How viewing music as a language can reframe the way we teach faith

Brad M. Griffin | May 8, 2013

As a kid, I hated practicing music. I knew (because I had been told) that learning technical skills and practicing instruments would make me better. But somehow practicing nearly always felt restrictive and forced. It was never as exciting as when I could improvise and make my own tune, though you might have been hard-pressed to define those tunes as “music.”

I never really treated music as a language.

Of course music is a language, a form of expression and communication. But this 5-minute TEDEducation video by Victor Wooten takes this truth to another level and raises some good questions.

Wooten makes some provocative proposals: Can music only be learned by following a strict regiment under a skilled teacher? Or is another way possible?

We learn our first language primarily by making mistakes. We try, we mirror, we experiment, and over time we learn from our mistakes. Wooten suggests, “As a baby, you were allowed to jam with professionals.” Our mistakes with language make others smile rather than jump in with harsh correction.

Music is rarely learned this way.

Nor is faith. But what if we were allowed to learn faith like we learn language? What if following Jesus wasn’t about mastering a test of abstract beliefs but about “jamming” with those further down the road from us?

That brings some important reframing to the work of discipleship. Are we teaching rules, or creating space where young people can jam? Are the young people in our ministries or in our homes free to be novices and apprentices improvising their way toward good theology and practice? This gives a whole new value to their questions and doubts.

Perhaps, as our friend Steve Argue continually reminds us, faith is a language, and the ways we learn that faith language matter. Perhaps the role of the faith community surrounding young people is to practice good language-learning principles.

Here are some practical ideas for teaching music, according to Wooten. I think you’ll see the parallels immediately:

1. There are no wrong notes. Embrace wrong notes instead of correcting them, at least at first.

2. Allow young people to play and perform with accomplished musicians often.

3. Encourage musicians to play more than they practice.

4. Remember that a language works best when we have something interesting to say. Many music teachers never find out what their students have to say; we only tell them what they are supposed to say.

Too many rules at the outset will actually slow down language development. The same is true of music. Perhaps the same is true of faith. Maybe we primarily learn faith by making mistakes. Maybe that’s why we claim the whole thing hangs on grace.

I suspect we don’t take this approach for a few reasons, most of them fear-based. This feels too open, too risky, too universalist. It feels like we’re abdicating our responsibility to “train up” children or teach them “right” things.

But if natural language learning is a mix of imitation, experimentation, and instruction, I don’t think we’re throwing the baby out with the bath water in this analogy.

What do you think? What have you found most opens teenagers up to exploring faith?

What helps them grow into a faith they “own” or “self-author”?

How would you push back on Wooten about music, or about faith?

How have you found a balance of imitation, experimentation, and instruction in your ministry or in your family?

PS, I love that this guy is riffing on “Amazing Grace” throughout the video. So very appropriate.

Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, writer, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over a dozen books, including 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Faith in an Anxious World, Growing Young, several Sticky Faith books, Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World, and Can I Ask That? Brad and his family live in Southern California, where he serves as Pastor of Youth and Family Ministries at Mountainside Communion.

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