Christmas Carols: Harkening us Back to the Power of Music

Music Invites Participation:

I appreciate the fact that Christmas Caroling invites people to participate in a socially acceptable way…despite the fact that not all cultures celebrate Christmas. There’s something about digging through your purse or pocket and taking out the keys when carolers sing Jingle Bells that invites all to participate, regardless of musical skill.

In our modern age, we often are unaware how much music was an integral part of people’s lives for generations, except with Europeans, who mainly listened to music. Before the introduction of classical music, which could only be heard in large halls with professional musicians, music wasn’t just a performance. It was integrated daily into the ebb and flow of life, like you walk around the house and you hum. And if you come from a native tribe, maybe that particular humming is to pray to the earth for good crops.

To be careful, I’m not making a value statement about classical music or modern “Taylor Swift” music (my family rented her “Eras Tour”). I am saying that people today forget that music for a majority of history was not about the “end product” produced by composers and producers and singers. I am saying that we need to caution placing today’s performative music on a higher plane than the music that existed in the ebb and flow of life for generations.

To illustrate what I mean, the music of the indigenous Ohlone peoples, who once inhabited where I currently live, presents a good case study. Their music and songs like this one were pushed to the margins when in 1846 General Montgomery sailed the Portsmouth to San Francisco, then called Yerba Buena, and raised the American flag. Of course, no one asked indigenous people like the Ohlone people if it was “ok” to claim the land for the U.S. The Ohlone, all indigenous people, their cultures, and their songs were displaced because their cultures were seen as less then. That’s putting it mildly. “Indian children were forcibly abducted by government agents, sent to schools hundreds of miles away, and beaten, starved, or otherwise abused when they spoke their Native languages.” Yet, these were the songs that signaled rites of passage, that were hummed to cause their crops to grow, that brought them into relationship with their gods. The songs and the culture of the burgeoning U.S. were thought to be more civilized, and every one who did not belong to the “white” racial group had to assimilate. Can you imagine being BEATEN singing your culture’s generational songs? In the name of “civilizing” anyone not “white,” the songs that connected cultures to generations, to healing, to tradition, for farming, for connection were forcibly taken away. Generations of culture, connection, and lifestyle, the songs that gave identity were removed. Classical music, as beautiful and sometimes theological as it is, assumes discrete notes, a high level of training, and more. Music of cultures outside of the Western world can’t even be reliably played in this Western system because their notes don’t neatly fit into our Western system! (of course, fretless stringed instruments, or electronic keys with pitch benders can give access outside discrete notes)

I’ve trained a lot of missionaries across many organizations through the years; missionaries and seminary students are using material I’ve produced. Training for missionaries needs more tools to help identify the lens we see all relationships with, lenses that will inadvertently displace other cultures. Instead, Jesus and Paul brought God’s rule and reign into existing culture. Jesus himself grew up and later worked as a carpenter before starting his mission. In the name of metrics, “reaching people,” and reporting to shareholders (funders), missionaries and church planters simple are not taking enough time to learn the music of a culture, to learn one’s language and culture and identity markers through music. This holds true from the most remote of villages to the most urban of contexts, like the different music of the different micro-neighborhoods of San Francisco.

San Francisco is hyper-diverse, though more nations might be represented in cities like Los Angeles. The different is, San Francisco is a lot less car-reliant, meaning when one takes the 31 Balboa cross town, one can hear jazz and indie rock pouring in through its windows from the Outer Richmond, the classic Philly soul sounds from the Tenderloin, then street musicians on Market…all in a single ride (and I’ve engaged in all of these). Music, culture, and spirituality is pouring in through the bus windows. Sometimes, the music pouring in is participatory, perhaps not to hte extent we experience around Christmas time. But it’s there, and it’s inviting us to perhaps investigate music of our roots, or of the indigenous people who lived where we live.

Music facilitates the Work of the Spirit

What is the Spirit’s work? Jesus laid the groundwork through socializing with “unfamiliar” people to the chagrin of “religious folks.” The latter term refers to people more interested in building “fences” to keep people out…rather than wells that people are naturally attracted to. Jesus promised the Spirit so that people could be empowered to continue this work. And this work is simple: JOINING PEOPLE TOGETHER. Modifying that a bit, JOINING UNFAMILIAR PEOPLE TOGETHER. (Author Willie Jennings most inspired those words) The Acts 2 gift of tongues made this possible. Sometimes, we need explicit events to change how we see other people, such was what happened to Peter’s anti-Gentile perspective. A dream changed his perspective. A non-empathetic heart was changed to an empathetic one.

Many times, music brings solidarity between “unfamiliar” peoples. sometimes it invites vulnerability, like the time last year when I attended a Hanukkah party, and a handout was given me with songs in Hebrew. At other times, I’ve gotten together with leaders of faith communities who see Jesus differently than me. I could feel tension in the air as some of us have worked together. Specifically, I am sometimes seen as the “dogmatic” Christian guy. That all changed when I visited their sacred spaces in a musical environment. With one such leader, that visit led to me inviting him over to play some Beatles music. Music widens the vulnerable space for people to connect, especially if we first vulnerably step into other environments without any agendas.

The project that almost did not happen:

For the past year, I’ve been training to be a spiritual director, which is training to come alongside others to discern the movement of God in one’s life. As part of our second year of training, we were required to propose a “focus project (45 minute presentation, slide deck, tool for other directors, and bibliography)” where we choose a topic that is relevant to spirituality and especially to spiritual direction.

Doing a project on music was the last thing on my mind. Originally, I was going to choose a project to bring greater structure and scale to KR’s Lenses cohorts. But Julie Barrios, my spiritual director training supervisor and the director of my program (Nuos Formation) essentially rejected my idea and instead suggested I focus on music. She discerned that I needed to give permission in my life for passions like music. But another way, I traditionally don’t make much space to tap into passions of mine like music. Music is something I’ve felt in my soul deeply for decades; it’s been the conduit by which I relate to people and to God.

When Julie had me consider focusing on music for my project, I felt a raw vulnerability, feeling like a Moses before the burning bush. I felt Moses’ inadequacy…because…I don’t consider myself a “true musician, ” someone who is worthy of doing such a project. Who is worthy? Not me, I thought. But that’s the old legalistic narrative in me that’s kept me from pursuing such endeavors. By saying “yes” to Julie’s invitation, I knew I was opening part of my soul I’ve long supressed. I knew saying “yes” would result in pivots on personal, professional, and spiritual levels, pivots into more vulnerable spaces. I remember Brené Brown noting that these are the spaces from which spring creativity and innovation. And that’s pretty much what I experienced while putting the project together.

Music and Spiritual Direction

Sadly modern music of my faith in Jesus falls short in the area of lament. Recent research by Steve Scott (a student at the London School of Theology) showed, suffering is almost entirely absent from the repertoire of contemporary worship songs. In one recent survey of CCLI’s list of the top 100 songs being sung in church only features one song that could begin to be described as including lament.

This sad baseline coincides with the dark side of Christianity: white flight, low proximity to those who are different, more concerned about political agendas, triumphalism, patriarchy, and so much more.

Music we subscribe to can very well inform how we see God and how we see others. Spiritual direction simply makes space to identify some of these biases…in a self-discovered way. What I mean is, a spiritual director does not “tell” the directee, “your music does not include any lament songs. You need to change that because God welcomes lament!” But we can inquire what emotions come up with a certain song, what is God saying, and more.

Outside of spiritual direction, this is not too different with what I experience in coffee shops just playing with people. (yes, San Francisco has multiple spaces where spontaneous music circles simply erupt, usually anchored by “regulars.”) Music breeds trust. In that trust, I’ve had people say to me, “That song we just played, that song changed my life!” That’s an invitation to step into their vulnerability, to listen, to learn.

It’s reciprocal. Music has been a main vehicle where I’ve been able to share my story to friends across different world views. The rhythms behind this story-sharing is documented in my chapter in “HONOR-SHAME and the Gospel.” Today, I’m able to share these rhythms to middle schoolers and Ph.D. level students alike, rhythms that join people together, unfamiliar people…like the work of the Spirit.


Contact me at steve.hong at if you’d like me to share a 45 minute narrated presentation with you where I expand some of the areas here. The presentation includes many snippets of music to illustrate.

  • Books/papers
  • Begbie, Jeremy S.. Resounding Truth (Engaging Culture). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  • Levitin, Daniel J. 20092008. The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. New York: Plume.
  • TED talk
  • Cockburn, Bruce. Rumours of Glory: A Memoir. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
  • Hong, Steve. “Sharing God’s Love in an Urban Pluralist Context.” Honor, Shame and the Gospel: Reframing Our Message and Ministry, edited by Flanders, Christopher L., and Werner Mischke. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Publishing, 2020.
  • Burton, Hannah. “Yearning for the Infinite A Study of the Capacity of Music to Mediate a Sense of Transcendence” PhD. Dissertation, University of Manchester 2019 (
  • Web sites
  • Is Classical Colonial?
  • Spiritual Direction is Like Jazz – Seedbed
  • Music as a Contemplative Exercise | Spiritual Direction:
  • Why Music, Part 9: Music and Spirituality:
  • An Overview of Colonialism and its Ties to European Classical Music:

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