What do you think of when you think of contemporary religious music? Perhaps you think of elaborate concerts staged in large arenas. Perhaps you think of worship songs that are sung by churches around the world. Perhaps you think of the money that artists raise for charities like Compassion International or World Vision.
Unfortunately, what a lot of people think of is bad music and shallow lyrics. What they hear when they turn on Christian radio is a lot of self-esteem and self-help and precious little Jesus. What they see in Christian artists is an unhealthy infatuation with fame and an unwillingness to speak out against things like homosexuality and racism.
But is that all there is to modern musical expressions of Christian faith? And, if it isn’t, what can we learn from the artists and songs that dominate the modern landscape of religious music?
These are the questions that I would like for us to explore over the next several weeks. I hope that we can put aside our pretensions to cultural superiority and our preconceived notions about what theology is supposed to look like in order to see how God might be at work in our world. When we do, I think that we will be surprised at what we find. Yes, there is a lot of “bubble-gum pop” out there, both in terms of what is said and in terms of how it is presented. But there is also a lot of penetrating analysis of the human condition. Moreover, there is a lot of thoughtful reflection upon how the message of Jesus can bring hope and healing to a hopeless and broken world.
Theological Presuppositions and Practical Implications
Before we begin, I want to be clear about two theological presuppositions that I bring to the discussion. First, I accept the postliberal notion that anyone who talks about God is doing theology—whether they like it or not. Second, I believe that theology is everyone’s responsibility. It is not just for those who are specially trained in the task. Everyone who follows Jesus has something to contribute to the conversation about his life and teachings.
These presuppositions have at least two very important implications. First, the musician should not be singled out for extra scrutiny simply because he or she is not an academic theologian. Would I prefer that songwriters and performers obtain at least some formal theological training? Absolutely. But, as a Baptist, I am convinced that God’s Spirit can work through anyone. I feel that it is my responsibility to listen with humility to the many and varied voices within the church and to discern where God may be at work. And I, as a supposed gatekeeper of biblical knowledge, must never forget that God often works in surprising ways and in surprising places.
Second, the musician cannot use her or his status as an amatuer theologian as an excuse for bad theology. The fact is that people like Lecrae, Tobymac, and Natalie Grant have far more influence on how people in the church think about God and live their lives than I ever will. You can gripe about how unfair that is; you can complain that it puts unfair pressure on the musician and over-values their role in the Christian subculture. But none of that griping and complaining will change the way things are. Artists need to take seriously their responsibility to the church (and many of them do). Likewise, the church needs to take seriously its responsibility to exercise discernment when it comes to the music that it sings and the artists that it endorses.
A Starting Point: “The Gospel”
So, where should we begin? It seems to me that the most obvious place would be Ryan Stevenson’s “The Gospel.” In “The Gospel,” Stevenson insists that the world is still hungry for the good news about Jesus and relates how that good news has transformed his own life. He reminds us that we are the ones who are responsible for the “mess” we find ourselves in, and he calls us back to a life of worship and love.
“The Gospel” is noteworthy not so much because it says anything creative or profound (although there are some good lines in the song) but because its call—both to the church and to the world—is so clear. In a world where too many musicians are interested in providing pastoral care without introducing people to the Shepherd of their souls, “The Gospel” stands out “like a blinding light in the dead of night.” It refuses to compromise the foundational truth that Jesus, and only Jesus, can save us from the brokenness and confusion that so often characterizes our existence as humans.
Cause for Concern?
There is one line in the song, however, that might cause some folks a little bit of concern. As a bridge between the chorus and the third verse, Stevenson recites the following sentence: “The amazing news of the gospel, is not that we can receive Jesus into our lives, but that he’s already received us into his!” The concern is not in the idea that Christ receives us into his life. That is, I think, a better understanding of what happens at salvation than the notion of “asking Jesus into your life” (a common portrayal of conversion among evangelicals). Indeed, the New Testament is quite clear that we no longer have any rights over our lives when we commit to follow Jesus. We have given up our lives for him (cf. Mark 8:35 and parallels; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
No, the issue can be found in the word “already.” The inclusion of this word could lead some to the conclusion that salvation is a given for all humans and that conversion is simply a matter of discovering one’s belonging to Jesus rather than a matter of submitting to His Lordship. Now, to be fair to Stevenson and his coauthors, this is not at all what they may have intended to communicate. Nevertheless, it is an important point to consider. Salvation is about not only acknowledging our lostness but also forsaking that lostness for something far better. And some people are unwilling to do that, especially when they find out that it will require them to renounce destructive pleasures and perhaps even embrace suffering.
Keeping Our Focus
As long as we keep these points in mind, though, I think that “The Gospel” is a good place for us to begin our discussion. It reminds us why we do what we do, and it impresses upon us the urgency of our task. We aren’t just talking about points of arcane speculation in a field of endeavor that no one understands. We are talking about the gospel—the only hope for a world gone insane. As Christians, that should always be our focus.