I confess I have a love / hate relationship with contemporary Christian music.
There have been times when Christian music has truly ministered to me. I remember being at the National Youth Worker's Convention in 2003, just a month after I left my first job in youth ministry and three months before I started my second one. Having walked away from a job that defined me for a year, I felt lost, alone, and hopeless. The future was, at best, uncertain.
Then David Crowder took the stage in one of the main sessions and sang “Blessed Be Your Name.” It was the first time I heard the song and when he broke into the chorus and started singing, “You give and take away, My heart will choose to stay, Lord, blessed be your name”, tears streamed down my face. The song ministered to me, deeply and personally, reminding me that even in the dark nights of our souls, God is still worthy of our worship.
Since then, there have certainly been other songs and Christian artists that have consistently ministered to me and encouraged me. Even as I write this, I'm listening to Sara Groves, a Christian singer / songwriter who I deeply respect and admire.
But can we be honest for a minute?
Sometimes, contemporary Christian music is just bad.
Some lyrics are bad. Others lack a melody. Others play the same three chords for the entire song. Still others contain one phrase that's repeated for a solid five minutes. And in some cases, the theology of contemporary Christian song lyrics are, if not bad, at least questionable.
Despite this, when I get into my car, my default radio station is K-Love. Mind you, I live less than 5 minutes from where I work and from most places I go, so I'm not in the car a lot. But when I am, K-Love is on.
And as with contemporary Christian music in general, I also have a love / hate relationship with K-Love. There have been times when this “positive encouraging” station has indeed encouraged me, so much so that for a while, my husband and I faithfully financially supported it. But there are other times when I leave my car after listening to K-Love, not encouraged, but concerned.
That's been the case for me throughout January. Every time I'm in the car, I've heard a plug for K-Love's “30 Day Challenge”. According to their website, in this challenge, “K-LOVE challenges you and your friends to listen to nothing but Christian music for 30 days and see how it changes your life!”
Now, I believe we serve a powerful God who can, in fact, use contemporary Christian music – even bad contemporary Christian music – to change people's lives. But there's no guarantee that by listening to only Christian music for 30 days, God will change your life. In the journey of faith, there are no magic, surefire formulas. The Holy Spirit moves freely, in mysterious and sometimes baffling ways that cannot be controlled regardless of how hard we try.
Aside from that, the 30 day challenge concerns me because it seems to invite people to thoughtlessly consume Christian music, without ever thinking about the lyrics. Instead of thoughtlessly consuming anything, I believe Jesus advocates us to use discernment in all things. After all, he commands us to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul.”
Even more disturbing to me than these things, however, is the separatist theology K-Love's 30 day challenge advocates. Such a theology is always rooted in fear. We fear how the world around us might influence us, so we separate ourselves from it. We fear how anything “non-Christian” might harm our walk with the Lord or poison our minds, so we avoid them. Then, we use scripture to support our actions, claiming we're following Paul's command in Philippians 4:8 to think about “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable.”
However, as with much of Scripture, this passage and others like it must be held in tension with those that advocate full engagement with the world. One such passage is John 17:14-15, when Jesus prays for his disciples, saying, “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.”
If we fearfully avoid that which is not marketed as "Christian", how on earth can we be instruments of grace to a hurting world? If we separate ourselves from anything secular, how can we know and understand the culture in which we live? Without first knowing and understanding our culture, how can we ever hope to be “good news” or the “light of the world” to it? Unless we engage in and with the world, how can we bring the Kingdom of God to it?
Consider this. Had I taken K-Love's 30 day challenge to listen only to Christian music, I would have had to avoid working out because the gym plays secular music. I would have had to skip my dentist appointment because my dentist listens to the oldies. I would have blown off my dearest friend because at the moment, her son prefers music from the Lion King over Christian songs. I would have had to seclude myself in my home or office instead of being present in the lives of my students because the places I meet with them – Panera and Caribou – refuse to play only Christian music.
So sure, I admit that had I participated in K-Love's 30 day challenge, God might have “changed my life” through the music I heard.
While that certainly might have happened, here's what I know for certain. In the last 30 days, I've encountered God in profound ways – through conversations with new and old friends, through thought-provoking discussions with students (one of which used the decidedly not Christian song, Born this Way, as a discussion starter), through prayer, and through both secular and sacred music alike.
As I've reflected on this, what I've learned is that when we stop telling God how to work, when we stop separating ourselves from the world and instead choose to fully engage in it, God shows up in powerful and surprising ways – ways that often do really change lives. The best part is, when we encounter God during moments when we're fully engaged with the world around us, oftentimes ours aren't the only lives changed.
In response to my ongoing concerns about K-Love's 30 Day Challenge, I've critically evaluated some of the popular music played on this station:
Concerns about "Lead Me".
Concerns about "Where I Belong".
Concerns about "Beautiful Day".
Concerns about "All You've Ever Wanted".