Monday, November 14, 2005

From Jesus Freaks to Control Freaks

In the 1970's, shortly after becoming a Christian in 1969, I became a part of the budding "Jesus movement". There were a lot of young people, in those days, who, despite the fact that we dressed like hippies and listened to rock music, loved the Lord. We were sometimes known as "Jesus freaks".

I miss those days. Some of my best friendships were developed during that time of my life. People weren't perfect, of course, but the people who were part of that movement did seem to have a genuine love for God and for all people, saved or otherwise.

These days, it seems to me, the church could use a lot more Jesus freaks, and a lot fewer control freaks. Many of our pastors (some of whom, ironically, were once part of the Jesus movement, and some of whom think that they still are) have become bullies who believe that the fact that they're in charge entitles them to run roughshod over the feelings and needs of others in their congregations. They may give lip service to the idea that ministers of the gospel ought to emulate Christ by serving others, but their actions speak more loudly than their words.

This is particularly true when it comes to the way many pastors treat musicians. Even though it would be extremely difficult to find a really successful church which had no talented musicians on its worship team, there are still pastors who treat musicians as if they are expendable, and as if their needs, material and otherwise, are utterly unimportant.

Even in cases where there is no evidence to substantiate such accusations, musicians are often presumed to be immature people who need to be "humbled" (or, to be more accurate, repeatedly denigrated and humiliated) in the name of spiritual discipline, for no better reason than the fact that they are musicians! And then people wonder why they aren't constantly bubbling over with the "joy of the Lord".

Admittedly, there are some musicians, just as there are Christians in all other walks of life, who deserve to be accused of being self-centered and immature. If and when that is the case, then it is appropriate for Christian leaders to speak the truth about such matters, provided that they are guided by love and humility when they communicate such things. But musicians have no monopoly on immaturity.

My father, for example, was once considered a "pillar of the community". He was an optometrist, and he loved the prestige which came from being called "Dr. Pettigrew". He was head of the local PTA, a well-known figure at Rotary and Toastmaster meetings, the Chairman of the Mayor's Commission on Human Rights, and (at one time) the president of the Missouri Optometric Association. He even had a photo of himself shaking hands with the Governor of Missouri, in his official capacity as the president of the MOA.

He was also a part-time minister (or what was called a "lay minister") in the Methodist church. Every Sunday morning, the people would stream out of the small country churches he led, saying things such as "What a wonderful sermon, Dr. Pettigrew!" They were right. My father had "charisma", and he could preach a magnificent sermon.

At one time in my life, I was actually very proud of him, despite his propensity for beating the living daylights out of me with his thin leather belt for the most trivial of offenses. But there came a time when I could no longer feel proud of my father. By the time he died in 1999, he had:
  • Violently thrown me up against the wall because I inadvertently left my football out in the front yard.
  • Committed adultery.
  • Denied that Christ had risen from the dead (during a conversation which I remember vividly, despite the passage of more than 30 years).
  • Divorced my mother.
  • Ridiculed both me and my mother for our growing Christian faith.
  • ... and gone from being a "tee-totaller" to an alcoholic who, at one point, was so drunk that he couldn't even put his own pants on.
How pathetic! But do you think he ever really apologized for anything? No, not my dad. He was, after all, a "pillar of the community".

Gosh, I guess it's a good thing he wasn't a musician, too --- then he would have been really bad!

Pastors need to get their own houses in order before they start taking musicians to task. This, by the way, includes pastors who also happen to be talented musicians.

One such person, from the Chicago area, is Glenn Kaiser, the very talented singer and guitarist who once led the Resurrection Band, which I still consider to be one of the best bands in the history of rock music. (Notice that I didn't qualify that by saying, "one of the best Christian bands". They were that good.) Glenn, who is a pastor at Jesus People U.S.A. (where I lived for several months in 1991), recently stated the following (in his blog): "Talent doesn't EVER equal spiritual maturity. Never. Nada." He's right, it doesn't. And that's as applicable to his talent as it is to anyone else's.

By the same token, a position of authority in a local church or national ministry should never be automatically equated with spiritual maturity, either. From Jim Jones to Jim Bakker to Jimmy Swaggart to Jesse Jackson to the Catholic priests who have been convicted of the sexual abuse of minors, there are just too many examples of incompetent, self-centered, blatantly sinful pastors and priests for anyone but the most naive to think that authority in the church is equal to spiritual maturity.

Amazingly, despite many decades in which contemporary Christian music has had the opportunity to demonstrate its compatibility with the goals of the church, there are still pastors (usually theologically conservative pastors) who believe, despite the absence of any scriptures to support their views, that rock music is "of the Devil". When asked to cite the applicable scriptures, chapter and verse, they are unable to do so, of course, because no such scriptures exist in any known translation of the holy scriptures. Yet, rather than seeing Christian rock musicians as allies in the fight against the Devil's lies, they see such musicians as enemies to be opposed. Sometimes this opposition is very blatant, other times it's much more subtle, but in all instances, it can be a source of real spiritual stress for those who are doing their best to serve the Lord with the musical talents and extremely limited material resources given to them.

CCM, also known as Contemporary Christian Music, was a genre of music started by "Jesus freaks" who believed that it was irrational for Christians who claimed to be guided by the word of God to invent prohibitions (such as the prohibition against rock music) which had no basis in scripture. They saw no reason not to play or enjoy such music, and they saw it as a potent tool which could be used for evangelistic purposes.

Indeed, it was, as I saw firsthand when I promoted a Sweet Comfort Band concert when I was in college. Numerous people accepted Christ as Savior at that concert. That was hardly an isolated event. Many Christian rock concerts have led to conversions to the faith.

Yet, right from the start, Christian rock musicians faced an uphill battle. They were too Christian for the secular music market, and too radical for many of the older people who shared their Christian beliefs.

Eventually, after several decades of struggle, the vast majority of the church acknowledged that pop and rock music could be legitimate expressions of the faith. (Walk through any Bible bookstore today, if you don't believe me.) Unfortunately, it now seems legitimate to ask if it matters anymore. Somewhere along the way, people involved in the Christian music industry lost sight of why the pioneers (such as Larry Norman and Barry McGuire) had played and recorded contemporary Christian music in the first place.

The vision for changing the world with such music was lost. Instead of seeing CCM as a potent evangelistic tool, Christians started seeing such music as a "safe alternative" to worldly rock music. Instead of wanting to storm the gates of Hell, they wanted to retreat to a nice, warm castle which would protect them from the influence of the enemy.

I'm not completely unsympathetic. In any war, it's sometimes necessary to go on the defensive if you want to survive to see another day. But you'll never win any major wars if you stay on the defensive forever. To win wars, it's necessary to leave your comfort zone and take risks. These days, far too few Christians are willing to do that. There are a few Christian musicians who continue to try to bridge the gap between the church subculture and the larger culture which surrounds them, without compromising their faith or their commitment to musical excellence, but they seem to be the exception, not the rule.

As a result, American culture is on a downward path in terms of the collective moral values of our nation. While Christians hide behind stained glass doors and play church, people are dying outside.

Nostalgia can be a bad thing, of course. Even if we wanted to do so, it's highly doubtful that we could ever return to the glory days of the Jesus movement. But that doesn't mean that it's a bad idea to look at what we've lost, why we lost it, and what we could do and ought to do in order to recover that which was lost.

First of all, pastors need to stop selectively choosing to focus on only those scriptures which support their personal ambitions. They need to remind themselves that God is no respecter of persons. Every person in the Body of Christ is valuable. Therefore it is a disservice to the church and to Christ to run one's church in such a way that most people have no real voice with regard to the policies and practices within their own churches. In particular, Christians who seek to use the arts as a means of reconnecting the church to disenfranchised people ought to be encouraged and supported in those efforts.

Likewise, pastors need to recommit themselves to the principal that only the scriptures constitute God's word. Imposing their own personal preferences and prejudices on others, without any real scriptural justification for doing so, is simply unacceptable.

Second, Christians need to do some soul-searching with regard to their attitudes towards the lost. Do we really care about the masses of people who don't know the Lord? If so, why aren't we willing to reach out to them and communicate the gospel in a manner which will transcend the superficial cultural barriers which have prevented them from taking our message seriously? And why do we endlessly snipe at each other, when the only purpose that serves is to distract us from the task of fulfilling the Great Commission?

Ultimately, the Jesus Movement was not about superficial styles of clothing or music. It was about an attitude, one which transcends time and space, and that's the attitude that people matter. No one is expendable. Just because people dress differently or like different styles of music, that's no reason to treat them as if they are unimportant.

When the church becomes insular, when its focus is primarily on preserving the status quo rather than transforming it, it betrays the Lord, who came and died in order to seek and save all who were lost.

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