By Shawn Wuske
When I was in school at Cincinnati Christian University, our chapel service ended just before lunch. Afterward most people left the gym pretty quickly to head to lunch or class. One particular day, however, the person running sound decided to play the song “Nobody Knows” from The Tony Rich Project. If you’ve never heard the song before, trust me when I say it’s both a goofy breakup song and a song that’s almost impossible not to sing along with after hearing it just once.
I don’t know why the song was played. I can’t imagine it related to the theme of the service. But something strange happened. We didn’t leave. Yes, some students had to head to class, and there’s always a few people who run away at the first sign of fun. But a room that was normally empty after chapel was still 80 percent full at the end of the song. It started with eye contact, a tacit acknowledgement that we heard what song was playing too. Then came the smiles, the sing-along, the laughter, and then more singing.
That moment is one of my favorite memories from college, and it contained two things present in most of my favorite life moments: music and other people. It happened more than a decade ago, and I still smile thinking of that silly moment. Hearing that song today always makes me think of the friends who shared that moment with me.
Music connects us to others, and it does so in ways we can explain and in ways we can’t. There’s a God-ordained purpose behind music.
First, a little science. Recent studies showed what I think we all instinctively knew to be true: music evokes memories. Emotions enhance our memory, and music enhances our emotions. Meaning not only can a song remind you of a memory, but the song can actually help produce a memory. So there may have been other times when my friends and I stuck around after chapel together longer than normal, but the reason I always remember that day is because of the music.
Even more vital to music helping us connect, researchers have also recently discovered that when we sing our bodies release oxytocin, a hormone nicknamed “the bonding hormone” because it enhances feelings of trust and bonding. God has designed us so that when we sing together, it helps us trust one another and bond together. God used this with his people after delivering them from slavery.
We read in Exodus 15 that God had just led Moses and the Israelites miraculously through the Red Sea by parting the waters, and then delivered them from the Egyptians by causing the waters of the sea to flow back over Pharaoh and his army. Immediately following this miracle, the Israelites sang a song of praise to God together. The song goes on for eighteen verses, ending with the Israelites agreeing in one voice, “The Lord reigns for ever and ever” (v. 18). As if the parting of the Red Sea wasn’t enough, the Israelites embedded this moment forever into their hearts with a song and connected together as one, which was vital as they began their journey to the promised land.
The Israelites connecting through song resembles how we worship through song in congregations throughout the world, bringing us together in unity as Christ prayed for (John 17). But music can also help us connect with unbelievers.
Connecting with the Community
This past summer, River of Life Church, where my wife and I serve, took part in the first Porchfest in our neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. Porchfest is a free event in which people open up their porches for local musicians to play music throughout a neighborhood. We used some grass and sidewalk in front of the church building as a “porch.”
One musician from our congregation, Devin Ferreira, jumped at the chance to be involved, planning his set and recruiting other musicians to play in front of the church. Devin began rapping at the age of 6 and first picked up a saxophone just two years later. He started touring and recording when he was just 16, and moved from Maine to Boston three years later. He joined River of Life in 2013 after he accepted an invitation to visit when one of our members saw him making a phone call on the church’s front steps. He was baptized soon after and has been a part of our congregation ever since.
On the day of the event, Devin’s energy was contagious. He rapped, played saxophone, and showcased other musicians. Much of his music is about his own life, beliefs, and struggles. “Hip-hop has helped me tell my story. Telling my story has allowed me to connect to people from many ages, cultures, locations, economic backgrounds, and more,” Devin said. “This is what I live for—bringing hope to people who may have lost it.”
Toward the end of his set he was performing a song about finding eternal purpose in God, and I looked out into the crowd—every head was bobbing along with the beat. I’m a preacher, so my instinct is more prose than poetry, but even I know that music can connect people in ways that words alone sometimes can’t. Devin is bold in his faith, and that shows up in his lyrics. I’d imagine if I were to preach a related sermon to passersby in front of our building, there’d be a starkly different reaction.
It would be hyperbole for me to say that Jamaica Plain contains every tongue, tribe, and nation—but just barely. Seeing people from all over our diverse neighborhood connecting together as Devin shared his faith is a memory I’m thankful to keep.
Porchfest was even more of a success than we could have hoped. The producers of the event were hoping for a turnout of 2,500, and the final estimated count was more than 7,000! Devin and I were able to connect with a few local musicians who joined Devin on our porch, and music helped us connect our church together with our neighborhood in ways we’ve been praying for.
Devin is an immensely talented guy, and that goes beyond Sunday mornings—even beyond the porch. He designed and implemented a music program for inner-city youth and is now the director of performing arts at the new Mattapan Teen Center.
Even there God works through music. “I have seen music cross cultural and economic boundaries,” said Devin. “I have seen music console people during a time of grieving. I have seen music assist in building self-esteem and confidence. I have seen music provide hope and inspiration. I have seen music connect opposing gang members. Music has a healing power, and I try to use it to bring the best out in people and show the community how special our kids are.”
His music program helps him treat others the way God sees them. “[Music provides teens] with a safe place to go and do something they love,” Devin said. “They have a voice in the studio. We value how they think and what they say. We look to the potential of the person and offer them the resources and knowledge to achieve their goals.”
Devin has powerful advice for the church on helping God’s Word advance and take root in people’s hearts through music. He challenges the church to “be more open and accepting to the wholeness of a person” and use music to “embrace the difficult moments of life and offer some hope in it all.”
“We forget about how many people out there still need hope, inspiration, and guidance. Speak to the hearts of all people,” Devin encouraged, knowing that with Christ, “everyone has the potential to be someone incredible.”
Shawn Wuske ministers in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston.