Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A Rational Examination of Contemporary Christian Music (From Someone Who Was Raised to Hate It)

Some people who were raised as Christians come out of four years at a secular university as humanists. Some come out with completely wrecked lives. Some stop going to church. I—well, I came out a fan of some contemporary Christian music.
I would think this minor change would be acceptable, all things considered, but it’s fairly controversial.
Kari Jobe
Over my college experience, being involved with a more diverse group of Christians from various backgrounds has exposed me to many new things, including music. I have had mixed reactions. The instrumentation and style are different. For some songs, I’ve analyzed the lyrics and really can’t find anything wrong with them. They worship God and share biblical truth. Others have flaws or are overly repetitive. I think it is important to be moldable in one’s beliefs (not easily swayed, but willing to change), and this is one of the ways in which my views have somewhat shifted. I had been given the impression that all contemporary Christian music was bad, but as we will examine, that is not always the case.
I still enjoy more traditional music. Hymns are fantastic and beautiful and share great truths. (A number of newer songs, contemporary or otherwise, use them as bridges or choruses, e.g. “Shoutin’ Time” by The Hoppers, “Broken Vessels” by Hillsong, “They Should Have Cried Holy” by Greater Vision, “My Heart is Yours” by Passion, etc.) I was raised listening to Southern Gospel and still listen to it. One of the aversions to contemporary music is that people think it comes at the expense of older music or different music. Embracing newer songs of different styles does not mean throwing out the older ones. Readers of The Hunger Games do not have to throw out The Great Gatsby, and fans of The Great Gatsby can still read Robinson Crusoe.
I think another important thing to remember is that all new music has been controversial at some point. The Imperials stirred up some controversy in 1976 when they released “Sail On”, a song with a different sound that is now much more accepted. There are still people that believe Christian music should only be done with a piano, seeming to forget the calls to praise commonly found in the Psalms:
“Praise ye the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power. Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his excellent greatness. Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp. Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals. Let every thing that hath breath praise the LORD. Praise ye the LORD.” –Psalm 150
for KING & COUNTRY performing with a trombone and baritone
It’s slightly amusing that many people who cringe at the sight of a drumset in church worship are okay with a drumset at a Southern Gospel concert, when the goal of both is the same: worshiping God. I don’t know what has changed between David’s day and today. I enjoy creative instrumentation in music; for example, I play in my home church’s orchestra with other brass, woodwinds, and strings. I love to see bands like for KING & COUNTRY and Newsong mix in a lot of brass, strings, and percussion.
Many complaints I hear about contemporary Christian music remind me of my talks on the streets with advocates of abortion. There is a real lack of understanding of the issue and a whole lot of presuppositions. And when the individuals are forced to think about their reasoning, they may find that their biggest reason for holding their views is that they’ve held those views for years. They would lock arms and sing “I Shall Not Be Moved”, except that song might be too different stylistically to be accepted.
The arguments I hear against contemporary Christian music can often be applied to other forms of Christian music. I’ve heard the audacious claim that contemporary Christian artists are “not saved”. I’m sure this is true of some, because many people have fallen into this trap, music industry or otherwise. But this could have been true of older writers. I know it has been true of artists in Southern Gospel. There have been singers who thought they were saved, but realized they weren’t. One singer was blackmailed into expressing his homosexual struggles and left the ministry temporarily. There was restoration for these, just as there can be for anyone in contemporary Christian music. Another singer committed suicide last year after having an affair and getting involved in criminal activities. Point being is that we can’t know the hearts of these individuals. Most of them are Christ followers, but some may not be. It’s not enough to write off entire genres of music.
Another argument I’ve heard is that they just “do it for the attention”. Again, we don’t know their hearts. There is certainly attention to be gained in the music industry, regardless of popularity. Contemporary Christian artists have larger fan bases, but Southern Gospel artists have more direct fan interaction. We can only speculate about their motives. The complaint about different styles or instrumentation also doesn’t hold up. Contemporary Christian music is not the only Christian music that uses guitars, bass, percussion, and orchestras.
Another common complaint is that there may be doctrinal or denominational differences between the person performing and the person listening. Like the other arguments, it doesn’t only apply to contemporary music. I’ve seen plenty of charismatics at Southern Gospel concerts, too. They pull in a diverse following across many denominations. I think it’s great. Never will I say that doctrine is unimportant. But I also won’t say that we should cut off brothers and sisters in Christ because of these differences. If they are born again, they’re part of the family. We can’t let petty arguments cause a divide between us. We will worship together in Heaven, so we shouldn’t be afraid to worship together on Earth:
Southern Gospel concerts aren't exactly stoical (and that's okay).

Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. –I Corinthians 1:10
All this is not to say that there is not bad contemporary Christian music. Take a few of these examples:
So far away.
The words we say.
I know that we can turn this around.
We should be building bridges
Instead of burning them down.

I am only human;
It's my disguise.
The air is thick
With rumors and lies.
We act like fools and say we are wise.
All this he said, she said;
Love is hanging by a thread.
–“Disconnected,” Veridia
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with them, but I would not know these were Christian lyrics unless I were told.
“I’ll do what I want ‘cause this is my life.”
–“Alive and Awake,” Skillet
It sounds more like a teenage rebel song than a Christian song, and it is actually contrary to what the Bible tells us. It’s not our life. It’s God’s. We’ve given it to Him because He can order it better than we can.

Yeah, they like the way I do this
When I crank it like a chainsaw.
Yeah, they like the way I do this
When I crank it like a chainsaw.

Full throttle, heavy metal.
Set the bar next level.
Wasteland gettin' all janky.
Soul Glow, chainsaw.

Lay in the cut with them elbows back.
Engine smokin' just like this track.
Shirt be soakin' from all this sweat.
Catch my breath, chainsaw.
–“Chainsaw,” Family Force 5
I heard “Chainsaw” for the first time over two years ago, and I still think it is totally irrational.
Surrounded by your glory
What will my heart feel?
Will I dance for your Jesus,
Or in awe of you be still?
Will I stand in your presence,
Or to my knees will I fall?
Will I sing hallelujah?
Will I be able to speak at all?
I can only imagine.
I can only imagine.
–“I Can Only Imagine,” MercyMe
Another Southern Gospel concert
The problem is, “I Can Only Imagine” asks a lot of really stupid questions. Let’s see how the Bible answers them:
And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.…And when I [John] saw him, I fell at his feet as dead… –Revelation 1:13, 17a

Or look at Joshua when he saw the Angel of the Lord, preincarnate Christ:

And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, there stood a man over against him with his sword drawn in his hand: and Joshua went unto him, and said unto him, Art thou for us, or for our adversaries? And he said, Nay; but as captain of the host of the Lord am I now come. And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and did worship, and said unto him, What saith my lord unto his servant? And the captain of the Lord's host said unto Joshua, Loose thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest is holy. And Joshua did so. –Joshua 5:13-15

The same is true of Moses and Aaron (Numbers 20:6), Israel as a whole (Leviticus 9:24, I Kings 18:39), Abram (Genesis 17:1-3), Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:28), the beings in Heaven (Revelation 7:11), and even the Philistine god Dagon (I Samuel 5:2-4). There isn’t much vacillation or variation there. Everyone fell on their faces before God. Any speculation is unnecessary.
But as I’ve learned, there are plenty of great songs out there:
Savior, He can move the mountains.
My God is mighty to save;
He is mighty to save.
Forever author of salvation,
He rose and conquered the grave.
Jesus conquered the grave.

So take me as you find me,
All my fears and failures.
Fill my life again.
I give my life to follow
Everything I believe in.
Now I surrender.
–“Mighty to Save,” Hillsong

Death could not hold you, the vail torn before you.
You silence the boast of sin and grave.
The heavens are roaring the praise of your glory,
For you are raised to life again.
You have no rival; You have no equal.
Now and forever, God, You reign.
Yours is the Kingdom. Yours is the glory.
Yours is the name above all names.
–“What a Beautiful Name,” Hillsong
Passion performs an acoustic version of "Worthy of Your Name"

I'm in a war every minute.
I know for sure I'll never win it.
I am David up against Goliath.
And it's a fight for my attention.
I'm being pulled every direction.
This world tells me, ‘Trust what I can see.’
Lord, won't You help me believe what I believe?

‘Cause You are bigger than any battle I'm facing.
You are better than anything I've been chasing.
Savior and royalty, the only hope in me.
Jesus, You are, You are
The King of my heart, heart.
–“King of my Heart,” Love & the Outcome

Remember when your hope is lost and faith is shaken,
Remember when you wonder if you're gonna make it,
There's a hand stretched out through your deepest doubt.
We can't pretend to see the ending or what's coming up ahead,
To know the story of tomorrow,
But we can stay close to the One who knows.

We can trust our God;
He knows what He's doing.
Though it might hurt now,
We won't be ruined.
It might seem there's an ocean in between,
But He's holding on to you and me,
And He's never gonna leave, no.
He is with us, He is with us
Always, always.
–“He is with Us,” Love & the Outcome

Here I am before You, falling in love and seeking Your truth,
Knowing that Your perfect grace has brought me to this place.
Because of You I freely live; my life to You, oh God, I give.
So I stand before You, God;
I lift my voice ‘cause You set me free.

So I shout out Your name,
From the rooftops I proclaim
That I am Yours, I am Yours…
All that I am I place into Your loving hands.
And I am Yours, I am Yours.
–“Rooftops,” Jesus Culture

Our God, a firm foundation.
Our Rock, the only solid ground
As nations rise and fall.
Kingdoms once strong now shaken,
But we trust forever in Your Name,
The Name of Jesus.
We trust the Name of Jesus.

You are the only King forever.
Almighty God, we lift You higher.
You are the only King forever.
Forevermore, You are victorious.
–“Only King Forever,” Elevation Worship

David Crowder, one of the most genuine CCM artists out there
I need You to soften my heart
And break me apart.
I need You to open my eyes
To see that You're shaping my life.
All I am, I surrender.

Give me faith to trust what You say,
That You're good and Your love is great.
I'm broken inside; I give You my life…

I may be weak,
But Your Spirit’s strong in me.
My flesh may fail,
But, my God, You never will.
–“Give Me Faith,” Elevation Worship

In You I rest;
In You I find my hope.
In You I trust;
You’ll never let me go.
I place my life
Within Your hands alone.
Be still, my soul.
–“Be Still My Soul (In You I Rest),” Kari Jobe

You hold my very moment.
You calm my raging seas.
You walk with me through fire,
And heal all my disease.
I trust in You. I trust in You.

I believe You're my healer.
I believe You are all I need.
I believe.
And I believe You're my portion.
I believe You're more than enough for me.
Jesus, You're all I need.
–“Healer,” Kari Jobe

Not exactly heretical words. I believe this long list has proven the point, but in case anyone needs further convincing, here are links to more lyrics from more songs:

While I am not a fan of the genre, even some Christian rap can have God-honoring lyrics. Don’t stone me yet. If lyrics can’t be understood or if they are drowned out by music, then the point is entirely missed. Those criteria being met, though, we glorify God through what we say from a surrendered and worshipful heart.
Take Lecrae, a Christian rapper that continues to grow in fame. Some think “Christian” should be in quotes, but he gives a clear testimony that he is born again. And a testimony he certainly has. He grew up in a rough urban setting listening to rap music, as many other urban men do, and when he received Christ he wanted to turn that into a ministry. Here are some of his lyrics:

I can't offer You nothin’, but Your care and kindness keep comin’.
And Your love is so unconditional, I get butterflies in my stomach.
I got the old me in the rearview, got a new me, got a clear view.
I was so dead, I couldn't hear You,
Too deep in sin to come near You.
But You drew me in, and cleaned me up,
And take me home and beam me up.
Before you do, just let me tell the truth.
And let these folks know that I done seeing Your love,
And it's everlastin’, infinite.
It goes on and on; you can't measure it.
Can't quench Your love, they can't separate us from the love of God.
It's no estimate.
My face look the same; my frame done rearranged.
But I changed; I promise I ain’t the same.
Your love is so deep; You suffered and took pain,
And died on the cross to gimme a new name.
Ain’t nothin’ like I seen before,
I gotta beam to glow.
Was low, down, and dirty, but You cleaned me, Lord.
You adopted me; You keep rockin’ me.
Imma tell the world and ain’t nobody stoppin’ me.
–“Tell the World”
It’s unconventional. It’s unusual. But there are a plethora of young teens from the ghetto that like rap music. Lecrae has worked his way up to become the first rap artist and fifth Christian artist to reach #1 on the Billboard 200. It’s unheard of. There are rap fans who may want to listen to as famous a rapper as Lecrae, and the gospel message can get out through him to people that may not otherwise hear it. Remember the words of Paul in the Bible:
For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel's sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you. –I Corinthians 9:19-23
This certainly doesn’t excuse sinful behavior to reach sinners, and there is a need for separation. But if something is not biblically sinful, although it may be “sinful” in terms of our tradition or upbringing, then maybe, just maybe, these can be used to reach different people with the gospel and touch the lives of Christians with different backgrounds.
There is nothing doctrinally wrong with any of the lyrics I’ve shared. They are easy to understand when listening to the songs. So what is wrong with them? What is the reasoning behind rejecting certain types of Christian music? Is it really doctrinal, or is it tradition-based? Do these lyrics and these people not glorify God? Rejecting something because our tradition and upbringing tells us to, rather than because the Bible tells us to, puts us in the camp of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and I’m pretty sure we left that centuries ago.
Contemporary Christian music is extremely diverse. Having some bad songs does not make them all bad. We need to examine these on a case-by-case basis. Making sweeping generalizations is irresponsible. Different Christian music speaks to and reaches different kinds of people. Do the differences in music and its messages violate doctrine, or are they just different from your preference?

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