“Land of Hopes and Dreams?” by Vaughan S. Roberts

“Land of Hopes and Dreams?” by Vaughan S. Roberts

Imagine you have an interest in Christianity but have never attended an act of worship. You’ve read some of the faith’s holy books (say, Genesis, Isaiah, and Luke) but not been to church. I had a similar experience recently when I went to my first Bruce Springsteen concert (June 2013). I’d been an interested but distant observer, opening some of the “sacred texts” (Greatest Hits, The Rising, Wrecking Ball) and even reading commentaries on those texts, but I had never been to worship at the shrine of “The Boss.”

In chapter 7 of Personal Jesus, Clive Marsh and I investigate the ritualized and liturgical nature of popular music. This post explores those ideas further by reflecting on how audiences participate in such “worship” and the implications for churches and worshiping communities.

The context and shape of Springsteen’s performance are as one might expect. It took place in a sports stadium. The lack of support acts and the running time of three and a half hours were unusual for such shows but not (I understand) for Springsteen. It started with a mix of songs, several suggested by the audience with a series of handwritten placards. Then he sang his breakthrough album, Born to Run, which he dedicated to James Gandolfini (of The Sopranos) who’d just died unexpectedly. That was followed by five songs from various stages of his career, culminating in Badlands. The encore consisted of six tracks from different albums, for a total of thirty songs, of which I was acquainted with fourteen.

I was aware of being someone who wasn’t familiar with the “liturgy” of the show and didn’t know all the “hymns,” but I was interested in how the performer reached out to the audience. I identified five key elements, some of which are illustrated by this clip of “Pay Me My Money Down.”

  1. Bringing the crowd onto the stage. – Individuals were invited directly onto the performance area to share the experience through singing, dancing, and wearing Springsteen’s guitar. The placards for requesting songs were placed on the stage, reducing the sense of distance between artist and audience.
  2. Bringing the stage to the crowd. – The stage was at two levels, so movement to and fro gave a sense of extending the show toward the audience. We get a sense of that dynamic in the clip (particularly at 5:40 and 7:35). And the stage ran the width of the stadium, so Springsteen’s running from side to side extended the stage outward as well.
  3. Dancing. – As in the clip, the audience was encouraged to join in the songs by dancing, and most responded in one way or another.
  4. Clapping. – The musicians gave a lead in getting the crowd to clap (the introvert’s alternative to dancing?), and the video illustrates how clapping is an important means of participation.
  5. Nonverbal singing. – Simple, repetitive words (as in this song) or chants that don’t involve any specific words are an easy way to overcome barriers of language (see from 6:30 in the Springsteen clip) or lack of familiarity with lyrics.

The previous occasion I’d been to devotions in this place of worship was for Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto tour (May 2012) where many of these effects can also be observed, as in the following clip:

Here we see an additional “liturgical” factor: lighting effects. Each member of the audience was given a wristband that lit up at various points in the show, and during the song “Charlie Brown” we see them lighting for the first time. The sense of surprise and wonder is palpable, achieved through technological innovation. Yet this is an extension of a simple idea used in various forms of worship whereby people are given a candle to hold in the dark.

In Personal Jesus we suggest churches can learn from popular music. These two live experiences point to further implications for Christian liturgy, because techniques used in popular culture to produce a sense of participation and wonder will be familiar to various forms of church worship. That’s not to say all services should be like rock concerts or other forms of ritualized behavior cannot produce liminal experiences. They can. But seeing such dynamics at work in quasi-spiritual situations can encourage those with responsibility for Christian worship to look with fresh eyes at what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.


  1. Owen Vigeon says:

    Vaughan. Thanks for your very interesting analysis. Regarding ‘bringing crowd onto stage’ and ‘bringing stage into the crowd’ – obviously if perspectives are changed then you get a change of mood, communication etc etc. Seems to me we already have experience of that in religious practice but in different fashion. I have heard more than once that the most effective groupings for church are big – the mass congregation where one can lose oneself in the crowd – or very small – the intimacy of the house church/group. The one setting which is not creative and encouraging is what is sadly the norm these days – 50 people spread over pews for 500 !
    You cannot really”do” anything with that. But the very big and very small grouping conveys experience The gospels inadvertently confirm this with their contrast of the twelve in the upper room and the five thousand on the gallilee hillside. In other words the grouping/perspective/stage management conveys the same’message’ but with a different slant/experience etc. I really just wanted to point out that we DO do things in different and sometimes experimental way in church. Three years ago I tentatively started up a contemplative prayer group folloing a parish mission. To my surprise it is still going strong and I am able to hand it over to lay leadership with some confidence – I think we need to do more of that sort of thing. We have traditionally concentrated on feeding people with intellectual christianity and what they really need is coaching for their inner lives.
    Not sure if these comments are germane to the subject – if not apologies.

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  2. Richard Williams says:

    I have often noted how the sense of euphoria and common participation in an event such as this pop concert resembles our attempts to do liturgy well. Watching the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday I was conscious of how the promenaders have a definite role in the liturgy of that night in a way that those attending classical music events do not usually have, and they would be cross if a new conductor tried to take that away from them. In the same way some churchgoers feel excluded from liturgy by innovations which, therefore, have to be carefully introduced. There is a powerful emotional draw at a concert such as this where everyone is perceived as being united in a common ‘task’, the worship of the music of a favourite performer. We would call them ‘fans’, which, of course, is an abbreviation of the word ‘fanatic’.

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