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Clear the Stage

Clear the stage and set the sound and lights ablaze If that’s the measure you must take to crush the idols Jerk the pews & all the decorations, too Until the congregations few, then have revival Tell your friends that this is where the party ends Until you’re broken for your sins, you can’t be social Then seek the Lord & wait for what He has in store And know that great is your reward so just be hopeful

‘Cause you can sing all you want to Yes, you can sing all you want to You can sing all you want to And still get it wrong; worship is more than a song

Take a break from all the plans that you have made And sit at home alone and wait for God to whisper Beg Him please to open up His mouth and speak And pray for real upon your knees until they blister Shine the light on every corner of your life Until the pride and lust and lies are in the open Then read the Word and put to test the things you’ve heard Until your heart and soul are stirred and rocked and broken

We must not worship something that’s not even worth it Clear the stage, make some space for the One who deserves it

‘Cause I can sing all I want to Yes, I can sing all I want to I can sing all I want to And still get it wrong And you can sing all you want to Yes, you can, you can sing all you want to You can sing all you want to And still get it wrong; worship is more than a song Worship is more than a song Worship is more than a song

Clear the stage and set the sound and lights ablaze If that’s the measure you must take to crush the idols

- Jimmy Needham 2012

Off and on over the years I have fostered a "love-hate" relationship with contemporary Christian music. I'm not a musician, nor do I play one during worship planning meetings. While the rest of the worship committee frets over what key, how many flats, tempo and instrumentation, I'm busy googling lyrics to ensure the right message comes through the music we sing on Sunday morning. I am not above changing lyrics or nixing a song altogether if I find something in a song that might lead theologically into murky waters. Needless to say, the worship team (my wife being one of the team) and I sometimes get into a heated discussion now and then.

It's funny how music works on the soul. As a man of letters and a minister of the word, for me the lyrics are paramount. Bad lyrics - be they simply sappy or promote error - can ruin an otherwise very good song. I am not unsympathetic to a well-crafted riff or a haunting tune that tugs the heart along with minor chords, but music has a power over the soul that one should be careful in using - particularly, when pouring theological content in the lyrics. I am convicted that if one wants to write music for the church to sing or to encourage the church, then great care should go into composition.

Now, before anyone suggests that I am accusing contemporary artists of being sloppy theologically and shallow musically, let me assure we are way past that. The church fought that war 30 or more years ago, in the first heady days of my walk with Jesus Christ. I became a Christian because a roommate I had while going to school for the Navy played Keith Green, Michael W. Smith and Petra incessantly at volume that brooked no rivals. I heard the Gospel through contemporary Christian music and then saw him live it out in a way that convinced me faith was a real thing. God worked marvelously through John Konkol's witness and then brought others along to wear down every barrier I tried to set up to grace. But it all started with music - contemporary music that carried a powerful and gracious message.

No, where I am at today and what prompts me to write this blog (my second - is this what they refer to as a "roll"?) is the apparent lack of discernment on the listening public's part. I hate to say it so bluntly - and honestly I hesitate to do it - but are we as a demographic really so uncultured as to accept such drivel without complaint? I'm going to be honest - I love music (though I am spectacularly untalented - my favorite instrument is the radio) but I cannot listen to most Christian radio stations for very long before I have to change the channel. And I can offer three reasons why this is so.

1) It all has started sounding the same. Whether it is Hillsong United, Elevation, Jesus Culture, or a host of others - these groups essentially are mirror images of one another and produce very predictable music. Emotion-centered lyric, minor chords, musical bridge leading to a crescendo - and cue the tears. I know, I sound cynical - maybe I am, but it all just feels so..... manipulative. Are we really praising Jesus or just enjoying a cathartic gushing? I'm not a stoic, nor am I one that insists that an emotional response in our relationship with Christ is evidence of a shallow faith, but I have listened to the lyrics of some of these songs and I have to tell you, I found them wanting.

Don't get me wrong, some of them have powerful, stirring lyrics - ones that reveal God in a beautiful, meaningful way. And musically, though not extraordinary, match the well the message of the song. But I often find myself as I listen, asking questions about what the artist is trying to communicate about God. And sadly, I come to the conclusion that the artist isn't sure themselves, they just wanted to write a really potent lyric.

Which leads me to my second reason -

2) Some of the lyrics can lead to error or outright heresy. Let me admit upfront, maybe I'm too picky. But as I understand corporate worship, the music should communicate the Gospel, as well. The Gospel has particular content, as revealed in Scripture. Therefore, when applying the Gospel to a particular cultural context one of the things we should be careful about is not to change or shade the message God intended with our own. This is the task preachers must undertake every Sunday - obviously with varying degrees of success depending on the skill and the commitment of the preacher to biblical, expositional preaching. Sometimes in the search for an emotive image we stumble into trouble with our message.

Let me offer a minor, but important example. Casting Crowns did a song back a few years ago, "While You Were Sleeping." It is a potent, convicting song about the complacency of God's people at the arrival of the Messiah. Musically, it is well-developed and matches the mood of the lyric. But it has one lyrical problem - one, I am sure, was unintended. In the final movement of the song, it says United States of America....

What's wrong with that, you ask? Well, the first part of the song references Bethlehem and Jerusalem - cities where the covenant people of God dwelt; to speak top those cities at that time in history was to speak to God's chosen people. These were the people who possessed the oracles of God, but were missing the arrival of the Messiah because of their own hardness of heart. If the message of the song was to remain consistent, it should address the church in America. By jumping right to the nation, the song lends itself to an error known as manifest destiny which sees the United States as a nation chosen by God in replacement of Israel.

Again, a minor thing on the surface, but way to easily warped into something dangerous to the soul - a pernicious form of idolatry.

3) Finally, as a demographic, we seem to accept some of the music as faithful to the Christian message when in fact it is quite deficient - and no one points it out. We just keep playing and promoting it - because of who produced it.

This is a tendency that has been in the Christian community for years and I have been bothered by it for years. We long for heroes and celebrities - we want so badly to be mainstream culturally, we forget we are supposed to be swimming against the stream. When the shooting at Columbine happened, the news that the one girl refused to recant her faith spread like wildfire through the church community. Then came the merchandising of her story. I was appalled. The shameless consumerism that took place in the Christian publishing and music business that took place rattled me. The fact that it was so successful and went on for such a long time after the event said volumes about us as a community - we wanted a witness we could point to; a hero. We do this with our cultural figures, as well.

I first witnessed this with Amy Grant - how even when she intentionally produced cross-over music with no clear message of faith in Jesus Christ, Christian radio stations whose stated mission was to reach out through the airwaves with the message of God's love - these stations picked up her cross-over music and gave it airtime. Granted, not the great apostasy or anything like that, but recognize they played the music not on its merit, but because of her name.

Recently, Francesca Battistelli released a song about fear not being welcome. It is wildly popular on Christian stations.... and does not say one thing about faith in Christ, God as her hiding place from fear or her security or anything. It is a song about self-empowerment - she knows she strong, has her own identity. Yet, we gobble it up and, quite frankly, imbue it with our own meaning - I'm strong (because of faith in Jesus), I got my own identity (in Christ). But the lyrics never say that. And this song plays constantly on Christian stations with dj's who gush over it. Why? Because a Christian artist sang it - not because it in any way makes the Gospel or Jesus Christ clear and relevant.

Then there is Michael W. Smith's latest, "This is how I fight my battles." That's it... that's the song, literally. Three minutes of repeating the same thing over and over. From one of the most prolific lyrists and composers in the Christian music industry, we should expect more - we should demand more.

It seems to me, it's time to clear the stage. We need more songs such as the one I pasted above by Jimmy Needham. Songs that address our proclivities (idolatry) and a desperate need to strip away all the gloss we have put on worship and approach his throne with raw faith and reverence.


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