Does Music Cause You to Shut Out or Tune In?

Christians are called to love each other (1 John 4:11), to live in community with each other (1 Cor. 12), and to share and defend the gospel charitably with others (1 Pet. 3:15). Yet, this can only be done if Christians are open to opportunities with other people. We can’t be an island unto ourselves—or a planet orbiting through time, oblivious to others. Unfortunately, it is easy to quarantine ourselves from others as we create our private spaces and communities.

Barrier Building through Music

How do we do this? We build houses, construct fences, grow hedges, and join different social groups—and listen to music. These are all normal, natural, and good activities to do, but they can also be used as ways to escape other people.

In the case of sound, an invisible aspect of reality claims a definite area. For example, reception music at a wedding encompasses the whole reception area. The space inside the music is where the party is, where the people are, where the community is. The space outside is, well, outside.

“Music-ing" Together: Oneness by Listening

Personal music seems to function in a similar way. Music used to be—and still is in some cultures—a communal activity. Sharing music is a uniting experience. There is something completely different about listening to a favorite band by yourself versus watching that band in concert with other people. There is live interaction, a connection, a community created. So also there is a difference between listening to recorded music with someone else (even if you both are doing different activities) and listening by yourself (even in a room full of other people).

I like having my own music, on my own phone, accessible on my own time in my own place. However, with this reality I might as well be on my own planet. And sometimes I wonder if many people are (myself included). We walk the streets and realize that people are in their own spaces, experiencing a form of their own reality. We aren't sharing the same experiences of sound as we walk side-by-side on the same street.

Sometimes it seems that what is in our ears also affects what our eyes see—no passing smiles, not a friendly wave. The sound has created a barrier—with me on the inside and you on the outside. With everyone creating their own space with sound, have we shut out others who would gladly enter into our lives? Have we missed opportunities to share the gospel or minister to others who just are waiting for an opening to connect with us?

Case in Point

I remember the enjoyable experience of studying with a friend during seminary. One thing that made this experience a delight was that, even though we were working on separate projects, we were listening to and enjoying the same music. It seems a minor point, but studying can be a very isolating enterprise, and just the idea of sharing some form of community while doing it is meaningful.

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Conversely, another time I was enjoying some really fun tunes after studying. Suddenly, the earphones fell out. Silence. I was struck by the fact that even though I was having a wonderful time with my music, no one else around me was able to share in the experience. It can be a lonely realization. But what I understand even more now is how separate our lives can become from others if we don’t actively share them.

Music Is a Powerful Tool

Music is a beautiful gift and tool from God. It has the ability to connect people. It creates a shared space and an environment of “oneness” if you let it. Music, however, can also do the opposite, creating isolation. Like all tools, it is to be used for God’s glory and the benefit of our fellow humans.

The apostle John tells us that, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14a). There would have been no good news if Jesus hadn’t come down from heaven and lived, ministered, and died for his people. This is a wonderful reminder to use the gifts and tools God has given us for others and not just for our own benefit.

Music can be used for so many good things, but we must be careful that it doesn’t become a barrier to communicating love and caring for each other or a means to avoid interaction with those who need to hear the gospel. In the end, if we orbit though life closing ourselves off with music or other things, instead of including people in our space, we may just as well live on our own celestial body—and what good would that do?

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Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World by Michael Horton