Monday, August 8, 2016

In Response to Putting Popular Church Music to the Test

Last week I did a blog reviewing CCLI's Top 10 most popular praise songs sung in churches. I received some wonderful comments saying that the blog was very helpful. Most of the comments I read were in disagreement, though for the most part respectful (except for the guy who started "With all due respect" and then proceeded to bash his Southern Baptist stereotype).

The disagreement was largely due to my statements regarding Bethel Church and Hillsong, sacred cows in American evangelical music. In pursuit of holiness, this is an important topic that must be understood not according to personal tastes or styles, but according to Scripture. The following are some of the comments given in bold, and my response follows...

"Sounds like a church curmudgeon to me. I am not for dismissing church history and hymns, but I also don't want to dismiss everything that's not a hymn either. And I'm certainly not comfortable dismissing artists who have associations with Bethel or judging a song based on its number of writers, just like I follow Jesus even though he spent time with sinners and I read the Bible even though it was penned by a multitude of people."

Andrew, Tuscon, AZ

Giving the thumbs-up on four songs, thumbs-down on five, and leaving one kind of open-ended is being a church curmudgeon? Man, I wish I had that ratio of success with the curmudgeons I was dealing with when I first started leading worship!

First of all, I think it's clear the blog was not an endorsement of exclusively hymns. There are bad hymns, too, and feel-good hymns with no theological substance. Secondly, no songs were dismissed based on the number of writers. Such comments on my part were tongue-in-cheek. Cornerstone by Hillsong is Edward Mote's The Solid Rock with a different melody and added chorus made up of less than 20 words that took three more writers. Three writers are cashing royalty checks on the work done mostly by a dead guy. I think they can handle being made fun of a little bit.

I'm sorry you're not comfortable dismissing Bethel and those associated with them. Do you need a shoulder rub? A plush seat, Jen Hatmaker's blog, and a grande quad nonfat one-pump no-whip mocha? Do your ears itch? Do you need someone to scratch them for you? Because Bethel and their New Apostolic Reformation network of churches have a plethora of teachers willing to suit your passions (2 Timothy 4:3). Examine yourself to see if you're really in the faith -- unless you fail to meet the test (2 Corinthians 13:5).

Jesus loved sinners. Thank God, because I'm one of them. He hates false teaching (Revelation 2:6, 15). His most stern rebukes were reserved for the false teachers. He called them sons of hell who produced more sons of hell. "Beware the false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves," he said in the Sermon On the Mount.

Bethel Church and Jesus Culture are con-artists. Don't sing their songs. You are repeating the words of liars whose hearts are far from God, no matter how great you think their music sounds. I referenced only one example of their false teaching -- the whole manipulative gag with the glory clouds (emphasis on "gag"). Would a person indwelt with the Holy Spirit of God conjure up such lies? That one example is enough, but here's another in this next comment...

"My son was being exposed to Jesus Culture and although there are some okay lyrics (he played the guitar in the youth band), some/most are questionable. That being said, after a few CDs and some research, I was confronted with some biblical questions like, 'Dad, what is soaking or grave sucking?' Upon some Google searches we found out what it is and who does it. Bethel and Jesus Culture come from there. We spent the next few hours in Scripture and getting rid of some CDs. How many teens are led down this road because there is no discernment? Thank you for your article."

Robert, Houston, TX

Thank you, Robert. For those who don't know, "grave sucking" (also known as grave soaking or mantle grabbing) is the hyper-charismatic practice of pulling Holy Spirit powers from the bones of someone's grave. Supposedly when the body of a Spirit-empowered person dies, they leave behind their "mantle," the calling that God had for them in life and the anointing of the Holy Spirit they were given. By laying on that person's grave or placing your hands on their tombstone and praying, you are able to absorb that leftover spiritual power.

Said Bethel Church pastor Bill Johnson, "I believe it's possible for us to recover realms of anointing, realms of insight, realms of God that have been untended for decades simply by choosing to reclaim them and perpetuate them for future generations." Ah, yes. The triumph of the sovereign human will. The power of the Spirit apparently just lies around going to waste until some faithful Christian comes along and chooses to revive it. Behold, the power of God.

This is pagan necromancy hiding behind a Christian veneer. The Bible calls these things an abomination to the Lord (Deuteronomy 11:12). It's not a fun game or cute little spiritual fad. It will keep a person from the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21). Bill Johnson has preached on it in his sermons, Bethel encourages the practice on their website and shares testimonials about it, and church members post pictures of themselves soaking up graves.

Bill Johnson's wife, Beni, soaking the spirit-powers of Charles Finney.

Bethel's ministry Jesus Culture specifically targets youth, and it's mostly teenagers and twenty-somethings who get into this sucking graves thing. You don't think that singing their songs -- which theologically are either lite fare or downright abusive -- will open a person up to some of their demonic teachings? It sounds like Robert and his son have a good relationship that they could talk about these things. I've heard stories that begin like Robert's but end much worse.

"I so appreciate the intention of this article. Though I believe our worship needs to line up with the Scripture, I find that this is a bit cynical. I know there are lots of preachers/teachers/worship leaders who have some less than doctrinally sound ideas, but I think God still can and still does use people in spite of their spiritually incorrect ideas. Just because a person's doctrine may be off-base does not mean that we should avoid a song they wrote -- if the song lines up with the Word of God. This article is good food for thought."

Melanie, Alberta, Canada

When a person misuses the name of God or they use it to benefit themselves, what is that called? That's called blasphemy, and it's a very serious sin (Exodus 20:7). God has placed his name above all things (Psalm 138:2), and the name of Jesus above every other name (Philippians 2:9). His name is to be revered as holy (Psalm 103:1). If we know that a person's doctrine is clearly wrong and they misuse the name of God, do you think that we should be making their words ours in the context of worship?

I'm not talking about speculating or questioning their motives, nor am I talking about secondary doctrinal issues like their views on the end-times or covenant or baptism. We're talking about music-producing churches and songwriters that have very public platforms. We know what they openly teach and believe, we can test them according to the Scriptures, and we know what they believe is contrary to the word of God. Should their words be repeated as genuine worship if their beliefs are demonic?

If a doctrinally sound minister -- John Piper, let's say -- were to favorably quote Rob Bell, Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Joseph Prince, or T.D. Jakes in his sermon just because one of those false teachers can manage a theologically salvageable thought every once in a while, Piper would not go unchallenged. But for whatever reason we don't hold worship leaders to the same standard. If Bill Johnson is a grave-sucking false teacher, why is Jeremy Riddle not?

Let me ask another question: Is holiness important? I hope your answer is yes. Then pursue holiness. Desire what is pure. David said that the one who ascends the hill of the Lord is "He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully" (Psalm 24:4). Jesus said, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8).

The Apostle Paul said, "Flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart" (2 Timothy 2:22). Let me repeat that again: "along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart." Doesn't that include our worship leaders?

When I became the worship leader at my church, I had to be ordained as a pastor. I went through the ordination process and the testing for that ordination just like any pastor would. I'm grateful to the senior pastor at that time who cared enough about solid teaching that he wanted even his worship leader to be as sound and as tested as the teachers. I'm not arguing that all worship leaders should be ordained. But they should certainly be tested with greater scrutiny than just, "Ooh, they're talented and they sing songs I like!"

You call me cynical. As God is my witness, this is the desire of my heart: "The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Timothy 1:5). If the Spirit of God uses a false teacher to lead a person to Christ, it is in spite of that teacher, not because of them.

"The problem with analysis like this is that these songs were not written as sermons; they express a songwriter's spiritual connection to God, and the resulting emotions. If you take them for what they are intended to be, there is nothing wrong with them. If you're using them as a resource for a theology class, then no... it's not going to work. That said, there are contemporary Christian songs with lyrics that are flat-out stupid, and I avoid those when selecting songs for our band to play. Even stuff that's borderline I will avoid. I'm glad the author of this article isn't throwing the baby out with the bath water because there are some very good biblically-sound contemporary worship songs."

Michael, Winchester, VA

That comment was like making a sandwich with sourdough bread on top and coffee cake on the bottom. "Well that doesn't make sense." Yeah, exactly. If you're opening your mouth and talking about God, you are being theological. If what you are saying is not rooted in historical biblical orthodoxy, then you're probably being a heretic. The sermon is theology. The music is theology. Both are required to be good theology. Required.

Paul emphatically instructed Timothy not to let anyone teach any different doctrine, or to teach myths or speculations, but only that which flows from the gospel and produces godliness (1 Timothy 1:3-4, 6:3). He told Titus to hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught so that he may give instruction in sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9). Not just correct false teaching -- rebuke those whose doctrine contradicts the true word of the Lord Christ.

The Apostle expressly said to the Ephesians and Colossians that we are to teach each other even in the songs we sing. Colossians 3:16 says, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." It is from a heart indwelt with the word of Christ that we sing acceptable praises to our God.

The Apostle Peter said it's the ignorant and unstable who twist the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). That can be done in a song just as easily as it can be done in a sermon. The purpose of the music is not to stir the emotions. It can do that, but it's not the point. We sing to glorify God. Let the Spirit do His work. He doesn't need help. You be faithful to the Scriptures.

"Thank you so much for these reviews. I've often wondered about singing good songs which come out of bad or questionable churches or writers (eg: Bethel) and you cleared this up for me quite nicely. I'll be a bit more selective from now on. Any chance you could add a list of a few more good or sound modern songs? Any comments on Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)?"

Graham, Capetown, South Africa

Hey, Graham! You got it. Next week I'm planning on covering the next ten songs on CCLI's list. At number eleven is Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone). So not to keep you in suspense, I think it's a great song. Other praise choruses in that next set include Revelation Song, Forever Reign, and Blessed Be Your Name. I should have it up on Monday.