Early in my ministry career (can you call ministry a career?), I attended youth conferences with my denomination. They were held every three years, and they were (are) a big deal. Nearly 10,000 people would gather for teaching, worship, service, and fellowship. The worship component offered some fantastic times in the Lord’s presence, but I noticed something happening.
There was a great deal of anticipation and excitement over the band. Now, I understand that fawning over singers and bands isn’t new and it isn’t even unique to Christianity. But this felt off. The conversations I heard weren’t about how the music invited people into the presence of Jesus, or how they related to it spiritually. It was about the band, especially the lead singer, what he looked like, what he wore, how he acted, etc.; This was the second or third time in a row for them to play this event, so they had a bit of a following. I know it isn’t unusual for kids and others to act this way. Some would say it is natural but whether it is natural or not, the focus for these folks wasn’t Jesus. It seemed to contradict the very nature of the event. Looking from the outside, they made a quasi-god out of the lead singer yet cared little about The One whose story he told.
If you look at music as a whole, this phenomenon isn’t uniquely Christian. People have always placed those in the spotlight in high regard. I remember seeing old black and white clips of girls losing their minds as the Beatles played. Perhaps you’ve seen them too. Or what about the adoring fans of Elvis? At the risk of dating myself a bit, I grew up watching the world go completely bonkers over Michael Jackson. People acted as if they were watching, not the king of pop, but a demi-god perform. If we only knew how tragic his story would end.
But when it comes to Christian artists, it is a bit more complicated. The nature of the industry is to make a lot of you, or you make much of yourself. You have to be ‘out there.’ It involves interviews, travel, tour, and meeting people. For some, this is all very appealing. They see the Instagram stories of the latest stop, the adoring crowds and wish it is a life they could lead. It’s difficult because the very nature of the word, Christian, means ‘little Christ.’ Much was made of Him but in a completely different way. Are ‘Christian’ artists supposed to reflect the one they sing about in some way? If so, how and to what degree?
First, you have to determine, are you a Christian who is a musician or a musician who happens to be a Christian? What kind of Christian music is it? Worship? Pop? Overtly Christian? Christian themed? Christian singers with no apparent Christian content? Yikes! That’s a lot to figure out. Perhaps the first question is the most important. That distinction is critical, and nearly all of the Christian culture has strong opinions about it. The reason for the tension is because it is important.
On the one hand, people who are musicians aren’t any different than any of us. They get out of bed (unless they are poor and touring, then ‘bed’ is in the back of a stinky van). They go to the bathroom and put their pants the same way you and I do. They are just people, with parents, siblings, hopes, and dreams. However, they are skilled and gifted. They have something we don’t. They can sing to play and instrument. We can play the radio, that’s about it. They have a gift they are using when they perform. It could be that their music is ‘Christian’ or perhaps it isn’t but Christians get uncomfortable when they can’t tell if public figures agree with them or not. So, if the music they play isn’t overtly Christian, or the musician hasn’t come out and said they are Christian, there is skepticism. (See Bono of U2) Even if they do say, they are Christian, further probing occurs. “Are they REALLY a Christian?” (Insert Justin Bieber here) “Yeah, but are you the right kind of Christian?” “What kind of Church do you attend?” Do you vote like me? Do you talk like me? Do you believe everything I believe about the Bible, Jesus, the Church, the Holy Spirit, Heaven, Hell, Satan, and Calvin? (I wasn’t making a statement by placing Satan and Calvin next to one another) People are quick to look for all the ways they might agree or disagree with someone as soon as they know they are Christian. That behavior might lead to comfort for some, but frankly, it is exhausting. Why isn’t it enough to enjoy the music?
In the last year, singer Lauren Daigle was panned because she wasn’t sure about her views on the LGTBQ issue. I saw online where someone described her as a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing.’ I am not sure what the writer was concerned about, maybe that people will be led astray by Lauren and her less-than-finished theology.
It isn’t clear to me why we expect artists to have a carefully crafted, full-bodied theology. For crying out loud, I have a Master’s degree in Divinity, and I am still sorting things out. Our theologians have long since quit writing music, so why should we expect our musicians to be great theologians or agree with us about what we think are critical issues? But I digress.
Some people have a deep sense of artistry and longing to be musicians. The water they swim in and the types of music they play and the people they are with may have nothing to do with people of faith. Twenty-One Pilots has been attributed as saying, their faith doesn’t define their genre. But, before you say “it should,” not everyone is ready to carry the banner of Jesus Christ into the public eye. And maybe that is a good thing. The cost is high, and many are not ready to receive that kind of scrutiny.
The real problem doesn’t lie with the musicians; it lies with us. We are in the habit of mistaking talent for character. We put people on a pedestal or in positions of authority and influence, then tear them apart when they don’t live up to our expectations. It’s no wonder some folks want to keep their faith quiet. I’ve watched, over the years, as churches and other organizations placed people who, may be new to the faith, or new to the community, or have an ‘incredible testimony or witness, or sometimes make a lot of money, get placed in positions of leadership and influence. Nine out of ten times, it goes bad; people get hurt and spin out of churches and ministries. This happens, time and time again.
Just because someone is good at something, it doesn’t make them a candidate for Christian leadership or influence.
So, what are we to make of the recent Christian influencers who have renounced the faith or are falling away?
Some want to crucify. You can see the hurt they carry, and they want a pound of flesh. The point fingers, blame, call names, and declare how terrible these people are. Others applaud at the bravery these influencers show, knowing they risk they take. Most of us are left somewhere in between scratching our heads, wondering what went wrong. John L. Cooper, the lead singer of the popular Christian band Skillet, had much to say about it in his Facebook post.
Frankly, I didn’t invest in Joshua Harris and his view of Christian dating. While I thought it was a good idea for kids not to date, i.e., get weird and exclusive, I didn’t buy any merch, follow much of his material or even read his book. When he recently announced he was no longer a Christian, I didn’t feel a seismic shift. The same can be said for Marty Sampsonof Hillsong when he announced that he was falling away. While I like the music, I can’t say I was a devotee.
I’m sure this happens all the time and is happing even as I type. Significant ‘influencers’ fall away from the faith. As sad as it may seem, this is what happens when we turn humans into gods. We worship the people, the influencers, the pastors, the musicians, and not the One to whom they point. Our faith is somehow shaken when they can’t or don’t want to live up to those standards anymore.
This scenario implies it isn’t ok to be in process. It tells us that what we see from the platform, stage, or pulpit is a fully-realized person. Those in the public eye don’t require maturing. We see the “real deal.” To admit otherwise is death. It’s ok to be vulnerable, but only to a certain point. As long as you are relatable, it isn’t a big deal, but if you show you doubt or deeply questioning things, you better keep it to yourself otherwise, you get crucified. As a pastor, you can’t share some of the things you consider because of the way people look at you. To out yourself about your own journey is to invite accusation or even job loss. But the truth is, I don’t look at my relationship with Jesus the way I did ten years ago. Through much wrestling and great questioning, things have changed. I walk with a limp now. I let go of some things that I held dear or thought were sacrosanct. Little idols I didn’t know were gods, have been torn down and I’ve taken other things up I never dreamt I would do. Who knew I would become a priest? I certainly didn’t.
My point is that we never know where we are seeing someone. Everyone is in process. When we hear that song, see them on stage, hear that sermon, or whatever it is, we only see a snapshot. Who knows where they have been or where they are heading? Where are they in their faith journey when we come across them?
Case in point. I love Jonathan Bulter. He is a South African, Jazz, RnB musician. Ever since I heard ‘Lies’ in 1987, I have loved his music. I followed him as much as I was able, but it wasn’t until much later, I learned he was a Christian. In fact, he has put out worship albums and many Christian-content projects. In ’87, he didn’t. Maybe he wasn’t a Christian. Perhaps he was, but he didn’t take his faith seriously. Perhaps he did but didn’t want to use his music as a platform. In any event, I am happy to listen to him and worship Christ with his help.
What happens if he suddenly forsakes Christ? What if he starts a lifestyle that I don’t agree with? I would be bummed, of course, but I wouldn’t ask ‘What is wrong with Christianity?’ I would ask, ‘Is he ok?’
You see, we don’t need to worry about our faith because someone is struggling with theirs. We do need to live examined lives. We must ask the hard questions (to which there are answers) and question what we believe and why. Only then can we own our faith. I mean like, own it. Not in the, I identify with Jesus when it’s convenient kind of way, but in the He’s all I got kind of way. Making the faith our own is challenging and painful. It requires much of us in ways we simply can’t know until tested. For some, their faith is found lacking. What they discovered in the field didn’t add up to selling all they had. Maybe their version was a counter-fit. Perhaps it wasn’t. Who are we to judge that?
At the end of the day, I can’t say why Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson have fallen away. I can only believe what they say. As for me and maybe you, there is much love to be received. There is much love to give and a beautiful relationship with the Lover of my soul to explore. Whoever helps us do that is ok with me, even if we aren’t on the same path.