Throughout the last several years of becoming more acquainted with Christian apologetics, philosophy, and theology, the way I look at different things in life have changed. I have to say that recently, I've become more aware of the Christian culture- what its doing well and what its doing not so well. For example, ever since my early teens I have loved listening to Christian rock music.
But in recent years I have more examined the lyrics of the songs and have become quite critical of the theology in many of them- especially as witnessing tools. Specifically, as an apologist, I think the message in many of them leans too heavily on the emotions. Austin Gravely has written a post that reflects my sentiments very well, here. (Please read it as this post will assume that you are familiar with the content.) But the more that I think about it, I'm not so sure that I can validly paint even a single song with the same apologetically critical brush.
I want to look at the purpose of Christian music and the availability of it to take an in-depth look at my issues with Christian music. I specifically want to identify when my critique is valid and should be accepted by the artist, and when I'm simply not understanding the artists' intentions for their songs. Because of that, this post is not only for Christian music artists but also apologists and theologians who are critical of Christian music.
I want to take the model of life's purposes as proposed in Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life to begin this analysis. For those who are not familiar with Warren's model, he proposes that scripture teaches five basic purposes for the Christian's life: worship (God's pleasure), fellowship (God's family), discipleship (becoming more like Christ), ministry (serving God), and mission (evangelism). They all overlap each other to provide cohesion but are specifically identified to provide clarity of our purposes as Christians. Christian music is no exception to the overlap in purposes. By examining the purpose I can figure out if my issues are valid or not.
Where Is The Music Available and Who's Listening?
Many times, where the music is available will determine which of the purposes it is fulfilling. I will examine the music in concert and home environments as well as different types of stores. It does seem that the place where the songs are enjoyed will have an effect on who listens to them. These need to be taken into account when I'm offering my critiques.
Purpose #1: Worship
I am not a very creative person. Neither do I see myself as very articulate in prayer. Quite often, when I'm listening to Christian music, I understand the writer to be leading a prayer of thankfulness, praise, lament or dedication. Thankfulness, praise and dedication are all appropriate postures of our hearts, if we have understood and accepted what Christ accomplished for us with His death and resurrection. I find myself entering into the experience, being led (if you will) by the artist in worship. Not all Christian songs are useful for worship, but many are. Many artists' specifically write their songs and choose the pieces for their albums with this purpose in mind. They are not meant to be evangelistic in nature, but to bring the Christian closer to God. Worship is offered in the home, at church, and at a concert.
Quite often, I listen to a song on Christian radio and wonder why it was even played. One good example is the one that Gravely critiqued in the article linked to above. The reason that I wonder is because of the fact that the song does not make mention of anything that is exclusive to orthodox Christianity. Ironically, many songs of worship never specifically mention why we worship. At the most the listener would only get vague ideas of God removing them from some painful time in their lives, but that can be claimed by other religions also.
The issue that I have with Christian radio (that is not necessarily the artist's fault; I'll explain why in a minute) is that songs on the radio are taken out of the context of the album. I've seen in many cases where the entire album is dedicated to the message of Jesus Christ. Songs of worship rightfully belong there. But, as with reading scripture, they should not be taken out of their original context. Neither is the explicit mentioning of something that is assumed (Christ's sacrifice) necessary. The only reason that I would think it necessary and take issue with the song (and further the artist) is because I'm either or both not understanding the song in its original context or trying to understand it as having the purpose of missions (below).
Purpose #2: Fellowship
As explained in the book "This is Your Brain On Music", music is a very social activity. It brings together people of like minds. There are many Christians who would rather go to a concert than go to church. If it is a concert by a Christian artist, this may be the only fellowship that they get. Others attend church religiously (pun intended). They go for encouragement for themselves and to help perform their mission. Fellowship is important to keep our faith strong. Life has many evils and sufferings, and in attempts to perform our mission we can get discouraged. Both of those can lead to a weakening of our faith, if not addressed properly.
It is quite difficult for me to say that a song can help in this when it offers subjective reasons for why we believe what we believe. It could very well be that the reason we are discouraged in our mission of evangelism is because we are only offering subjective reasons for our faith, when Mormons down the street offer the same thing. The person we are witnessing to has equal "reason" to accept either view; we give them the impression that reality offers the option.
Artists need to be careful in perpetuating the idea that people should offer subjective reasons for their trust in Jesus Christ. This can damage a Christian's witness or their own reasons to believe. A notice to the apologist: I have chosen not to recommend the complete removal of giving subjective reasons for a reason- this will be covered in Ministry.
Purpose #3: Discipleship
I've been hinting at this one on the other two a bit. Discipleship is our determined efforts to become more like Christ. We want to be more like Him, not only in our attitudes towards life and other people but also in our worldview. It goes without saying that today's popular Christian culture is very sensitive to emulating Jesus' attitude. But it does not seem very sensitive to mirroring what Jesus believed to be true about reality- this is not to say that the artists are not concerned with this (I believe they are), it just doesn't come through as explicitly in their songs as does attitude.
When people listen to music, they take the lyrics to heart. Since Christians are purposed with worshiping God for who He really is, it is important that what we believe about Him is accurate. Songs that have odd theologies (such as the idea that God will always "rescue" us from "trouble" or that God is focused on us, solely) can give us a warped and incorrect view of who God is.
I have a friend who is a grill-master (in my book). He and I have many things in common, but the one that we most enjoy messing with is the fact that neither of us are sports fans. As far as we're concerned, a "hole in one" is a term of some game played on ice with a weirdly shaped "ball". Now, if my relationship with my friend was based on the idea that I thought he was the quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, how far would that get me in understanding who he is and being able to have a deep relationship with him? The same goes for God. If we understand God incorrectly, our relationship with Him will not be based on truth, and thus truly not be the relationship that we think it is.
It is important for the song-writer to understand this. Being careful to portray God in, not necessarily the most popular light but, the most accurate light will go a long way to deepen the listeners in relationship with God. It also prevents Christians from feeling the necessity to defend a false concept of God or an attribute of God that He doesn't actually possess.
Purpose #4: Ministry
The previous three purposes have led to this one- the ministry of the music artist. Along with the artist fulfilling their purposes of worship, fellowship, and discipleship through their writing, they are also performing a ministry. Part of serving God is serving His Body (The Church). Writing and performing songs is definitely a service to the Church, so the artist is accomplishing this fourth purpose easily. However, their ministry can be damaging if the other purposes for the target audience are not taken into account when writing and performing. Part of ministering to the Body is ministering in such a way that they can fulfill their purposes. Thus all ministries need to ensure that they are equipping believers for proper worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and (coming up) missions.
The artist can easily do this by ensuring that what is taught in their songs is correct. The song cannot have a watered-down, politically correct message. It needs to have a message that is firm, exclusive, and grounded in fact- objective facts of reality. Yet, the artist (why they are called "artists") must communicate those truths in an emotional way that penetrates the heart of the listener. The Christian songwriter's ministry is not just to appeal on the surface level, but to encourage and equip the Church in a way that setting in front of a lecture will never be able to accomplish. God has given Christian songwriters a fantastic talent. Their use of this talent to its fullest is, itself, a form of worship.
Purpose #5: Mission
For all Christians (including artists) all four of the previous purposes culminate in this last one: The Great Commission. We are to bring people into the Kingdom. Understanding God truly is vital in helping people understand who God is. Our worship makes the truth personal to us and gives us a fervor that dry facts cannot. Emotion is what drives us. But emotion is useless if not grounded in facts.
Many artists see their music, though, primarily for missions. Christian music is certainly a medium for mission, but we need to take a step back for a moment to examine the audience. What I am about to present is an important nuance to the content in this post. The vast majority of people who listen to Christian music are, well, Christians. The smaller percentage would be non-christians. These will typically be listening at a concert or by stumbling upon the local Christian radio station.
Christian artists have purposes for their songs- they wish that they will accomplish something for the listener. Because the majority of listeners are Christian, I think that the majority of songs need to be written with the deliberate intent of properly equipping them for their purposes above. Taking the time to ensure that the emotion portrayed in the song is based on fact, will also speak to the non-Christian. It will give them something solid to chew on. If our songs provide an description of God that is consistent with who God actually is, they will not be able to challenge as easily and be challenged to look deeper. These songs will not alienate or set aside missions, they just take missions from a surface level to the deepest level.
I also think that a certain minority of songs need to be written explicitly for the non-Christian. Of course, they cannot be empty of proper theology and connection to reality, otherwise they will work against the purpose of the Great Commission. These would be songs that can be taken out of their original context (of the album) to be played on the radio- nothing is assumed; everything is explicit, challenging and moving to the listener. Certain albums need to be explicitly presenting the Gospel to the lost. These would be perfect for being distributed at general music stores (not necessarily Christian stores). These would be focused on the audience at hand. Yet the Christian will get something out of them (a clear presentation of beliefs), but they are also missional in purpose- which is what many artists are aiming for anyway.
As an apologist, there are some things about modern Christian music that does bother me. In many ways, it lacks theological and philosophical depth. I think that my critiques there are valid. But because of the context of my understanding of reality it energizes me in my purposes as an apologist. The purpose of worship that artists have when they write comes through powerfully for those already with a context. If the artist is assuming my context (which usually, they are), my critiques may not be as necessary. But without the context of reality to base the emotion in worship on, it is vacuous.
As you can see, I'm torn. Music is a powerful medium for both directly and indirectly growing the Kingdom. Because music is so influentially powerful, it can provide a drive for other Christians' ministries and missions. The Christian artist has a platform in the culture that can be used persuasively for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I think my issues with Christian music need to be addressed by the songwriters. But only when my issues are understood properly- I'm certainly not promoting songs with only dry facts and no emotion; that would be useless. So, here's what I propose:
Christian music artists don't have to be theological, philosophical, or apologetical experts. God gave us the Body (The Church) to be a team to encourage and help each other in ultimately fulfilling the Great Commission. The theologians, philosophers, and apologists cannot accomplish their purpose without the artists, and the artists cannot accomplish their purposes without the theologians, philosophers and apologists. We need to work as one Body. Lean on each other. Recognize our weaknesses and others' strengths. All of us need to be willing to be trained and corrected by others. This life is not about us. God has given each of us many purposes and talents to accomplish those purposes- one of which is to help others accomplish their purposes...that gives our lives great meaning. Ultimately we will minister to each other and the world, and in the end God will be given all the glory.