How “Christian” ruins everything and Methodists sell it.

Christian ConsumerismYou may very well be a dyed-in-the-wool Wesleyan. But it doesn’t matter. It’s possible that you’re well read on Buechner and Bonhoeffer and Barth and Brueggemann. Nobody cares. We have new theologians now; they’re marketed as “Christian,” and they’re teaching your kids their theology.

Their credentials are guitars and microphones; all you need, really. Oh, and YouTube hits. And tribute YouTube videos from well-meaning fans that illegally repost the song overlaid with the lyrics in Papyrus font with while a montage of crappy Christian art in various pixel quality rolls in the background. Or it’s on GodTube, which… hold on, I need a timeout.

OK, I’m back. The fact is that Methodist youth ministry is too often where watered-down CCM theology meets the slippery slope of Open Hearts, Open Minds, & Open Doors. I’ve taken a lot of grief from a lot of people for a lot of different reasons about being a youth minister and worship leader that doesn’t listen to what we’ve come to call “Christian music.” I’ve gotten quieter about it, but I still don’t. I generally avoid the conversation, unless someone gets pointed about it.

I used to listen to Christian music when I was a youth. Tons. I even subscribed to something called CCM Magazine for a while, which may or may not still exist (Christian Contemporary Music, if you’re wondering). That magazine was actually part of my exit from my all-Christian music library. Over several months of reading the magazine, I began to realize that the lowest rating in the new album reviews was a B+ (about 3.5 stars out of 5). Few dipped below A-. “What are the odds?” I wondered. “Every Christian album this magazine gets its hands on is good?” I was too young to understand advertiser-driven content (and reviews), but I was headed for the door. It didn’t smell genuine.

There were bright spots early on–the Cornerstone Music Festival was doing good work; there were a couple of alternative Christian music newspapers (yes, on actual paper) that were providing decent reviews and availability to some artists not available at local Christian outlets. I was put off by the growing industry labeled “Christian.” It was too controlled, too clean, too worried about appearance and too troubled by the bottom dollar of Christian consumers. If church was a place for the squeaky clean, the Christian bookstore had to be squeaky-cleaner. So that the squeaky-clean would feel good about spending their non-tithe dollars there. On crap home decor, mostly; but they’d feel good about it. If we carry the new 77s album, somebody’s not buying an embossed “Footprints In The Sand” table runner. No can do.

Then a weird thing happened. Worship music became popular.

If I could go back in time with what I know now, I would probably stand shoulder to shoulder with my dad and my girlfriend’s crazy grandfather Jim and argue against guitars entering the sanctuary. Not because I’m against the instrument; I’m an avid guitarist and singer/songwriter. But when we let U2 fans start leading worship, we lost something critically important: content. Our Methodist heritage in hymnody served not only as an opportunity for community to raise its voice collectively but also as an educational tool. Consider the 4th stanza from Love Divine, All Loves Excelling:

Finish, then, thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
perfectly restored in thee;
changed from glory into glory,
till in heaven we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.

In a verse, Charles takes us from justification to Christian perfection. Let’s give contemporary worship a shot:

I was thinking the other day
What if cartoons got saved?
They’d start singing praise
In a whole new way

Yeah, I was thinking the other day
What if cartoons got saved?
They’d start singing praise
In a whole new way

I’m hand-picking to make a point, obviously. And you can argue that The Cartoon Song is too old to enter this conversation, but the Wesley hymn I chose is 266 years old. And really. Are we getting better depth from Happy Day? The pep rally-worthy Our God? Or any and all of what gets sold as “crossover-friendly” inoffensive ambiguous might-be-about-God-might-be-about-your-crush crooning? Here:

Take me there to the place where you are
Take me there, take me there
I just wanna be where you are
Hide me in your shelter
Hide me here, hide me here
I’d just love to be where you are

Comma “baby” or comma “God” at the end of that?

I don’t care that they’re making that music. If you want to sing vaguely about where your heart is, terrific. Make a buck while you can. But on the consumer end (that’s what worshiping contemporary congregations and youth groups have become, essentially), we’re passing out 3 to 5 song weekly doses of cotton candy to people in desperate need of actual food.

Again, I’m not arguing that we need to return to hymns-only worship. But we need to be careful what we’re passing on to our kids. You may have to seek out songs that aren’t on the radio or top 20 lists. You may have to seek out local creative people to create content-driven worship pieces specifically for your worshiping body. You might need to get a group together from within your congregation to work toward that goal.

You, dear youthworker, are ultimately responsible for what you pass on to your kids. It’s not just the music you borrow from the radio or the curriculum from Group or Doug Fields that you pass on unfiltered. It’s everything you do and say to them.

To make it harder, YOU are the only one who really cares if you’re a Methodist. Your UM conference isn’t insisting (or even suggesting, in most cases) that you be trained in anything Wesleyan. Your college degree probably didn’t have to be ministry related to get the job. Your “heart for kids” and your clean background check may have been enough. But the truth is that you may be the last person to care about your kids growing in a Wesleyan understanding of grace.

Chris Tomlin doesn’t care about that, but it’s not his job to. Do you care?

Peace,
K

About Kevin Alton

Kevin is a writer, author, and speaker in Christian age-level & family ministry circles. He is the co-creator of the Wesleyan curriculum resource Youthworker Circuit and content curator for Science for Youth Ministry. He lives in the Georgia woods just outside of Chattanooga, TN, with his wife Britta and their two boys, Grey & Penner.

25 comments

  1. Kevin, this is OUTSTANDING! And it’s going up on the weekend issue of United Methodist Insight — unless, of course, you wave me off between now and Thursday night. I am SO glad you’re making this point! Thanks as always for the wonderful contributions that Youth Worker Movement makes to our church life!

  2. Thank you for writing this. I have sent it to my Director of Worship (who has been extremely careful about choosing theologically deep music) and to the youth team. We all need to be paying more attention to this.

    Really appreciate your taking the time to write this out.

  3. Thank you for putting faithful thoughts and words to an important topic.

    We think deeper theology won’t sell. Of course, in the sense that a popular CD sells, it won’t. But it does equip and help train a child in the way he should go. Curbing the fear of more meaningful theology should be a task we commit ourselves to accomplishing.

    Thanks, again. Stay blessed…john

  4. Kevin, this is an important issue. The work of both Jesus and Paul was anchored in a particular theological content. Theological content formed the heart of the reformation. Theology not only informs what we believe, but how we express our beliefs and offer good reasons for them. Worship, including preaching and hearing the Word, and prayer, are not primarily celebration or therapy. When I taught at a Lutheran college in the ’70’s I was often criticized by students and administration for taking exception to mindless expressions and outward shows of religiosity. However, I was able to engage in meaningful conversation w/ students who had deep religious concerns and who felt estranged from their fellows. Students need to be respected by speaking with them in mature ways, which means, at times, putting good questions to their expressions. We need to take them seriously or they will not learn to take themselves seriously. Good luck w/ your ministry.

  5. Kevin, can you send me chord charts for some Wesley hymns that only use the G D C and Em chords? Otherwise I’m stuck playing Lord I Lift Your Name on High this week. &:~)

  6. Kevin, I think an even more slippery slope than christian music, is the contempt you seem to have towards christians themselves. I agree that a lot of christian worship music is pretty watered down, and that a blend in of hymns and praise is a good thing. Music is always controversial, and a lot of times will even divide churches, but you have to remember that despite these differences we all serve the same God.

    • Yes, Jeff, we like to say that we all serve the same God, but sometimes I wonder. As I have matured in my walk with Christ, it seems the church has stayed behind because the doctrine is about as watered down as the music. Just food for thought.

    • Thank you.

  7. I’m thankful that a lot of UM Congregations as well as many others are taking a “both/and” instead of an “either/or” approach. Of course, the best music ministry model is Spirit led…imagine that!

  8. Our minister of worship, Richard Kentopp does amazing excavation of old hymns with our band the Gentle Wolves. He’s able to teach some great classes on it. Check out the music here: http://gentlewolves.bandcamp.com/album/the-gentle-wolves-set-i

    Anyhow, I think he’s fabulous example of making great theology newly singable in a way that can meet the culture around us without watering things down. The folks at our church (who are young) meet God in those old hymns and cry out lament in ancient Psalms. Hope more churches will join us!

  9. I recently left a job as music teacher at a Catholic elementary/middle school…and after nine years steeped in soft-rock love ballads about Jesus-as-boyfriend…I can’t tell you how sick of that genre I am.
    It’s no different than any pop slow-dance song – has all the same characteristics.
    In fact…want to try composing your own?? Pro-tip: just capitalize your pronouns.
    “I wanna be with You.” “You’re all I need.” “I dream about You every day.”
    When faced with stately hymns that had actual heritage…the kids (and adults) all sang with enthusiasm….without fail. I did my (Methodist) best to influence planning… I even taught them their own historical Gregorian chants.. But that never once stopped the youth-ministers and worship planners from merrily heading down the depressing highway of Christian pop music.
    Year after year, retreats for students and staff focused exclusively on these songs…our chairs in a circle, boombox aimed at us, powerpoint helpfully displaying the words nobody really knew or cared about, except the youth minister and her retreat-planning team.
    As far as I could tell, the Holy Spirit was out having a nice microbrew somewhere, waiting for the weekend…nowhere near this sad situation.

  10. Kevin, how I can relate! (and it ain’t just the Methodists either) As a Baptist teen in the 80s we soaked up the new wave that was Christian pop music. I went to every Amy Grant and Petra concert we could get tickets to. After a while, I began realizing that there wasn’t much beyond emotional stimulation being passed off as the “Holy Spirit” being presented. I went to a weekend music seminar where praise and worship groups performed, and something about the elevated emotion in that room made me just want to get out of there. These folks were selling records and making money (but it was ok, because they were doing it for God). There was a local “evangelist” in our region who claimed to have once been a member of a famous 70s rock group, but was saved and now sang for God, who toured around doing these “backmasking in rock music” music seminars. It didn’t take much digging to find out some years later he was just plain lying and making money. After that, I really began questioning the motives of the Christian music industry, both contemporary and gospel. As I pursued music in college, the depth of what had been composed over the years, both musically and textually, impressed me. After college, I have been unable to find a church setting anywhere that presents anything but cotton candy to congregations that seriously need meat, and I NEED MEAT. Thank you for your well-written perspective on this!

  11. I agree up to a point about your stance. I have heard them called 7/11 songs – you sing the same 7 words over 11 times. I don’t like them but some of the so called worship songs inspire me to new heights of worship. i.e. “Worthy is the Lamb, seated on His throne, we crown you now with many crowns, You reign victorious. High and lifted up, Jesus Son of God, the darling of heaven, crucified; Worthy is the Lamb!!! The Darling of heaven loved me (and you) enough to be crucified for us!!!! Powerful stuff, in my book!!!!!

  12. I’m not a huge fan of the music either, even though I participate every weekend as I play with my church Praise Band. I don’t listen to Contemporary Christian music outside of church, but I don’t listen to most music on the radio these days (unless we are officially considering Pandora radio now).

    That said, when we play our songs on Sunday I enjoy it, and so does the congregation from what I can see. It puts us in a place of worship, and I do believe it is Spirit led. When we are through playing I sit down and listen to my very capable Pastor speak from the Word and towards a life in Christ. I guess I’ve never looked to the music to inform my theology as much as the Word and the sermon.

    I hear what you’re saying, but broadly casting stones at the way people choose to worship through song seems divisive and somewhat trivial to the greater problems we face… and I really don’t think those problems are a product of tossing out the Cokesbury.

    • At our church (of which I am a paid staff person and member), we have two traditional services and one contemporary service. I agree that the praise and worship music we have in our contemporary service isn’t necessarily as “deep” as some of the music we have in our traditional worship service. However, it definitely has meaning to some people in our congregation. Several of these people were “unchurched” (I hate that word!) and started attending here because they could feel comfortable wearing jeans or just whatever they had to wear, plus the music was appealing and easily understood. We have people of all ages at the service … seriously, from babies to 80 year old. I occasionally sing in the praise band AND in the traditional Chancel Choir, and enjoy both types of music. A lot of times, my mood determines which service I attend. I believe there is something for everyone. The pastors at our church are very conscious of teaching Methodism and also including the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer and the Communion liturgy in our services. As a side note: Some of these songs are a far cry from the “7/11” style. My husband (who is 61) plays bass in the praise band after making a living playing rock music since age 15. Some of the songs our band finds to play give him something fun yet challenging to learn each week.

  13. Robin Swieringa

    Keep on expressing this as pointedly as you want to! You’ll be blessed because you are serving Christ and his church. Yes, it may be lonely. But so many more people/worship leaders/pastors/denominational officials than the Methodists need to hear this for the sake of the Great Commission. Thank you!

  14. I’m with the concept of seeking depth in all we present in a worship setting whether it be with music, communication, creativity, etc. I don’t however see the disparity as a contemporary/worship vs. traditional divide. I’ve seen plenty of shallow traditional and contemporary settings and vice versa. To compare cartoon song to a hymn is taking it a little too far as cartoon song is not something sung as a song of praise in worship spaces today (and really wasn’t 15 years ago either). The hymns that have made it 200+ years have done so because they were the best of their generation but for every one that made it, how many didn’t (the cartoon songs of the 1800’s)?

    I see plenty of contemporary worship music with extreme depth and spiritual connection to those seeking something that resonates with their experiences and needs. Take Desert Song. This is only one of many examples of what I’d consider depth of theology and practicality in the music sung by many contemporary congregations around the world today.

    Verse 1:
    This is my prayer in the desert
    When all that’s within me feels dry
    This is my prayer in my hunger and need
    My God is a God who provides

    Verse 2:
    And this is my prayer in the fire
    In weakness or trial or pain
    There is a faith proved
    Of more worth than gold
    So refine me Lord through the flames

    Chorus:
    And I will bring praise
    I will bring praise
    No weapon formed against me shall remain

    I will rejoice
    I will declare
    God is my victory and He is here

    Verse 3:
    And this is my prayer in the battle
    When triumph is still on it’s way
    I am a conqueror and co-heir with Christ
    So firm on His promise I’ll stand

    Bridge:
    All of my life
    In every season
    You are still God
    I have a reason to sing
    I have a reason to worship

    Verse 4:
    This is my prayer in the harvest
    When favor and providence flow
    I know I’m filled to be emptied again
    The seed I’ve recieved I will sow

  15. I recently wrote a blog (admittedly after yours and I wish I could have linked it in mine) that was featured on the UMC main page. It’s good to know that I am in good company for thinking that the CCM movement may not be the best material for passing on our Wesleyan heritage.

    Also, and I’m selfishly saying this, I think worship leaders need a new look other than meta-hipster.

  16. You have hit upon a significant part of why I gave up ministry in the United Methodist Church, retired earlier than I had planned and became an Episcopalian. The structure of the Liturgy that both teaches and strengthens has brought me into a stronger faith and relationship with God than I had previously experienced. God can not be buddy and Mighty God at the same time, and I have chosen the latter.

  17. Thanks Kevin for your thoughts….

    You bring up some really good points about what CONTENT we are singing in our worship. My problem is that young people (the majority) aren’t attracted to Hymns, the style in which they are presented, and the infamous church organ. I think you have oversimplified the conversation.

    There ARE incredible modern worship writers/bands like The Brillance, Matt Maher that are completely Spirit-driven and have deep content in their worship lyrics. I think its unfair to classify all modern worship into a “watered-down” worship experience. And I think you must remember that while the hymns are beautiful they are written in the language of the time. I noticed the hymn you used as an example uses “till” and “thy” and “from glory into glory”. I’m sorry but most people have NO IDEA what these phrases even mean. I would love to sing them, but I’m afraid most people would miss the impact of these words.

    So what we do need is great theological lyrics with modern music & language. I challenge you to listen to bands like The Brillance, Gungor, etc. and tear down the wall that says all “modern” worship music is shallow. It’s just a hasty generalization…

    • Hey Scott, thanks for your comments. (And apologies to many others, whose comments I found stuck waiting for approval this afternoon. My B.)

      I may have spun my own point sideways and failed to close it well at the end of that. I have a tendency to get ranty about music and in chasing that rabbit possibly left my original intent with the post.

      What I was going after originally wasn’t musical/lyrical shallowness. What I was bothered by was the loss of a vehicle for Wesleyan theology. It’s true for other faith backgrounds as well, not just Methodists. When those old hymns were being written, they were often intended as a useful means of passing along studied theology to the masses. Most people in the church would never have an opportunity to study theology on their own; packing that knowledge into hymns gave them at least a basic encounter with some of that knowledge. The Southern Baptist hymnal I spent time with during my middle/high school days was decidedly Calvinist. Our Methodist hymnal does the same. John Wesley nearly to a fault edited his brother Charles’ hymns for theological correctness.

      I think in a lot of ways the writers of popular worship music remain the theologians of the people, except that they’re not particularly qualified to be that. It’s obviously not required, but there aren’t a lot of MDivs out there writing for the radio. And I doubt it will ever swing in that direction, because increasingly people like what they like theologically and don’t like to be told, “Actually, our denomination says _____ about _____.”

      I just mean that if we care about our own theological traditions, we should be careful about what we pass along in what has long been an opportunity to learn our faith’s particular expression of God, grace, and the rest. Or at least make sure we’re not contradicting it.

      I’m not familiar with The Brilliance. One of my favorite things about Gungor, oddly enough, is Michael’s stark rejection of the label “Christian” on his music. I agree with him that such a label immediately turns it from art into commercial art–art that only exists for its end purpose, and not simply for its own sake.

      Anyway. Thanks again for your thoughts.

      Peace,
      K

  18. Kevin,
    I’m an example of that person who is allowed to be a Sunday school teacher and youth volunteer because I have a heart for youth and a clean background check. I’m also older than the rocks in the church garden so I don’t do contemporary Christian music much. (Although I do love “Jesus Freak” by the Newsboys. Mostly because I am one.) However, I am concerned that the youth at our church get a firm grasp of grace so I do my best to be smart about Wesleyan theology.

    I find that it isn’t the music I play in class that matters most. It’s how I explain why I chose to play that song: the truth or lie in the song. I could be wrong in this. But I play music that speaks to me about God’s truth, be it Christian music or not. In fact, some songs are good examples of how the truth is being lost to many people.

    I try to be the example I would want for my (now grown) children. I try to give some of my wisdom (assuming I have any) to the youth so they can see the manipulation where it exists. Loving the youth we are blessed to help on their journey as a great start. Helping to give them discernment is another really important step. Then pray for them while you help the Holy Spirit do His work in their lives. This is what we youth workers do amidst the swirl of today’s culture.

    Bottom line: I believe what music we use is an important consideration. But, how we react to and comment on the music is just as important (if not more).

    Thank you for your article. It was perceptive and gave me an insight I can use.
    Dave

  19. Kevin – It’s interesting to read the variety of comments posted since I posted one. This variety reflects the wealth of interests and concerns of many people who do ministry. You focus on the need for deeper and more meaningful theological reflection/expression by looking at the growing popularity of a certain kind of music. I think the problem is larger than that – and larger than the concerns of youth ministry. It’s the ancient problem of how to speak about God and culture in a way that engages serious responses – something more than mere emotional highs. Today, “Martin Luther King Day”, I remember my naïve but heartfelt participation in the civil rights movement. That movement was strongly characterized by not only deep beliefs, largely centered on the Christian faith, but by clear and effective thought directed by those beliefs toward acts of love and justice with the intent to change realities. It seems to me that one’s purpose is reflected in one’s expression. Shallow expressions, of any kind, reveal shallow purposes. We all need to constantly renew our purpose, and connect it to real actions – and, if we do that, our expressions will take care of themselves.

  20. We cannot oversimplify this as the “two camps.” That crap goes on at my church and it will do nothing to promote or engender the Kingdom of God. Hymnody is in my DNA. I grew up with it. I think Chris Tomlin sings with a nasally whine, and I can’t, no I WONT manufacturer a charismatic frenzy in order to validate mine or anyone else’s experience.
    The problem of worship contemporary or otherwise, is that it too often focuses me on me… How did that experience make ME feel? Worship is about making God happy. It doesn’t belong to me. It never has, because it’s not about my glory (little g) it’s about God’s Glory! The problem with the worship is a theological one, and the solution is found in Christian education. Most of my students could really give a hoot about the song, [permission to speak freely?] What they DO care about is making sense of all this God business. If we get that right, we won’t be worried about the worship, because it will have its head screwed on straight and it’s heart in the right place.

  21. Thank you for your thoughtful blog. I’m not a Methodist, but came across it. I have the same issues you have with CCM genre; but I have even more disdain with the so-called Christian ‘Literature’ industry. It feels more like they are more about trying to sell books and increase their own bottom line rather than about writing and selling good, thoughtful fiction for Christians. Take the Left Behind series as an example: I read the first five or so books, but rather than move the story move along, it seemed to me that each installment was merely progressing just far enough to sell the next book. I became so disgusted with the series, I quit. I came away very jaded, surely not what was intended. As long as organized religion is a ‘fad’, the charlatans will continue putting out drivel to make a buck off of it. I have never listened to music because it was ‘Christian music’; never again will I read a book because it is supposed to be ‘Christian literature.’