Tag Archives: Music


Arcade Fire Talks to Missionaries

Few things make me more nervous, defensive, and anxious than when a non-Christian friend visits my church. It’s like inviting someone to meet your family for the first time, but more like your extended family, and the event opens with your cousins leading the family in an emotional sing-a-long of some old family tune that your edgier cousins have adapted to more modern music, followed by your grandfather giving a lengthy exposition of a book that everyone except for your friend has read. And you’re worried you might actually have to introduce your family to your friend. Will they be nice? Will they ask him good questions? Will they care about him at all? You’re tempted to quickly escort your friend to the exit to avoid any awkward conversations.

o-REFLEKTOR-570The truth is, our family is kinda weird (mostly in a good way). And they can sometimes have a hard time relating to other people, especially when they think those people are the weird ones. Nothing brings this point home more than watching a non-Christian friend talk about his or her experience with your church. It can be painful, and we may become defensive when a friend shares his or her perspective about our family. But it can also be revealing and edifying. That was my experience when I heard Win Butler, the lead singer of Arcade Fire, singing about missionaries to Haiti and their troubling theology of culture on the band’s latest album, Reflektor.

Arcade Fire is no stranger to religious themes. Their sophomore release was titled Neon Bible and features a track criticizing televangelists. After their next album, The Suburbs, won album of the year at the 2011 Grammys, the band put out a “deluxe” version with two bonus tracks, one titled “Culture Wars,” which directly criticizes the evangelical culture wars, and the other titled “Speaking in Tongues.” Win Butler sings with the voice of an insider, someone who has witnessed church culture personally. In fact, he was raised Mormon and got his BA degree in religious studies.

The story Butler tells in the song “Here Comes the Night Time” is a common one in church history, a story of cultural conflict between missionaries and foreign people groups. The conflict centers around the music played by the Haitians at night. A lack of working electricity—perhaps a result of the 2010 Haiti earthquake—drives the people outside to play music and dance each night. Over the course of the song, the titular refrain, “Here comes the night time,” builds and builds, creating anticipation for the revelry, which finally breaks out into an uptempo and impassioned bridge. The song is hard not to dance to; just ask my daughter.

Lyrics Aimed at Missionaries

There is a deep appreciation for the Haitians and their culture in Butler’s lyrics, a sense of respect and love. Win’s in-laws are both from Haiti, and the band has done a lot to help the country rebuild after the 2010 earthquake, so this love of the Haitian people and their culture is experiential and personal for Arcade Fire. Butler values their ability to delight in goodness through music and dance. And in this song he contrasts their embodied delight in music with the antagonistic distance from the music displayed by the missionaries.

While the Haitians go out onto the streets to dance, the missionaries condemn them:

And the missionaries

They tell us we will be left behind

Been left behind

A thousand times, a thousand times.

If you want to be righteous,

If you want to be righteous, get in line

‘Cause here comes the night time.

The Haitians are warned that if they do not want to get “left behind”—in the rapture or in hell?—then they need to seek after righteousness by following the missionaries’ lead and going inside. Butler replies that they already have been “left behind, a thousand times.” From the context of the song, Butler seems to be implying that Christians have often abandoned Haiti, keeping them at arm’s length (later he describes preachers talking “up on the satellite”), ignoring their economic and political struggles. But more than that, the missionaries abandon them physically, withdrawing from the Haitians and their culture so they can stay “righteous.”

In the next verse, Butler continues his criticism of the missionaries:

They say, heaven’s a place

Yeah, heaven’s a place and they know where it is

But you know where it is?

It’s behind the gate, they won’t let you in

And when they hear the beat, coming from the street, they lock the door

But if there’s no music up in heaven, then what’s it for?

These lyrics play off of the image of the pearly gates of heaven, with one important difference: it is not God but the missionaries who control the gate. If you want heaven, the missionaries tell the Haitians, you must come through us. Leave everything you know and follow us.

Just as they lock out the Haitians from heaven, they lock their doors when they hear their music, afraid of it and its influence upon them. And here Butler asks what I think is the basic question of the song and the heart of his critique: ”If there’s no music up in heaven, then what’s it for?” The pronoun “it” is ambiguous. Is Butler questioning why we have music if it doesn’t exist in heaven, or why we have heaven if music doesn’t exist there?

I think the best interpretation, the one most consistent with the rest of the song, is that he is asking both questions. It’s hard to know how much of the Reformed tradition Butler learned in his religious studies program—probably very little, if I had to guess—but knowingly or not, he lays out a compelling case for common grace in our theology of missions. Music is beautiful and good. In fact, it is so beautiful and good that its existence only makes sense if there is a heaven. And similarly, what is the purpose of heaven if not to delight in what is beautiful, good, and true—a delight that is necessarily an act of worship to the Creator of what is good?

Check out Christ and Pop Culture Magazine
Check out Christ and Pop Culture Magazine

Butler recognizes that there is something undeniably good about this music and dancing. Maybe not everything about the revelry is good, but there is some bit of common grace. It expresses something about life and the world that is more truthful than the satellite sermons from disembodied and distant voices of supposed religious preachers.

More than Righteous or Self-Righteous

As a Christian my inclination is to be defensive, to justify the actions of the missionaries in some way. But I think that response would be missing the point. Even worse, it would be futile. The song simply doesn’t give us the details necessary to decide whether or not the missionaries were being righteous or self-righteous. And it wasn’t meant to, because Butler’s point is about something much larger than the specifics of some mission trip.

What Butler criticizes is a basic challenge for the church everywhere, not just missionaries in Haiti. Culture scares us. It always has. When we hear the beat, coming from the street, we do lock our doors. If we can get away with it, we’d prefer occasional excursions into cultures, keeping them at arm’s length, dropping tracts, and then retreating back to our sanctuaries. We put up fences to keep out the culture we live in and to keep ourselves pure. But in the process we remove ourselves from our neighbors, and we fail to value what is worthy of praise. As a result, sometimes our own Christian culture becomes a major stumbling block for non-Christians as they consider the gospel of Jesus Christ.

On the whole, I think the evangelical church in the United States has matured in its understanding of culture and our presence in it over the last decade. The movement toward being “missional” and “intentional” has emphasized being embodied Christians—the exact opposite of the missionaries Butler criticizes. The church has largely moved away from viewing culture as the enemy. But I hope to see us continue to mature in this area. I fear that in our missionary work, foreign or domestic, we still often shudder at the thought of being in the world.

Whether or not Butler’s criticism of these missionaries is fair, it is an edifying exhortation, if we will have ears to hear. It reminds us of two fundamental truths about creation: that we were created to be embodied with one another, and that what God made good was not completely undone by the fall, by the grace of God. There are pieces of common grace goodness in every culture, despite all human efforts to the contrary.

When we forget these truths, we not only fail to honor God with our praise, we fail to bear witness for Christ to our neighbors. And then when it comes time to invite them to meet our church family, we might find ourselves afraid to introduce a non-Christian to relatives who have forsaken becoming all things to all people, for becoming one thing for our people.

From Megadeth to Life

I was a teenage metalhead.

Dateline, 1992: It’s the first game of the season for the Blackford High School Bruins. It’s also my first game on the varsity, and I’ll be starting at outside linebacker and offensive guard. Kevin Whitesell, a senior, brings a giant boom box into the locker room and plays Megadeth’s “Symphony of Destruction” on repeat. Whitey is the kind of high school senior who looks like he’s 35 in terms of chest hair and beard growth. He’s the kind of high school senior whose approval you crave if it’s your first game on the varsity. He has a Camaro with ground effects in the “player’s lot” outside the cleat house. I will return to the locker room at halftime after an on-field fight, with my nose almost broken and gushing blood. I’ll sit stoically on the concrete while the trainer wipes away the blood and shoves cotton up my nose. Whitey will catch my eye and nod approvingly. I’ll be a man, minus the chest hair and Camaro.

I was a Megadeth from then on. Yes, the same Megadeth with the adolescent-looking, semi-scary album covers, the following of long-haired outcast-type kids and (now) long-haired outcast-type middle-aged men. I was a fan of Marty Friedman’s incredible guitar work, Dave Mustaine’s vocals, and primarily the fact that, as an athlete, there’s no better music to get you in the mood to bust heads.

Megadeth would be a part of my life through high school, through a brief college football career, and even into early married life. At that point my cultured wife would snicker at the Megadeth cover art and remind me that, developmentally, most people stop listening to Megadeth right around the time people stop asking you about the game on Friday night and stop asking you how much you can bench press. I was forced to go underground with my appreciation for the band.

Today, I teach at Cornerstone University (formerly Grand Rapids Baptist), which is pretty predictably “Christian college” in terms of how it looks (North Face), and what it listens to (CCM). I teach speech class, and in my 12:45 p.m. section I have a socially anxious student who sits in the far back corner of the classroom, has long hair, never says anything, and wears a different ’80s metal t-shirt every day. Needless to say he falls outside the typical Cornerstone profile. Needless to say, we became fast friends.

One afternoon Joel approached me nervously and asked, “Hey Professor Kluck . . . would you, ah, want to go to a Megadeth show with me . . . they’re gonna be at the Orbit Room in November.”

In Praise of the Dramatic Conversion

Dateline, The Orbit Room in November: The last time I was in this building I was covering a professional boxing show from the kind of ringside proximity where you have to cover the top of your cup with your notebook so the blood doesn’t fly into your coffee. Tonight I’m here, with Joel, to see Megadeth.

Mustaine 2
Dave Mustaine. Photo by Joel Szymanski.

At one point Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine was in Metallica, who went on to become the biggest mainstream metal act in music history. They made untold millions and released albums that topped charts because they were hook-heavy and radio-friendly enough to shift units but still “metal” enough for metalheads. Mustaine was replaced by Kirk Hammett long before any of that happened. He went on, of course, to front Megadeth and to engage in the kind of booze/drug/sex-fueled lifestyle that has become something of a cliché in rock music circles thanks to shows like VH1’s Behind the Music.

Still, Megadeth made great records that served a relatively small niche (compared to Metallica’s market share) and partied real hard. Their lives, for the most part, evidenced the “wages of sin” that come from the indulgent lives they led, and they left a trail of addictions and broken relationships in their wake.

But today Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine and bassist David Ellefson both profess what appears to be genuine faith in Christ. Ellefson is currently a seminary student.

“Was it just a rehab thing?” I ask Joel about Mustaine’s conversion. I immediately regret the question because it reveals my smug and cynical attitude.

“It was like ten years ago,” Joel replies, “and he’s still talking about his faith.”

Ellefson and Mustaine have both written memoirs that chronicle their journeys out of sin and into grace. They were, at one point, embroiled in a nasty lawsuit with each other over (essentially) the keys to the Megadeth franchise and were (miraculously) reconciled in a way that can only happen through Christ. “Why am I not getting those ghostwriting gigs?” I ask Joel, over the pre-show hum of the crowd. These are the books I want to be writing. He shrugs his shoulders.

In many Reformed churches we self-consciously praise the “boring testimony,” I think because so many people in our subculture do things pretty much the right way and feel sheepish about not having a more interesting conversion story. I’m talking about the “I grew up in a Christian home in Grand Rapids and my parents were in ministry” kind of testimony. This is of course fine and good, provided we’re in fact convicted of our sins and not inwardly convinced that we’re actually pretty fantastic.

God of the Dark Corners

David Ellefson. Photo by Joel Szymanski.
David Ellefson. Photo by Joel Szymanski.

With Mustaine and Ellefson, God saw fit to save some of the most cynical, aggressive, hardest-partying public individuals he could find. In sports this would be akin to a Mike Tyson conversion. Ellefson and Mustaine reached a point in their lives when they could no longer explain away their choices. They could reckon with their sins no longer. Conversions like these bring a ton of glory to God and untold joy to my heart because they remind me that there are no unredeemable sinners. There’s no case too hopeless or difficult for God if the individual repents and comes to Christ in humility and faith. It means, of course, that I’m not hopeless either.

Mustaine was in another stint in rehab when he fell asleep in a chair with his arm draped over the back. The pressure exerted by the chair on the nerves in Mustaine’s arm—a one-in-a-million type thing—threatened to permanently injure him and end his music career. He reached a personal and professional rock bottom, and at that moment cried out in repentance.

“At some point you have to wonder,” Mustaine wrote in his book, “how many times does God have to say, ‘Dude, I love you,’ before I straighten up for good?”

As Megadeth takes the stage, I wonder how their art has changed. They obviously haven’t traded in their long hair for skinnies, cowboy shirt, and faux-hawk (the official/unofficial uniform for praise bands and church planters). The music is essentially the same—fast, loud, and aggressive. Mustaine’s autobiography reveals that he’s still the same semi-vulgar, ready-for-a-fight guy he was pre-conversion. But Christ has begun to smooth away many of his rough edges (and by “rough edges” I really mean sins like infidelity, drug abuse, and alcoholism). Still, it’s clear from the very beginning riffs of “Hangar 18″ that this isn’t going to be a James Taylor or Cat Stevens [1] show. The music is still going to be an auditory beating, in the best possible way.

Like all worthwhile writers Megadeth are, I think, trying to make sense of and understand the world they live in. “My body aches from mistakes . . . betrayed by lust,” Mustaine sings, perhaps, about the wages of sin that he lived. I connected with the lyrics as a teenager, and I still do.

Sonically, I am taken to some specific places as I watch Mustaine and Ellefson joyfully and masterfully blast through their set: dorm rooms, weight rooms, locker rooms, recovery rooms, my cousin’s basement, Kirk Logan’s car. In movies, music tells you what to feel and when. In life, music often accompanies and accents our feelings.

Afterward, my wife asks me what I thought of the show, to which I reply, “I’m proud of them.” I’m proud of their musical gifts. I’m buzzed off the show. But mostly I’m proud to have been redeemed by the same God who brought Mustaine and Ellefson out of sin and into the light.

We are, all of us, trophies of God’s grace.

[1] Who, even though they’re uber-sensitive and way less hardcore are still, to my knowledge, unregenerate sinners.

New Music Project Helps Kids Learn Theology

The Gospel Coalition is excited to announce a new music project aimed at helping kids learn about God. In partnership with James and Dana Dirksen and their Songs for Saplings collection, we have made 111 songs adapted from the Westminster Shorter Catechism available for free streaming on TGC’s website. We hope you can use these songs to help teach your kids important truths about God.

Listen to a couple songs to get a feel for the entire collection:

Who is God?

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What is sin?

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As a parent of four, I am always looking for great teaching resources for my kids. I met James and Dana at our last national conference in Orlando and received some of their music. By the time our road trip home was over, my kids were actually singing good theology. I asked them if we could incorporate their music into a special web project for The Gospel Coalition as well as the New City Catechism app.

dirksen-4Songs for Saplings is a ministry from the Dirksen family. They live in Portland, Oregon, with their six children, and the entire family contributes to these projects.

I asked Dana to share why she started this Songs for Saplings:

Kids are really smart. They soak up everything they hear and see. What we really wanted to do was create fun, interesting music that would be saturated with Bible verses and theology. The question-and-answer method is an old and beautiful method for teaching kids. How many times has your 6-year-old asked you a question about how something works or why something is? It happened every hour with my babies.

We’re finished all six volumes now, and my prayer is that the lyrics will sink down deep in kids’ hearts so they will be able to remember the truths they learned there for the rest of their lives. And not just in English. We’ve started translating the songs into other languages. We have albums recorded in Chichewa (the language in Malawi), French, Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, and I’m actually in Quito, Ecuador, right now recording our first volume in Spanish.

James added:

This partnership with The Gospel Coalition is really a gift from God to us. We’re doing what we think brings glory to God by using the limited gifts we have, and since we’ve finished this series our main goal is to get the music to people any way we can. Having the music available for free for anyone to listen to on The Gospel Coalition’s site it a great way to do that—and clearly is an answer to our prayers.

We hope you find this new project to be helpful. This is just another way TGC is trying to serve the local church by providing free theological resources. Please take some time to listen to a few of the songs and check out the Songs for Saplings website. This could also make a great stocking stuffer for your kids.

The Essentials of Congregational Worship

What are the non-negotiable elements of gospel-centered congregational worship—regardless of context?

In a new roundtable video, Paul Tripp, Mike Cosper, and Matt Boswell discuss this important question. “Worship is essentially a conversation between the Word of God and the people of God,” observes Cosper, a contributor to TGC’s Songs for the Book of Luke album. “If that’s your core governing principle, it actually takes care of a lot, because when the Word speaks it demands certain responses.”

Moreover, it’s imperative to make sure our services are “from first to last are shaped by Scripture, therefore pushing us toward the glory of Christ in all things,” adds Boswell, editor of the new TGC Worship blog.

“Since the people who come to worship are identity-amnesiacs and God-amnesiacs,” Tripp explains, “I want to remind them of who they are—both the scary depth of their need and who they are in Christ—as well as of the grandeur and glory of the God they’ve been connected to through Christ.”

As Cosper contends, “If we truly want to have gospel-centered worship, one thing that must be crystal clear is there’s only one mediator—one person who’s leading us into the presence of God—and it’s not the guy with the guitar. It’s Jesus.”

Watch the full eight-minute video to hear these men discuss the danger of celebritized mindsets, how the pulpit relates to the guitar, and more.

Gospel-Centered Worship from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Derek Webb Was Wrong, He’s Sorry, and He Loves You

Derek Webb first appeared in the Christian music scene with the Texan folk-rock band Caedmon’s Call. On their 1996 self-titled record, Caedmon’s Call (their first national release), he was the angst-ridden voice, expressing doubts and agony that weren’t common threads in CCM. Some instantly identified—people who’d always felt a bit out of place in the church, for whom doubts and struggles were constant. For other listeners, Webb was like the outspoken skeptic in your small group, the one who seemed suspicious of sentiments that were a little too warm and smiles that were a little too plastic. In nearly 20 years since, he’s maintained that posture, agitating and provoking the very world his music inhabits.

Webb left Caedmon’s Call in 2001 (though he’s continued to collaborate on projects), launching his solo career with the record She Must and Shall Go Free (2003). On that record, Webb ran into trouble with Christian bookstores over language in the song “Wedding Dress,” where he says: “’cause I’m a whore, I do confess / I put you on like a wedding dress.” The controversy galvanized his fans even as the album was pulled from some shelves.

Controversy spread in other directions in the years that followed. On Mockingbird (2005) he criticized Christian justifications for war and mocked the idea that Jesus was a “white, middle-class Republican.” Stockholm Syndrome (2009) caused a stir over his use of profanity. Shortly afterward, conflict emerged when he refused to make a public, doctrinal statement about homosexuality. (This controversy followed Jennifer Knapp, another CCM artist and Derek’s friend, coming out as a lesbian.)

Scores of pieces have been written about these episodes, and I won’t retrace them all here. Suffice it to say that Webb has a way of sustaining a place in the blogosphere. Some chalk it up to loose orthodoxy, but, I must admit, part of me sees something more calculated about it all. On the one hand, the church needs internal critics, voices that skate along boundaries and borders that make us uncomfortable. Much of the tension around him (including the kerfuffle over homosexuality) is rooted in presumptions (on both sides) about what level of responsibility artists have to be doctrinarian, and how public their doctrine needs to be.

On the other hand, Webb has proven himself a smart businessman. He co-founded Noisetrade, a digital music distribution website, and has insightfully written about the music industry and the work of being a “blue-collar musician.” I wonder if there isn’t just a bit of P. T. Barnum-inspired showmanship and calculation in the way these scandals erupt. “I don’t care what you say about me,” Barnum once remarked, “just spell my name right.” Webb enjoys being a provocateur and an agitator, and I’d guess it’s good for business too.

Church and Culture

All of this makes for a fascinating backdrop to Webb’s newest record, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry, and I Love You (2013). The album results from reflections on 10 years that have passed since he released She Must and Shall Go Free. He says of that first solo record, “Even after 10 years spent in churches and church culture . . . I still wondered if I had a particular role in the ‘church’ and if the ‘church’ had a necessary role in culture. Those questions not only led me to make my first album, but they also put me on a path as an artist that I am still navigating today.”

I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry, and I Love You is, Webb explains, what She Must and Shall Go Free “would have looked like if I were writing it today, exploring the relationships between the church, the culture, and myself.” To Webb, it feels like “an encouraging start to what I hope to be 10 more years of ‘afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted,’ starting, as always, with myself.”

Much of the content of his previous albums has a cynical edge, skewering Christian culture and its plastic veneer. (See, for instance, the song “Heaven” or “A King and a Kingdom.”) On this album, however, Webb sets his sights on another target: himself. On the title track, he sings:

I welcome everyone but give ‘em nothing when they arrive

or else build a house with no way to come inside

I’ve learned to hide my tears, learned to hold them deep inside and then sell my fears just to pick your pockets dry

I was wrong, I’m sorry, and I love you.

While Webb has always been known for his self-deprecating quality, this album lays his guilt bare. In “Eye of the Hurricane,” he sings:

I loved every circle that I ran around my father’s house

even prodigals have a good time till the money runs out

oh I always had a choice, I always knew where I was from

but there’s a time to stop running and I’m pretty sure that time has come

’cause now i need a home-cooked meal and a bed I need a place to lay my head

I am the man from which I am running so even if I wanted to, I can’t escape

this is the man that I am becoming running in the eye of the hurricane

Webb makes these confessions against the poppy backdrop of a production style that has become his signature. He plays almost all of the instruments on the record, blending elements that evoke Brian Wilson’s style, Wilco’s Summer Teeth, a Detroit-influenced rhythm section (Webb’s bass lines are always a highlight), and the folk sounds that have always been his home base. It’s a cheerful singalong, even as he wrestles with inner demons.

Critics Disappointed

But Webb’s critics who hope for a mea culpa about his controversies will be disappointed. The closest he gets is in “Closer Than You Think,” where he says:

What do you think you know about me something you read or overheard why your fists up, you wanna fight me you haven’t even heard a single word

from my mouth, yet you doubt what I’m saying now

that we’re closer, closer, closer closer than you think

Here he may be referencing the homosexuality controversy where he remained silent in public and insisted that if someone genuinely wanted to know what he believed, he would need to sit down with him and have a conversation. As recently as July 31, when challenged about the issue on Twitter by Southern Seminary professor Jim Hamilton, he replied, “no more interested in having this discussion on twitter now than I was then” (referring to three years ago), and later said, “happy to discuss this with you in person, but not interested in a twitter discussion.”

Then again, his words may also apply to critics who want him to take a public stance in support of pro-gay reforms in the church. Or his lyrics may be the voice of God speaking, and the object of criticism in the song is Webb himself (the third verse reads this way).

Webb probably won’t tell us. He enjoys preserving his song’s ambiguity, and as Patrick Schreiner recently wrote, ambiguity serves an important role in the arts.

Gospel Haunts

What Webb does make clear is this: the gospel still haunts him, drives him, and brings him back to both Jesus and his church. He reveals himself to be haunted by the beauty of God on “I Measure the Days,” a song written in the style of a simplified Anglican chant, and he sings Charlotte Elliot’s 1834 gospel tune “Thy Will Be Done” with evocative sincerity.

The standout on the record, at least to me, is “A Place At Your Table,” a song that seems to offer a bridge and an olive branch to all of his listeners, celebrating the way Jesus invites us to his table from all diverse corners of his church:

In conflict and dissent we divide

but you defend and keep your bride in purity and peace

so there will always be

a place at your table for me

It also seems to reflect on Webb’s own journey: the guy who struggled to walk center aisle, who has voiced so much contemporary lament, still struggles with his faith and is still drawn back:

So I lost my voice calling out your name

but your ear was deaf as my soul was sprained

and, though my heart is dark I am still compelled

to where your body broke, to where your blood was spilled

it’s more than all the debt I owe and where else can a sick man go so help my unbelief

that there will always be

a place at your table for me

I doubt I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry, and I Love You will quiet all of Webb’s critics, and perhaps it shouldn’t.

But if there’s any spirit of generosity among his listeners, I think they’ll find that Webb has offered a record with more than a little common ground. When Webb aims his pen at himself, he invites us to do the same, and most of us can identify with the sentiments of “I Was Wrong” and “The Eye of the Hurricane.” We can also echo the hope of “Everything Will Change,” a song that anticipates the day when all sin, sorrow, and suffering will end. The pop cheerfulness of the album’s self-abasement makes sense in that song’s light, a grinning knowledge that while the sin within us and the debates online may rage on, one day, they’ll all end.

This hope rings throughout the record. This isn’t a new Derek Webb, or a return to the old Derek Webb (as some have hoped), but a more winsome Webb, one whose skills as a songwriter and producer are continually growing, and who continues to point to Jesus for hope as he critiques and agitates—even when the object of his criticism is himself.

Truth We Believe and Songs We Sing

Sound theology should shape everything we do in corporate worship. But what does that mean for music in particular? Don Carson recently sat down with worship leaders Keith Getty and Matt Boswell to discuss the relationship between the truth we believe and the songs we sing.

“The revival in theology many TGC leaders have seen in our generation has happened because they discovered and learned from leaders of previous generations,” Getty observes. Losing our musical heritage, he warns, is a danger for our generation.

And though excellent worship songs aren’t less than declarations of orthodoxy, they are considerably more. As Carson remarks, “It’s easy to churn out orthodox theology; it’s not easy to say old things in new and creative ways.”

Boswell, editor of the new TGC Worship blog and contributor (along with Carson) to TGC’s Songs for the Book of Luke album, explains his desire to approach texts—whether Scriptures or songs—like a pastor. “I want to feed my congregation out of my own soul,” he says, “and to feed my soul by reading books of substance, depth, and richness.” Along similar lines, Getty adds, “There are lots of young guys trying to write songs, but it’s the responsibility of every pastor to feed his congregation a balanced diet and to oversee what is being sung.”

Watch the full 10-minute video to hear why great melodies are like great restaurants, how J. I. Packer’s Knowing God helps Getty write songs, and more. And look in September for the release of music from our 2013 National Conference in the new album Keith & Kristyn Getty Live at The Gospel Coalition.

Theology and Music from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Follow Our New Blog: TGC Worship

TGC Worship, a new blog from The Gospel Coalition, seeks to promote gospel-centered worship throughout the church by training and equipping leaders in the Word-shaped ministry of singing, songwriting, and service planning.

As described in TGC’s Theological Vision for Ministry, we believed gospel-centered ministry is characterized by empowered corporate worship. 

The gospel changes our relationship with God from one of hostility or slavish compliance to one of intimacy and joy. The core dynamic of gospel-centered ministry is therefore worship and fervent prayer. In corporate worship God’s people receive a special life-transforming sight of the worth and beauty of God, and then give back to God suitable expressions of his worth. At the heart of corporate worship is the ministry of the Word. Preaching should be expository (explaining the text of Scripture) and Christ-centered (expounding all biblical themes as climaxing in Christ and his work of salvation). Its ultimate goal, however, is not simply to teach but to lead the hearers to worship, individual and corporate, that strengthens their inner being to do the will of God.

While this statement focuses on preaching, the implications of robust gospel centrality surely do not end there. In the same way that preaching should be expository and Christ-centered, so should the rest of the congregational gathering. Christian worship is built upon, shaped by, and saturated with the Word of God. Our songs, prayers, and liturgies tell the world what we hold to be true. In all matters of faith, life, and practices (both liturgical and otherwise), we pray to be formed and informed by the perfect Word of God.

In Scripture we find examples that teach us about the rhythms of theocentric worship (Isaiah 6, Deuteronomy 5, 2 Chronicles 5-7, John 4, Romans 11-15, Revelation 4-21). Through the lens of the gospel, we learn to see congregational worship (preaching, singing, confession, prayer, Scripture reading, communion, baptism) not simply as a ritual, but as a regular opportunity to lift our eyes and see anew the glorious gospel of grace. This gospel enables true worship of God.

Role of the Worship Leader

But many churches don’t operate from a theological practice of worship because they are led by Christians who haven’t developed a theological conviction of worship. Many of our worship practices are influenced far greater by the voice of culture than by the Word of God. This is a critical time for the worship of the church to be biblical, theological, and pastoral.

The purpose of this effort is clearly stated in the new book Doxology and Theology:

One of the greatest needs of the modern church is theologically driven worship leaders. The church is starving for worship leaders who will teach them to sing about the great gospel of Christ in all its richness. This need for theologically driven worship leaders exists in large part because many believe that worship leadership and theological aptitude are mutually exclusive. Theology, they believe, is the occupation of pastors and professors, while worship is the business of church musicians and songwriters. So pastors and professors teach the truth and the worship leaders lead the singing. And because of this, our churches are limping along with people who do not understand that the greatest truths of the gospel have always been designed to cause the greatest praise.

In the midst of this confusion is a generation of worship leaders who are hungry to deepen their biblical understanding so that the people of God can recover gospel-saturated worship. They desire to think theologically, not just pragmatically. They want to know and understand the fullness of the role of the worship leader, not just how to lead three verses and a chorus. Furthermore, pastors and churches alike increasingly express a desire to be led by thoughtful worship leaders who understand the life-changing marriage between doxology and theology.

New TGC Worship Blog

To help further the conversation of gospel-centered worship, we are pleased to announce the launch of the TGC Worship blog. As church leaders and preaching pastors have found The Gospel Coalition to be a wealth of resources both theological and practical, the new TGC Worship blog seeks to equip all those entrusted with oversight of congregational worship. Ranging from topics of theology and philosophy to practical insights and songwriting, the goal of this blog is to equip and encourage leaders of worship to remain faithful to Scripture while engaging the culture with art to the glory of God.

Regular contributors to this new blog include:

  • Mike Cosper (Sojourn Community Church, Louisville, Kentucky)
  • Matt Papa (Summit Church, Raleigh, North Carolina)
  • Michael Bleecker (The Village Church, Flower Mound, Texas)
  • Aaron Ivey (Austin Stone, Austin, Texas)
  • Stephen Miller (The Journey, St. Louis, Missouri)
  • Andi Rozier (Harvest Bible Chapel, Rolling Meadows, Illinois)
  • Bob Kauflin (Sovereign Grace Music, Louisville, Kentucky)
  • Joe Crider (Southern Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky)
  • Ron Man (Worship Resources International, Memphis, Tennessee)
  • Kevin Twit (Indelible Grace Music, Nashville, Tennessee)

I will serve as editor of this multi-author blog that will also include many other voices in the worship conversation.

We pray that this blog glorifies God and serves local churches as together we continue in all humility and faithfulness to herald the good news of the gospel in both sermon and song. As this conversation of gospel-centered worship continues, we must realize it is truly only beginning. For those passionate about adding to the conversation, come and join in.

The Well Can’t Run Dry: Andrew Peterson on Plumbing the Depths of the Gospel

“If it’s true that Christ, the source of all beauty and creativity, is infinite, then the well can’t run dry,” Andrew Peterson writes in the introduction to his recent album, Light for the Lost Boy. ”It bubbles over and graces us with light and more light, world without end. What a joy it is to plumb those depths.”

I recently sat down with Andrew Peterson at Royal Redeemer Lutheran Church in Cleveland, Ohio, as he toured with Jason Gray on The Storytellers Tour. We discussed community, the creative process, finding joy in the gospel, and whether he and Eugene Peterson share ancient Viking blood. 

At the beginning of your recent album you quote J. R. R. Tolkien—”we all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of exile”—affirming both the beauty and brokenness of this world. What do you see as a danger of emphasizing only one of these realities in your music and the church in general? 

When I was young my intuition told me the world is a screwy place. And so whenever I encountered art that didn’t seem to acknowledge the brokenness of the world, I experienced it as dishonesty. It was short-selling the truth. So I tended not to give it the benefit of the doubt. If it didn’t have some darkness in it, then I would just assume it was shallow.  

There was also a time in high school when I was into too much darkness. And there is an old saying, though I can’t remember the source, that “if you look too long into the abyss, the abyss might look back.” There is a danger in dwelling too much on the darkness as well, because it’s not the entire truth either.

I am not sure that I am articulating the danger, except to say that either one is dishonest.

In terms of the church, there is a pastor in Missouri who introduced me to a number of people in his congregation who were victims of abuse, recovering drug addicts, and former gang members. It was a really diverse congregation filled with people with broken pasts, and I wept because they were so full of life and full of Christ. 

I asked the pastor how he ended up having these remarkable people in his congregation. And he said, “I was abused as a boy and always kept it a secret. And one day I felt the Holy Spirit convict me that I needed to share with others about my abuse, and I began telling my story from the pulpit.” Soon his church became known as the church you go to when you have a broken past. What a beautiful example of what we are talking about.

And that’s what I mean by acknowledging the brokenness—the kind of darkness this pastor acknowledges is within the context of the triumph of Christ. So as a Christian, I don’t have to be afraid. If I am telling my story in the context of hope and the gospel, there is no darkness we can walk into that the light will not conquer. So that allows me as a songwriter and storyteller to take a deep breath and then plunge in.

In the same introduction, you also highlight the influence of your friends in the creative process. For someone who views art and work as merely self-expression and doesn’t invite others into the creative process, how would you describe the effect of others in shaping and improving your work?    

I was recently talking to a friend about communion and how I’ve been craving the weekly celebration. I love going to church and regularly being confronted with the body and blood of Jesus. And my friend commented, “Can’t you just do that at home among your family if you are at a church that doesn’t serve it every Sunday?” And I guess you could, but it’s not as rich of an experience as when you are sitting in the community where you belong.

Christianity was never meant to be experienced in isolation. It requires community and interaction on an intimate level with human beings. Songwriting or art or work can’t be isolated from any other part of my Christian life—like taking communion. It’s all best experienced in community.

And I can’t overstate how much I have been wounded and then healed, how much I’ve experienced God’s pleasure and then God’s discipline, through the community to which I belong. I am not trying to say that you can’t be a great artist and still be a loner; I just don’t want to be one.

What would you say to someone—artist, pastor, or mom—who feels like the well has run dry? How do you stay surprised about the gospel and excited about telling it in creative ways?

On the way to the hotel today, our bass player, James, was looking through the trees, and he could see some dogwoods that were in bloom. And he started talking about how much more beautiful the dogwood tree is in the wild than when it’s in the front yard, because when it’s in the front yard it’s not under the canopy of the older trees. And there is something more fragile about seeing it in the context of a forest. And I had never thought about that before. Then we talked about what a blessing it is to be around people who help you to see better.

So I think community is one of the big answers here too. One of my dear friends, an older gentleman, recently came to me, seeing that I was getting exhausted from the constant demands of work, and said he wanted to enter into a kind of covenant with me for a season to walk together and have liturgies with each other. He said, “I am going to call you every Sunday afternoon, or you call me, and we are going to pray for each other and talk about where we are, and we are going to read the same psalm every day.” So every day I’ll get a text reminding me what psalm to read.

And when this mentor/friend shared this desire with me, I immediately said yes, because I want to shape the minutes of my day around the gospel of Jesus. I don’t want to just do ministry in the broad sense and justify other things because “I do kingdom work.” I can still be a jerk in the middle of day and I can lust, I can have selfish thoughts, and I can say biting things—and I want deal with these things too. I want to be someone guided even in the particulars with the gospel.   

And when we understand the gospel rightly we are free to experience this kind of discipline as a life-giving thing and not as legalism and death-giving. Whatever creative things God has in store for me must flow out of this first commitment to become more like Jesus.

Next I would tell someone to realize there are going to be seasons where you might not feel like you are making any progress. My son is an illustrator, and one thing that I remember when I was kid about drawing was that I could get so frustrated. The same thing happened to me with learning music. You can feel like you are spinning the wheels and not getting any better. If you are kind of audacious though and don’t quit, and you push and push, then one day without explanation there is a breakthrough and suddenly you can play the run you couldn’t play two weeks ago. I don’t know why it works that way, but I believe our spiritual lives are the same way. 

Finally, if you can interact with art in a meaningful and intentional way—that’s what wakes me up. It’s easy to put your iPod on shuffle and clean the kitchen without sitting down and really listening to a song. We lack focus. Stephen King says there is a gnome that lives in his basement and passes him pages up through the floor boards, and he has to feed the gnome well or he stops giving him pages. So I feed the gnome by watching good movies, reading great books, and being with friends.

On a lighter note—a friend of The Rabbit Room, Sally Lloyd-Jones once blogged about often being asked if she is related to THE Lloyd-Jones. Has anyone ever asked you if you are related to THE Peterson—Eugene Peterson?

That’s funny because I actually did a retreat with Eugene Peterson at Laity Lodge in Texas. I am not on his radar screen (not even U2 was on his radar screen); but it just happened that I was playing the music at this retreat where he was teaching. Anyway, we talked about our mutual Swedish heritage and not much more. Well, at Laity Lodge they have this bookstore with all these great theological books and whoever is speaking usually has their books displayed as well.  So Eugene had all his books out on display, and I had my fantasy novels out.  The people there were like, “How neat, Eugene’s son Andrew is a fantasy novelist.”

So we had to constantly explain that we weren’t related. And it felt so embarrassing if you can picture it—there’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction on one table next to On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness on another one. So that was the only time I’ve been asked, and the answer is no, we’re not related, except maybe to some mutual Viking back in the day.


Find information about Andrew’s upcoming concerts. For those in the United Kingdom, Andrew also recently announced a concert in conjunction with The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s expedition to the United Kingdom.

Now in Production: Songs for the Book of Luke

Several months ago, we made a call for entries for “Songs for the Book of Luke,” a project that coincides with The Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference’s focus on Luke’s Gospel. The goal of the project is to connect with songwriters, artists, and worship leaders, and to highlight their work here at TGC.

We were overwhelmed by the response. Nearly 200 submissions came in from musicians from across the country (and a few overseas), ranging from retuned hymns to Taize songs, modern hymns, and contemporary worship songs. We have seen a snapshot of the diversity in the culture of worship at local churches.

With a small selection committee, a list of songs has been assembled that will be made into “Songs for the Book of Luke,” a full-length studio album to be released this year (in time for the National Conference in Orlando).

Vision and Mission

The album itself reflects TGC’s vision and mission in three ways.

First, it embraces TGC’s vision for empowered corporate worship.

TGC’s theological vision for ministry says this about corporate worship:

The gospel changes our relationship with God from one of hostility or slavish compliance to one of intimacy and joy. The core dynamic of gospel-centered ministry is therefore worship and fervent prayer. In corporate worship God’s people receive a special life-transforming sight of the worth and beauty of God, and then give back to God suitable expressions of his worth. At the heart of corporate worship is the ministry of the Word. Preaching should be expository (explaining the text of Scripture) and Christ-centered (expounding all biblical themes as climaxing in Christ and his work of salvation). Its ultimate goal, however, is not simply to teach but to lead the hearers to worship, individual and corporate, that strengthens their inner being to do the will of God.

In making this album, we want to highlight efforts to write songs that draw richly from God’s Word, show Christ at the center of worship, and speak in a comprehensible way. I believe the songs that you’ll discover with us do all of these things well, albeit in different ways. Some of these songs are written for churches whose congregations are largely “post church”—new to the Bible and the language of Christianity. These songs explain things simply and avoid language that might be more dense. Others reflect congregations whose context is more biblically literate, or more highly educated.

Similarly, some songs are written for simple, bare-bones instrumentation, and others are written for contemporary music ministries with large bands and modern sounds. But all of them share a theological center; they are Word-driven, Christ-centered, congregational songs.

Second, it flows from TGC’s love for the local church.

The Gospel Coalition’s confessional statement says:

We believe that God’s new covenant people have already come to the heavenly Jerusalem; they are already seated with Christ in the heavenlies. This universal church is manifest in local churches of which Christ is the only Head; thus each “local church” is, in fact, the church, the household of God, the assembly of the living God, and the pillar and foundation of the truth. The church is the body of Christ, the apple of his eye, graven on his hands, and he has pledged himself to her forever. The church is distinguished by her gospel message, her sacred ordinances, her discipline, her great mission, and, above all, by her love for God, and by her members’ love for one another and for the world. . . . The church serves as a sign of God’s future new world when its members live for the service of one another and their neighbors, rather than for self-focus. The church is the corporate dwelling place of God’s Spirit, and the continuing witness to God in the world.

Everything about this record celebrates the local church. All of the musicians who will play and sing on the record regularly serve the congregations where they gather and worship each week. It’s also a celebration of the unity that happens when churches share a confessional commitment to the gospel. It’s surprisingly easy to get together and make music when there’s a common commitment to keep Christ at the center.

Too often, it’s assumed that the best music available for churches comes from Nashville and the Christian music industry. This album is an effort to point out some grassroots alternatives, all of which flow from local church contexts.

Third, it flows from TGC’s vision for the integration of faith and work.

TGC’s theological vision for ministry says this about the integration of faith and work:

The good news of the Bible is not only individual forgiveness but the renewal of the whole creation. God put humanity in the garden to cultivate the material world for his own glory and for the flourishing of nature and the human community. The Spirit of God not only converts individuals (e.g., John 16:8) but also renews and cultivates the face of the earth (e.g., Gen 1:2; Psalm 104:30). Therefore Christians glorify God not only through the ministry of the Word, but also through their vocations of agriculture, art, business, government, scholarship—all for God’s glory and the furtherance of the public good. Too many Christians have learned to seal off their faith-beliefs from the way they work in their vocation. The gospel is seen as a means of finding individual peace and not as the foundation of a worldview—a comprehensive interpretation of reality affecting all that we do. But we have a vision for a church that equips its people to think out the implications of the gospel on how we do carpentry, plumbing, data-entry, nursing, art, business, government, journalism, entertainment, and scholarship. Such a church will not only support Christians’ engagement with culture, but will also help them work with distinctiveness, excellence, and accountability in their trades and professions. Developing humane yet creative and excellent business environments out of our understanding of the gospel is part of the work of bringing a measure of healing to God’s creation in the power of the Spirit. Bringing Christian joy, hope, and truth to embodiment in the arts is also part of this work. We do all of this because the gospel of God leads us to it, even while we recognize that the ultimate restoration of all things awaits the personal and bodily return of our Lord Jesus Christ. (emphasis added)

This vision for faith and work certainly stretches far beyond the doors of the gathered church, but it also includes the way that we work and serve within those doors. Church musicians and pastors of worship are called to work in such a way that they glorify God and bless their neighbors. They’re called to work with integrity and excellence. Music as an art form and as a means of serving, blessing, and encouraging the body of Christ should be pursued and executed with an appropriate kind of excellence—one that includes the congregation, invites participation, and appropriately and emotively accompanies the texts we sing. We are called to make a joyful noise, and to do so with excellence, humility, and grace.

Gospel-Fueled Creativity

Our goal with this project is to make a record that expresses gospel-fueled and church-serving creativity. We don’t want to simply make a utilitarian record—we want to make something that is creative, beautiful, and engaging. We want to make a record that illustrates in some way what it looks like when the hearts of artists are stirred by the gospel and respond with passion, skill, and excellence.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll begin to introduce you to the songwriters and artists whose work will be represented on the record. As production wraps up, we’ll offer some previews, as well as charts, lead sheets, and simplified demos of the songs (demonstrating simple ways of singing the songs with your church or small group).

We hope this project is a blessing to the broader church. Most of all, we hope it’s catalytic and empowering to creatives at churches across the country who would seek to use the gifts God has given them to serve their congregations.

Why Posture Matters in Worship

Growing up, I was Michael Jordan’s biggest fan. I regularly wrote him to ask for his autograph and invite him to my birthday parties. I was convinced I would one day be great like him, so finally after much pleading, my parents sent me to basketball camp when I was a pre-teen.

I hated it. It was nothing but drills on proper free throw techniques. Coach would shout, “Bend your knees. Follow through. MILLER! BEND YOUR KNEES! FOLLOW THROUGH!” I was not a natural-born athlete, and it felt awkward. Eventually I realized that I would never be the next Air Jordan, but I did get to a point that shooting with the proper posture didn’t feel so uncomfortably awkward—it felt natural.

Posture matters.

When a young man meets a young woman that he wants to impress, he stands up straight, shoulders back, gut sucked in. He maintains eye contact and a smile. When he wants to propose, he gets down on one knee. When he has messed up royally and needs to apologize, it’s two knees. If someone points a gun at you, your hands rise in surrender. If your children want you to hold them or lavish affection on them, they raise their arms. At sporting events, when your team scores, you jump in the air, pump your fists, and shout as loudly as you can. When the ref makes a bad call, you throw your hands up in frustration and boo vigorously. Your heart is caught up in the experience of the moment, which causes your body to respond outwardly.

We were created as holistic beings with intellects, emotions, and bodies all working in concert with one another to express ourselves. Depending on the study, we learn that anywhere from 70 percent to 95 percent of communication is non-verbal. We say a lot about what we think and feel without uttering a single word.

Outward Expression, Inward Reality

Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2:8, “I desire then that in every place [people] should pray, lifting holy hands.” He is referring back to many passages in the Old Testament where people were encouraged to pray and worship using specific postures—in this instance, the raising of hands.

King David, the innovator of music in corporate worship, wrote hundreds of songs for the purpose of engaging the mind, heart, and body in worship. He understood that posture outwardly expresses an inward reality. Our body naturally acts the way our hearts feel. So we see encouragements throughout Scripture to bow humbly, raise hands joyfully, shout and sing loudly, clap hands, and even dance before the Lord. This must have felt awkward to the people of the day, who had never before seen anything like this.

Similarly, we have been shaped by our experiences and may be tempted to forego these postures to avoid feeling awkward or uncomfortable, saying, “That’s for other people. I was raised (whatever denomination), and we never did that.” In doing so, we do not realize how our posture is shaped by our heart. Outward expressiveness in corporate worship is not the only indicator of our delight in the Lord, but it can be a telling one.

God Wants All of Us

Still, worship posture does not mean the same thing in every context and congregation. In more traditional Western congregations, expressive worship of God may look like smiling as we loudly and fervently sing rich doctrinal truths and our hearts delight in him. In more contemporary contexts, we might raise our hands as we grow more fully consumed with adoration of God. We might bow before God as we become more fully immersed in a deep sense of humble, reverential awe.

Yet no matter the context, as we experience the inward heart reality of worshiping God with all we are, our bodies reveal our heart’s condition. That is why God wants more than for us to go through the outward motions without actually worshiping. The fruit of our outward expressiveness reveals the root of our hearts.

Certainly there are moments when we should stand still in silence before the Lord—that in itself is a posture of worship. However, if we consistently find ourselves in corporate worship with our arms folded, mouthing the words with a blank, glazed over or bored look on our face, this posture indicates we may not be experiencing an inward heart of adoration, wonder, and awe that is characteristic of true, spiritual worship. But rather than forcing our hands in the air, we should ask God to draw us nearer to him and seek how he desires to be worshiped. We should plead with him to captivate our hearts and reveal any sin that might be keeping us from seeing and savoring him with all we are.

God wants our hearts, not just our fake smiles, arms raised or our knees bent. He wants more than just our shouts or our songs. He wants more than just our theological intellects. He wants all of us.