Heaven Is a Place on Earth: Finding the Sacred in the Secular

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I grew up in a church that had only traditional worship—and I loved it. As I got older, I remained loyal to Newton, Watts, and Wesley, not to mention Bach, Handel, and Mozart. Even when I branched out and learned to love different kinds of worship music, from contemporary to gospel to emergent, one singular conviction remained constant: secular music had no place in Christian worship.

Now, I have worshipped and preached through the music of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Pharrell Williams, Ingrid Michaelson, Tom Waits, Björk, Bob Marley, Dolly Parton, Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Wilco, and many, many more.

This has come about entirely by accident. We had planned to start a midweek worship service at our church, and although the instrumentation would be acoustic, the style Americana/roots-based music, the format and content would be traditional: hymns, prayer of confession, weekly communion, themes aligning with the liturgical calendar.

The idea of what we call a “focus song” had emerged, a way to very intentionally reinforce the Scripture and theme with music (much like an anthem in a traditional worship service, though more explicitly part and parcel of the preaching moment). We planned three Advent services, each around a familiar Advent carol, for a “soft launch” before we dove into ongoing, weekly worship.

However, prior to our launch date, a conversation with our guitarist about the theme for that evening ended with his recommendation that we include a Rolling Stones song that he thought would resonate. I was a little mortified, but I was also a little afraid of this man, and this was just a soft opening anyway, so why not?

As it turned out, the song was perfect. It expanded the implications and impact of that worship service beyond anything I could have imagined. So the next week, we found a Leonard Cohen song to fit with the carol we had already chosen. The next one by a local singer-songwriter.

Now every service is built around songs that are not explicitly religious. If you had told me five years ago that I would one day be doing that, I would have laughed in your face. But I’ve learned a lot through this process. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve picked up:

  1. It makes complete sense to use music that already matters to us. Although the church is called to be set apart (that is what “holiness” means, after all), we sometimes take things too far and cordon off our faith from the rest of our lives. But sometimes a non-religious song can speak to the human condition more poignantly than even a beautiful hymn. Putting faith in conversation with other things that touch our hearts can help us bring our whole selves before God.
  1. Using music like this makes us hear Scripture differently. “Dislocated exegesis” is a term one of my seminary professors used to talk about reading Scripture in unexpected locations. As part of an assignment, classmates of mine read the Bible in the mall, on a bus, at the hospital, and in many more places. The change of scenery recontextualized the passage. Unexpected music, as much as unexpected surroundings, can disorient and reorient us to a passage of Scripture and cause us to hear it in a new way.
  2. Using music we’re familiar with in an unfamiliar context makes us hear it differently. Here’s that “dislocated exegesis” concept again. We strive to make space for people to encounter the music they know and love differently so that their hearing of it is forever changed. Sometimes it’s not such a stretch—Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” has been used zillions of times in churches, including more than once at our service—but sometimes the recontextualization can be jarring in the best of ways. Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” alongside Revelation 21. The Eagles’ “Take It Easy” in a service on Sabbath. Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” during Holy Week. Believe it or not, it works.
  1. Some secular music is much better at lament than Christian music is. In August of 2013, I sweated while the band sang 80s new wave rock band XTC’s song “Dear God” in worship. The song is essentially an atheist manifesto, and it left our congregation in palpable tension. But to me, that song came much closer to expressing the essence of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” than most Christian worship songs ever could. Again and again, we have found that when tackling difficult issues like domestic violence, addiction, dementia, poverty, and more, there are far better musical resources outside the church than inside (which should be motivation to create, too!).
  1. “Christian” does not equal “good.” We as Christians have got to get over the Christian brand. There are so many things out there that get slapped with an Ichthus fish on the label and suddenly can be marketed to church groups. Y’all—we are people of faith, not an advertising demographic! We worship a God who created all things, not just Christian things. There is a lot of Christian music, art, and theology that is destructive, and sometimes we can find more beauty and truth in other spaces. We should not be afraid to encounter God in these unfamiliar ways.

We are not unique in our use of secular music. There’s nothing original about what we’re doing—though it sometimes feels that way to someone for whom it took years to come around to the idea. As the church and the world change, the sacred/secular dichotomy is being eroded—and should be—that we might embrace the fullness of God’s kingdom in its familiar and unfamiliar forms.



  • Sarah Howell is Associate Minister at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, NC, where she focuses on missions and worship. She spends most of her time in ministry planning and leading Roots Revival, a midweek service grounded in Americana / roots-based music. She received her BA and MDiv from Duke.

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