This post is part of an ongoing series about the relationship Christians have with music. It explores what we’re really asking when we ask “Are they a Christian band?” There’s an introduction to the series that explains this concept better, but in many more words. If you’d like to read it, you can check it out here.
I’ll kick off the question section of this series with what I think is one of the most practical questions hiding behind the “Are they Christian?” question. It may not be the most common or even the most helpful, but it’s something that a lot of Christian art has in common.
Was this music written specifically for Christians?
This is an interesting question to ask. As believers, we want something that speaks uniquely to us and to our relationship with God and with the world around us. At the same time, that phrase written specifically for Christians suggests we’re being marketed to. It suggests stuffy guys with hooked noses and thick glasses, thinking up which sequence of lyrics and chords will appeal best to the typical American Christian. They might not even believe the words they’re writing. They do, however, believe those words will make them money, so they write them anyway.
And here’s the thing. Sometimes that’s the case.
Well, maybe not the hooked nose thing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real-life person with a nose I’d describe as “hooked.”
Still, there isn’t a doubt in my mind some of the songs we hear on Christian radio weren’t written from a place of faith, but from a place that knows how easy it is to market to Christians. Let’s face it – a lot of us will gobble up any piece of art so long as the name of Jesus is slapped on it and the production value is moderately professional. Because of this, it’s always been easy for me to assume that any time a Christian song doesn’t meet my standards of excellence, it’s because at some point, the songwriter threw up his hands and said, “Eh, it’s good enough. Christians will still buy this.”
I used to spend a lot of time judging music by this standard. If a band was putting out music that I thought was consistently mediocre, I’d go into research mode. If I didn’t see enough in interviews and feature articles to suggest these guys had vibrant relationships with Jesus, I would decide they were in it for the money. They couldn’t be trying to do any sort of good for the kingdom of God with music like that. Quite frankly, the whole exercise was exhausting. It was a relief to finally come to a simple realization:
I don’t get to know what’s in anyone else’s heart.
I only know what’s in mine.
For me to make a decision about what I think of someone else’s motives is a useless exercise. I can only do my best to keep my own heart in the right place when I’m writing, speaking, or performing – and that’s hard enough. I’d like to think I’m on the right track more often than not, but there have definitely been times when I’ve made art more for my own ego than for the glory of God.
At the end of the day, any act of worship we bring before God is going to fall woefully short of what he deserves. There is no perfect Christian song, no perfect Christian movie, no perfect Christian act of service. The cool thing is that even these frail offerings – whether they’re frail from lack of talent or from lack of devotion – can still bring people into a place of profound worship. I see it all the time in Christian radio. We’ll be playing a song that I can’t stand, and I’ll be convinced that it’s one of the “Eh, Christians will still buy it,” songs. But then I’ll get call after call from people who are having legitimate worshipful experiences and whose faiths are being nourished…all from this song that I was sure wasn’t any good.
Obviously, we should still be on the lookout for bad theology as we listen, but a contrived chord progression or a forced rhyme doesn’t disqualify a song’s status as act of worship.
The Ghettoization of Christian Art
The other concern many people have with music made specifically for Christians is that this approach can have an isolating effect on the music in question. The argument goes that we’ve ghettoized Christian art. We’ve ended up with a bunch of Christians creating art for other Christians, and all of this stuff with a message the world needs to hear is only making the rounds among people who’ve already heard it.
But this argument only looks at part of the picture. Yes, there are Christians working exclusively within the Christian market, but there are also Christians who have worked exclusively outside of it. There are even some Christians who have been able to work in both markets.
This is what the body of Christ is all about.
Being a part of this body means no one person has to do it all. It means my job is to tend to the corner of the garden God gave me. It means I’m going to look around and see other corners that need tending, but I’m not suited to tend them. It means I have to trust that whoever God called to tend to those other corners will do his job.
If we’re going to discount art that has no appeal to those outside the church, we have to discount a decent chunk of the Bible. The Psalms are filled with “songs of ascent” – songs intended to be sung as the Israelites approached Jerusalem for certain religious festivals. These were written with a very specific audience in mind. Maybe someone from another nation could appreciate the imagery and the rhythm of these Psalms, but for the most part, its lyrical content would alienate anyone who didn’t worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
That’s all I’ve got for this week. I’ll be back next Friday with another question behind the question. What are your thoughts on the idea of making art with Christians as the intended market?
Read more in the series: