Is Your Church Still Listening to Vinyl?

It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m in my car heading to worship at an innovative faith community in a south Seattle neighborhood. I’m also listening to an AM radio station trying to catch the end of a football game. I’m a driving contradiction, I know.

Instead of the score, I’m treated to an Associated Press report on the growth of vinyl record sales, which notes their particular popularity with indie rock fans. In the opinion of some of these fans, vinyl provides a qualitatively better sound. The report also described the appeal many experience in the ritual of placing the needle on a record; a physical action which surfaces visceral feelings that aren’t digitally reproducible.

The story concluded by noting the difficulties vinyl record producers were experiencing as increasing demand pressed, and at times outpaced, supply. Despite their rising popularity, sales of vinyl records are still the epitome of a niche market, resting at around 2% of total music sales.

Entrepreneurial investments had yet to materialize revealing some skepticism or risk adversity in the music industry.

This report got me thinking about the church and how we tend to define our practices and rituals of worshiping God, and of gathering in Christian community, in similar ways.

Heading as I was to this trendy new faith community, I was first drawn to think of them. I wondered if they were creating a community that would cater to the equivalent of the vinyl record lover. Had they simply formed another church that appeals to a certain, small niche of people?

As I continued to drive, I start to wonder if perhaps the opposite was true. Maybe the majority of our existing churches are the ones stuck playing with outdated, niche technology. Could it be that we, too often, won’t let go of our metaphorical roundtables and 8-track tape players because of how much we invested in them back when they were the best way of playing music?

Is the church failing to go digital?

Many churches are struggling to stay afloat in a world that tends to reward businesses that are nimble and quick to adapt to emerging markets and opportunities. Yes, churches are not businesses; I appreciate that sentiment.

But it is also true that buildings, obligations to staff, and other responsibilities quickly pull us toward a world that is quite similar. Are we guilty then, yoked as we are by these many things, of a vinyl record mentality?

Let me submit that our tendency to define some practices like Sunday morning worship as essential, when they are better understood as generationally preferential, is one example of a vinyl record mentality. The quick identification many make between a building and the church that worships within it is perhaps the strongest. The ideal that every church has a seminary-trained pastor is yet another.

Put another way, do we spend too much of our money trying to convince people that vinyl is really better than digital? Could those same resources be more suitably applied toward understanding what digital means for us?

With the exception of the rare audiophile who has the time, expertise, and financial resources to purchase the best equipment; vinyl isn’t a practical solution for the casual music fan. It may, debatably, provide a superior listening experience, but defining it as the norm would create challenges and unnecessary barriers between the musician (or music industry) and the audiences they seek to reach.

So, do our buildings, our rituals, and even our music, create similar barriers and burdens for folks who are seeking lives that are spiritually meaningful? Do they stand in some tension with the message we profess of a God who loves all people and desires to be in relationship with them regardless of their access to power and wealth – both of which make traditional church models far more practical.

And even if we ascertain, with some degree of certainty, that the way we do things truly creates a qualitatively better experience of God, do we not still bear some responsibility to support new innovations to reach others where they are? Is our commitment to the Great Commission less formidable than the music industry’s dedication to their profit margins?

In case you were curious, I enjoyed my visit to that new faith community in south Seattle. It wasn’t a perfect match for my fickle religious tastes but struck me as an ideal fit for the neighborhood it was nested within.

Creating authentic community is always hard work. Thank God for people and churches that are willing to stretch to reach new people with the beautiful music God wishes to play upon each of our hearts.

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below and thanks for sharing!

Photo Credit: “Magic of the Vinyl” by Ramkumar Rajendran via Flickr.

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