A couple of weeks back, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco (one of the largest Episcopalian congregations in the country) staged what it described as a “Beyoncé Mass”. In place of the more orthodox spiritual songs that one might expect in such a setting, the organizers piped in some tracks from the Princess of R&B. (full disclosure: I had to Google “Beyoncé nicknames” to pull that phrase because in real life, I know next to nothing about her)
Not surprisingly, various conservative commentators have been pearl-clutching ever since, exclaiming, “This is what we have come to???” They obviously feel that Beyoncé music is utterly inappropriate for a church service.
I disagree. I think for most worship services across the country, Beyoncé is utterly appropriate. Indeed, Grace Cathedral’s decision to celebrate a Beyoncé Mass is a refreshingly frank acknowledgement of what’s going on at all these services.
Let’s be real here. Queen Bey (thanks again, Google!) isn’t any kind of religious leader. She’s an entertainer, and a hugely successful and famous one at that. She has demonstrated a genius for giving the people what they want.
Sure, the Rev. Yolanda Norton, who put the whole service together, has all these high-flown arguments about how Beyoncé is actually-factually a spiritual force for good. However, other than a bare handful of credulous theology students (and “bare handful” is probably generous), nobody showed up for the Beyoncé Mass because they were interested in how she figured into womanist Biblical interpretation. They showed up for the novelty of “Formation” replacing “Amazing Grace”. They showed up because they’re Beyoncé fans. Clearly, the Rev. Yolanda Norton also knows how to give the people what they want.
If our worship is about us, this is the logical thing to do. If what matters most is what people like the best, then give them Beyoncé! Why bother with all those tired old hymns by dead white guys? In the same vein as “How many divisions does the Pope have?”, how many Grammys does Isaac Watts have? If our concern is the idolatry of the self, the music of a pop idol provides us with a marvelous accompaniment. Everybody needs a Beyoncé Mass!
To this, worship ministers all across the country would no doubt indignantly reply, “We’re here to worship God, not ourselves!” However, the difference between them and the Rev. Yolanda Norton doesn’t lie in the object of worship. It lies in the transparency with which that object is worshiped.
After all, nowhere in the law of Christ is it written, “Praise the Lord with electric guitar! Praise the Lord with drum set!” Nowhere does God say, “Worship Me with inferior versions of pop ballads.” Worship ministers don’t do these things because they are taking their marching orders from God. They do them because they are taking their marching orders from the world, which is otherwise known as “being culturally relevant”. No less than the Rev. Yolanda Norton, they are giving the people what they want. Indeed, even the worship ministers with pipe organs and choirs are giving an older crowd of people what they want.
People-centric worship takes a people-centric form. That is its nature, and the Beyoncé Mass is probably its highest possible expression. Unbelievers won’t pack a stadium for Jesus, but they will for Beyoncé. Self-evidently, they will pack a church for Beyoncé too. Why not do that?
However, God-centric worship takes a God-centric form, a form designed to please Him rather than the crowds. We know what pleases Him. He’s told us. Even a child can understand what Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 are about. The hard part isn’t in the knowing. It’s in the submitting and doing.
If we are willing to do that, our worship will resemble the worship of the earliest Christians. If we aren’t, we ought to adopt Beyoncé Masses too. As long as our feet are set on the broad road, we might as well enjoy the journey as much as possible.