Recently, a brief discussion arose in my cell group’s chat on WhatsApp. It was a controversial issue about certain believers urging churches to stop playing Bethel and Hillsong worship music.
Now I usually keep mum when it comes to controversies in Christendom. Not because I’ve no opinions, since I’m known among friends to be a contrarian, one not adverse to challenging conventions. But in this case, I chose not to comment too much for two reasons.
Firstly, there’re usually subtle nuances we aren’t privy to in such issues; even hidden agendas by the opposing parties in the debate. In this case, it had to do with various concerns like doctrinal underpinnings and the sheer scale of these ministries’ reach and potential for detracting from God in favor of slick, technically-brilliant concert event management. So to jump into the fray of such issues without knowing what’s really going on is akin to rushing headlong into a lion’s den.
Secondly, it’s doubtful whether these divisive conversations go anywhere useful for the expansion of God’s Kingdom here on earth. It’s like the age-old debate of why Protestants have different splinter groups like the Methodists, the Anglicans, etc.
A case of focusing on the trees rather than the forest.
Having said that, I did weigh in on our chat to say that such controversies weren’t unique. As wise King Solomon aptly put it thousands of years ago, there’s really “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). I also wanted to weigh in on one area of controversy this issue raised: the form of worship these music ministries delivered.
A favorite book I repeatedly read over the past year actually had some helpful insights, though it was written well before this particular issue went viral. Called “Simply Tuesday” by Emily P. Freeman, Chapter 6 in the book spoke of how the human soul was never designed for fame. There, Emily gave examples of celebrities like comedian Ray Ramano and 2012 American Idol winner Philip Philips. Both men understood the foibles of fame.
For Ramano, it was his appearance on Oprah’s talk show when his successful Emmy-winning TV sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond” (ELR) completed its stellar nine-year run. There he shared on national TV a note his brothers wrote him before he first set off as a poor, fledgling comedian to work on ELR’s first season. In the note, his brothers quoted Mark 8: 35-36 where Jesus asked: “…what profits a man if he gains the whole world yet forfeits his soul?”, by way of reminding Ramano to stay grounded.
For Philips, it was the Idol finale when he was pronounced the winner. Rather than jump for joy, he walked offstage exhausted, after the obligatory finale performance (one he couldn’t complete), and straight into the welcoming, sanity-restoring embrace of his very down-to-earth family. It was pretty clear then that Philips had had more than he could bear of the glare and spotlight that invariably accompanied any new-found fame.
Emily also quoted author Christine Caine, who said: “If the light that is within you is not greater than the light that is upon you, the light that is upon you will destroy you.” Caine too made reference to Mark 8 when she came up with this insightful line.
I remembered two decades ago when I was serving in my church’s worship and evangelism ministries. It was so easy to be sucked into all the glory of being in the spotlight. The constant recognition and words of admiration and encouragement, as I encountered church members along the church corridors and pews, were like a dizzying aphrodisiac. I just found myself craving for more.
In those years, the light that was “upon” me was definitely greater than the light that was “within” me. So it came as no surprise that I was burned out within a couple of years!
Since then I’ve watched Christians serving in frontline ministries (worship leaders, musicians, preachers, etc) with a mixture of respect and caution. I knew painfully well the dangers that came with being in the spotlight for too long. I often say a short prayer for them – that they would not be overwhelmed and lose their souls to the ever-eager enemy that prowls everywhere like a “roaring lion, waiting to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
Over time, I’ve learned to discern the signs. For instance, when these ‘front liners’ start to get too glitzy, polished, even perfect. Like every worship event staged by Bethel and Hillsongs that cost millions, and that appear for all intents and purposes like some Beyonce or BTS concert.
Or the overly made-up and coiffed preacher in the latest Armani suit.
You can say that it’s their way of ‘keeping up with the times’ or being ‘in the world’ in order to better connect with today’s social media generation, and lead more people to Jesus.
But those arguments sound hollow once we acknowledge that we are supposed to ‘perform’ to an audience of just one: our Lord Jesus! Wasn’t Jesus someone who had “…no beauty or majesty to attract us to him…nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him”? (Isa 53:2) What’s His reaction I wonder if He were to sit in on one of these “majestic” worship events today?
For me, I would prefer imperfect, occasionally out-of-tune worship leaders. At least I’m more likely to identify with them for they are far more authentic and reliable. Fellow broken sojourners on this uneven cobbled road of life, seeking a savior.
I acknowledge that this is, and always will be, a topic of great controversy. And I’ll be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge that there probably are authentic followers of Christ in Bethel, Hillsongs, or other ‘controversial’ Christian outfits today.
But because we are all hardwired from birth to yearn for something greater than ourselves, it’s critical that we remind ourselves regularly that only Jesus is that ‘something greater’.
Only Jesus can truly satisfy.
His light within us is what will truly sustain us, not the deceptively bright and glamourous limelight this world shines on those who mistake it for the life-giving light of Christ.