“Take us to church, Taylor!” was one of the many call-and-response rituals between Taylor Swift and the millions of fans who flocked to stadiums during the spring and summer of 2023 to gather around the music and persona of Taylor Swift.
It’s not the first time fans have gathered around the work of a legendary musician and referred to it as “church.”
A service at the Church of Beethoven, for example, is “not quite a concert, not quite a church.” Attendees, who find meaning in the spiritual but not religious dimension of music, gather for performances/services where “the music is the worship, the homily and the anchor of the community of believers.”
An abundance of recent essays and articles describe the experiences fans have had at Swift’s concert stops on the Eras tour. They reflect on intense communality, Swift’s ability to speak to particular experiences of girlhood or coming of age, and, yes, the spiritual parallels and affinities in the music and the performance.
Swift’s music and showmanship are, arguably, the “worship, the homily, and the anchor” for temporary communities of over 50,000 people, singing and moving along at her massively popular stadium shows. Is the Eras tour a traveling “Church of Taylor Swift”? Many of her Christian fans insist that’s not the case.
The Eras tour discourse is just the latest battleground for Christians to debate about the distinction between art appreciation and syncretism or idolatry. When is music or a musician an idol? Should Christians be more reticent to ascribe spiritual meaning to an experience at a stadium concert than to one at a performance of a Beethoven symphony, an exhibit of Rembrandt’s paintings, or a trip to the Grand Canyon?
After attending Taylor Swift’s Eras stop in Minneapolis this summer, Sarah Chapman posted a video on Instagram: a panoramic sweep across the stadium, a sea of twinkling lights, blinding flashes from the stage, and a glimpse of Swift on the big screen.
Overlaid on Chapman’s video is text from Luke 19:40: “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!”
After her post went viral, Chapman removed the comment section and then took the post down because of the backlash. Commenters called the post “blasphemous” and accused Chapman of worshiping Swift or glorifying profanity.
“It was shocking,” said Chapman. “Of course I’m not suggesting that I or anyone should worship Taylor Swift. For me, it’s pretty simple. When I experience beauty, I’m drawn to God.”
The belief that music and pageantry can draw listeners to God has long informed church musical practices.
When visiting churches in Rome during the 17th century, French musician André Maugars described the innovative, complicated vocal music as “elaborate, full of beautiful melodic lines and many pleasing solo passages. … Two choirs would contend with each other, then two others would answer. … I must confess to you that I have never experienced such rapture.”
Maugars’s account is an important window into the ways that Christian sacred music and the concert culture of Western art music developed in tandem.
“One went to church in seventeenth-century Rome much as one goes to a concert today,” wrote music historians Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin in their commentary on Maugars’s letter. “It was in these public church performances that our modern concert life was prefigured.”
Church musicians of 17th-century Rome saw no necessary conflict between worship and what modern audiences would consider to be an impressive concert. Concertized church music would allow musicians to hone their craft, create new art, and awe attendees.
The intricate harmonies, overwhelming waves of sound from multiple choirs, dynamic contrast, and resonant cathedral spaces themselves were all meant to point to the beauty and glory of God. The pageantry and drama of the musical performance were meant as both an offering and a call to praise.
Centuries later, C. S. Lewis reflected on the value of music, whether secular or explicitly spiritual, as a medium that could serve to point the listener to the divine.
He had what he considered to be transcendent experiences with music—the operas of Wagner, for example—and believed that Christians had the capacity to allow musical beauty to turn them toward God.
“I think every natural thing which is not in itself sinful can become the servant of the spiritual life, but none is automatically so,” Lewis wrote in a letter to a reader, referencing human responses to music. “When it is not, it becomes either just trivial (as music is to millions of people) or a dangerous idol.”
The “idol” problem is central in the debate about what it means to call an experience at a Taylor Swift concert “worship.”
Almost no one is worried that the music itself (the songs, the lyrics, etc.) is the idol here; it’s Swift herself. Everyone in the stadium is gathered to hear her, to see her, to be in her presence. And for many Christians, the idea of worshiping God in that context—in the “temple” of Taylor Swift—is anathema.
If there ever was someone worthy of the label “pop idol,” Swift certainly is. Her influence and power have been on global display since the launch of the Eras tour. The tour has grossed over $800 million, and the new concert film, Eras Tour, grossed $92.8 million in the United States and Canada during its opening weekend.
For the past six months or so, the Eras tour has dominated public conversation about music and culture, with adoring fans sharing videos and photos across social media.
Swift is, undeniably, powerful. As NFL fans experienced a few weeks ago, there’s no segment of the pop culture world that she can’t infiltrate and conquer. She influences public discourse, the global economy, and the emotions of masses of concert attendees. Fans look up to her, emulate her style, and envision themselves as her friends.
And yet her Christian fans insist that the appreciation of Swift and her music, performance, and persona has nothing to do with idolatry. Chapman finds the suggestion absurd; she says she has no doubt that she had a divine encounter at the concert and experienced an intense outpouring of love for those around her because of it.
“I was able to look out at this sea of people and felt like I was able to have God’s heart for everyone in the room,” said Chapman. “Music, beauty—he is the creator of these things. They draw me closer to him; they don’t draw focus away. They move me to love people better.”
After attending the Eras tour stop in Cincinnati with his wife, Caleb Mathis also shared his reflections online.
“All truth is God’s truth—I think about that all the time,” said Mathis, content director at Crossroads Church in Lexington, Kentucky. “Art opens up a highway between us and God.”
Some of the pushback to the perceived overspiritualization of Taylor Swift’s music and performances focuses on attempts to draw direct parallels between her lyrics and biblical texts. Posts like Mathis’s suggest that there is truth to be gleaned from Swift’s lyrics and that those parallels and echoes are just more evidence of God’s truth and common grace shaping and appearing in human creative culture.
Trevin Wax, a columnist for The Gospel Coalition, cautioned against this kind of selective reading of Swift’s lyrics in a 2016 article for TGC, “The Gospel According to Taylor Swift,” arguing that the message at the heart of Swift’s music is a false gospel of self-discovery and fulfillment.
“Yes, the Bible says, there is a grander story of discovery that makes sense of all our trials,” wrote Wax. “But that story is radically God-focused, not self-focused.” For Wax, parallels to Scripture or Christian beliefs don’t change what is, in his view, a fundamentally flawed central message.
In the case of Sarah Chapman’s Instagram post, though, the negative reaction had to do with the framing of the Taylor-centric event itself as a worshipful experience and Chapman’s use of Scripture to describe the outpouring of enthusiasm and joy as praise.
Chapman insists she didn’t mean to suggest that everyone there was worshiping God; she was moved by the realization that everyone there could worship God. “It was so cool to see so many people rallying around one thing. They are all craving the same thing,” said Chapman. “As Christians, we can say, ‘Yes, you are supposed to long for something.’”
“I saw people crying, having worshipful experiences with their hands up,” Caleb Mathis recalled. “A lot of people there may have been worshiping her or the moment.” But, said Mathis, the whole experience pointed his attention above the figure on the stage to God’s presence among humanity.
Hannah Lovaglio, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Cranbury, New Jersey, believes Christians can have spiritual experiences outside the walls of the church, and that includes at an arena concert.
“If worship is a posture that we carry through all of life, it’s not something that we set aside at a concert,” said Lovaglio, who also attended the Eras tour. “The Holy Spirit has never needed a particular set of guidelines in order to move.”
In her 2022 memoir, Easy Beauty, Chloé Cooper Jones similarly describes her encounter with beauty at a Beyonce concert:
I look out from the stage at an ocean of people, all united in an experience of blunt, triumphant beauty, and I think of all the ways I’d nearly rationalized myself away from this, of how many layers of superiority, theory, pretense I’d used to build up my little house of self-regard that kept me inside, shielded.
Many Christians consider it dangerous to be so open to experiences with art and media. Given the power and influence of popular music, a cautious, guarded posture is seen as valuable and necessary for discernment.
In a sermon earlier this year, Jackie Hill Perry talked about the spiritual peril in “digesting impurity,” in reference to music by artists like Beyoncé and Kehlani, suggesting that their music could be at least partly to blame for depression, anxiety, or nightmares.
When is art too secular, too profane to be part of a worshipful experience? Lewis proposes that there is a way to discern whether a life steeped in such art can bear good fruit.
“The test of music or religion or even visions if one has them is always the same—do they make one more obedient, more God-centered, and neighbor-centered and less self-centered?” wrote Lewis. “‘Though I speak with the tongues of Bach and Palestrina and have not charity etc.’!”