Archive for the ‘Christian Music’ Category

The Swedish pop group ABBA had a career that roughly paralleled the seven-and-a-half years that I was a youth pastor.

I was never crazy about their outfits … didn’t know the two female vocalists were each married to a different male vocalist … and wasn’t aware of their history or histrionics.

But regardless, songs like “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “Take a Chance on Me,” “Super Trouper” and even “Mamma Mia” are superb songs.

And for me, music isn’t about an artist’s lifestyle or love life.  It’s about the songs … and if a song is great, I don’t care who sings it.

In times past, some Christians have divided music into sacred music (songs to and about God) and secular music (songs about life and/or love, but not God).

I suppose I once thought that way, but as I’ve gotten older, I find that I only recognize two categories of music: good music and bad music.

A non-Christian can write and perform a good song, while a Christian can write and perform a bad song.  It’s not about the faith of the artist … it’s about the song itself.

And when an artist compiles a collection of great songs, they’ve put out a classic album.

Two weeks ago, I presented five secular albums that I think many Christians would like:


Among secular artists, here are five more albums that I believe Christians can enjoy:

Mary Black: Babes in the Wood

Mary Black is one of the foremost female vocalists that Ireland has produced over the past thirty or so years … and maybe the very best.  She’s not a songwriter, but an interpreter of songs.

I first was exposed to her music when I was searching online for songs by The Corrs and someone had mistakenly labeled “Song for Ireland” by The Corrs … but Mary Black was the one who sang it.

If you love Ireland or Irish music, and you aren’t familiar with this song, I encourage you to find it and listen to it.  It’s incredible!

There is a spiritual sense to some of her music, especially on this album, where the first two songs – “Still Believing” and “Bright Blue Rose,” set the tone.  The latter song ends with these lyrics:

One bright blue rose outlives all those

Two thousand years and still it goes

To ponder His death and His life eternally

I bought all of Mary’s albums used from Amazon, and some came very cheaply.  Then I discovered that if you buy music from her website, she will sign what you buy for free if you ask.  I bought two items and ended up with three signatures!

As I’m getting older, I’m looking for artists who are talented but sing about things that I can relate to, and Mary Black’s music fits the bill.  I encourage you to check out her music!

Ray Davies: The Kinks Choral Collection

The Kinks are the most British of all British Invasion groups.  I was never a big fan, but sometime last year, I read a review of The Kinks Anthology: 1964-1971 in, of all places, World magazine (an evangelical Christian print/online magazine).

I started poking around some of The Kinks’ music online, and found myself thoroughly enjoying much of it.  Ray Davies – chief songwriter and vocalist – writes witty observations about life.  Sometimes the music is on the raunchy side (remember “Lola?”), but most of the time, The Kinks’ songs provide insight and perspective on everyday life experiences.

The Kinks Choral Collection consists of many of the band’s most famous songs.  Ray Davies does all the lead vocals, but this time, he’s backed by The Crouch End Festival Chorus … and most of the time, it works.

The album contains songs like “Celluloid Heroes,” which is my favorite Kinks’ song, and one I played for my mother-in-law a few years back.  (She loved it.)  It also includes “Waterloo Sunset,” named the 42nd greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone, as well as “You Really Got Me” and new song “Postcard from London,” a nostalgic look back at the City on The Thames featuring a duet with Chrissie Hynde.

Roughly half the songs come from one of the best albums you’ve never heard: The Village Green Preservation Society, an album that came out on the same November day in 1968 as The Beatles’ White Album.  Rated 5 stars by The All Music Guide, Davies and company look back at the England of their childhood with sympathetic portraits of fascinating people.

Although he doesn’t claim to be a Christian, a lot of songs on this album sound like hymns, such as “Village Green,” which contains this lyric:

I miss the Village Green

And all the simple people

I miss the Village Green

The church, the clock, the steeple

I miss the morning dew

Fresh air and Sunday School

The Kinks aren’t for everybody, but almost anyone can listen to and enjoy this album.  It’s a lot of fun.

Neil Young: Comes a Time; Harvest Moon; Prairie Wind; Silver and Gold

Harvest Moon

Neil Young can rock out as hard as anybody, which is why many people consider him to be the godfather of grunge.

But out of all the music I own, nobody does slow, thoughtful, and simple acoustic music better than Neil Young … so much so that I have an entire playlist devoted to his acoustic songs.

I’m sure the critics can distinguish between these albums – done nearly thirty years apart – but for me, the songs all blend together, which is why I didn’t choose one album above the others.

Memorable songs include “Four Strong Winds” (a song by Canadians Ian and Sylvia from the mid-1960s), “One of These Days,” “Buffalo Springfield Again,” and surprisingly, “When God Made Me,” which again, sounds like a hymn.  Some of the best songs from these albums were done on the DVD “Heart of Gold” which is a top-notch concert from the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

Neil Young is intentionally unpredictable, which is part of his charm, but if you want some great background music while you’re working or driving, any or all of these albums will work.

Paul McCartney: Back in the U.S. Live 2002

Back in early 2002, Paul McCartney announced that he was going out on tour … his first one in many years … and opening night was just ten minutes from my house.

I thought it unlikely that I could buy tickets, especially because they were going on sale Sunday at 10 am, and you had to call the ticket outlet on the phone … and, of course, I had something else to do during that time.

But my wife got sick and had to stay home from church, and she called at precisely the right time, because when I came home from church, she had purchased three tickets to the concert.  When the show started, I broke into tears because I never dreamed I’d be able to see Paul McCartney in concert.

Paul McCartney is my favorite singer for many reasons, but one is that I can actually sing along to most of his songs.  I’ve now seen him in concert three times and he puts on a phenomenal show.

This album, in my view, has his best selection of live songs, including the song he wrote after 9/11 called “Freedom,” which begins this way:

This is my right

A right given by God

To live a free life

To live in freedom

I remember when many adults and most Christians hated The Beatles, and now everybody seems to love them.  Whatever one thinks about their beliefs or lifestyles or influence, their songs will live on long after the last two remaining Beatles are gone.

Bob Dylan: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006

In my view, Bob Dylan is the greatest songwriter of the twentieth century.  He broke all the rules for songwriting in the mid-1960s and is incredibly prolific.  I have more albums by him than by any other artist.

One of my best friends is a pastor and quotes Dylan often in his sermons, and every time he does, I smile because my friend first introduced me to Dylan nearly 50 years ago.

I know, I know … some people can’t stand Dylan’s voice … but nobody sings Dylan like Dylan, and it doesn’t take that long to become accustomed to his style.

Dylan hasn’t officially put out a lot of his best stuff, so Columbia started the Bootleg series in 1998 to clean up the sound from many of his unreleased or live recordings … and to put some bootleggers out of business.

When this album came out in 2008, I listened to it repeatedly.  It has alternate versions of already released songs like “Mississippi” and “Dignity” as well as a smattering of never released songs.

The best song on the album is the last one, the incomparable “Cross the Green Mountain,” a song about the Civil War sang by one of its participants.  It’s one of the most powerful, raw, and brooding songs I’ve ever heard, and you’ll never forget it if you hear it, either.  Just a masterpiece.

I could include many additional albums, but these readily came to mind … and if you noticed, I tend to prefer artists who are roughly my age because we’ve had similar life experiences.

Thanks for letting me indulge my passion for music!

More about pastors and conflict next time.





Read Full Post »

I grew up in a fundamentalist subculture … both at home and at church … and it affected the way I viewed popular culture.

I didn’t see my first film in a movie theater until I was 19 years old, and even then, it was a Billy Graham film.

While we were allowed to watch Shirley Temple movies on television, the children of the fundamentalist pastor two houses down weren’t even allowed to watch those!

Even though I’ve always loved music, I didn’t listen to the radio on a regular basis until I was 14.  The year happened to be 1968 … a great, great year for music!

I’ve never forgotten how I felt when I heard those first few songs on the radio: “Jennifer Juniper” by Donovan; “Love is All Around” by The Troggs; “A Beautiful Morning” by the Rascals; “Lady Madonna” by The Beatles; and “Everything That Touches You” by The Association, to name just a few.

And when I went to Hume Lake Christian Camp for the first time that summer, somebody smuggled in a radio, and all week long, we heard songs like “Indian Lake” by The Cowsills; “Tuesday Afternoon” by The Moody Blues; “MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris; “Sky Pilot” by The Animals (a song about a military chaplain in Vietnam); and “This Guy’s in Love with You” by Herb Alpert.

But when we went back to church, we heard that all music on the radio was subversive, unchristian, and even evil, even though there wasn’t any contemporary Christian music at the time (unless it was sanitized folk).

Most Christian kids didn’t pay any attention to the warnings, although I started the habit of listening carefully to every song lyric and avoiding those songs which had lyrics that made me uncomfortable for spiritual or moral reasons.

Over the years, I have acquired a fair amount of vinyl albums (all gone now, including one signed by Johnny Cash) … cassettes (stuck in storage) … CDs (my wife bought my first one in 1991) … and mp3s.

I listen to all kinds of music: classical (especially Bach) … gospel (especially Johnny Cash but including George Beverly Shea) … Contemporary Christian (I love Delirious, Phil Keaggy, Twila Paris, Carolyn Arends and Kim Hill) … and yes, even secular music.

These are my guidelines for selecting secular music:

*I want the artists I hear to have lived reasonably good lives.  Most secular artists have failed morally at times … sometimes very publicly … but some have also done a lot of good (like U2).  Many of my favorite artists, like Bono and Justin Hayward (from the Moody Blues), have been married for decades.

*I want the music I hear to be 90% safe.  Most secular artists slip in songs or phrases that don’t reflect my values, but one objectionable song on a 15-song CD isn’t going to ruin the other 14 songs for me.  I just delete those songs on iTunes.  I evaluate an artist as a whole, not just based on one or two songs.

*I want to hear music that makes me think, gives me a different perspective, or makes me a better believer.  For example, I believe I’m a better person for having listened to U2 and Bob Dylan over the years.  Both have heightened my social conscience.

*I want to see my favorite artists in concert and to feel good about being there.  Over the past several years, I’ve seen Paul McCartney, U2, Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Justin Hayward, and next month, I’m going to see ELO at The Hollywood Bowl (and sit on benches at the very back).  I’m always amused by the fact that although some Christians only listen to Christian music, the Christian artists they listen to hear and appreciate many secular artists!  (For example, did you know that MercyMe did a cover of Tom Petty’s song “I Won’t Back Down?”)

If you’re interested in any of these albums or artists, I suggest you listen to their songs on iTunes or Amazon before you buy anything.

Having said all that, these are five very good secular albums that I think are safe for Christians … and in no particular order:

Someday by Susanna Hoffs

Susanna Hoffs is the former/sometimes lead vocalist of The Bangles, an all-girl band from the 1980s that played music rooted in the 1960s.  This CD came out four years ago when I was in New Hampshire, and I listened to it practically every day for weeks.  The ten songs on this album are relatively brief, but they have great melodies, wonderful arrangements, heartfelt lyrics … and hearken back to the Sixties.  I have never tired of this album.

Hymns to the Silence by Van Morrison

Hymns to the Silence

Many people only know Van Morrison for his song “Brown-Eyed Girl” from 1967, but he has an incredibly rich catalogue of beautiful, complex music dating back more than 50 years.  I bought this album in 1991 after a glowing review in Time that contained a quote from Bruce Springsteen that said that Van’s music was “way too spiritual.”  This double album – only $9.99 on Amazon or iTunes – contains “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “Be Thou My Vision,” and a song called “By His Grace,” as well as Van-rants like “I’m Not Feeling It Anymore” and “Why Must I Always Explain.”

Although he’s dabbled in various faiths at times, there’s a Christian undercurrent in much of his music (especially in songs like “Whenever God Shines His Light”) and even Phil Keaggy covered Van’s song “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God.”  If you like this album, try Down the Road and Magic Time as well.  I took my wife to a Van concert more than twenty years ago, and his booming voice filled the auditorium.  Van definitely marches to his own drummer, but when he’s good, he puts out some of the most beautiful music you will ever hear.

Home by The Corrs

The Corrs are a sibling-only band from Ireland.  They write their own songs and sing and play on their albums, and usually have a Celtic/pop sound all their own.  This CD … their last for ten years until last November’s White Light … is a collection of traditional Irish tunes with both traditional and contemporary arrangements.  The Corrs are better known in Europe and the rest of the world than in the United States … although I hear their songs in public places all the time … possibly because they aren’t wild or vulgar and have a sense of decency about them.  (I once stayed after a Phil Keaggy concert at a church and the roadies played their album Talk On Corners while cleaning up.)  This is one of the albums I play whenever I need to relax because it’s so soothing.

Spirits of the Western Sky by Justin Hayward

Spirits Of The Western Sky

I like haunting music, and Justin Hayward has mastered the genre.  His compositions like “Nights in White Satin” and “New Horizons” still send shivers up my spine.  My wife and I recently saw him in concert and his voice still holds up fifty years after he began with The Moody Blues.  While The Moodies tour America every year, they don’t plan on putting out any more albums, but thankfully, Justin Hayward put this terrific one out early in 2013.

Many years ago, I read that the Moodies’ bass player/vocalist John Lodge is a Christian, and I recently stumbled upon a ten-year-old interview where journalist Paul Du Noyer asked Justin Hayward, “And where has this search brought Justin Hayward in 2006?”  Hayward replied, “I would have to say Christianity.  I came from a family with a very strong faith, I moved away through all sorts of Eastern religions, through meditation, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, anything else.  It was reading C.S. Lewis, books like Mere Christianity, that helped me to define what I really felt and finally decide.  So I came full circle.”

Justin Hayward doesn’t make any overtly Christian statements in his music, and if he did, his career would be marginalized and his audience might dwindle significantly.  I do love the Moodies’ Christmas album December – even though it’s 13 years old – because it’s held up very well over time, but again, there are no overtly Christian statements in the songs.  But this album is full of great music – mostly featuring acoustic guitars – and you just might like it.

How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb by U2

I once read a journalist who claimed that U2 was too secular for Christians and too Christian for secularists.  U2 writes and sings their songs in parables: if you’re a Christian, you get it, but if you’re not, you can enjoy the music anyway.

Although I love much of their music … “One” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” are two of my all-time favorite songs … U2 occasionally disappoints me lyrically … but not on this CD.

When this album came out in 2004 – and it won a host of Grammy awards, including Album of the Year – I bought a bunch of them and gave them away.  But although U2 can compose and sing a prayer like “Yahweh” … the song that ends the album … they can also indict Christian churches on a song like “Crumbs From Your Table” and wonder what’s beyond this life in “One Step Closer.”

Although Bono and other members of the band are Christians, their songs are difficult to do in church because they often question faith rather than affirm it.  Bono loves the Psalms and wishes that Christian writers today would compose more authentic lyrics … as do I … but it’s hard to sing the lyrics to “Vertigo” on a Sunday morning, even though the songs ends with, “Your love is teaching me how to kneel.”

My favorite lyric on this album is from the hard-rocking song “Love and Peace or Else” where Bono sings, “As you enter this life, I pray you depart, with a wrinkled face, and a brand new heart.”  Christian references abound on this album, but it’s not packaged like the typical CCM stuff.

U2 toured behind this album in 2005, and several weeks before my birthday, my wife asked me what I wanted, and I told her, “I just want to see U2 in concert.”  Fortunately, they were playing ten minutes from our house, and she went online and bought tickets.  We sat behind the band … off to the side … and the large letters on the back of Bono’s jacket spelled out SINNER … a reminder that even when the audience is wildly applauding the singer, he knows who he really is.

I will recommend five more albums next time … and would love to hear about your favorites as well!



Read Full Post »

The last two Sundays, I’ve attended two different worship services in two different locales.

I loved the first service.  But I almost walked out of the second one.

Two Sundays ago, my wife and I attended a service at our daughter’s medium-sized Bible church in Northern California.

Then last Sunday, I attended the second service at our “home” church in Southern California … a Calvary Chapel.

The worship times at both churches were vastly different.

I have to admit, I struggle through most “worship times” these days … and I especially struggle with many of the lyrics to the praise and worship songs.

Last Sunday, the worship leader told us that his daughter requested the next song we were going to sing … a song called “God’s Great Dance Floor.”

Along with another guy, Martin Smith and Chris Tomlin co-wrote the song.

I love Martin Smith.  I’ve been to a Delirious? concert.  I have all their CDs … and bought the CD God’s Great Dance Floor the day it was released.

I’ve been to a Chris Tomlin concert, too.

So I already like these guys … I just don’t like the song.  It belongs in a concert hall … not a worship service.

The chorus goes: “I feel alive/I come alive/I am alive on God’s great dance floor”

I’m sure those lyrics are deeply spiritual, but their meaning is lost on me … and I’ve never figured out what “God’s Great Dance Floor” refers to, anyway.

After that song was mercifully over, the worship leader prayed and said, “God, when we’re dancing with you, I know that you’re right there dancing with us.”

What does that mean?

Then we sang a song I’d never heard called “Wildfire”:

“In the furnace of my soul/fan the flame and take control/like a wildfire, wildfire … You’re a wildfire, wildfire”


I assume the song is referring to the Holy Spirit, but I’m reluctant to call Him a “wildfire.”

Right now in Northern California, wildfires are burning out of control, destroying homes and property … leaving people displaced … harming entire communities … and as of this writing, have killed five people.

Is the Holy Spirit really a wildfire … destroying everything in His path?

I find this to be a disturbing metaphor.

This hits close to home because we have a friend who’s a fireman who sometimes has to fight those wildfires.

Oh, God, forgive me … I’m thinking too much when I’m supposed to be shutting down my mind.

I’m not down on those songs or the people who wrote them.  I just think there are far more appropriate songs we could sing in a worship service.

This reminds me of the following story told by the late Chuck Colson:

“We’d been led through endless repetitions of a meaningless ditty called ‘Draw Me Close to You,’ which has zero theological content and could just as easily be sung in any nightclub. When I thought it was finally and mercifully over, the music leader beamed. ‘Let’s sing that again, shall we?’ he asked. ‘No!’ I shouted, loudly enough to send heads all around me spinning while my wife, Patty, cringed.”

By contrast, the lyrics at my daughter’s church were intelligent … and even elegant.

In fact, they didn’t sound like tossed off little ditties, but were songs of substance … filled with solid theology and meaningful lyrics.

My wife and I both wept during the worship time.  I didn’t want it to stop.

In fact, if the church wasn’t 500 miles away, I’d visit again this next Sunday.

Ten years ago, I attended a seminar on worship music led by one of America’s top worship leaders.

He told us that he submitted a list of songs to the senior pastor (I won’t tell you his name, but his initials are RW) every week for approval … and that the previous week, the pastor had put a big “X” across all the songs and wrote in the ones he wanted to be sung.

Maybe when the pastor is ultimately in charge of the “worship time” … and can veto certain songs or select his own choices … the lyrics will hopefully be more biblical and intelligent.

I’m reminded of Paul’s words on speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:18-19:

I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.  But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

If, as some believe, Paul is contrasting tongue-speaking in personal devotions with tongue-speaking in a public worship service, he’s at least making this point: the words used in a worship service must be intelligible.

I love the Lord.  I love music.  I love worship times.

But right now, I’m tempted to put a big “X” through the first thirty minutes of the service … and yes, I’m seriously considering looking for a new church home … because I just can’t sing about dance floors and wildfires a second time.

In fact, isn’t biblical worship about far more than just music?

Can’t we have a personal testimony every once in a while … or is God only working in the lives of the worship leader and lead pastor?

Can’t we have an element on occasion that makes us think … like a reading from Max Lucado or J.I. Packer or R.C. Sproul?

Can’t we turn loose some creativity and periodically show a meaningful video produced by people from the church?

Can’t we let one or two people with gifted voices sing a performance song with thought-provoking lyrics?

Why do we always have to sing for 30 minutes before the sermon?

Who made that rule?

I think I know.  Maybe someday I’ll tell you.

Read Full Post »

I love music.

My mom tells me that when I was two years old, I would sing at the top of my lungs while she pushed me around Safeway in a grocery cart.

I had a little phonograph, and I would listen to my records over and over … like “Romper Room Do Bee” or “Punchy the Clown” or “How Much is That Doggy in the Window?”

Even now … while I’m writing this article … Bach is playing gently in the background.

But when I attend worship services at my church, I don’t always sing … and from looking around, I can tell that many people feel just like me.

Why do so many Christians NOT sing in church?

Should we automatically conclude that they aren’t spiritual?

Let me speak for myself:

First, I don’t always feel like singing.  I’ve always been someone who believes that you don’t wait for positive feelings and then do something … you do the right thing and then positive feelings will follow.

When I was a pastor, I didn’t always feel like singing during worship … but I did.

But now that I’m not a pastor, people aren’t taking their cues from me … and I find that both refreshing and liberating.

After experiencing traumatic events at the hands of professing Christians several years ago, it was a struggle for me just to attend a worship service for months.

When I finally found a seat, I didn’t want to stand up … or clap my hands … or sing loudly.

My heart had been broken.  When I tried to sing, all I could do was utter soft, muffled sounds.

My guess is that scores of people want to sing during worship time, but their hearts have been broken, too … and they just don’t feel like it.

Can we cut them some slack?

I think of the final words to the song “The Sound of Music: “My heart will be blessed with the sound of music, and I’ll sing once more.”

Those whose hearts are broken may very well sing again if we just let God heal their hearts first.

Second, I can’t sing certain phrases or songs.  Some worship songs are written as love songs to the Lord, and I’m uncomfortable with them.

For example, I cringe every time we used to sing “Draw Me Close to You.”  As a guy, I don’t like singing about “the warmth of your embrace” to Jesus … and I am not alone.

I was recently in a service where we were asked to sing a song that, in my view, was poorly written and not conducive to worship.  I would have felt silly singing that song … so I didn’t sing it at all.

Remember the old hymn “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?”  It’s a classic … but the phrase “emptied himself of all but love” (referring to Jesus’ incarnation) is theologically unsound … so I always hummed over those words rather than sing them.

I’m not trying to be critical, but to sing with integrity, and that means there are some phrases … and songs … that I just can’t sing.

Third, singing wears me out.  While I sang in Boy’s Glee Club for a few years in Jr. High, I am not a trained singer.  Even though I’ll listen to hours of music during the week, I rarely sing along … and if I do, it’ll be just a few bars.

For 167 hours every week, I don’t sing … and then I come to church, where the congregation is asked to sing 4 or 5 or 6 songs.

The people on the stage love to sing … that’s why they’re up there.  I admire their ability and enthusiasm.

But I don’t want to sing 6 songs during worship.  3 is optimal … and 4 is stretching it.

So after 3 or 4 songs, I’m done.  My throat is starting to hurt … I don’t feel like clapping anymore … and I’d like to sit down.

I love the Lord, and I love to worship Him, so I don’t think I’m being unspiritual.

But I’m human, and I have limits … and so do others.

So if you see me sitting down or not singing, it’s not a protest … I’m conserving my energy so I can listen to the sermon.

Finally, I’d rather listen to others play and sing than to sing myself.  That’s what happened at our church yesterday.  I chose to be silent and focus on the words rather than sing them myself.

The best church services I’ve ever attended were at Bay Horizons Church in Silicon Valley during the 1990s.  We’d sing two worship songs at the beginning of the service and then have two performance songs later on … usually ending with one more worship song at the end of the service.

For me, that was the optimal use of music during worship.  Because we started with just two worship songs, I could sing with my entire being, knowing that was all that would be asked of me.

And then I could sit back and listen to gifted musicians back a gifted vocalist with a song that would almost always touch my heart.

This approach is certainly biblical.  The Psalms were the hymnbook of ancient Israel, and many of them were written in the first person, while others were meant to be sung by a congregation.

I know the trend today is for the congregation to sing and for gifted vocalists to sing only on the worship team.

But as I’ve written before, I’d remember those performance songs months or years later … and I would always look forward to them.

In their book Setting Your Church Free, Neil Anderson and Charles Mylander write:

“Why do some people never sing in church – not even a joyful noise?  Some, of course, have perfectly normal reasons.  They may not know the words or the tune, or some may be tone deaf or feel socially inhibited.  But others are being spiritually inhibited from singing hymns and choruses of praise to God. . . . The evil one does not like praise music.  David played the harp and the evil spirit departed from Saul.”

I love my Savior Jesus and Christian music, but I don’t always want to sing.  Does that make me less spiritual?

How many times are we told that Jesus sang?  Just once … after the Last Supper (Matthew 26:30).

As a man, a veteran believer, and a former pastor, I don’t pretend to speak for everybody else in the church.

But I’ve tried to lay out four reasons why I don’t always sing in church, and my guess is that many others would resonate with what I’ve written.

What are your thoughts on this issue?

Check out our website at www.restoringkingdombuilders.org  You’ll find Jim’s story, recommended resources on conflict, and a forum where you can ask questions about conflict situations in your church.

Read Full Post »

“Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”

That line – the very last line of the song “I Dreamed a Dream” from the play/film Les Miserables – has always touched me deep inside.

There are people down through the centuries who could sing that line … in fact, that entire song … with just as much passion as Anne Hathaway’s Fantine character did in the just-released movie.

Like Fantine, they’ve experienced a taste of the best that life has to offer … but then circumstances have gone horribly wrong for them, and they find themselves just hoping to survive.

That’s one of the things that struck me most about the film version of Les Miserables.  The people in the movie were all doing their best just to cling to life for another day.

I read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in ninth grade – albeit an abridged version – and learned that it served as the inspiration for 1960’s The Fugitive TV show, starring David Janssen (real name: David Meyer).  I’ve also been privileged to see the musical twice, the last time in London’s West End, and our family has owned the music on cassette/CD for years.  (My daughter Sarah knows every word of the musical by heart.)

But I can’t stop the tears whenever I hear “I Dreamed a Dream” or “Bring Him Home.”  And that’s good.

Those songs are filled with such emotion … and passion … and authenticity.  They put into words how so many people feel about God … and pain … and life.

When we attended the movie on Christmas Day, the bald-headed guy in front of me was pushing back tears as well.

But my first thought when I left the theater was this one:

Where is this kind of emotion in our churches today?

I love the Lord.  I love His Word.  I love His people.

But I must confess … I am rarely moved emotionally in church anymore.

In fact, sometimes I think that Christian leaders have systematically tried to remove authentic emotion from worship services.

Just hear me for a moment.

My wife and I have visited more than 50 churches in the past 3 years.  90% of the churches use the same format.

There’s 15-20 minutes of worship music, followed by the pastor’s message, which lasts 30-60 minutes.

(Prayers, announcements, and taking the offering are placed in different slots, depending upon the church.)

Are believers moved emotionally during the worship time?  Sometimes, but if you look around during that time, you’ll see that many believers aren’t singing at all.

Are believers moved during the message?  Sometimes, but it usually depends upon whether or not the pastor himself seems moved … and many pastors aren’t.

Over the past 10 years, I have noticed that most churches have gradually eliminated 4 service elements that did produce authentic emotion: dramatic vignettes, presentation songs, personal testimonies, and illustrations during the pastor’s message.

*Dramatic vignettes – which originally came from Willow Creek Community Church – could be humorous, but they could also be deeply touching emotionally.  Over the past 3 years, I have seen zero dramas in churches.

*Presentation songs featured a soloist or a duet or an ensemble singing a song that the congregation couldn’t possibly sing.  The songs usually tied in to the theme of that morning’s service.  (Someone from Willow once sang “I Dreamed a Dream” during weekend services.)  Over the past 3 years, I can only remember seeing performance songs at two churches – both in Phoenix – and one of them was at our home church there, Christ’s Church of the Valley, which offers one or two performance songs every weekend.

(The first time I attended a Leaders’ Conference at Willow in 1990, I was more moved emotionally during a two-hour slot of dramas/performance songs than I had been in the previous 20 years of attending worship services combined.)

*Personal testimonies are presented either live or on video.  CCV offered at least two personal testimonies on video every month, and they were usually very touching, often shown in the middle of the pastor’s message.  (Rick Warren used to do this as well, although I don’t know if he does it anymore.)

*Illustrations during a pastor’s message used to be a given, but you would be surprised at (a) how many pastors don’t use even one story during their whole message, and (b) how many pastors use stories to stir people intellectually but fail to move them emotionally.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I am not saying that our worship times should be full of emotion as opposed to truth.  We are to love God with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind.  But I am sincerely wondering where the heart has gone.

While we need truth to pass through our heads so it stirs our hearts, I wonder if we’re really afraid of our own God-given emotions.

When Neil Diamond sang “I Dreamed a Dream” on his Hot August Night 2 album, he changed the last line to this one:

“But life can’t kill the dream I dreamed.”

(Here’s his version with lyrics attached: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzwhgJnCQCQ)

Why did he do that?  Maybe he didn’t feel comfortable singing the real line because he wanted to end the song on a positive note … I really don’t know.  But in so doing, he negated Fantine’s true feelings as she ended the song.

Provided someone sang that song during a service at your church, would they be permitted to sing the line as written or would someone make them change it?

I’ve had a theory for years that people will flock to worship services where they feel free to laugh and to cry.

People certainly flock to films and concerts and plays where that’s the case.

Maybe the film Les Miserables – shot through with Christian themes and an explicit Christian ending – can teach us that again.

More next time.

Happy 2013!

Read Full Post »

Three of the greatest artists of all time in popular music have professed belief in Jesus Christ:

*Johnny Cash, considered by many to be the greatest artist in the history of country music … and who wanted to quit music and become an evangelist until Billy Graham talked him out of it.

*Bob Dylan, almost universally lauded as the greatest songwriter of the past half-century – if not the entire twentieth century – whose conversion to Christ in the late 70s shocked the music establishment who viewed him as their prophet and poet.

*Bono and The Edge from U2 – members of one of the greatest bands of all-time – who are known for turning the last portion of their concerts almost into a worship service.

Each of the above artists regularly incorporates Scripture and Christian ideas into their music.

Keep that in mind as we look at 5 more secular songs you can sing … or hear someone else sing … in church:

Number 5: “Magnificent” by U2

U2 writes their songs almost like parables … and they have admitted as much.  If you’re a believer, you get what they’re singing about … if you’re an unbeliever, you can just enjoy a song on its own merits.  Since Jesus taught this way, it’s a perfectly legitimate way to present truth … but there are always Christians who demand that a truly “spiritual” song include explicit references … and even praises … to Jesus Christ.

But should that be the rule when you’re trying to create art?

How about “Magnificent?”

The second verse goes like this (and Bono raises his hands heavenward at this point):

I was born, I was born

To sing to you

I didn’t have a choice

To lift you up

And sing whatever song you wanted me to

I give you back my voice

From the womb

My first cry

It was a joyful noise

Sounds like a psalm to me … and Bono loves the Psalms so much (he wrote an introduction to a collection of Psalms in England in the late 90s) that U2 even did a song in 1983 called “40” which is based on Psalm 40.

But in “Magnificent,” Bono gets both romantic and theological:


Til we die

You and I

Will magnify

The Magnificent

The video of the song is itself magnificent:


When U2 were launching their last album, No Line on the Horizon, they played some songs on the balcony of the BBC building in downtown London … with continual views of All Souls Church across a little street … the church where John Stott was rector for years:


Number 4: “Viva la Vida” (Long Live Life in Spanish) by Coldplay

Coldplay’s lead singer, Chris Martin, grew up in a strict Christian home in England, but there is no indication that he has chosen to follow Christ into adulthood.

And yet Martin and his band hit gold with this 2008 song, which captured the Grammy award for Song of the Year in 2009.  Lyrics aside, it’s my favorite tune out of all ten “secular” songs.  On a recent trip, after hearing the song once, my wife asked if we could play it again.  It’s a song I’ve never tired of hearing.

The song is a mini morality tale.  The narrator was once a king … someone in authority … but has since been deposed and sings:

I used to rule the world

Seas would rise when I gave the word

Now in the morning I sleep alone

Sweep the streets I used to own

With an infectious string background, the narrator continues:

One minute I held the key

Next the walls were closed on me

And I discovered that my castles stand

Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand

Remind anyone of Jesus’ words about the rich man at the end of the Sermon on the Mount?

The song refers to “Jerusalem bells” and “my missionaries in a foreign field” … the latter phrase being one that someone raised in a Christian church would know.

Then at the end of the song:

Revolutionaries wait

For my head on a silver plate

Just a puppet on a lonely string

Oh who would ever want to be king?

For a Christian, the saddest phrase of all occurs when Martin sings:

For some reason I can’t explain

I know Saint Peter won’t call my name …

What did the king do to merit banishment?  The song doesn’t say, but it’s obvious he fell from grace … an illustration of the biblical idea that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).

Our church in Arizona not only played this song during their pre-service music, they also did it as a performance song in their services one weekend.

There are two videos for the song: one that’s a bit edgy, another that’s more conventional.  Here’s the conventional video:


Number 3: “When He Returns” by Bob Dylan

When I went online to try and find a performance of Dylan singing this song, I discovered dozens of cover versions, many of them by Christian artists.  This song obviously resonates with many people.

Dylan’s classic album Slow Train Coming ends with this song … with Bob singing and playing the piano alone.  It makes the song that much more powerful.

After Slow Train came out, I preached on the second coming of Christ at my church, and after the message, I wanted someone to sing the song live … but I didn’t know who could do it justice.  Next best option: to play Dylan doing the song while projecting the words, but Christians weren’t used to that kind of thing back then.

So I read the words to the song to the congregation … and they still hold up to this day.  For example:

Surrender your crown, on this blood-stained ground

Take off your mask

He sees your deeds, He knows your needs

Even before you ask

How long can you falsify and deny what is real?

How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal?

Not exactly hand-clapping, toe-tapping lyrics … but they make you think.  The song ends this way:

Of every earthly plan

That be known to man

He is unconcerned

He’s got plans of His own

To set up His throne

When He returns

The lyrics are powerful on their own, but when you consider who’s singing them …. wow!

Since nobody does Bob like Bob, check out this video … has to be from around 1980:


Number 2: “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables

When I was a kid, I heard scattered warnings that Christians shouldn’t attend plays in the theatre.  Before movies, I suppose decadent ideas were first introduced to the public through plays.

I’ve seen maybe 15 shows in my lifetime, but most of them have made me a better person (although considerably poorer financially).

But the best one of all is Les Miserables.

If you haven’t seen it, the musical is at once inspiring … and sad … and bawdy … and intensely spiritual.

And the most spiritual song in the musical is “Bring Him Home.”

Jean Valjean … a former criminal who seeks redemption while being chased by a relentless policeman (The Fugitive TV series and film were both based on Les Miserables) … sings this song about a young man named Marius toward the end of the show.

God on high

Hear my prayer

In my need

You have always been there

I can’t hear this song without thinking of both my children … my son Ryan because the song expresses how I feel about him … and my daughter Sarah because she knows every word of Les Miserables by heart.

And every time I hear this song … I am moved to tears … primarily because of Jean Valjean’s last 12 words:

If I die

Let me die

Let him live

Bring him home

The song is a prayer … a prayer for safety for a young man who has been standing for what’s right … and a prayer for an old man who is willing to sacrifice his life so the young man can live.

See if you can hold back tears while watching this video of Alfie Boe singing “Bring Him Home”:


And if you’d like to see a sterling performance, watch the Valjean Quartet … 4 vocalists who have played the part of Jean Valjean on the stage … sing this song together (Sarah loves Colm Wilkinson the most … the first vocalist) at the 25th anniversary of the musical:


Number 1: “Yahweh” by U2

U2 is one of the greatest rock bands of all time … certainly in the Top 10, and arguably in the Top 5.

But would John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey, or Robert Plant ever sing these lyrics?

Take these hands

Teach them what to carry

Take these hands

Don’t make a fist

Take this mouth

So quick to criticize

Take this mouth

Give it a kiss

And then the chorus:

Yahweh, Yahweh

Always pain before a child is born

Yahweh, Yahweh

Still I’m waiting for the dawn

How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is, in my opinion, U2’s most spiritually-oriented album … so much so that I used to give copies of it away.  “Yahweh” ends the album with a heartfelt prayer … the modern-day equivalent of the hymn “Take My Life, and Let it Be.”

The song ends this way:

Take this city

A city should be shining on a hill

Take this city

If it be Your will

What no man can own

No man can take

Take this heart, take this heart

Take this heart

And make it break

“Yahweh” isn’t necessarily my favorite song from this list … I’m partial to “Walk On” and “Viva La Vida” … but I believe it’s the song that could most easily be done in a church service.

Here’s a moving video of Bono and the Boys ending a concert with a slowed-down (hymnlike) version of the song:


So that’s my list.  What’s yours?

Check out our website at www.restoringkingdombuilders.org  You’ll find Jim’s story, recommended resources on conflict, and a forum where you can ask questions about conflict situations in your church.

Read Full Post »

There are moments involving popular music that will remain with me for all time:

*Hearing “Born to be Wild” outside my summer school geometry class

*Hearing the world premiere of “Hey Jude” on the radio

*Hearing “Bad Moon Rising” and “Get Together” while playing flashlight tag on a hot summer evening

*The day the music really died … the day The Beatles broke up

*The day I heard … but couldn’t believe … that Bob Dylan had become a follower of Jesus … subsequently proved by his ground-breaking album “Slow Train Coming”

*The day I bought U2’s album “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” … and played it over … and over … and over

*Ditto for “Achtung Baby,” still U2’s edgiest – and best – album

Many Christians make a sharp division between secular and spiritual music.

To them, if it’s secular, it’s bad … and if it’s spiritual, it’s good.

But I think a song is good whether it’s secular or spiritual … and some “spiritual” songs are duds.  (I won’t name any … they might be your favorites.)

I realize that some Christians may not like some of these songs … because an artist hasn’t led a completely clean life … or doesn’t have a clear Christian testimony … or doesn’t attend church regularly.

But I think the songs … and their lyrics … stand up under scrutiny … and it just so happens that secular artists (some of whom are believers, some of whom aren’t) first introduced these songs to us.

I’d like to share ten secular songs you can sing or hear sung in church … five in this article, and five in the next:

Number 10: “May the Road Rise” by Roger McGuinn

McGuinn was the lead guitar player in the Byrds … manipulating his Rickenbacker 12-string guitar to get that “chiming” sound that many of us love so much.

During Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour, McGuinn became a follower of Jesus.  His mission in life is to preserve folk music, and to that end, he sings and records one folk song every month, which he gives away for free on his website.  Many of the songs he produces are old spirituals like “Wayfaring Stranger” and “He’s Got the Whole Word in His Hands.”

“May the Road Rise” is based on an old Irish blessing.  It’s written by both Roger McGuinn and his wife Camilla.  The lyrics tell the story of a couple who enjoys nature, but upon further reflection, also describes a couple’s relationship.

The wife ends up singing this chorus to her husband:

May the road rise to meet you

May the wind be at your back

May the sun shine warm upon your land

May the rain fall soft upon your face

Until we meet again

And may God hold you in the palm of his hand

Here’s the album version: http://video.search.yahoo.com/video/play?p=roger%20mcguinn%20may%20the%20road%20rise&tnr=21&vid=4535249882382424&turl=http%3A%2F%2Fts1.mm.bing.net%2Fvideos%2Fthumbnail.aspx%3Fq%3D4535249882382424%26id%3Dfb9d53fbfb040598512c6f9adc4e5de5%26bid%3DMPAUNyIiwUKzdA%26bn%3DThumb%26url%3Dhttp%253a%252f%252fwww.youtube.com%252fwatch%253fv%253d5bzCZdB3dT4&rurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D5bzCZdB3dT4&sigr=11a2fj141&newfp=1&tit=Roger+McGuinn+-+May+The+Road+Rise+Up+To+Meet+You.wmv

And here’s a live version:


Number 9: “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God” by Van Morrison

Van the Man has embraced all kinds of styles in his half-century musical career: rock, pop, folk, jazz, gospel … and a lot of music that remains uncategorized.

He’s also embraced various spiritual paths as well … but at the time this song was released (1989) he seemed to be firmly in the Christian camp … so much so that Phil Keaggy – the great Christian guitarist and vocalist – covered it on his best album, “Crimson and Blue.”

Who writes lyrics like these?

You brought it to my attention that everything was made in God

Down through centuries of great writings and paintings

Everything lives in God

Seen through architecture of great cathedrals

Down through the history of time

Is and was in the beginning

And evermore shall ever be

Nobody sings or writes like Van.  He’s one of the greatest of all time.  If you only know him from “Brown-Eyed Girl” or “Moondance” or “Domino,” you’re missing out.  For me, his best stuff started 22 years ago with “Avalon Sunset” and “Hymns to the Silence” (where Van does a cover of “Be Thou My Vision”) and my favorite Van record, “Magic Time” from 2005.

The chorus:

When will I ever learn

To live in God

When will I ever learn

He gives me everything

I need and more

When will I ever learn

Here’s a live version, although the video isn’t that clear:


Number 8: “Forever Young” by Bob Dylan

Dylan wrote this song of blessing to one or more of his children … maybe Jakob.  If you have a son … or a daughter even … you can’t help but shed a tear when Dylan sings:

May you grow up to be righteous

May you grow up to be true

May you always know the truth

And see the lights surrounding you

May you always be courageous

Stand upright and be strong

And may you stay

Forever young

Bob isn’t everyone’s cup of tea … because of his singing … but in the opinion of people within the music industry, he’s the world’s greatest songwriter of the past half century.  Check out this clip from the David Letterman Show back in the mid-90s:


Number 7: “Walk On” by U2 (Heroes version)

U2 opened the Grammy Awards in 2002 with this song … and then proceeded to win the Grammy for best record.  Bono and The Edge wrote the song for pro-democracy Burmese prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest in Burma for years until recently released.

This version of the song was performed ten days after 9/11 and broadcast all over the world.  Bono and the Boys could have chosen any song to sing … but they chose this one.  The snippet of their song “Peace on Earth” at the beginning is awesome … as is the chorus that includes Bono’s shouts indicating his view of life after death.

While the song is definitely a political anthem (the album was banned in Burma), it also has spiritual overtones (as most of U2’s songs do), reminding us that:

You’re packing a suitcase

For a place none of us has been

A place that has to be believed

To be seen

Not to sound morbid, but I want this song played at my memorial service someday, especially because of these lyrics:

All that you fashion, all that you make

All that you build, all that you break

All that you measure, all that you feel

All this you can leave behind

Here’s the Tribute to Heroes version:


Number 6: “Show Me the Way” by Styx

I never became a fan of the long-haired bands of the 70s or 80s … including Styx.  But this song by them is incredibly well-written and sung.

When I first heard these lines over the radio in 1990, my eyes welled up with tears:

All the heroes and legends

I knew as a child

Have fallen to idols of clay

And I feel this empty place inside

So afraid, that I’ve lost my faith

Dennis DeYoung, the group’s lead singer, is a devout Catholic.  He wrote this song for his son Matthew about the struggle to keep faith “in a world so filled with hatred.”  The chorus:

Show me the way,

Show me the way,

Take me tonight to the river

And wash all my illusions away

And please show me the way

The song is probably the best “seeker prayer” I’ve ever heard.  Dennis DeYoung has an incredibly powerful and expressive voice.

The song ends with this memorable line: “Every night, I say a prayer, in the hopes that there’s a heaven.”

Here’s a live version of the song, which I like better than the video:


There are many songs one could choose in this category.  In fact, I made a huge list on iTunes that I whittled down to 10.

You undoubtedly have some nominees of your own.

Before I reveal my top 5 next time, which songs do you think work here?

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: