There’s something I’ve noticed in the 10 years since my slow drift away from the contemporary worship movement began. When I walk into a contemporary church service, or accidentally find a CCM radio station, I almost never know any of the songs anymore.
The songs of 10 years ago (even many of two years ago) have been almost entirely replaced.
I am not trying to rehash the worship wars, and I’m not an anti-CCM guy. For much of my life, I was on the front lines, armed with my Epiphone SG and my 120-watt Fender amp that could blow your hair off if I cranked it all the way up. I spent most of my late teens and early 20s filling church basements and semi-abandoned buildings with a loud and joyful (if not always in tune) noise, before, like many of the other DIY worship warriors my age, finally refining my sound and taking to the bright lights and slick 75-minute productions of megachurch style contemporary worship services.
I still think there’s something beautiful about fresh new expressions of faith, However, as the music of last year quickly gets replaced by the new songs of this month, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s all happening too fast.
There’s nothing wrong with new songs, but in a world in which most Christians (including myself) have memorized embarrassingly more song lyrics than Scripture verses, I wonder if the ever-accelerating rotation is contributing to the disconnection so many Christians have from the historic roots of the faith.
It’s not just the songs. For most of us, the Bible verses we do know are little more than just snippets — easy to take out of context, easy for bad actors to misuse, propping up one ideology or another. And in a day when many Christians understand their faith through song lyrics, social media and their favorite TV news personalities, it’s a recipe for what Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, called building your house on a foundation of sand.
“It’s a recipe for what Jesus called building your house on a foundation of sand.”
There is a measurable spiritual amnesia among many American people of faith. It’s not just that we don’t know the old hymns, or the teachings of the church fathers and mothers, the reformers, the pietists or the revivalists anymore; in many ways, we are losing touch with what Christians believed just a few decades or even a few years ago.
And worse yet, we’ve reached the tipping point, where many have forgotten the teachings of Christ himself, replacing them with Reformed theology, biblical manhood, conservatism, biblical inerrancy or whatever movement happens to have caught our attention.
Last month, Zach W. Lambert, pastor of Restore Austin, a well-known modern-worship-driven LGBTQ-affirming church, tweeted, “You only love God as much as you love your neighbor … all of them.”
“In tweeting very nearly the exact words of Christ, Lambert was accused of being unbiblical.”
It was an obvious reference to Matthew 25:40. No commentary, not really any interpretation or contextualization, just the teachings of Christ, reworded for emphasis. As expected, the critics pushed back, but the argument leveled against Lambert was head scratching to say the least. In tweeting very nearly the exact words of Christ, Lambert was accused of being unbiblical.
As Nebraska Mennonite Pastor Tim Amor tweeted a few days later, “At this point you can directly quote Jesus and be accused of preaching a false gospel.”
How did we get to this point where the words of Christ are now considered unbiblical?
This disconnect also is showing up in polls. A 2011 PRRI/Brookings Institution poll found only 30% of white evangelicals affirmed that elected officials “could be trusted to behave ethically even if they have committed transgressions in their personal lives.” By 2016, a new poll showed the number had jumped to 72% of white evangelicals who are wiling to overlook ethical lapses in elected officials.
With the recent emerging prevalence of the term and varied wordings of poll questions on the subject, thoughts on Christian nationalism are still a bit harder to track, but signs are pointing to the same kind of spiritual amnesia. As of February 2023, a PRRI/Brookings poll classified 64% of white evangelicals as either Christian nationalist “adherents” or “sympathizers” based on their answers to five questions.
Back to the anecdotal, I am only 44 years old, but I’m old enough to remember many older, very conservative pastors preaching against the “American Dream” and condemning the stock market. Twenty years ago, I remember evangelicals being uneasy about some of the hardline conservative positions on immigration. But now xenophobia and unrestrained greed have risen to the level of immutable Christian doctrine for some.
“Xenophobia and unrestrained greed have risen to the level of immutable Christian doctrine for some.”
Even toxic masculinity has evolved. In the 1990s, Promise Keepers was far from an egalitarian organization. However, can you imagine Coach McCartney riding a tank through deafening pyrotechnic explosions, crushing cars beneath him while shooting off assault rifles from each hand like the recent display at the Stronger Men’s Conference in Springfield, Mo.?
This brings me back to music. With the constant barrage of songs about God “fighting my battles,” “giving me victory over my enemies,” and being “for me not against me,” is it any wonder Jesus is beginning to look more like Rambo than “the lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world?”
Christians across political and denominational spectrums run the risk of falling for foundations of sand like these, but it is harder to lose touch in liturgical traditions. Episcopalians prayed for Donald Trump in 2020, pray for Joe Biden right now, and will pray for whoever wins in 2024 because the liturgy directs them to. They will continue praying for the poor and reciting the words of the Hebrew prophets against greed and unjust gain because the Lectionary doesn’t edit the words of Scripture to fit an agenda.
In my former life as an SBC pastor, I remember being asked why I hardly ever preached on “homosexuality.” I preached through books passage by passage at the time, and all I could say is, “it just hardly ever comes up.” I wonder how many times some of the SBC pastors I used to know have preached on transgender identity in the past year. A simple consultation with the Lectionary could help prevent this kind of malpractice.
Spending some time with the great theologians from whom we inherited our spiritual legacy — even a look at Billy Graham or John Newton — could help prevent this. A few more nods to the time-tested songs of faith on Sunday in the place of the latest “battle” song could have quelled the urge to take up arms in the culture war.
There’s something beautiful about fresh, new expressions of faith emerging from the community of the faithful, but if we have nothing tying us to the great legacy of faith we’ve inherited, we are building our houses on a foundation of sand.
Whether it’s old songs, ancient liturgy, or even the balance the lectionary can bring, evangelicals desperately need to find a way to dispense with the religion of this age and reengage with the legacy of faith passed down to us.
Jason Koon is an ordained Baptist minister who writes at the intersection of faith and politics. He lives in Western North Carolina with his wife and two teenage daughters. His “Almost Ex-evangelical” blog is at www.jason-koon.com.
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