clear from this mid-day encounter at the well that the one whose spiritual needs were about to be met had first met the physical needs of Jesus.

Therefore as disciples we should not assume that the meeting of need is in one direction only.

The third thread that I wish to tease out of this incident is the view that there is a mutual reward when giver and receiver are open to each other.

We have already mentioned that because Jesus is prepared to engage with a woman from outside his own religious community his physical need is met; but this goes deeper still in my view.

Simply by being prepared to engage with this woman, and to receive from her, Jesus acts as the humble party.

Whatever our 21st century liberal sensibilities may say, this was at the time an extraordinary act of deference.  Jesus displayed great respect for this woman, a woman whom many would not pass time of day with.  And yet Jesus submitted himself to her.

It is an encounter between two very different people, yet it is one that is packed with profound possibilities.

The encounter broadens the horizons of the woman and establishes her as someone worth listening to.  She returns to her city and has news to share.  She is clearly heard because many Samaritans come out to see Jesus for themselves.  Apparently no one would have listened to her before but now they do and even act upon her words.

The conversation also provides the opportunity for a vision where place is less important for the Presence of God than had thus far been the case.

No longer would there be a need for debate as to where the Temple should be located, Gerizim or Moriah, it no longer matters, because true worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth.  In other words God, now, may be found anywhere on this earth, in the city where we live, at the well where we are refreshed, in the conversations we hold, wherever needs are met.

This incident at the well should shatter once and for all the illusion that God only speaks through those who worship on a certain metaphorical mountain, in other words those that uphold only a particular sacred text or follow a certain path to the exclusion of all others.

When the time comes for me to let go of this ministry to which I have been called I would like to think

  • that I have engaged in dialogue,
  • that I have held conversations profitable to all those who were party to them,
  • that I have learnt from, and shared with, those whose faith perspectives have been held as sincerely as I have held mine,
  • and that I have been present with, and stood alongside, my neighbour in their hour of need.

If this turns out to be so then I believe that it would constitute having been a humble believer in a world of increasing diversity.

The temptation of success

by James D.G. Dunn.

Lent is a good time to pause, do a bit of personal stock-taking, and even some moral spring-cleaning.   The account of Jesus’ temptations at the beginning of his ministry sum up the challenge – and the opportunity.  For the temptations of Jesus remind us of the temptations we also face.   Here particularly, the temptation of success.   What counts as success?

The first temptation reflects success as measured by money made, prosperity.   The tempter says, ‘Command these stones to become loaves of bread’ (Matt. 4.3).   In a world often afflicted with famine, what could be a greater key to success – to be able to provide bread on demand.   In a time of famine, prices shoot up – what better way to become rich?   Jesus could have become the greatest producer of bread – able to name his price – a successful business man.

But Jesus responds by noting that there is more to life than bread – ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (4.4).   Material provision can never sufficiently feed the inner person, the real me, the real you.   It is possible to be a huge success, to own more than one house, to earn fat bonuses – success as the world counts success, as the devil counts success.   And yet to be inwardly poor, starving.   Those who reduce everything to materialist terms are most to be pitied.   ‘What will it profit anyone to gain the whole world and yet lose himself?’ (Mark 8.36).

The second temptation measures success in terms of fame.   The devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and urges him to throw himself down, since angels are commissioned to prevent him injuring himself (Matt. 4.5-6).   To jump off the top of the temple, and to land without injury, that would make Jesus famous, bring him the adulation of a super-hero.   Everyone would want to see him;  he would be most popular, lauded by the rich and powerful, in big demand in public gatherings – a famous success.

Jesus responds by noting that so to act would be to test God:  ‘It is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”’ (4.7).   Fame arising out of foolhardiness, fame gained by taking unnecessary risk is hardly worthwhile success.   Fame gained by making display of yourself, how shallow is that!   If we count fame as the chief goal in life, so that passers-by point to us (‘That’s so-and-so’) and ask for an autograph, then we are probably missing the character of life that God wants for us, the quality of life for which he has gifted us.   People famous for being famous, who will (want to) remember them?  Will God be impressed?

The third temptation measures success as power.   The devil says, ‘All these (kingdoms of the world) I will give you, if you fall down and worship me’ (4.8-9).   What an offer!   To control the kingdoms of the world and their resources.   To be able to order armies to march, to give royal commands that all would obey, to shape society and multiple relations in the ways you wanted.   What a temptation for Jesus!   And at such a modest cost – just worshipping someone other than God;  or, as in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3.1-7), ignoring God.

Jesus responds by denouncing the offer:  ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’ (4.10).   Thus Jesus alerts us to the danger.  Power can be so attractive – power to determine the lives of others, their careers, their prospects, power to decide the future of a city or a country – all so appealing.   As Henry Kissinger warned:  ‘Power is the great aphrodisiac’.   But to gain power almost always involves some degree of compromise – to fall down and worship other than God is such a little thing!   Our bright principles, our clear values with which our pursuit of power began, are so easily compromised, so quickly tarnished.   We begin to find that we are serving another master.   As Lord Acton soberly noted in the 19th century, ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men’.   Do I need to cite a roll-call of names which demonstrate that depressing truth?

So what counts as success?  Not material prosperity;  not fame;  not power.  But being the person God made us to be, that God gifted us to be;  taking our values and principles from God’s word;  worshipping God and depending on him to keep us right.

Goodness – a lost fruit?

by Andrew Roberts.

I was having one of my occasional tidy ups in the study when I came across William Barclay’s Prayers For Young People.[1] In an instant I was transported back to the 1970s: to teenage years, flared trousers, Brut 33, a crush on Agnetha from Abba and the days when books cost 40p. I was also transported back to a time when prayer and the pursuit of holiness felt different somehow.

As I wandered through the prayers that I first read in my youth I was struck by two recurrent emphases of Barclay’s. An emphasis on goodness and an emphasis on self-control. Here is one example.

“O Lord Jesus, help me to be a good follower of yours.
Always to follow your example;
Always to ask what you want me to do before I decide to do anything,
Always to ask for your help and your guidance;
Always to remember that you are always with me to hear what I say, to see what I do, to keep me from doing wrong, and to give me the help I need to do right;
Never to be afraid to show my loyalty to you, and never to be ashamed to show that I belong to you.
Never to forget all that you have done for me, and so to try to love you as you first loved me.
This I ask for your love’s sake. Amen.”[2]

At first sight there is what seems to be a charming naivety about some of the prayers in the collection. Hard hearted critique might see them as just the next step on from the ‘God bless Mummy’ prayers of infancy. It is possible of course to get transported on a wave of romantic nostalgia back to a time when life and faith seemed more simple and straight forward. But on closer inspection the apparently naïve becomes more challenging. There are echoes in the prayer quoted above of Wesley’s Covenant Prayer – a prayer which is far from naïve. Echoes too, in the way Barclay writes, of Jesus’s seriously challenging word to sophisticated adults, ‘unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’.[3] And then there is the recurrent emphasis on goodness and self-control.

In the very welcome renewed conversation about holiness both within and beyond Methodism, I wonder if the part played by these two fruit of the Spirit – and goodness in particular – has been overlooked or at least undervalued. As we become ever more sophisticated have we lost something articulated by Barclay in his prayers that could be reduced to simply ‘Lord help me to be good’?

Now this begs a big question, what do we mean by good or goodness? They are words and concepts that are easy to disparage with a quick ‘goody two shoes’ put down. But biblically they are words of honour. I don’t have the space or knowledge to do a full review of all the biblical passages that speak of goodness but a quick look at two might start some conversation.

In the first creation story in Genesis 1 the word good appears on its own six times (Gen 1.4,10,12,18,21 and 25) and once with the prefix very (Gen 1.31). In an age when adjectives like amazing and awesome abound, not least on social media, I find it fascinating that the Genesis narrative goes with good. Elsewhere in the Old Testament hyperbole abound not least in the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 99.3 ‘How great and awesome is your name’). But in the story of origins good is enough. Again compare this with say contemporary education where good is no longer enough with a relentless and often damaging drive to be outstanding.

The creation in Genesis 1 is good because it reflects the character of God. I find this use of good helpful and encouraging when it comes to the pursuit of holiness. In Hebrew writing goodness like holiness is fundamentally a reflection of the nature or character of God. Character we are called to reflect in the great cry for holiness quoted by Peter, ‘Be holy for I am holy’[4]. If greatness and awesomeness are the markers of holiness then I am inclined to give up and despair for others. If good is good enough then that gives me hope, and gives me hope for others too.

Interestingly creation is deemed to be very good in Genesis 1 when it all comes together. Might our goodness become very good when it is expressed through relationships, in community, in harmony with all creation?

In the New Testament the word goodness (ἀγαθωσύνη) occurs only four times, all in the Pauline corpus.[5] Most famously it occurs as one of the fruit of the Spirit described by Paul in Galatians 5. Commentators suggest Paul uses the word ἀγαθωσύνη to convey a sense of kindness and generosity.

Goodness expressed in kindness and generosity. Is this suggestive of a naïve, infantile worldview? Is it a lost fruit? It might appear so in the light of events in the world at the moment. By way of contrast note how popular the BBC programme Call the Midwife Is – a programme full to overflowing with kindness, generosity and downright goodness (and with the Church flavoured by these things at its heart).

I dare to suggest that goodness is a Godly quality, intrinsic to holiness that the Church and the world urgently need to rediscover, celebrate and live.


[1] William Barclay Prayers for Young People (London: Collins, 1963). My edition was printed in 1975 (its fourteenth impression). Barclay first published the book in 1963 which just happens to be the year I was born in.

[2] William Barclay Prayers for Young People (London: Collins, 1963), p46

[3] Matthew 18.3 NRSV

[4] Leviticus 20.26 and 1 Peter 1.16. Note how by the time of Peter’s letter the notion of holiness as separateness found in Leviticus has been transformed by Peter’s Cornelius moment.

[5] Rom 15.14, Eph 5.9, Gal 5.22, 2 Thes 1.11.


Theology… where?

by George Bailey.

I have been the moderator of this blog since July 2016 – I am immensely grateful to all who have contributed, to those who have let me know that this is a helpful activity, and to those who have offered ideas for improving the way things work. I want to invite some methodological conversation about the way ahead.

We have claimed to be engaging in “theology everywhere,” under the tag line, “discussing theology today to transform tomorrow.” I drafted this line, but have grown increasingly unsure about one aspect of it. I think we should hold onto the assertion that theology is transformative. However, the first clause is more ambiguous – to what extent is “discussing” a helpful way of characterising what we do here?

What are we doing when we discuss theology? Here are three possible ways of answering this (there are others!)[i]. Perhaps each of the three ways is primary for different contributors to this blog, though for many of us several methodologies overlap. I am concerned that the word “discussing” too strongly invites only the first interpretation.

Theology Constructed…

Is theology a body of knowledge that is constructed by Christians, to which we contribute through our discussions? This is the model which I think is most clearly hinted at by the current description of the site, and one which it is easy to assume if we look at what actually happens – one person does some thinking and publishes it; others read and discuss it, online or in their daily encounters. Within this understanding, “discussing theology everywhere” is a helpful impetus for encouraging many people to join in with the construction of theological understanding and progress. The key problem with this understanding of what is happening is that it is very human-centred. At the heart of most Christian theology has not actually been the combined effort of the followers of Christ to describe who Christ is and what following Christ means, but rather the heart has been, and I argue continues to be, Christ himself, and our relationship with Christ. The logic of 1 John 4:19 can be appropriated here; we can talk about God, because God first talked to us.

Theology Revealed…

Is theology, then, knowledge which is revealed to us? In this way of thinking, the primary aim of “discussing theology” is to encourage one another to receive it more fully rather than to add to it by construction. Theology is the result of experience of God, revealed in Christ, enabled by the Spirit. We can learn from one another of the diverse ways that people receive and interpret the experience of God in our lives, but the primary locus of theology is revelation rather than construction. This implies a dynamic relationship with Scripture and with the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. Theology is the continuing revelation of Jesus Christ through the life of the Spirit in the followers of Christ, as described in John 16:12-13a: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” However, this begs the question of how truth is known and expressed. Is the truth we receive a written description or is it more of a lived reality?

Theology Performed…

Is theology, primarily, neither the result of a constructive process nor reflection on an experience, but rather an activity in itself – a performative art which one practices in order to develop ability and potential, and which one then exercises in order to communicate with and to serve others? On this view the most important locus for theology is the practice of church life, and the interface between church and the surrounding communities and cultures. To “discuss” theology is to inhabit a role similar to the critic or commentator – it is unhelpful to muddle the critic or commentator with the people taking an active part in things. Great footballers do not necessarily make great commentators, or journalists great politicians, nor vice versa. Is this blog for active performing theologians or for critical commentators on the theological action of the Church? I think both are welcome, and through reflective practice we often inhabit both roles, though they do have the potential to get confused. Does the concept of “discussing theology” too readily encourage commentary and remove us from the real action? The real theology of this blog does not happen in the published articles or discussions, but in the changes they provoke in the practice of those who read them. I can testify personally to this process for many weeks’ articles; notable in my recent memory are my practice of the Covenant service, my desire to seek Christology for a new technological age and my attitude to meat at the dinner table.

I suggest we drop “discussing” from the description, leaving it as “theology today to transform tomorrow,” not to discourage discussion, but in order to encourage each other both to experience revelation and to practice theology in our daily lives.

Please comment – do you agree with this subtle change? Can you explain how the blog relates practically to your own theology?


[i] I have not included references to the many texts which have in some way informed this particular categorisation of theological method. Two which organise their analysis in different ways to this, but which I have found especially helpful recently have been Graham, E., Walton, H., Ward, F. (2005), Theological Reflection: Methods, London: SCM; and Allen, P. (2012) Theological Method: A Guide for the Perplexed, London and New York: T&T Clark.


Finding rest in the wrestling

by Gill Newton.

One afternoon recently, as I was ironing, I watched a couple of quiz shows; it somehow helps the task along and makes the time pass more quickly! I was both surprised and intrigued to hear two very different contestants on the consecutive shows declare their love of wrestling when asked about their hobbies and interests!  Both wanted to use any money won to fund a trip to the United States to watch professional wrestling.  Personally I couldn’t think of anything I’d like to do less!  But then I guess wrestling these days has moved on a little from my memories of the Saturday afternoon sport my Dad occasionally watched which involved the likes of Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy!

But whilst I may not be a big fan of wrestling as a sport, it did set me thinking about how much “wrestling” I do every day.  Wrestling with an e-mail inbox that never seems to be empty and an ironing basket that provides the same dilemma.  Wrestling with how to respond to the political developments both in our own land and across the pond.  Wrestling with getting the right balance between work and family life.  Wrestling with difficult decisions that need to be made within the District I serve or in our own family setting.

Inevitably, perhaps, my mind went to Jacob’s encounter with God (1).  He was making a journey home to meet his brother Esau; a meeting that was undoubtedly going to be challenging given the manner in which they had parted some time before.  He’d also just left behind him a recent falling-out with his father-in-law Laban (2) so, here he is, sandwiched between these two difficulties, and Jacob finds himself wrestling.  With himself?  With a man?  With God?  And why?

Well, there are no easy answers to those questions, but through the wrestling, Jacob somehow gained a deeper understanding of himself, and of God, and of course ultimately knew God’s blessing.  But, the blessing wasn’t achieved at his first request.  According to Gerhard von Rad, “this clutching at God and his power of blessing is perhaps the most elemental reaction of humanity to the divine.” (3)  We long for the blessing and to find the place of rest, but we don’t necessarily want the struggle that often needs to come first.

The question that I am left with though is, how much of my/our wrestling is really with God? In this story of Jacob we can readily recognise our own struggles with fear, self-worth, loneliness and so on.  Just as the apostle Paul before us, we are “harassed at every turn; conflicts on the outside, fears within.” (4)  But, when I look at that list above, much of the wrestling is with the church, with my own conscience, thoughts and feelings, with my sense of priority, with those in authority or even with members of my family.  So many of us wrestle with these things in the hope of arriving at a place of peace and rest when actually all we achieve is a brief respite before the bell rings for another round of the wrestling match!

However, wrestling with God may be a much more fruitful experience in terms of arriving at a deeper understanding of who we are in God, but it necessitates us facing up to and naming who and what we are.   Jacob was invited to declare his name and of course, in his culture, the name was thought to bear something of the character of the person behind the name.  So, for Jacob, it is in facing up to who he is that the wrestling comes to an end, and transformation takes place as he’s given a new name and the blessing is given.

Maybe individually we need to stop taking matters into our own hands as we wrestle with our feelings, our family or the church and maybe as a church we need to stop wrestling amongst ourselves and instead wrestle with God as we face up to who and what we are.  That way we might just discover new things being revealed about who we truly are, find the “rest” that is at the heart of “wrestling” and know God’s blessing in the days ahead.


(1)        Genesis 32

(2)        Genesis 31

(3)        von Rad, Gerhard (1972).  Genesis.  London: SCM Press Ltd

(4)        2 Corinthians 7 v 5

‘Put me to doing, put me to suffering’

by Andrew Lunn.

In the older version of the Methodist covenant prayer the phrase ‘put me to suffering’[1] has sometimes been a problem.  Surely we do not ask God to cause us pain, to ‘suffer’ in that sense?  The phrase is open to misunderstanding because of the way the word ‘suffering’ has changed its meaning.  There is an associated risk: that the content of the older meaning is diminished, because we no longer have a single simple word with which to express it.  That older meaning which allows us to pray ‘put me to suffering’ lies in the idea of dependence—of ourselves as creatures who depend on each other at many critical points in our lives.  Such dependence can also be understood in terms of vulnerability.  Those on whom we have been, are, or will be dependent, are also those to whom we are vulnerable.  Each of us cannot but be those who ‘suffer’ in that sense—we cannot but be those who are dependent on others.  Needless to say, as creatures we are also utterly dependent on God.

In his book Dependent Rational Animals[2] Alasdair MacIntyre argues that to deny such dependency, such suffering, is to turn aside from a central resource by which we are enabled to live the good (that is, the virtuous) life.  Even while we seek to become ‘independent practical reasoners’, our dependent beginnings in infancy, and the recurring possibilities for dependence in sickness,  emotional turmoil, or old age, shape the experience of our whole lives.  ‘In order to flourish, we need both those virtues that enable us to function as independent and accountable practical reasoners and those virtues that enable us to acknowledge the nature and extent of our dependence on others.  Both the acquisition and the exercise of those virtues are possible only insofar as we participate in social relationships of giving and receiving.’[3]

For MacIntyre, this provides the basis for our empathic connections with all other people, even strangers who might find themselves in dire need before us.  He explores the central virtue of ‘just generosity’[4] the exercise of which involves responding to need which echoes our own experiences of dependency.  Being in places of ‘suffering’ in this sense equips us to respond to others who suffer, provided we are embedded in relationships of giving and receiving which help us to learn such virtues and exercise them as ‘independent practical reasoners’.  In this sense ‘doing’ and ‘suffering’ belong together.

MacIntyre’s work might be seen as offering a philosophical counterpoint to the theology of the Gospels.  The story of the incarnation, of Christ entering into human vulnerability and dependence, displays for us the tension between God’s impassibility and God’s freedom, a theme explored in Vanstone’s extended reflection on Christ’s waiting in the Garden of Gethsemane.[5]   In other places the vulnerability and dependence of the disciples comes into the foreground.  In Matthew 10, as Jesus sends them out to minister (‘doing’), he reminds them repeatedly of vulnerability (‘suffering’), yet also places value in that vulnerability for ‘you are of more value than many sparrows’ (v. 31).  While in verses 40-42 those who respond to the needs of the vulnerable are identified as those who will be rewarded.

These themes provide us with theological and philosophical bases for our mutual relationships for life in the church.  We should be consciously echoing both the practices which Christ taught his disciples, and the virtues which he embodied himself in his passion.  The cup of cold water offered to ‘little ones’ which is rewarded, elevates the importance of responding to the needs of those ‘little ones’—a phrase open to a variety of interpretations, but which certainly encapsulates the idea of vulnerability and dependence.

As we create communities of Christian practice from the basis of our common dependent humanity many aspects of pastoral practice will be found at the theological heart of our life together:  from care of the bereaved, to messy church; from safeguarding practice to the political response to refugees.  It is not that we do these things because we have been and will be vulnerable and dependent in the same way as those to whom we minister—not, that is, in exercising benevolent self-interest—rather, we do them as those whose practices are shaped from the beginning by our dependence on each other, and as those for whom ethical action takes its shape and meaning precisely from our common patterns of vulnerability.  We do them also as those whose faith is shaped by God, revealed in Christ as a God in whom vulnerability is not just protected, but embraced in the mystery of the incarnation.

To pray ‘put me to doing, put me to suffering’ is to acknowledge both doing and suffering as essential parts of being Christian, and being human.


[1] ‘The Covenant Service’, The Methodist Worship Book, (Peterborough: Methodist Publishing House, 1999) 290.

[2] MacIntyre, Alasdair, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (London: Duckworth, 2009).

[3] MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals, 155-156.

[4] MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals, 121 ff.

[5] Vanstone, W.H., The Stature of Waiting (London: Dartman, Longman and Todd, 1982).

Music and Spirituality

by Ian Howarth.

In the Oscar nominated film musical ‘La, La, Land’ at a particularly poignant moment when the couple at the centre of the film see each other after a long break, rather than say anything the character played by Ryan Gosling sits at the piano and plays. It is incredibly moving. It is moving because it is the tune he played when they first met, but it goes further than that. Even though it is not a ‘great’ piece of music it is moving because in that context it seems to be infused with meaning. However, if you were asked ‘What meaning?’ it is a meaning that is impossible to put into words except in the most general terms.

Those twin abilities of music, to be able to move people emotionally and to be deeply meaningful without being specific about its meanings are key reasons why music has been so significant in many religious traditions. The combination of speaking deeply to people’s feelings and being ambiguously meaningful for many people enable music to be a symbol of the ‘other’. A symbol that can be simultaneously immanent and transcendent, seemingly reaching deep within us while at the same time offering the sense of being in communion with something/someone beyond.

The power and the ambiguity of music has led to both enthusiasm and caution among spiritual writers as to its use. St Augustine and John Wesley both loved music, but were keen to link it to words that were doctrinally sound, so that its power did not move people in the wrong ways: ‘Attend strictly to the sense of what you sing. See that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually.’ writes John Wesley in his Rules for Singing. St. Augustine may or may not have said: ‘Whoever sings, prays twice’ (it is nowhere recorded in his writings). What he did write in Book 10 Chapter 33 of his Confessions, feeling that his passion for music was potentially dangerous is:  “I am inclined to approve of the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion. Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess that this is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer.”

The Methodist tradition is more enthusiastic about the custom of singing in church, and it has perhaps become a key way in our tradition of our worship speaking to people’s deepest feelings, and of offering meanings that go beyond words.

However, for that to happen effectively, we not only need to be careful of the words we sing, but we also need to recognise the potential meanings in the music itself which go beyond both the meaning of the words and the sounds being created and heard. Music, like our worship, exists in a cultural context. In many cultures and sub-cultures music serves as a powerful indicator of identity. Different genres of music relate to different cultural identities.

The type of music that an institution uses will say much about which social groups it can relate to effectively. There are stereotypes in people’s thinking about the fans of different musical genres. A recent article by social psychologists suggests that ‘people have very similar stereotypes about the psychological and social characteristics of most music fans – particularly fans of classical, rap and heavy metal music. For example, fans of classical music are believed to be white, wealthy, hardworking, introverted, physically unattractive, intelligent and artistic, whereas rap  music fans are believed to be extraverted, relaxed, athletic and to drink beer and smoke marijuana. When the content of these stereotypes were compared with the psychological characteristics of actual music fans, the results revealed that many of the stereotypes have some validity.’[1]

I wonder what that would say about the music we use in Methodist churches and who are most likely to relate to it?

Our Christian heritage reminds us that music is potentially a powerful spiritual tool for the reasons outlined above. However, in practice its cultural significance, and the way it helps people define their identity, means that we need to be far more thoughtful and aware about the way we choose and use music in church, so that we can enable it to fulfil its potential to enable people to reach the heights and the depths through which God is encountered.


[1] “The structure of musical preferences: A five-factor model,” by Rentfrow, Peter J.; Goldberg, Lewis R.; Levitin, Daniel J., in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 100(6), Jun 2011, 1139-1157. author’s manuscript version available to read here.