Renewing the Vision

Charles C. McCabe was the Director of Church Extension for the Methodist Episcopal Church as well as a brilliant strategist.  In the spring of 1881, he was riding a train in the Pacific Northwest when he saw an article about the National Convention of the Free Thinkers of America.  The newspaper included the text of a speech delivered by prominent atheist Robert Ingersol.  As McCabe read the speech he became quite angry.  Ingersol had said, “The churches are dying out all across America. They are struck with death! By the dawn of the 20th century, churches will be but relics of a bygone day”.  McCabe got off the train and fired off a telegram to Mr. Ingersol in Chicago.  It read,” Dear Bob, We are building more than one church a day for every day of the year and propose to make it two a day!”  The story got out and someone composed the following chorus:

The infidels, a motley band, in council met and said,
“The churches die throughout the land the last will soon be dead.”

When suddenly a message came that filled them with dismay,
“All hail the power of Jesus’ name, we’re building two a day”.

We’re building two a day, dear Bob; we’re building two a day!
All hail the power of Jesus’ name, we’re building two a day!

Charles McCabe clearly shared the vision of Methodism’s Founder, “to reform a continent and to spread scriptural holiness across these lands.”  Methodism envisioned itself as a reform movement.  A vision that propelled the Methodist church to the forefront of outreach and pioneer evangelism in America until it could be said   that the Methodists owned the 19th century!

Despite the multitude of stories telling of the Church’s transformative impact on cities, countries and civilizations, there has been no shortage of hostile voices predicting her demise.  Yet even while the scoffers scoff  the Church of Jesus Christ steadily penetrates a darken world like yeast penetrates a loaf of bread “until the whole be leavened”  and will continue to do so until that day when “at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”. The future of the Church does not hang in the balance!  Victory for the Church of Jesus Christ is inevitable!

The truth in the paragraph above stands without equivocation.  However, any thinking person who reads the above statement and then simply looks at what is happening in the vast majority of churches in North America and Europe today would have cause to question the veracity of what I wrote. It is true that the Invisible Church of Jesus Christ is and will be triumphant.  It is not true that every part of the visible church on earth experiences that same conquering spirit.  While the Church is harvesting a bumper crop in Asia, Latin American and Africa the harvest seems to be rotting in the field in Europe and North America. The problem is certainly not with the Lord of the Church or with His power to prevail.  The problem lies with a Laodicean spirit that has gripped the visible church of North America and Europe.  The problem is not new!  Read Paul’s words to a church that was not yet twenty-five years old! Take a moment to read again the first three chapters of the book of The Revelation.  Take a literary walk down the pages of church history reading the stories of the Reformers and the Revivalist and you will see what I mean!

A willingness to acknowledge historical fact and present reality about certain parts of the church should not turn us into pessimist. One does not have to join the “church is dead” movement to be able to admit that the visible church has at times lost her way, backslidden, become unfruitful and needed major reformation and revival.  As a matter of fact, I believe the church in America is in such a time right now.  James MacDonald says the evangelical church is experiencing a time of “epic failure.” He further says that, “Until we acknowledge that the church in North America is failing, we won’t take the steps necessary to see that trend reversed.”  MacDonald’s word to the evangelical church should be taken to heart by the Conservative Holiness Movement as well.

The Call to Resurgent Hope

                I along with the faculty of God’s Bible School and College have the greatest appreciation for and the deepest commitment to that part of God’s Church identified as the Conservative Holiness Movement.  This is the tradition that GBS has lived and worked within long before there was such a name designation or a movement identified as such.  The “Call to the Conservative Holiness Movement” was written by our faculty as an attempt to restate the strengths of that tradition, to acknowledge its weaknesses and to dialogue on how to restore what is vital to its future.  By the very nature of such a call we are acknowledging problems, struggling to find answers and humbly offering solutions. The last section, Article X, in the Call to the Conservative Holiness Movement is a call for Resurgent Hope.  The CHM needs a renewed vision for its future.  It lacks a “grand idea” to marshal its youth and to propel it forward. The absence of such of vision has caused the movement to become disoriented and allowed it to drift away from its historical landmarks – the things that made it special in the first place.  However, the key to a renewed vision or a new vision altogether begins with a willingness to acknowledge apparent problems with an eye to corrective measures.

There is an Elephant is the room!

            It has been obvious, for a long time, to many of the leaders within the CHM that the movement is in a state of serious decline.  It has failed to grow numerically by means of new conversions while membership roles in some of the largest and oldest denominations have decreased as much a 60%.   Unfortunately too many key leaders have simply ignored the obvious.  You could say it is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about!  To reinforce my own observations with facts, I had a third party survey conducted.  The survey was conducted among the eighteen  denominations that identify with the CHM. The leadership of each denomination was asked to identify their top two churches so that the pastor of these churches could be interviewed. (It should be pointed out that using the top churches in each group heavily weighted the survey towards a more favorable outcome).  Fifteen of the groups cooperated with the survey which allowed us to question the pastors of 30 of the top churches in these denominational groups. I then surveyed four of the largest independent churches in the CHM and added the results to this survey.  The pastors were asked three questions. (1) How many conversions of unchurched people have you had in the last five years that have been discipled to the level of membership? (Not yet a member but ready to be)   (2) How many conversions of unchurched people have you had in the last five years that have been discipled to the level of maturity that allows them to be involved in ministry?  (3)  How many third generation Christians do you have in your church?

Here is what we found:

  1. 80 % of the top churches in the CHM have had no unchurched person converted and discipled to the level of membership within the last five years.
  2. In the six largest churches surveyed only one had unchurched people converted and discipled to the level of membership in the last five years.  Only two had converts discipled to the point of ministry involvement.
  3. The churches with the most third generation Christians tended to have the least number of unchurched converts, while churches with the least number of third generation Christians tended to have the most unchurched converts.
  4. The majority of the churches surveyed had at least one convert that had been discipled enough to use in ministry but was still unable to be considered for membership.
  5. There were three churches that I considered “outliers” and set them apart in the survey results.  Together these three churches had 180 converts of unchurched people in the last five years.  60 of these converts were discipled to the level of membership.  120 of these converts were discipled to the level of ministry.  All three churches had a combined total of only 24 third generation Christians (that is an average of only 8 each).  These churches are exceptional and have something to teach us!

The survey highlights a number of problems. First, most CHM churches are not reaching the unchurched. Second, when a CHM church does see unchurched people converted it rarely retains these converts.  This problem of attrition has several contributing causes but it is primarily because the average CHM church has failed to address the process necessary to grow these converts and to assimilate them into the core fellowship of the church (the process of becoming and belonging).  Hence most of them backslide or go to another church.   Third, the survey revealed something else that I had only surmised.  It revealed that churches with high numbers of third generation Christians do the poorest job of reaching the unchurched.  This is true despite the fact that many of these operate impressive ministries to that very population.  It is alarming to see that these large churches, that are resource rich, can operate impressive outreach ministries and never truly “reach out.”  This is the elephant in the room!

How do you eat an Elephant?

            Occasionally one of my colleagues or students will share with me what seems to them to be an insurmountable problem. I will listen carefully then ask them this question, “How do you eat an elephant?”  While they are looking at me in absolute bewilderment I will answer for them, “One bite at a time!”   All of our problems, no matter how large, can and must be addressed “one bite at a time.”  For the CHM the process of addressing the serious problem of decline will be a long-term deliberate strategy that must be implemented “one bit at a time.”

Success in eating the elephant means that the CHM must avoid the danger of two extremes.  The first extreme is to do nothing.  Since the elephant is so big and the challenge is so overwhelming the danger is that we just ignore it and do nothing at all. On the other hand, we must avoid the other extreme of trying to eat the elephant in just a few bites.  Massive and sudden change can divide, demoralize and possibly destroy a church or movement.

Doing nothing is not acceptable!

            However insurmountable the problem may appear to be doing nothing is not an option. Like a man paddling across the Atlantic with a hole in his boat, we can neglect the problems of our movement for a while, but if not eventually addressed we will certainly sink.  Complacency can be one of our biggest enemies. It is sometimes hard to spot complacency because it can hide its failure to act behind impressive rationalization.  Complacent leaders and pastors will pose the argument that true success cannot be measured or quantified.  They say that such measurements are the world’s way of evaluating a successful ministry and that simply counting conversions, members, offerings, buildings, etc . . . is not the way God measures success.   They contend that the only true criterion for ministry is faithfulness.  There is so much truth in this argument that it is difficult to debate.  There is much to be said from the Word and from practical ministry about faithfulness.  It is extremely important in both the eyes of God and men.  However, holding up faithfulness as the final measure of true success can be a “cop out” for failing to do the hard work of reaching people.  Even if that isn’t the case, it is certainly an oversimplification. I agree with Timothy Keller when he says that there is a more Biblical gauge to evaluate ministry than either success or faithfulness – it is fruitfulness (John 15:8).

If complacent leaders and layman can comfort themselves with an appeal to their faithfulness (one that has certainly been uncoupled from the concept of fruitfulness) then that may prove to be a strong enough “sleeping potion” to keep them from addressing the true barrenness of their particular denominations and churches.  I am afraid that as long as the various groups that make up the CHM can afford to hold the annual IHC, operate their own annual campmeeting and give respectable offerings to a foreign missions program they will remain complacent – even accepting of the failure of the local church to be fruitful and reach its surrounding community.

The importance of Vision Renewal for the CHM

            If you have ever driven a car with misaligned wheels you know that it is difficult to keep the car in the middle of your lane – it constantly wants to pull to one side.  That is what it is like to be in a movement, church or organization that lacks vision.  Everyone may be very busy doing something but they are continuously pulled off center – away from the main thing.  Without a compelling vision to motivate, energize and direct, people will wear themselves out with meaningless activity. Any church or movement that is engaged in such activity becomes the breeding ground for skepticism, criticism and a host of “rabbit trials” that take it away from its main objective.

In greyhound racing there is a little mechanical rabbit covered in fur that    sits on the end of a long metal rod that circles the track ahead of the dogs.  The operator of this mechanical rabbit always keeps the rabbit ahead of the dogs so as to keep them running but never allowing them to catch it.  In one race, while the dogs were hotly pursuing the rabbit, there was a short in the electrical system that caused the rabbit to explode.  With no rabbit to chase the dogs didn’t know what to do.  Some of them went crazy jumping through the fence. Others just wandered aimlessly around the track.  Still others laid down on the track and howled at the spectators.  Not one dog finished the race.  Without a vision to pursue: dreams fade, people drift and once-vibrant movements slowly die.

Vision Obstacles

            The CHM is resource rich!  It has a wealth of talented people who are deeply committed to their faith.  It possesses what it takes to move forward with the work of vision discovery, renewal and implementation.  Yet it does have some major “vision obstacles” that it will have to be overcome.  Things like:

 Reluctant Leadership – So much rises and falls around leadership.  The CHM struggles to be open to the kind of visionary leader that has the capacity to lead it from where it is to where it needs to go.  Even where that kind of leadership exists, it has too often bowed to the politics of fear or lacked the resolve to push beyond the obstacles.

 Pietistic Pride – The CHM battles with a strange paradox.  On the one hand it struggles with an inferiority complex while on the other hand it struggles with pietistic pride.  There are times when our opinion of ourselves is too exalted. So much so, that we tend to look down on the rest of Christ’s body as “not quite where we are.”    This sanctimonious arrogance needs to be replaced with a little sanctified humility.  After all pride made the Devil the Devil!

Pre-occupation with the Past – When CHM folks get together you will hear far more talk about our “holiness heritage” than you ever will about our “holiness future.”   Our Methodist Holiness history is fascinating!  But it is still history!  The past must serve as a guide post not a hitching post – it should be the rudder on the ship not the anchor.  God consistently reveals Himself as One who is forward looking.  He is primarily interested in where we are going not where we have been.  It is the Devil who wants us pre-occupied with the past!   Movements and churches that have been mightily used of God in the past, and for one reason or the other get stuck there,  will be set aside and someone else or something else will be raised up to take their place.

Resistance to Change – Continual change is the reality of our time. The church is not an isolated island from the rest of society and by its very nature it cannot be. It too is changing. As a matter of fact, change is not new to the church.   For those of us within the holiness tradition, John Wesley and the early Methodists serve as an example of innovative and creative change to meet the ministry needs of their time. The CHM has proven quite resistant to change in methodology, technology and organizational structure even when it is apparent that change could advance the kingdom without any compromise to the message.

An Unhealthy focus on Single Issues – Churches were never meant to have a single focus like Pizza Hut or Jiffy Lube.  The church must be fully Biblical and properly balanced in all its priorities and emphasis!  To be a healthy body it must be a whole body.  Too many CHM churches are known for one thing – the lifestyle positions they embrace.  When this single focus prevails it can hurt the church both internally and externally.  Biblical holiness does in fact have behavioral consequences that impact my lifestyle.  But it also cast them as a part of discipleship and growth where they are lived out in an atmosphere of relaxed self-discipline and humble dependence on God – never as the main thing.

Fear Driven Decision Making – Movements, churches and pastors who constantly test the winds of “what others might think” end up neurotic, paranoid and pathetically immobile. Fear has been the catalyst for many needless rules and regulations.  The fear of what others “might think” has killed many positive outreach initiatives.  A man fearing spirit and the general fear of change has hindered churches from needed adjustments that would have positioned them to better serve their own people as well as those they might reach.

Vision begins with God!

            God is more than willing to help a struggling or failing church or movement to regain its footing, but He will not climb over the impediments of no vision, poor planning, weak execution, horizontal thinking and a lack of faith.  Leadership must take seriously the work of vision casting.  For me to propose a vision or even attempt to restate a vision for the churches, the denominations and the organizations that make up the 21st century CHM would push the boundaries of arrogance or ignorance (I will let you decide).  The work of vision casting and mission development is not a “cut and paste” moment achieved by a few hours of “goggling” all the good web sites.  Vision comes from the Lord!  It comes when leaders and laymen seek God, find a divine burden, and mold it to their situation!  Vision is not some mystical dream detached from reality.  Whatever vision God gives a church it will have some parallel to the mission and vision laid out for us in the book of Acts and duplicated throughout the centuries by the church.  Vision is anchored in one’s core values, grows out of one’s main reason for existence and fits perfectly within the context of one’s ministry situation (gifts and resources).  Vision is birthed when someone has a heart that aches so badly to know how to advance God’s Kingdom that they are willing to get alone with God long enough to say, “speak Lord for your servant heareth” and then stay still long enough for God to speak to their situation. Vision is not solely owned or produced by one person but I do believe that God normally puts the vision for a church, an organization or a movement into the heart of a one person and not a group of people.  I also believe that He confirms and refines that vision as the leader shares it with a small group of elders or spiritual leaders to whom he is accountable or with whom he shares oversight of the ministry.

Vision Components

            A vision statement explains where a church or denomination is headed and helps to formulate a picture of what it will “look like” as it accomplishes its mission.  I can’t author a vision statement for the CHM or the individual churches that compose its membership but if I could the following components would be a central part:

UpReach – I believe prayer and worship are two core elements that are struggling to survive in ways that truly impact the CHM. We live in a post-Christian culture where not only do men sin with no sense of remorse but where anti-Biblical values and anti-Christ views are entrenched at the highest levels of the institutions that undergird and govern our society. Only prayer can break such a stronghold.  We must once again become a praying church.

The culture we are called to win is one that is lonely, empty and materialistic.  They are desperately seeking for something they do not have – something transcendent.  They are crushed by the disappointment that they cannot create happiness for themselves beyond the momentary.  They have a deep longing in their soul to know, to experience and to worship God.  The church that provides an experience of unashamed worship, marked by the presence of God, is the church that will never lack for people. We must return to the kind of worship that is marked by God’s presence.  This may be our greatest need!

OutReach – Many holiness churches began as store front missions. They located where the sinners were because they believed it was their main job to see sinners saved, sanctified and established in the family of God. It seems that the CHM no longer believes that this is their main mission and unfortunately the statistics support such a conclusion. The CHM has become primarily a preservation movement. However, that can change!  A renewed vision for the CHM should make the Great Commission a vital part of its main mission so that we might “reform a nation and spread scriptural holiness across this land.”

InReach –  According to Dr. Brian Black, there are approximately 3000 churches in the USA that in some way  identify with the CHM (compare that to the  North American church numbers for the: Nazarenes – 4800, Wesleyans – 1710, and the Free Methodist – 957).  With all these churches and all the individual talent within the CHM one would think the movement could and should be doing something significant for the Kingdom of God.  However, we are resource rich and cooperation poor.   We have miserably failed to reach within – join hands – and unite for the greater good of advancing the work of God in church planting, education, printing, missions and compassionate care. Instead of one or two strong mission organizations there are thirty-one struggling ones. Instead of one or two strong colleges there are eight struggling ones.  Instead of one strong holiness church in town there are four “family controlled” struggling ones. Cooperation for stewardship reasons alone would free up millions of dollars to further the Kingdom and the message of scriptural holiness!  No movement on earth could gain more from just simply working together than could the CHM.

DownReach – The CHM has a wealth of Biblical, theological, doctrinal and practical teaching that is not being passed down to new Christians or to younger generations. The CHM needs a renewed commitment to discipleship, mentoring and preaching. Discipleship is the perfect arena to “teach” many things that should not and cannot be adequately “preached.”  Mentoring is the key to helping our immature converts and young people maneuver the choppy waters of life successfully.  Just keeping the few converts we do have coupled with saving our own would double our population numbers within a few years.  Preaching as it is being done in many CHM churches is passionate exhortation with the goals of inspiration, motivation and evaluation. Preaching in today’s world needs to be passionate explanation with the goal of transformation and application.  The post-modern mind today doesn’t want someone “yelling” at them.  It wants someone explaining the Bible and giving them ways to apply to their life right now!

Someone has got to see it!

          Francis Asbury saw an American frontier evangelized for Christ and the Circuit Rider was born. William Booth saw the poor of England sinking in despair and the Salvation Army was born!  Martin Wells Knapp saw a school to train a new generation of Christian soldiers and God’s Bible School was born.  Rev. Eber Teter saw the state of Alabama without the message of heart holiness and the Friendship Wesleyan Methodist Church was born – at whose altar I found saving grace.  Someone must see what can be before it can or will come to pass!

The founder of Disney World, Walt Disney, died five years before Disney World was completed.  On opening day in 1971 someone said to director Mike Vance, “Isn’t it too bad Walt Disney didn’t live to see this?”  To which Vance replied, “Oh, Walt did see it!  That’s why its here.”

Somebody has got to dream and envision a renewed holiness movement. I long for a movement unified in purpose – linking arms in mission and message!  Martin Luther King saw an America where racial inequality was abolished – “He (God) has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”            I too have been to the mountain top and I’ve seen on the other side!  The CHM just needs more mountain climbers who will get above the fog at ground level and see what “can be” in our tomorrows!

Resurrection – Touchstone of the Christian Faith

William Sangster, the venerable British preacher of yesteryear, was stricken late in life by incurable muscular atrophy.  As the merciless disease advanced, rendering his muscles useless and robbing him of his voice, Sangster was eventually forced to surrender his pulpit and retire his anointed pen.  However, he did manage to find the strength one Easter Sunday to feebly scrawl these words in a letter to his daughter, “It is terrible,” he wrote, “to wake up on Easter Sunday and have no voice to shout, ‘He is risen!’”

With these words Sangster underscored the dynamic of the Christian message, the death and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Indeed, it is the fulcrum upon which turns every other Christian doctrine.  Without resurrection, the divinity of Jesus is in jeopardy.  Without divinity, Christ sinlessness is debatable.  If He is sinful, Calvary loses its atoning merit.  Robbed of its atoning merit, the cross—indeed the entire gospel story—is a sham.  Or, as Paul expressed it centuries ago, “if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; you are yet in your sins” (I Cor. 15:17).

In his book, Reality of the Resurrection, Merrill Tyney notes that many aspects of the Christian faith are echoed (if only vaguely) in non-Christian religions.  For instance, some religions claim, as does Christianity, to have divinely inspired writings.  Muslims boast of the Koran; the Mormons of their “Golden Tablets.”  Similarly, many pagan religions offer their followers the promise of life after death.  Like Christianity, philosophers and religionists of all eras have proposed various systems of ethics for the governing of the human race.  However, Tyney rightly declares that the distinctive attribute of the Christian faith is its belief that “the supernatural power of the living God was manifested historically by the resurrection of Christ from the dead.”

The resurrection marks Christianity off from all other religions, past, present and future.  No other faith underpins its belief system with the doctrine of a risen Saviour.  To the Christian the Resurrection: authenticates scripture, validates salvation by faith, provides the power for victorious living, and sustains the promise of our future resurrection!  It is the cardinal doctrine among cardinal doctrines.   It was central to the preaching of the early church.  It sustained the hopes of first-century martyrs, and it is a message that has been faithfully transmitted across the centuries and entrusted to those of us who number ourselves among the followers of Jesus today.  The resurrection message is non-negotiable.  It must never be surrendered or compromised.

However, the greatest danger in the Christian community may not be the temptation to erase the doctrine of the resurrection from the time-honored creeds of Christendom.  In fact, any suggestion to alter this tenet would immediately be voted down in most of our conference meetings or our academic forums.  Rather, the greatest danger in our circles is that of relegating this basic doctrine to the dusty archives of church history.  Having been hammered out on the anvil of controversy by our forefathers, the resurrection story tends to become so commonplace that it is by sheer neglect demoted to second place in our thinking.  The resurrection and its manifold implications have become supplemental themes that we take off the shelf once a year.  Sadly, they seldom maintain a central place in the perennial preaching and teaching of the Church.

Sangster lamented to his daughter that he had no voice with which to shout the resurrection message.  But he then added these searching words, “It would be more terrible still,” he concluded, “to have a voice and not want to shout.”  Join with me in the centuries old anthem, “He is Risen!  He is Risen indeed!”

What’s in a Song?

–November of 2007

What’s in a Song?

Methodism, it has been said, was born in song; and this was facilitated by the poetic genius and deep piety of Charles Wesley.  Few would argue that Charles Wesley‘s work in the composition of hymns has no equal in the English language, and is perhaps superior to any other man that ever lived.  Wesley’s story is even more remarkable when one remembers that he had never written a hymn before his “heart warming” experience on Whitsunday, 1738.  Following his conversion he wrote his first hymn, “Where shall my wondering soul begin?”   He went on to publish more than 4,500 hymns and left some 3000 in manuscript form.

Wesley’s hymns have become the gold standard for all other hymns.  They are worshipful, scriptural, instructional and pregnant with every conceivable phase of Christian experience and Methodist theology. They not only lift ones heart in adoration and praise to God, but they fill ones head with good Wesleyan theology.

The question naturally arises, “How did he do it?” along with the question, “Why isn’t someone today writing hymns like Wesley’s?”  I have neither the musical expertise nor insight to answer those questions to anyone’s satisfaction, including my own.  But music scholars Harry Eskew and Hugh McElrath give the traits of a Wesley hymn according to form and content in their book, Sing with Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Hymnody.

In summarizing what these music scholars have said a hymn by Charles Wesley will consistently have the following five traits in its form:  1. It is rich in the variety of poetic meters.  2. Sound and sense coincide, that is, individual lines express complete thoughts while being alliterative.  3. Wesley is bold and free in scriptural paraphrase without sacrificing the true meaning of the passage.  4. He uses a skillful mixture of the English and Latin vocabularies.  5. He uses a wide range of literary devices masterfully.

The content of a Wesley hymn also possesses certain remarkable characteristics such as: 1.Wesley’s hymns are replete with Christian dogma. Hymns taken as a body constitute skillfully condensed doctrine.  2. They are full of scriptural allusion. 3. They express a passionate Christian experience. Every mood of the Christian soul is expressed. 4. They are simple and smooth. Important matters concerning God and the souls of humans are dealt with simply and directly. 5. They are appropriately mystical.  The Wesley hymnic language reflects an appropriate intimacy in which God is talked to as a friend but never treated like a chum. This quality makes these hymns timeless and universal.

If it is true that Methodism was born in song, then it is equally true that her faithful sons and daughters still value that song.  For this very Sunday, Wesleyans all around the world will sing the words “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great redeemers praise; the glories of my God and King the triumph of His grace” and will be able to do so because Charles Wesley knew what was in a good song!

Biblical Principles for Music

–March of 2002

Biblical Principles for Music

By Michael Avery and Rodney Sones

Music is one of the most powerful forces both in our culture and in our personal lives. Every kind of music that we choose to enjoy affects our lives in some way. Music has the power to inspire, encourage, and lift our souls to ecstasy. It can make us weep with sadness, passionate for romance or blind with anger. Such a powerful medium must be used with wisdom. Our choices regarding its use should be guided by good principles. We should choose music because we know it is good. For the Christian, the Bible is our guide and standard. What principles can a Christian use to discover good music?

Because music and the arts are inherently subjective, it is difficult at times to clearly identify what does or does not glorify God. But while the Bible does not describe the technical stylistic traits of good or bad music or give explicit rules on what music is acceptable, it does give us principles that we must apply to all of our lifestyle choices – choices such as the media we consume, the entertainment we enjoy, and the music we listen to.

In giving us principles, God has intentionally allowed a degree of freedom and variety in our musical expressions. This freedom gives us room to change and to grow. A wonderful variety of expression is seen between and within cultures. But with this freedom comes responsibility and opportunity.

Our responsibility is to honor the One who gave us these gifts and granted us these privileges of choice. It is to reflect His holiness in the choices we make. And the opportunity is to discover the joy that such choices bring, if we are willing to reach that level of living. This freedom allows us to grow as we orient our desires toward things that are of greatest value. The choice of our music reflects our inner values and mirrors our soul, just as the other outward expressions of our culture like clothing, language, and entertainment reflect our inner selves.

How, then, shall we discover and apply principles of godly living to our music? How shall we orient our lives toward pleasing God above all others? We must begin where God has spoken. We must saturate our soul with God’s Word. This will produce what we call a “Biblically-conditioned discernment” – a discernment that reflects God’s viewpoint, because it springs from Biblical principle. There is no substitute for Biblically-conditioned discernment if we desire the clear leadership of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Without this discernment, Christians often make life choices that are harmful to them spiritually without sensing any wrong in doing so. Many feel free to choose whatever music they like, because the Bible doesn’t directly identify a particular style as sinful. This approach to making lifestyle choices will lead to spiritual decay, because it naturally fills one’s life with things of lesser value.

But while discipline in our lifestyle choices is necessary and foundational to a life of joy, the choice of a disciplined lifestyle does not relegate us to boredom and starch! One of the things that God has put into our very soul is the conviction that whatever is good should bring with it a deep sense of satisfaction. So making careful choices in music does not mean choosing distasteful music over what we like. Rather, it means choosing what satisfies us most deeply at the center of our being, while we reject illegitimate or less worthy music in favor of finding this deeper satisfaction. The music we choose should be godly, interesting, and enjoyable!

The Biblical principles that govern our freedom to choose, then, spring from two balancing concepts: exaltation, which is the need to make choices that honor God; and edification, which is the corresponding need to fill our lives with things that are inherently wholesome and good. Please examine the following brief list of principles we can reference when applying these concepts. You may be able to list more.

Principle 1: EXALTATION

If the music is Christian, do the music and lyrics exalt God? We begin with God, because He is first. While not all music will be objectively focused on God Himself, the music should not glorify people, their talents, and experiences, etc, above God.

If the music is secular, do the values expressed glorify God? Even music that is not about God or Christian living should be in harmony with what is right and true. (I Cor. 10:31; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16.)

Supporting Principle: Harmonization

Do the lyrics express truth I believe is in harmony with God’s Word? (1 Tim. 1:10; 2 Tim. 3:15-17.)

Principle 2: EDIFICATION

Does the music edify me spiritually and mentally? We should choose value over immediate pleasure. We get satisfaction from choices made to simply gratify our fleshly desires. But this kind of satisfaction is shallow. It pales when compared to the deeper joy one can find in things of enough worth to be accepted by our Father. (Col. 3:1, Phil. 4:8, Col. 3:16.)

Supporting Principles: Transformation, Separation, and Sanctification

Can I take delight in this music and at the same time be conformed to the mind of Christ? Does the culture that surrounds this music conform to the mind of Christ? Does it reinforce the lifestyle that I believe best reflects principles of godly living?

The culture in which this music is born, packaged, and promoted should reflect Christian values and culture. (I Thess. 4:3, 7, 5:23; Col. 3:17; 2 Cor. 6:14; Psa. 139:21; 1 John 2:15-16; Eph. 5:11-12; Rom. 12:1; Col. 3:10; Matt. 7:17-18; 2 Cor. 6:14-15.)

What about CCM?

The very concept that anything is contemporary assumes that things have changed over time. All modes of culture are subject to change: styles of dress, styles of speech, and styles of musical and artistic expression. In each generation godly people must assess the new expressions of culture and apply the principles by which they live to the decisions these new expressions present.

Changes in musical style have often been a challenge for the Church. As a conservative institution, the Church is naturally wary of change, especially when new musical styles are influenced or created by those who are secular in their purposes or not trained Biblically or theologically. The danger is evident when changes are not driven by godly purposes but by the desire for innovation or personal pleasure.

Yet there is a natural need for refreshment in the expression of our worship to God. Development and change in music are good and wholesome, since our creativity reflects the image that God, our Creator, imprinted on us. Church music has reflected these changes over the centuries. Musical styles have progressed from Gregorian chant through metrical psalms and Wesley’s hymns to the amazing variety of choices at our disposal today. So there is a healthy tension between the need to preserve our heritage and the need to express ourselves in a new way.

Also the nature of music itself ensures there will be constant change in its forms and styles. Music is a cultural expression. Therefore it reflects the changes in values that are a part of its creators’ culture. And music is creative, so it is constantly being transformed by its creators as they seek new ways of expression. These natural forces ensure that there will always be – as there always has been – contemporary (or new) Christian music (CCM). All of what we sing today was new music in its own day. So new is not necessarily bad! We must be careful, in our enthusiasm, not to consider all new music to be worldly! God is not stuck in history.

There are at least three major criticisms leveled toward CCM:

(1) The evident influence of secular pop music in its musical style.

(2) The reflection of popular culture in that culture that surrounds the music (style of dress and speech, general atmosphere at concerts, etc.).

(3) The shallowness and theological emptiness of the lyrics in some CCM.

The first of these differences may be the one most evident to the uninitiated listener. The influence of secular popular music is evident in the restlessness of the musical style. This restlessness is produced by relentless rhythmic drive and harmonic stress. While there is great variety in pop musical styles, these traits are fairly consistent in the various styles we lump together as CCM. The question on which much philosophical debate hinges is whether or not that musical structure can carry a cultural message that conflicts with the message of the Gospel and the values of holiness. The definitive answer to that question is beyond the scope of this short article. But it is our opinion that all products of a culture reflect the values of that culture, and therefore carry its influence in some way.

The second of these criticisms – the reflection of popular culture in the culture that surrounds CCM – is of particular concern to people who have chosen careful disciplines of lifestyle.

The third of these criticisms is perhaps the one we have the most difficulty applying with equal honesty to our favorite styles. It is unfortunate that much of the criticism of CCM has been based on dislike of the unfamiliar, rather than on application of principles!

While there are obvious differences between today’s CCM and yesterday’s new music, the criticisms we level against it could often be leveled equally against some of the music styles of the recent past. Examples of shallowness and trite musical style are found within all styles of music, including the camp meeting music of the early nineteen hundreds, Southern gospel, and the “inspiration and praise” music of today. Some styles, however, seem to easily lend themselves to triteness.

Many people who are shocked by CCM readily accept other music marked by doctrinal carelessness, cheap grace, me-focused lyrics, and which is focused more on style or performance value than on godly values. It is hypocritical to apply a more severe standard to music we do not like than we apply to our favorite style.

What are some characteristics that may mark music as worldly?

(1) Music that seeks to conform me to this fallen world’s values. Music that expresses the attitudes and values of this fallen world’s music or that exhibits degenerate patterns, the rhythm and beat of a fallen world.

(2) Music that contains poor theology. Popular Christian music often emphasizes cheap-grace theology and fails to encourage holy, victorious living.

(3) Music that reflects packaging and marketing techniques that mirror a fallen secular music society. Today’s CCM often glamorizes a lifestyle contrary to Christian values. It is marked by secular, sensual marketing techniques like that of the music produced by a fallen world.

Fortunately, time has proven that most of yesterday’s froth and most of today’s CCM will fade away and be forgotten. The church has a way of purging itself of all but the best. The great hymns and other solid gospel songs have survived the test of time. The best of the new songs will surely find their place alongside the old.