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Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Bono: Can themed church services attract younger worshippers?

05 July 2024

Swift is just the latest popular musician to inspire a church service, Tim Wyatt finds


Taylor Swift performs at Wembley at the end of last month

Taylor Swift performs at Wembley at the end of last month

THE Heiliggeistkirche, in the Baroque German city of Heidelberg, is a 15th-century Gothic jewel of a church. Beneath its vaulted roof, worship has been offered for centuries, with music ranging from Gregorian chant to Lutheran hymns. Even at the church’s time of greatest turmoil, when it was consecrated and reconsecrated by different factions during the wars of religion, nothing, perhaps, will have been quite so surprising as the music that resounded through its nave in May.

“The buttons of my coat were tangled in my hair. In doctor’s-office-lighting, I didn’t tell you I was scared. That was the first time we were there. Holy orange bottles, each night I pray to you. Desperate people find faith, so now I pray to Jesus, too” — these are the words of Taylor Swift’s quietly tragic song “Soon You’ll Get Better”, dedicated to her mother after a cancer diagnosis. It was one of the chief musical items in an entire service inspired by the American pop star.

Under the title “Anti-Hero” (a track from Swift’s 2022 album Midnights), the service at the Heiliggeistkirche featured a local singer and professor of popular church music at HfK Heidelberg, Tiene Wiechmann, who sang six of Swift’s songs. These were interspersed with reflections on Swift’s lyrics, life, and philosophy from the (now Protestant) parish’s Pastor, Vincenzo Petracca.

AlamyProfessor Tine Wiechmann performs Taylor Swift songs in the Heiliggeistkirche, Heidelberg, during the “Anti-Hero” service in May, watched by Pastor Petracca and the congregation

Another pastor, Christof Ellsiepen, told a German news agency: “The Church of the Holy Spirit has always been a place of encounter and exchange. That’s why a pop music religious service fits so perfectly. With it, we are giving space to the questions and issues that occupy the younger generation.”

Pastor Petracca, aware that his church was built for “Gregorian liturgical music, and not for Taylor Swift”, said that the American’s songs had nevertheless connected deeply with the congregation. “I stared into beaming faces — and during the song that Taylor wrote for her cancer-stricken mother, many had tears in their eyes.”

To end the show on a high, the band struck up Swift’s exuberant “Shake it off”, which brought members of the congregation to their feet, dancing and clapping.


WHILE the pastoral team in Heidelberg may be the first to build a liturgy and service around Swift, they are not the first to use popular art and culture in an effort to attract young and largely unchurched people. A “U2charist” was developed in the early 2000s, using songs from the Irish band U2 at holy communion (News, 16 June 2006).

Churches around the world have also steamed into the world of Harry Potter, often timing a special service to coincide with All Saints’ Day or its Eve (Hallowe’en). These services usually involve showing clips from the films to illustrate Christian messages; but one church in Washington State put on an entire day of “Harry Potter and the Healing Hallows”. Worshippers were encouraged to wear their Hogwarts house uniforms as they “celebrated the divine magic of life that resides in all of us and transforms the world through faith and friendship”.

Also devised in the US is the Beyoncé Mass, billed as a “womanist worship service” at which “Black women find their voice, represent the image of God, and create spaces for liberation.” Founded by the Revd Yolanda Norton, it is aimed at encouraging worshippers to consider whether Beyoncé’s lyrics spoke to complicated relationships not just with lovers, family, and friends, but with God, too.

“We use ‘Flaws and All’, a song maybe she wrote for her fans or for Jay-Z,” Ms Norton said in an interview with The New York Times. “But, if you listen to the words in an ecclesiastical context, it’s a very faithful, honest, raw acknowledgment of the imperfect relationship we have with God.” Later, the congregation is led by a live band in a rendition of Beyoncé’s “Survivor”, ostensibly written as an act of defiance of an ex, but reimagined in church as a celebration of marginalised communities that thrive despite oppression.

AlamyBeyoncé accepts the Innovator Award at the iHeartRadio Music Awards in April

Greg Fromholz, a filmmaker and former Church of Ireland youth worker, brought the U2charist to a church in the heart of Dublin in 2007. A lifelong fan of the band, he said that his aim was to find a way to engage with young people beyond church circles. “I thought: there’s got to be a way of getting people into the doors of a small church that is interesting and engaging, and might actually bring about some sort of traction for their own spirituality.”

Although he felt that the enterprise was a success, he acknowledged that there were perhaps more journalists at the first service than worshippers. A later experiment, Rave Mass, was more popular. DJs, strobe lighting, and thumping dance music drew hundreds to the crypt of a derelict church, Mr Fromholz recalled. “People turned up. We were using Moby soundtracks, good lighting, and people got into it. The creepiest thing was the priest in the midst of it doing the whole eucharist thing. That was spooky, but kind of cool.”

Others might find the juxtaposition of secular music with liturgy and sacrament jarring, but for Mr Fromholz it was “seamless”. “That music was written to take us on a journey. . . You have this beat going in the background, you have a cellist playing live over it, and then, all of a sudden, they’re saying these crazy metaphors to do with ancient wisdom around blood and body. It’s got this creepy but imaginative and mystical thing going on.”

Dubliners queued down the street — evidence, Mr Fromholz says, that many, even in today’s highly secularised society, were keen to explore spirituality in new ways, beyond the formal boundaries of a standard church service.


MANY of those who bring popular music and culture together with Christian worship make a similar argument. And when the songs themselves exude spiritual questioning and wrestle with the big themes of life in a way that has an affinity with Christianity, as many of those by U2 do, it is straightforward to use them as a springboard for preaching and evangelism.

Professor Greg Garrett holds a chair in English at the Baptist Baylor University, Texas, and is the author of books exploring intersections of culture and faith. Their topics include Harry Potter, U2, the Matrix franchise, and superheroes. He argues that blending “great art and great worship” is not such a “ridiculous idea”. “Even secular art — if there is such a thing — often deals with serious spiritual themes. The U2charist, taking music from a Christian rock band, even more closely melds popular music and worship, since the songs often are already doing that work.”

One concern remains, however: when you bring a popular and not explicitly Christian artist into a church service so centrally, as the Heiliggeistkirche did with Swift, and many others have done with U2 or Beyoncé, is there a risk that the focus of worship shifts? That without intending to, those attending slip into idolatry and end up giving their praise not to God but to Bono or Beyoncé?

The secular world can assume that this is what is happening: the title of a video documentary about one Beyoncé Mass is: The Church Service that Worships Beyoncé. Ms Norton insists that this is not what is going on, and that, in her services, God is put first.

AlamyA U2charist service at Green Meadows United Methodist Church, led by Paster Frank Trexlerin, in 2011

Others ask whether an artist’s intent should be given more weight when using their work in worship and evangelism. Martin Saunders, who runs the Christian youth festival Satellites, and is a writer on culture and theology, suggested that God’s “fingerprints are on every piece of culture ever created, whether he’s the subject of it or not”. It was not too much of a leap to suggest that it was possible to worship God through art not specifically about God, he said, quoting St Paul’s reference, in the Acts of the Apostles, to the altar “To an unknown god” in Athens.

It was easy to imagine St Paul today quoting Taylor Swift’s lyrics in a similar vein: “‘You can see this woman’s spiritual yearning in her writing. It helps us to understand there is a God; she just hasn’t quite grasped who he is yet. Let me tell you who he is.’”

Both Mr Saunders and Mr Fromholz argued that the Christian contemporary worship music industry was, after all, merely an extension of the broader pop world, often owned by the same labels and run with the same commercial values. Mr Fromholz, who has made music videos with some of the biggest names in worship music, said that much of the output of “celebrity Christians” was potentially just as “idolatrous” as that of secular artists.

And, Mr Garrett said, the sheer popularity of many musicians made evangelism by way of themed services good mission strategy: “You like Beyoncé, Taylor, Bono? We do, as well. We also like Jesus. Maybe you would, too.”

Mr Saunders said: “The question to ask our culture is: ‘Is it the best possible thing that we are worshipping?’ And, if Swift is not satisfying our deepest longings and bringing life in all its fullness, who else might?”

Mr Fromholz, who spent 20 years as a youth worker in Dublin, said that he understood his ministry as “trying to reframe this ancient wisdom in a way that made sense in today’s culture. . . We didn’t get it right all the time. It’s cringey many times. But we were always attempting to say, ‘There is no divide between you going to school, going to work, going to Sigur Ros, going to Chris Tomlin. God is bigger than all of this.’”

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