Singing Praises

“Open the eyes of my heart Lord/I want to see you”
— “Open the Eyes of My Heart” by Paul Baloche

“Why me Lord, what have I ever done to deserve even one of the blessings I’ve known?”
— “Why Me Lord” by Kris Kristofferson

“Be not afraid, I go before you always, come follow me and I will lead you home”
— Hymn “Be Not Afraid” by Bob Dufford

“Hallelujah! Praise God in his holy house of worship, praise him under the open skies; Praise him for his acts of power, praise him for his magnificent greatness; Praise with a blast on the trumpet, praise by strumming soft strings; Praise him with castanets and dance, praise him with banjo and flute; Praise him with cymbals and a big bass drum, praise him with fiddles and mandolin. Let every living, breathing creature praise GOD!”
— Psalm 150 (The Message translation)

The expression in song and music of our spiritual longing and worship has been with us a long time, probably as long as our search for the meaning beyond our selves…which is to say, forever.

What is it about the power of music and song? Clearly it is a universal language, one that speaks from our hearts when we turn our attention to the great mystery of God.

In our culture you will find music everywhere and used for everything, from heartfelt longing to the selling of cars and toothpaste.

When it comes to church, religious and worship music can be as profound or vapid as the above example. And that is the crux of our existence: sometimes we are longing for meaning, at other times we are in the drive-through of life’s fast-food mentality. Finding substance in contemporary music can be even more challenging.

A New Groundswell

Fortunately I sense a groundswell from some of today’s music makers. You may have to search fearlessly to find real depth, but it is there. The sounds of true worship are echoing through coffee houses, concert halls, over radio waves, in churches, temples, subway stations, parks, on hills and in valleys.

One of the greatest challenges facing us is the constant commercialization of music. Of particular concern is when this happens in the context of Christian music. Because music is made by mere mortals it is not always transcendent. Yet, when the power of the Spirit infuses the melody and God-inspired lyrics are voiced by those willing to “walk their talk” (or is that “sing their song”?) the results can be close to a heavenly choir.

For over 25 years I worked in radio broadcasting. I know the pressures on recording artists to get airplay and the desire by record companies to sell product. In true worship music that can’t be the primary goal. The end result must be to give glory to God and to lift each other up. For a Christian who has the gift of music in their soul it can be a tricky tightrope wire to traverse.

However, God gave us music as a means of expressing ourselves creatively and in a way that is often more powerful than just the spoken word. You’ve heard the expression: When you sing you are praying twice.

People who have musical talent and a thirst for God and for sharing God’s great message of love can do great good. The music can be an expression that nurtures all of us, regardless of our personal musical gifts (or lack of).

Musical Fruit

If someone’s walk takes them sincerely through an ever deepening relationship with God then their creativity will come out as fruits of the Holy Spirit. The danger is avoiding the pitfalls of money, prestige and power that snap at our heels.

The good news is the vast amount of music (often undiscovered or little known) being made in a variety of genres that is true and purposeful. You can find honest-to-goodness worship and praise music from country to classical, hip-hop to techno, rock to reggae and folk to finger-pickin’ bluegrass.

Delving deeply into a discourse on the wide variety of artists whose material could be considered spiritual is beyond the scope of this article. I will toss out a few contemporary names with the hope that you’ll investigate for yourself. Try Jars of Clay, Caedmon’s Call, P.O.D., U2, Bob Dylan, Sixpence None the Richer, Bebo Norman, Third Day, Chris Whitley, Bruce Cockburn, The Jayhawks, Al Green, Nickel Creek, King’s X, the echoing green and the David Crowder Band. That’s enough to get your started. Yes, of course, there are many others, but these are just a few demonstrating some diversity and reflection of my personal tastes.

I thought it would be both interesting and helpful to consult with some others who regularly deal with music as ministry and lend their hearts and talent to “singing praises”. Our panel of three consists of Aaron Smith, a jazz/classical aficionado who enjoys performing contemporary music and helps lead music worship for h2ochurch (they describe themselves as “church for the next generation” and employ high-tech/progressive multimedia elements on their website and in their worship services); Jenna James, the program director for youth-oriented contemporary Christian radio station M88 (see m88.org); and Kevin Hurst, a software developer/coder/database administrator/web designer and, oh yes, he plays guitar and bass for worship services with “Counter Culture” (www.countercultureabq.org) and Calvary Chapel (www.calvaryabq.org), both in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Questions:

1. Why does music reach people at a deeper level than just talking?

Jenna/M88: Only music that’s relatable reaches people at a deeper level…some will find that relate-ability in the lyrics, others in the music itself. It’s going to be different for every individual and where they are in life, but there’s no doubt that music reaches people at a different level than just conversation.

Aaron/h2ochurch: There are psychological reasons. Part of the answer is emotions are easily accessed through music. Resistance/defenses are lessened, so we must be responsible with worship music. You can help others encounter God by leading with music comparisons dealing with life situations, such as the pain of divorce.

Kevin/Counter Culture: Music is a different level of communication than talking. It’s a different form of worship and adding words that are worship take it to a new level.

2. Who is making spiritually relevant music for you these days?

Kevin: Switchfoot, Delirious, David Crowder Band, Matt Redman, P.O.D. and U2.

Jenna: Paul Wright, Thousand Foot Krutch, Bebo Norman, Nate Sallie

Aaron: I don’t listen much to mainstream. I like to play it more than listen to it. I hope to create unique original worship music. If there is a group to mention it would be the David Crowder Band.

3. Does music for young people have to reflect their tastes or mirror current popular genres? (Is it possible to reach them with music that isn’t their favorite?)

Kevin: People listen to music their friends like – peer pressure. Doesn’t need to reflect their tastes, but it helps.

Aaron: It’s a starting point, but doesn’t need to stay there. Christians should be culturally sophisticated. We try to build an emotional bridge and give a reason why music is significant. We’ve used a variety of styles, from Dar Williams to the “St. Matthew Passion” by Bach.

Jenna: Yes, in my opinion, it does – relate-ability factor again

4. Has the business of worship/Christian music become more important than the purpose of the music? What are the problem areas? What are the benefits of business savvy?

Jenna: Perhaps, but when something is making money, people will listen (literally) and isn’t that the point of what we’re trying to do as Christians? What a unique opportunity to get to spread the Gospel these days with all the mainstream success of such artists as Sixpence None The Richer and Stacie Orrico! The problems usually lie within the Christian who lives in a bubble and doesn’t like to see “their” artists go the way of mainstream…thinking that they have “lost their faith” because of the transition. If they do their research, however, they’ll more likely find that the artist has not lost their way and still praises God just as before. The benefit is that Christian music is making headlines and actually getting people to listen and not hear the “cheese” that was there in years past.

Kevin: Yes, in a lot of bad ways (doing it just to sell, having the Christian label, their heart possibly not in right place). You have to judge by their fruits. Problem areas: attempts to crossover just for money and fame. Business success pitfalls: takes focus off Christ and God. Benefits: opportunities to play that otherwise wouldn’t be there. If they are limited just to church that doesn’t reach out to the non-churched. I’ve seen good growth in the talent over past years. You have to be professional to do it as a business, but you should apply Christian principles to the business.

Aaron: People don’t understand the danger of the Christian music industry, that many of them have the same goals as the secular industry. You have to ask what the priorities of the musician are. Is it endorsement, sales and touring? Christian artists must recognize the sacrifices required on their life. I’ve had interaction with several Christian music artists. You can have a good desire to pursue a music career but get trapped in the Christian music industry. People are “called” into this. Some of them might not find the freedom of their heart in a church music environment. The potential traps are worldly goals of success. Yes, there are benefits of business savvy – God and Jesus encourage wise use of your talents and stewardship.

5. Do you have a particularly inspirational music moment to relate?

Aaron: There are two. First, the Rich Mullins “Jesus Record”, especially the track “Hard to Get”. It talks about the struggle of looking for God in your pain and finding that He meets you there in the pain. Also, the David Wilcox concert last year, which was great PR for God. People felt wonder at knowing life is meaningful and God wants them and the show left them more likely to explore God than when they came in.

Jenna: The Third Day concert in February of 2002 at the Kiva (auditorium in Albuquerque). When they paused halfway through their set to take time to pray for the audience, it hit me like a ton of bricks and moved me to tears. I felt so special to be a part of that concert — and thought about the hundreds of other shows I’ve seen in life and how many missed opportunities to share Jesus’ love!!!

Kevin: Where do I start? Every time you seek after God and getting together to play and worship always is an inspirational moment. God astounds me. God is always there, it is us who move. The “One Day” experience in May, 2003 was very special.

6. New trend predictions?

Kevin: More crossover, bridging the secular and Christian markets. More hardcore music. Music quality will improve. Also more bands that sound like others, including copycats of successful secular trends (or might go the other way with secular bands copying Christian artists).

Aaron: I see something coming in secular music, an implosion of the sexual marketing and tendency towards androgyny. This can create a vacuum of sexuality and contradiction and add to more confusion for people. I think there will be more integration of techno into worship.

Jenna: I have a hard enough time predicting the weather for my morning show, I can’t go there! :) LOL.

7. Favorite release of 2003? Of all time?

Jenna: Paul Wright “Fly Away” (due out Dec 2, 2003). I’m not an “of all time” kinda gal since my musical tastes vary so much…some of them not necessarily Christian.

Aaron: For 2003 it’s Nickel Creek, “This Side”. “Saved” by Bob Dylan for all time.

Kevin: For this year — David Crowder, Switchfoot. For all time, it’s too hard to narrow down. I’m not one to have a single favorite.

Many thanks for Jenna, Aaron and Kevin for sharing their thoughts for this article. I hope that everyone finds joy in music and if you are musically talented please share it with the world.

Additional Resources

Solid Sounds – Reflections on the lyrics of today’s Christian Music
RELEVANT magazine
Christian Music Planet magazine
Seven7Ball magazine
Spiritual Journeys: How Faith Has Influenced Twelve Music Icons – read our review
!Hero The Rock Opera
Living the Solution music reviews

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®.Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. All rights reserved throughout the world. Used by permission of International Bible Society.

NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION® and NIV® are registered trademarks of International Bible Society. Use of either trademark for the offering of goods or services requires the prior written consent of International Bible Society.

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, IL 60189, USA. All rights reserved

by Tom Gilbert

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