Culture, Music, and Uncle Willie's Garage

There are a couple of preset buttons on the radio in my car that I never push. These radio stations have been pre-progammed by my kids and, if I were to push one of these buttons, I would be inundated with "today's hits," which would result in me vomiting violently and quite possibly totaling my car. As one who grew up in the 1970's, survived the 1980's, and rejoiced over the musical revolution of the 1990's, I simply cannot stomach much of what passes for new music today.

I had the pleasure of growing up in a time when music was made with real instruments being played by real people, not some digitized alt-recorded track that relies on computers to produce it. Yeah, I know, the electronic sounds of the 1980's want to refute my claim, but I don't count that as music. My first two real concerts were The Police and Bruce Springsteen, both of whom I saw when I was in middle school. My R.E.M. cassette tapes serenaded me to and from high school and I remember exactly where I was when Nirvana saved music in the early 1990's. THAT, my friends, is music!

I realize that not everyone agrees with my factual assessment of what is audibly pleasing, and that is okay. You can roll your eyes at me like my kids do. One of the wonderful aspects of music is that there are so many different varieties and genres from multiple eras that we all have something to choose from. What sounds beautiful to me might sound like dying hippos to you, and I would probably say the same about your music.

The interesting thing to me about so much of the music that I have listened to over the years is that I remember almost all of the words to the songs that I used to have in heavy rotation. Do you want to know something even more crazy? When I recall those lyrics, I truly don't know what half of them meant. Have you ever listened to R.E.M. and tried to figure out what Michael Stipe was saying? Good luck with that! Even the lyrics that do make sense have no real meaning to me - they are just words to songs that I can't seem to forget, even as I struggle to remember my kids' names and birth dates.

This is a phenomenon that is not unique to just popular music - we do it all the time with Christian music as well. The Christian music industry has evolved over the decades just as popular music has. While I am eternally grateful that the ancient hymns of the faith are still sung with regularity and fervency, I am even more thankful that we have moved past the over-synthesized sounds of the 1980's that made my ears want to bleed (sorry Michael W. Smith - I still see you as pioneer but those neon shirts and those keyboards...). Whether you listen to contemporary Christian radio or playlists of modern worship songs on your phone, you know the words and can sing them by heart, which is a good thing. I love that so many gifted artists have set God's word to music, for in listening to and singing those songs it better helps me to hide God's word in my heart.

Except for when that is not the case.

You see, it is just as easy for us to mindlessly sing the words to songs that were written for the glory of God while not even really knowing what we are singing. Think about it. You may feel embarrassed admitting that you can recall all the lyrics to songs by the Chainsmokers or Ariana Grande, yet knowing all the lyrics to songs that glorify God but having no clue what those words truly mean is pretty embarrassing too.

I realize this may sound harsh and maybe it should be. Perhaps it's time that we take more seriously all aspects of our expressions of faith and not just the ones that we label as more formal during our Sunday morning gatherings. When you are riding in the car or listening in your headphones to Hillsong United, trying desperately to sound like Taya Smith when she sings Oceans but failing miserably, are you worshiping God or simply singing words that you have come to know by heart?

The fact that our expressions of worship, especially through music, have kept up with the pace of culture is something that excites me. I believe that Christians are called to engage and transform culture, not simply oppose and battle it. When Christian artists are creating music that actually sounds like it was produced in a modern studio and not Uncle Willie's garage, we all win.

I love music and I often listen to music just for the sake of the sound and quality of it, and that is perfectly fine. But if my goal is to use music as means to worship my God and my King, then absently reciting lyrics that hold no real meaning for me contradicts my intention to do just that. That is no different than knowing all the words to the songs on the radio that add no real value to my life. The same can be said of other artistic and cultural expressions of our faith. Culture can be great as well as the music that it spawns. Let's be diligent to pursue the WHO of our worship as we dive into the mediums of our worship expressions.

Living the other six

Growing up in a Christian home, church on Sundays was not just something that we did. It was something that served to define who we were. I have fond memories of attending Sunday school classes where I learned about Moses crossing the Red Sea, Daniel and the lion's den, and Jesus healing sick people all from the magic of the flannel graph board. The pain of sitting beside my grandfather on those impossibly hard wooden pews was dulled by hearing his rich baritone voice singing those beautiful old hymns. Those were simple, good times, but they served to give me a spiritual foundation that I have never forgotten.

As I grew older and eventually left home, going to church shifted from something I had to do as a child under my parents' authority to something I could choose to do. As a young man who was entering the ministry, continuing to attend church was a no-brainer for me - why would I NOT want to go? Yet at the same time, I began to notice traits within me bubbling to the surface that up until that point I had never really noticed before, particularly the slick ways that I could play the part of good church-going young man on Sundays while living a less-than-holy way during the week. Instead of simply going to church, I had begun "showing" for church.

If you are a follower of Jesus or grew up going to church, this is not a foreign concept to you. We've all heard preachers exhort us to live out our faith on Monday through Saturday, "Because Sunday is coming!" And the term "Sunday Christian" needs no real explanation. Yes, it's easy to live righteously when all eyes are on you - especially the preacher's eyes who see you sitting on the back row!

I am pretty sure that for the early Christians, this idea of struggling to live out their faith in Jesus on the other six days of the week made no sense to them. After all, their lives were in danger every day because of their faith and choosing to follow Jesus was an all-or-none proposition for them. Yet even then not everyone got it.

In Jesus' day, many of the Jewish religious leaders were not too thrilled about His ministry and His claims to be the Son of God. These were the guys on the fringe whose devotion to religious ritual had effectively numbed them to the reality of true faith. So when they saw all that Jesus was doing in the communities around them - healing the sick, bringing hope to the hopeless, and bringing truth to the lost - it drove them nuts.

One guy in particular, a leader in a local synagogue, became the poster child for the religious idiocy. We find his story in Luke 13:10-17 and it goes something like this: Jesus heals a woman on the Sabbath, a day on which the Jewish people believed that no work should be done (the definition of "work" was rather dicey at times). Enter the synagogue leader. He can't believe what he is seeing. No, he's not overwhelmed at the amazing miracle from Jesus that he has just witnessed. Instead, he's ticked off that Jesus chooses the Sabbath of all days to do the work of God. Boiling over with anger, this synagogue leader asks, "Can't you do your amazing works on one of the other six days of the week instead of the Sabbath?" Now I don't know about you, but if I was face-to-face with Jesus I'm pretty sure I could find a better question to ask of Him!

Unbeknownst to him, our synagogue leader friend has flipped the script and turned the tables on US by asking Jesus this ridiculous question. Put in another context for our enjoyment, he might be asking all of us, "I see your devotion on your days of worship. But what are YOU doing the other six days of the week that are pointing others to Jesus and creating a stir in your community?" It was obvious that Jesus taught amazing truths and performed incredible works everyday of the week. His disciples were known to follow suit. Can the same be said about us?

Sundays are a special time for Christians because it is the one day of the week where we can all intentionally gather for corporate worship and celebration of Jesus. We should never overlook these times of assembly and should come expectant to hear from God and give back to Him all of the worth that is due Him. But we should all realize that church on Sunday is not the time that we gather to impress God or each other with our personal notions of holiness and piety. Sunday gatherings (or whenever you gather as a body of Christ followers) are for God to be worshiped, not for us to ring the bell of our own self-proclaimed spiritual awesomeness.

The true call of the follower of Jesus is to live for him daily. It's nice to gather once a week with a bunch of people who think and believe as you do. Yet it's far more urgent that we live this faith in Jesus the other six days of the week so that the world around us can see just how great and worthy our Jesus truly is.

Who's got your back?

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