Taylor Swift is Time’s Person of the Year in 2023, a year that began with the “Eras” concert tour as a phenomenal success and ended with the surprise release of a successful movie of the tour as well. Here are three learnings for the church from a year of All Things Taylor.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, our three daughters, all under age 8 at that point, were suddenly cooped up at home, with no school for weeks, preschool and daycare shuttered, family visits canceled…and to cope they started a daily ritual.
It was called Dance Party. They would start a Taylor Swift song on Alexa and dance to it, twirling their way across the floor as they took the edge off the weight of the unknown. Readers who are parents, you just know this daily ritual was to the same two songs every time (Welcome to New York and Shake It Off; they were “1989” fangirls for sure). I know every lyric like I know the Psalms in scripture, embedded daily as they were. As the pre-teen got older, she got more into the music and started to get the lyrics too.
I would not have expected it, but my family became Swifties (Taylor Swift fans) that season. The joy of the music and the resilience of the lyrics gave us a framework to navigate the unknown. Over the past year, I’ve come to three realizations that would benefit the church, too.
First Learning: Churches can have Eras, too
The 2023-2024 Eras tour is a simple structure: every one of Taylor Swift’s albums is called an Era, and the concert tour has distinct backdrops and set designs for each Era, along with Swift’s characteristic outfit changes. Each album is distinct: her first three albums were country, her other albums are pop, a little indie thrown in there for the two discs released during the first years of the pandemic. Her music is allowed to sound different because she is different.
In recent years, because of a music publishing dispute, Swift has been re-recording her old music and releasing it with her more mature vocals under “Taylor’s Version”. When she remakes the albums, some of the language and the references are different because it’s hers, and she is allowed to be different, both as her own ownership and also to update some of the lyrics to reflect a growing understanding of what she meant.
For our churches, we can take the same lesson: who we were before doesn’t have to dictate who we are today. Ministries that were huge in the past don’t have to last past their expiration date. Pastors’ visions of yore don’t have to define who we are today. While beliefs stay the same, if the mission field of a church changes, churches are allowed to change with it and be in a “different Era,” if you will. It doesn’t negate the previous ones; it just reflects who we are now.
My local church and denomination are great examples of this.
- The United Methodist Church follows the teachings of John Wesley, who unlike other theologians of his time didn’t write a systematic theology and expect everyone to mimic it. He wrote sermons and letters and journals which we call our denominational foundations, but they contain 60+ years of growth and shifting expressions such that academics have to check the date of a Wesley work to be able to categorize his writings properly. He’s an example of what it means to be different eras in a single person, even with a consistent faith.
- My local church in Seattle, Washington, had a long 100 year era as one of the downtown big steeple churches that was embedded in the financial and governing sector. After earthquake damage and declining membership, the church had a choice about 15 years ago: rebuild and continue the era in the same place, or start a new era a mile uptown closer to the cultural center of the city. We chose the latter to start a new era, but retained the ministries and missions because our mission field still needed someone advocating for the hungry and homeless, just a few more bus stops away.
- A lot of people will leave Christianity (or have already left) in the coming years. It’s helpful to think of that as the end of an Era, and the start of something new, rather than backsliding or sinners turning away from salvation. The church would do better to live into a new era that sheds the anti-women and anti-gay policies and practices so that when those who left feel that tug to return, there’s a new Era church that awaits them, not more of the old gross one.
Each era for Taylor Swift is another chapter in the same story of girlhood becoming womanhood, written in accessible ways for anyone who is friendly but was never the center of a friend group. Churches would do well to claim their own Eras as well and be unapologetic that things are not “the way they always have been.”
Second Learning: Mixing Specific and Generality
Swift is a master lyricist, and just like church music, I believe her lyrics matter more than the music (and so do universities that now are studying her lyrics in college classes).
A few years back, Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History” examined the big divide in America: not between red and blue states, but between people who like Sad Songs, and people who don’t.
- Gladwell looked at Rolling Stone’s top 50 rock songs. The top 50 rock songs are not sad songs. They are about all sorts of human experiences, most of them rather adult-themed, a lot of them happy and celebratory. Or they are…well, number 48’s chorus is “Tutti Fruitti Oh Rooti, Tutti Fruitti Oh Rooti, Tutti Fruitti Oh Rooti, Tutti Fruitti Oh Rooti.” There was not a single sad song in the top 50 at Rolling Stone the year Gladwell surveyed it.
- But if you turn on the top 50 country music songs, they are sad songs. Devastating songs about losing your love, losing your truck, losing your dog, hoping your love comes back again, just brutal lyrics. Someone who has gone through terrific loss understands those lyrics and feels along with them.
Gladwell concludes that some people want specificity in their music: speaking directly about the lived experiences of people. The other half want generality in their music, speaking to universal themes or experiences that cross cultures. Gladwell says “Country music makes people cry because it isn’t afraid of being specific.”
I think that explains a bit of why Taylor Swift is so successful. She came from country music, which is very much about the specific lyrics, and went into pop music, which is more about the general rhythm and beat. Her lyrics are specific and devastating and Swifties repeat them in myriad ways. There’s something powerful when a spoken or sung word finds the right mix of specificity and generality.
The church would do well to listen to this synergy in the following ways:
- Every Sunday when I preach, I have to preach like Taylor Swift–in a technical sense. I have to be specific enough to be memorable and speak to people’s physical experiences while general enough to speak to people who don’t have those experiences, especially those who don’t share the experience I have. The age of streaming means that some pastors feel pressured not to make local references in their syndicated messages that are trying to reach new people. Don’t give into that. Reference your mission field, talk about the history and the taste of the place. Even if folks don’t know about a locale, a good preacher can make it come alive for the most remote viewer. Be specific!
- The success also speaks to the power of music lyrics and that comes to a very controversial claim: I hope it leads to a reverse of the decades-long push into praise music that prioritizes emotional response over deep theologically reflective lyrics. I know that’s venturing into the worship wars that have roiled churches before, but there is theologically rich praise music too, just not from the big Christian Industrial Complex. Make Church Lyrics Great Again…but lose the patriarchal language, will ya?? (I say as I side-eye my denominational hymnal with patriarchal language distracting from the rich theology)
Messages that are an intentional mix of specific and general cross cultural divides and unite a mission field. Churches would do well to do them both.
Third Learning: you need to calm down
Taylor Swift personally provides a model of allowing times of vulnerability to be quiet and then reminding everyone of who you are.
In the New York Times podcast “The Daily” their December episode entitled “The Year of Taylor Swift” the host and interviewer detail how the real life superstardom affected Taylor Swift and how she responded rather than react as a tabloid-savoring public feud. From their reporting:
- After rapper Kanye West infamously took the mic from Swift at the 2009 VMA awards and the resulting Kardashian mudsligning stuff, Swift laid low and deleted all her social media for months…and came back with the Reputation album that speaks directly to the experience in ways that are accessible to those of us without such superstar problems.
- After being betrayed by a trusted person and losing control of her masters of her earlier music, she retreated and then came back with Taylor’s versions of her songs and sings in My Tears Ricochet about that experience, showing the rest of us that if even a megastar could be betrayed and hurt and have to find a way through it, we can too.
In both examples, she came back positive and not retributive and brought people with her in the experience that may seem far too removed from everyday reality, but somehow reminds us of our own.
Almost every church in America has gone through a transitional period during the covid-19 pandemic. We changed our worship practices, both virtual and physical, and took extended care of one another (or sadly, bellicosity defined our anti-public health stances). That’s a globally shared experience that may be part of a longer period of decline and stagnation for your context, or a period after a scandal or failure that has tinged your worship ministry for a long time.
2023 might have been the year you “returned” or “came back” to full ministries and missions…or it might not. What should matter more is what you learned during the fallow period now or ongoing, and that when you emerge you don’t blame other people or take too much gaslighting on yourself, but to name and own the failures and commit to a positive rebuilding or moving on.
We all get knocked down, and entire churches can get the wind knocked out of them. Lord knows my own denomination of The United Methodist Church has suffered a splintering off of 25% of our churches in just a few years to a new antigay denomination. But we pick ourselves up and define our reality ourselves, not how the haters have defined us.
…Ready for it?
You may not be a Swiftie. That’s okay. But the younger generations have responded the last 17 years to her music. Her newest music album Midnights is Swift’s 11th No. 1 album overall, tying Barbra Streisand for most No. 1 albums made by women. She’s also only the sixth artist to earn more than 10 No. 1 albums over the course of their careers, chasing after The Beatles 19 number one albums…and she’s only 34.
That’s a deep resonance with lyrics that stick to you, alongside music that is catchy enough for a trio of kids to dance to without knowing really what the words are about. The Church should pay attention and speak alongside the moment, rather than fill TikTok with white male pastors who try to tear her down. You are being too loud. Shade never made anybody less Tay. 🙂
May we take our learnings, love our joys, share our concerns, and commit to mission fields and common worship with the same vigor the Psalms call us to sing and put into practice, for the love of God and neighbor.
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