How Record Store Day is Like Church

John J. Thompson

As thousands gather at small, defiant, independent retailers for this year’s Record Store Day (April 21), there will be much more going on than the procuring of limited-edition vinyl and cassettes. For many, Record Store Day has become a treasured holiday, an annual celebration of music and community. While I realize that my Nashville experience of Record Store Day—with live music, food, drinks, and often some kind of Jack White circus experience—might be a bit skewed, it’s hard for me not to notice a sacramental quality to the proceedings.

In The World, The Flesh, and Father Smith, Scottish author Bruce Marshall, via his protagonist, offers the brilliant observation that “the young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.” I think the same could be said of many record collectors scouring the bins. How might the church meet this sort of yearning? To help us work our way toward an answer, here are six ways Record Store Day is like church.

Record Store Day is Inconvenient

Record Store Day is a pain in the butt. If you want to find one of the really rare records, you’d better get in line early. In my neighborhood there are three different stores to choose from, and they all open at 10 a.m. The lines will start forming around daylight. Keep in mind, these are rock and roll people. Many have not seen sunrise on a Saturday since this time last year. But Record Store Day is important. Sure, Amazon is more convenient. Many of the songs we will be buying will be streaming on Spotify for free. But still, we’ll be there, coffee in hand, chatting with strangers about what we hope to find when the doors open.

Church is also a pain in the butt. I’m not just talking about getting somewhere on a Sunday morning. I’m talking about the profound inconvenience of having people complicate your life, ask for your help, and wondering where you are when you’re missing. Being alone, autonomous, and independent might be much more convenient in general, but convenience is a terrible value to live by.

The Releases are Limited

Record Store Day was developed to support and celebrate the local independent retailer. Participating stores sign up to get pre-mixed boxes of records. No one knows how many of which releases will be available in each location. That scarcity gives the day a treasure-hunt vibe. What’s more, all official Record Store Day releases are limited runs. While the artists might have made more money by making more copies available for a longer time, they trade the cash for something even more valuable.

Similarly, the conversation we had at church this past Sunday will never be repeated again. The particular Scripture readings, prayer requests, questions, teaching, and comments were unique to the moment we were in. It wasn’t recorded, packaged, or widely distributed. This dynamic reminds me of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where he challenges them, and us, to make the most of our limited time in this world.

Physical Matter Matters

Record people are not luddites. I’m streaming the new Decemberists album as I write, even as I hope to someday have it on vinyl. In fact, vinyl advocates are among the most tech-savvy, quality-conscious consumers out there. We appreciate the convenience of Spotify, but music means so much to us that we also want to have a physical experience of it. I believe the same is true of our spiritual gatherings. We could stream any number of great teachers or gospel songs and never have to leave the comfort of our homes. But there is something important about the physical experience of being in the presence of others, hearing their voices, seeing their faces, and embracing and being embraced by them.

Bringing things from the ethereal realm into the physical realm is the essence of the Incarnation. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Sure, we’re just one short step away from building idols when we start thinking about things like LPs in this light, but I do sense a connection between the incarnational aspect of our faith and my desire for a physical expression of music, be it the method of playback or the live performance itself.

It’s hard for me not to notice a sacramental quality to the proceedings.

A Diverse Community

One of the things I love most about both Record Store Day in particular and my local record stores in general is the diverse community that gathers there. This year there are featured albums from an incredibly wide range of genres: Jimi Hendrix, A Perfect Circle, Marty Stuart, The Alarm. From obscure oldies to brand new critics’ darlings, the circle continues to grow.

While I have yet to experience this kind of diversity in an actual Sunday morning service, it remains God’s vision for his people. The increasing diversity of Record Store Day definitely triggers a hunger in me for more of that in the church.

Record Store Day is Counterintuitive

If you look at Record Store Day on paper, it doesn’t make any sense. All trends point toward not only the end of the independent retailer, but also the end of physical music in general. The same can be, and often is, said of church. But even as Best Buy announces that it will no longer carry CDs, seemingly ushering in the eventual, digital-only eschaton, we have more independent stores in my neighborhood now than we did when Record Store Day started 11 years ago. Record Store Day is counterintuitive, as is the gospel.

Record Store Day is Sacramental

Record Store Day persists because many people are deeply, passionately, and irrevocably moved by music. Some of us can’t imagine navigating our lives without it. We don’t want it to be free and convenient all the time. Stuff that matters to us should cost us something. The reason the lines will form on April 21 is because Record Store Day is representative of a deeper reality.

I’m all for making church accessible. There should be no barriers between common people and the gospel. But if we’re not careful, our consumerist mindset can lead us to turn something sacramental into a cheap, convenient, and empty experience. Yes, there are some very effective large churches that craft community, create transcendence, and offer an experience that people would gladly stand in line for. There are also some very small churches that are simply frustrated megachurches at heart. Instead of crafting the kind of community people would gladly wake up early and stand in line for, we chase convenience. Eventually, though, folks will figure out they can stream that stuff just as easily.

Will you be out on Record Store Day? What are you looking for?

Topics: Music