I recently happened across a blog that sought to talk candidly about the problems of Christian music, both as an art form, as an an industry in general. What followed was a discussion of how impersonal, disingenuous, and uncreative as a whole the thing has become. Inside, I had a struggle with this. One part of me agreed, the other part didn't, or at least didn't want to.
Of course, the comments section blossomed (or should I say 'festered'?) into a bunch of debates as to the validity and/or cause of these woes. The basic consensus seemed to be that popular Christian music was "disingenuous" because it was lyrically and musically a bunch of copycatting, but that it also was so unreal because it isn't practical to sing about how everything is ok all the time.
This left me pretty frustrated. Because I both agreed and disagreed with both of these points. And I can make statements about it that make me feel the same way.
For instance, sometimes I feel like the Christian music industry (and I am talking everything from worship and pop to rock and metal and hip hop. Everything.) is a great, safe bastion for listeners and families. There are artists and networks that really are doing great things. Other times I feel like it's just full of a bunch of people who don't read their Bibles and need to do so before they do any more damage by writing songs that come out of their own personal religion. But, I try not to be too harsh about this, because I know everyone is in different places and isn't always going to act perfectly. Still, sometimes I look at how the world basically ignores Christian artists, the dying festivals, the bands scraping for cash, and I feel like the whole thing is drowning in its own blood. Then again, I look at artists like the Newsboys or TobyMac, and they seem to be doing really well.
So what is the real problem? Is Christian music changing the world and doing great, or is it barely noticed and hardly surviving? It seems like the answer to these questions can all be "yes", just depending on where you go.
But what's the cure to the problem? Could it be that, rather than us having an artistic crisis, we need to first look at things on a spiritual level? And why, for the love of God, have more people not asked THAT question?
Don't get me wrong. I have a music degree from an esteemed school. I studied music theory, composition, studio production, classical and jazz performance. I take a hard look at popular music as well, and I am very interested in the art of songwriting and lyricism. I can talk to you about art and how to do it better. I can talk to you about ways to make more artful worship music that isn't just a collection of tweetable one-liners. But again, I think what we really need to do, as the body of Christ, is look at this spiritually FIRST.
And so here are some of the real problems. And solutions.
1. We've believed a lie
I was recently at an event and there was some music playing over the in-house radio. The music was a mix of Christian and secular artists, but what really caught my attention was a particular Christian rock song that really talked about "How weak and broken" I am, or something of the sort. I say 'something of the sort' because I've heard stuff like that probably thousands of times.
I'm weak. I'm sick. I'm broken. I'm helpless. I'm a wreck. It's all that I can take. I'm breaking down.
There are secular bands whose sound I really enjoy, but when did we start taking lessons from their lyrical playbook? I'm not saying that we should never talk about the things we've faced or are facing. But I am saying that we need to stop making declarative statements taking ownership of infirmity and insecurity as if they were meant to be a part of us. And this happens a TON in our rock music, but seeps into our worship and other areas as well.
I understand this to a point. Usually we sort of defend this by saying "Uh yeah, Sam. We're saying that we all need Jesus. We're a wreck without Him." Ok. Fine. I get that. But we've honestly crossed the line 90% of the time into glorifying weakness, pain, and fear. And none of that exists in God. And we're made in His image.
It's authentic when its real to you. A lot of our music that DOES sound more authentic is that which is about pain and weakness. But what that tells me is that our pain and weakness are more real to us than the victory we've been given in Christ. And that's a problem. I understand that we are often trying to lead people to the cross, and that means showing them that we all need Jesus. There is validity to that. But have we taught them ANYTHING about the life they are supposed to live AFTER the cross? About how Jesus came to give us "Life, and life more abundantly (John 10:10)"?
A lot of people use 2 Corinthians 12 to justify this, where Paul says:
"5 Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities.
6 For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me.
7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong."
We have to understand not only the context here, but what he's talking about. It sounds like, from this one passage out of an entire letter, Paul is saying "I'm a wreck and that gives God glory." Not so. Could it be that we are perhaps just reading his meaning incorrectly AND out of context?
First of all, Paul knew he wasn't chopped liver. In Phillippians 3, Paul straight up says that if judged by things of the flesh, he'd have had room to glory. He could have boasted, because when he was still a Pharisee, he was good at it.
This is also the same man that said this IN 2 Corinthians 5:
"20 Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God.
21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him."
Paul talked a lot in his letters about the pain and persecution he and other Christians face. But Paul always gave more glory to Jesus than to his situation. In the above scripture, God tells Paul that his Grace is sufficient for his situation. It's unfortunate that most people read this as God saying, "tough it out Paul". That tells me that we have a TINY, EMACIATED picture of the power of God's Grace. What if Paul is saying above that he will focus on the Glory of God despite his infirmities so that he'll be able to actually receive the power of Christ, as opposed to giving glory to his infirmities, which would actually block him from receiving the Blessing? What if when he says "I take pleasure", he is actually taking that pleasure from God and not from the problems themselves?
It's not wrong to admit that we're wrecks without God. But we aren't supposed to be without God. Yet we keep writing as if we are. And this not only gives the world a weak picture of God, we end up literally eating our words. And that's what's happened to the industry.
Proverbs 18 says:
20 A man's belly shall be satisfied with the fruit of his mouth; and with the increase of his lips shall he be filled.
21 Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.
The scripture says that we are the Body of Christ, his representatives in the earth. So what's up with the people who are supposed to be the picture of Christ constantly talking about how wretched and weak they are? Because that's the picture we give the world of Jesus.
God says in Joel 3:10 "Let the weak say 'I am strong'." Have we paid attention to that?
How about Paul's prayer in Ephesians 1:22-24, where Paul outlines that Christ has great authority in his Name, which he's given to his people, the church, who are supposed to exercise it in the earth?
Jesus told his disciples in Matthew to pray for the will of God to be done in the earth just like it is in heaven.
Or how about Colossians 1?
" 9 For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding;
10 That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God;
11 Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness;
12 Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light:
13 Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son:
The fact is that Paul wrote Phillippians, his most joyful letter, while he was at the bottom of one of the worst prisons in the known world. It was literally the sewer of the palace, sloshing with feces and infested with rats.
We've believed a lie. The lie was that we weren't artists and were unfeeling robots. They cheapened our experience by telling us that we didn't feel deeply, and that hurt us deeply. We forgot that some of the greatest songs of victory ever were written by people shoving it back into the face of their hardest times. Our reaction to being called "disingenuous" was to start glorifying weakness.
We need to talk about things we deal with as humans. Even God himself experiences sadness. His chosen nation, Israel, was an expressive people. They danced when they were happy, but ripped their clothes, howled, and put ashes on their heads when they were sad. Yes. And fear and weakness are things we all have to contend with, but they are NOT NATURAL. Fear is the enemy of God, and we are made in the image of God. God is love, and "perfect love casts out all fear". Standing against fear and weakness have become part of the human experience, but they were NEVER meant to be. They aren't innate to us. And we are supposed to stand against them (Eph. 6:13), not just continually write odes to them out of some religious sense of piety and a bad definition of humbleness. Because then you have a bunch of kids confessing over and over that they are so "weak, broken, and helpless" as they sing along with you.
God didn't make a flawed creation. He made a perfect creation that was never meant to operate apart from Him. We've believed the lie that being "genuine" means acting like we are inherently weak and fearful beings, and we ARE NOT. We have to be watchful about what message we are sending and how we are sending it.
We are broken without God. But God never created us to be apart from Him. And we NEED to show the world what it means to be WITH him. That doesn't mean we never talk about sadness, or say that we've never felt brokenness, but we have to STOP taking innate ownership of those things, or else, why did Jesus even come then? He came to bear our sickness and carry our pains, and KILL them on the cross (Isaiah 53:4). I've written sad songs. I probably will again. But I want to know the difference between showing dimension and openness and just promoting bad confession. It's not always easy. But I think that spiritually, the industry has suffered from this long enough.
2. The industry believes in doing business, but not prospering, which is corporate suicide. And don't tell you that isn't what you see happening.
We know that as Christians we are supposed to give. Give to God. Give to those that are hard and easy to love. Give to the poor. But in order to give give give, we have to also receive. We HAVE to believe in increase. God wants to bless us because He loves us, and because in order to bless other people, do what we're called to do, give to the poor, and everything else, we need abundant resources. I'm not saying that if you've experienced hard times that I am judging you. Stuff happens, and my family has gone through that too. But hear me out.
Abraham was our picture of God in covenant with people. And if you even paid attention to the New Testament, you know that time and time again it talks about how Christ is the seed of Abraham, and we have been made one with Christ.
26 For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.
27 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
29 And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.
This doesn't mean you'll never have to do anything. What it does mean is that there is prosperity in God's calling for your life. And if you look at Abraham's life, he was one of the richest men of his time. He wasn't greedy. He didn't love money. He loved God, and God blessed him and used that to not only show his power, to to bless others.
There are a couple of famous scriptures that some people think debunk God's interest in us prospering. The first is the story of the rich young ruler, in Mark 10:17-27
New American Standard Bible (NASB)
17 As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” 21 Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 22 But at these words a]">[a]he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.
23 And Jesus, looking around, *said to His disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 The disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus *answered again and *said to them, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They were even more astonished and said to Him, “b]">[b]Then who can be saved?” 27 Looking at them, Jesus *said, “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”
There are several things a lot of people miss here. First of all, Jesus knew the Old Testament very well. And he was constantly proving to people like the Pharisees that even if you think you've kept the law perfectly, you haven't. That's why Jesus came, because people couldn't be perfect on their own. The rich young ruler says he's kept the law perfectly, and Jesus knows good and well that even if he thinks he has, he hasn't. But he lets that go, because he targets the area he needs to grow the most in. This guys relies more on money than on God.
Most people stop there, and say, "See, it's hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." Ok. But Jesus didn't say it was hard for them to exist there. Just to enter. Also, look at how much this freaked out the disciples. "Who then can be saved?" they ask. It freaks 'em out! Why? Because they all had money! They were all fishermen, craftsmen, businessmen, Luke was a doctor for pete's sake! Jesus replies, "With God all things are possible!". So Jesus tells them that with faith in God (and subsequently in Him as messiah), anyone can.
Another scripture that gets used a lot is:
1 Timothy 6:10New American Standard Bible (NASB)
10 For the love of money is a root of all a]">[a]sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs."
This scripture doesn't say that money is the root of the evil, but the LOVE of the money.
So why, Sam? Why would God want us to be prosperous. Well, first and foremost because he loves you. Also, because it brings glory to Him. He made Abraham's name great knowing that Abraham would make His name great. And, according to this scripture:
"Galatians 3:29New American Standard Bible (NASB)
29 And if you a]">[a]belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s b]">[b]descendants, heirs according to promise."
One of the reasons Jesus came was to connect us to the Blessing that Abraham had. We are meant to experience the same greatness that he did. And when we prosper we are able to do MORE and BETTER things for OTHER PEOPLE. We live in a world that tries to legislate morality and use the government as a tool to provide for people. What we end up doing is forcing people to give. That's not what God does. In the book of Acts, people got together and started selling a bunch of property, taking care of each other, pooling their resources and making sure the poorer among them were taken care of. But the difference was that they did this from a motivation of love, and did it by choice, not by obligation.
The Bible is the story of Christ and the Blessing. You can literally read the whole Bible and trace Christ and The Blessing from beginning to end. Christ came to connect us to the Blessing so that we could do great things for him. The world is literally falling apart. But if you look at the Church in Acts, they were "self" sufficient. The outside economy had very little bearing on them.
The world has sequestered Christian artists to special little, untelevised, "CCM" ceremonies, while the lines are continually getting more blurry at the Grammys. I want a Grammy. I want stadiums. I want to show that God is strong and able, and I want thousands of people because what He has for them is for everybody. We literally cheat thousands of people out of the gospel when we act like stadiums are just for people who "sell their soul to the devil".
People should want to do business with us. They shouldn't dread working with us. We should make our payments on time, give them a little extra just to bless them, and quit being so rude at the chinese restaurant on sundays.
We'd have more stars on TV, more airtime on the radio, and frankly, better artists if we would just allow God to bless everyone (including US). It's funny too, because people are so hypocritical about it. We act like being a Christian means "Well, get used to small to midsize venues for the rest of your life, because it's a struggle out there, and renown is evil" but everyone flips out and gets the Christian tinglies when they find out that someone like Justin Bieber might have been raised by parents with faith. It's like fame is all evil until someone famous says "Jesus" on the Grammys, because suddenly we might have some celebrity support. We aren't supposed to seek fame for fame's sake. We aren't supposed to be greedy for riches. Those things on their own are dangerous, but again, we were meant to experience them in a close relationship with God, not in and of ourselves. But we are supposed to prosper to bring glory to God. What does it say to the world when God's infrastructure is failing? Did he call you to do it, or didn't He?
Christians have gone through hard times. I am NOT criticizing you for going through a rough financial time. Kenneth Hagin taught that God wanted us to be blessed while he had a nickel in his pocket and barely enough gas in his tank. He was THIS CLOSE to being dirt poor. But he kept teaching the promises of God, and eventually saw them in His life. Because of him, we now have Rhema Bible school in Tulsa, and scores of other outreaches around the world. But he had to keep his faith in God's promises.
We need to do better business. We need to quit pretending like a handshake and a smile will pay for food, gas, lodging, and bills, and using the "we're just a church" line to justify it. Quit talking about how much it costs to buy toilet paper for your building, but then bringing in artists that you can't take care of. And if you are in a tight spot, make sure they know that BEFORE they come to you.
This whole lack of funding spiraled downward, and will continue to do so in some circles if people don't start doing things right. A friend of mine was telling me how he wished he could find more Christian music that he liked, but that it was hard to find because it wasn't getting played. In the areas where there isn't variety and inspiration, it's because executives HAVE to play it safe. It's because they are TRYING to do business, but DON'T HAVE THE MONEY to take risks and promote more artists because of the problems outlined above. There are great artists doing amazing and timeworthy things, but we have to realize that God blesses and supports people through people.
When I was a kid, I wanted stadiums. And I didn't see why not. I thought that if your record sounded professional, than you must be packing out huge places. And why not? Carman did it. The man packed out Texas stadium with a free Gospel concert. The dude did rock, worship, rap, country, story songs. I'm serious. He was literally one of the biggest artists of the 90's (Christian, secular, or otherwise) in terms of record sales, but yet the world acts like he didn't even happen. And that. That shouldn't happen.
3-Talent doesn't mean you're ready
A lot of people are talented. Walk into a guitar center. There is probably at least one guy or girl in there that could be on the Grammys based on skill. But do you actually know what you're talking about? Given the opportunity, as a Christian artist, or an artist that is a Christian, or whatever, is your message worth hearing? I feel like there are talented groups who don't know their Bible for beans, but then there are people who know the Word who really need to work on their musical professionalism.
Do both. That's all I'm saying.