For reflection: If Beyoncé concerts are a religious experience, where is the church?

I have long believed that human beings are incurably religious at heart. Even atheists seek for a higher sense of meaning and purpose, something bigger than themselves worth living, and dying for. The quest may be outside traditional religion and religious institutions, but that doesn’t erase its essential religious nature. And common experience shows one doesn’t have to believe in gods or God to have a “spiritual or religious experience,” however it is described.

Often, such experiences are evoked by art, or love, or drugs, or nature.

And Beyoncé concerts.

In “Beyoncé. Amen.”, an Opinion piece in The New York Times (December 3, 2023), Vanderbilt professor Michael Eric Dyson argues the case.

The truth is plain, but elusive: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is not only the world’s greatest entertainer, a feminist and a principled advocate of Black culture, but also something of a religious prophet. Her method is admittedly unorthodox and not uncontroversial: She delivers philosophy in Versace, theology in heels on a stage… I have been a Baptist preacher for nearly 45 years, and to me, those concerts recalled what church at its best should be.

In an email introduction to Dr. Dyson’s article, Times Culture Editor Adam Sternbergh suggests that his thesis is really common sense.

The real question at the heart of Dyson’s latest guest essay for Opinion is: Can attending a Beyoncé concert be a religious experience? To that, his answer is a resounding yes—or perhaps a loud amen. It’s certainly true that the modern concert, which gathers like-minded acolytes in an enclosed physical space to, quite often, experience something close to spiritual rapture, has no more obvious analogue than a church service. And this year, perhaps thanks to a pent-up, post-pandemic appetite for communal spectacle, concerts did seem to turn into transcendent events…
            We might sometimes forget that “sanctuary” has at least two meanings in a religious context: a sacred, consecrated place, and also a place of safety and refuge. The conversation around this year’s big concert tours has largely focused on the difficulty of accessing them—the expensive admission, the elusive tickets. But as Dyson reminds us, once we make it to them, concerts can provide rare spaces that allow us to feel truly welcome as we are, and part of a community much larger than ourselves.

And meantime, Comment (Winter 2023), asks “Church, Where Are You?” In her editorial, Editor-in-Chief Anne Snyder asks a series of searing questions that the followers of Jesus must take seriously.

Concerned about how little we seem to understand each other across class and cognition, generation and politics? The church, in theory, should break down such walls. Concerned about artificial intelligence and a technological age spinning rapidly beyond our grasp? The church, in theory, should keep us grounded in sacred rhythms, embodied relationships, a robust moral imagination, the stuff that keeps us human and reminds us that God remains God. Concerned about the overpoliticization and undermoralization of our public life? The church, in theory, should be cultivating leaders sensitized to the lines between good and evil. Concerned about a culture that sets up irredeemable battles between friend and foe? The church, in theory, should have what it takes to model how we respond to our enemies with love.
            It’s as if the church is the missing puzzle piece for precisely this moment. But she is caught flat-footed, mired in her navel, lacking vision and supernatural power. And so we laypeople rove, finding succour to supplement her thin gruel.

Even if Dyson, Sternbergh, and Snyder do not share all theological issues in common, they share a common recognition of a very serious issue. The seriousness is measured by the growing number of Nones who are walking away from the church and from faith and finding sources of spirituality outside the church. I find both articles suggestive and am impressed that though answers are difficult to come by, being discerning and faithful at these cultural points of tension is crucial for the followers of Jesus. And for the church.

Is anyone listening?

Photo credit: Photo by Luis Quintero (