Youth ministry through music

Dr Joseph Nolan | Organist and Choirmaster | St George’s Cathedral
Dr Joseph Nolan | Organist and Choirmaster | St George’s Cathedral

Dr Joseph Nolan | Organist and Choirmaster | St George’s Cathedral

There’s lots of discussion about Youth Ministry and Youth Mission these days. You hear comments like ‘we need to relate to them on ‘their level’ in order to be relevant’. Let me share with you an experience in the Cathedral last month. I was asked, as part of a school visit by Peter Moyes Anglican Community School to demonstrate the cathedral organs to 96 of their students and accompanying teachers. The students were seated in the nave on chairs facing the West organ, and were able to see the actual organ console from a large TV screen. I introduced myself to them and set about getting them engaged with the process of musical discovery. After about 10 minutes of discussion, including a very good question and answer period, I then played to them J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor BWV 565. Many would have recognised the opening from films, but would not have been familiar with the brilliant and Italian style fugue that follows the famous Toccata. This is where my story becomes interesting. While playing, and when I finished, there was silence. It was no ordinary silence, but the silence that indicates something extraordinary was happening. It was the experience of absolute transcendence. Something very deep, something spiritual, even mystical was happening. Something was entering their lives that was new. I suspect that many of the people present might not know or realise it, but it is my belief that God was with us. I will never forget this atmosphere and I have played literally hundreds of concerts all over the world. 

I walked downstairs from the organ loft. There was still silence. Complete silence. After a moment I asked for questions. A girl slowly put up her hand and in a faltering voice asked a question with a single word: 'How?' The teachers were also totally engrossed. They too, realised that they had experienced something extraordinary, something beyond the ordinariness of this world. This is the type of engagement that can bring young people into the church. Through what is real, authentic and of genuine quality. Young people can see through what is superficial, popularist and shallow particularly quickly, and cathedrals are about finding God in his image, not people rebuilding God in their image. On this particular day I felt deeply that something I did mattered and made a difference to all those young people and I feel at peace. It was a very moving experience for all present, and is testimony to the power of quality music – in this case the music of J.S.Bach – to reach and transform young people with limited connection to the church or religion, and who have had little or no experience of this kind of music before. Helping young people to experience a deep spirituality through the classical music that cathedrals offer is a powerful component of what we call ‘mission’.


Article published in May 2018 Messenger magazine