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This past weekend, my teenaged daughter and I attended the Uprise Festival in Shippensburg, PA. Uprise is a gathering of some of today’s leading contemporary Christian bands. Friday and Saturday featured concerts by some of our favorite artists—Hawk Nelson, Blanca, Skillet, For King and Country, the Newsboys, and the pièce de resistance, Toby Mac. We set up our chairs and umbrellas on the side of a hill overlooking the huge mainstage and spent both days jamming, scarfing down food of questionable nutritional value, and shopping in the merchandise area.
When gushing about the weekend to a student of mine, she looked at me quizzically. “What?” I asked.
“I guess I’m just surprised you’d go to a concert like that, and even enjoy it,” she said, shrugging.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because…because you’re a musician,” she answered.
The thing is, a few years ago, she would’ve probably been correct. As an operatically-trained singer and lover of classical music, I will openly own it: I used to be a music snob. That snobbery had gradually worked its way into my thoughts about music’s place in worship, and I had always been convinced that “Lift High the Cross” and Bach, were the way to go to “Sing to the LORD a new song ” [ Psalm 96:1 ] (or should I say, “Sing the BEST, HIGHEST QUALITY song to the Lord”). Luckily, God can take our most deep-seated convictions and turn them upside down.
A few years ago, my kids’ youth group went to take part in a youth night at our local Christian radio station. Since I knew they would be on-air, I listened to what they were doing. I made a jaw-dropping discovery that night—I loved it. I heard my first Toby Mac song that night, and immediately became obsessed with contemporary Christian music. It was no longer “cheesy” sounding to me, lacking in form, melodic interest, or textual depth. Instead, the words were saying exactly what I needed and wanted to hear, and there was a groove. Something had breathed in my ear and my heart and sparked alive something in me that I never knew existed. I began to listen to contemporary Christian music every day, whether in the car or on my iPod.
What I appreciate about contemporary Christian music is that the songs have meaning and a message, unlike much of mainstream pop music of today. I realize that a few artists have been socially or religiously awakened by the 2016 election, which is hopeful to see; I have yet to really hear this in the majority of our current Billboard Charts artists, however. With the myriad of subjects available—climate change, racial inequality, poverty, healthcare issues, the plight of common folks in the “Rust Belt”—why are the main themes of songs on the Top-10 radio about partying or hooking up in a club? This is why I find some hope in contemporary Christian music. I finally hear songs that I can dance to while hearing lyrics that deal with optimism for the future, staying faithful, owning your flaws, and seeking truth.
I also enjoyed hearing different band members discuss some of the recent struggles they have encountered and how their music helps them deal with and process the negative influences in their own lives. Sometimes, I almost felt as if I were in church hearing a sermon. The most memorable of these moments happened during the Newsboys concert. Lead singer, Michael Tait, was chatting with the crowd between songs and made an astute observation. He said, “It seems some Christians nowadays are very busy hating the sins of others.” The simple truth of this statement is what makes it so elegant; grace usually is. It has the ring of something Jesus would have said to his disciples, or perhaps even to the Pharisees. As Jesus said, it sure is hard pointing at the splinter in your friend’s eye when that two-by-four in your own eye keeps swiping everyone around you. We must stop fixating on sins and trying to set them up in some form of a tiered system, especially if that tiered system benefits us above others.
Seeing the healing and uniting power of music is an amazing thing. Looking around the crowd, I saw so many different faces and skin colors—some folks with ear gauges, some with tattoos, some wearing revealing clothing, some wearing conservative clothing. Just people, who for a moment, forgot how they shouldn’t get along with one another, but who were able to unite their voices together in the Newsboys’ anthem “God is not dead, He’s surely alive, He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion…”