The beginning of the end of my interest in Christian music began with the tragic death of Rich Mullins. Rich was on the Wheaton campus during my senior year. He’d written a play about Saint Francis and was using Wheaton students to stage its first performance. If I’m remembering correctly, his fatal car crash happened within only a few months of my graduation. I had seen Rich around, mostly in the dinning hall. He and Mitch played a short concert one night during dinner once. A few of my housemates have some really funny stories of their interactions with him. By all accounts Rich was as raw and as sincere of a human being as I would have guessed from seeing previous performances when I was in middle and high school. I personally did not try to engage him. I’m too shy, but more truthfully, I wasn’t as interested in his music anymore.
I attended a Vineyard church throughout my four years of college. The Vineyard and its worship music consumed most of my attention. Instead of Rich Mullins CDs I was buying up recordings by Matt Redman, Kevin Prosch and Martin Smith’s Delerious. From my first trip to England, I brought back the Delerious’ “Cutting Edge Band” two discs before they were marketed in the US. None of my friends in college had heard anything like those songs. I felt more enthralled and optimistic about the relevancy of my faith than ever. My vision for the church at large and worship music was dynamic and eager. I had considered for a time that I might graduate early and go straight into church planting. I’d even gone forward at a pastor’s conference and had John Wimber himself lay hands on me and bless my commitment to planting a church by the age of 25, “buster” churches is what they were calling them, as opposed to “boomer” churches.
Here is an odd little fact: the Evanston Vineyard was leading Matt Redman songs well before he became associated with the Passion conferences. I led “Better is One Day” for the first time in Oklahoma City at Bridgeway church sometime after I moved there in 1998. Charlie Hall then subsequently introduced that song to Louie Giglio. It is such a good song that it would have made it into churches across America by some other means, but it is interesting for me to try to understand why I’ve been quietly in the background watching at the turning points of these things.
Much of my frustration with Christian music is a result of watching Charlie himself get pushed around by the business side of this industry. It is really his story to tell, so I won’t say much, but I can remember my first Passion event in 1999. Some 13-14,000 college students gathered in Ft. Worth. Charlie’s face was projected on these enormous screens. It was the size of his televised goatee that was most impressive. Here was a friend, our church’s worship leader, someone so familiar and warm spread large and turned so unfamiliar and strange. I was immediately confused by the implicit cult of personality. It was nothing that Charlie was himself doing. It was the spectacle of the production that troubled me.
I want to be clear about something before I proceed: I don’t believe anyone I’m naming here was doing anything intentionally wrong. I’m not writing this out as a blame game. I’m trying to explain why it is that I’ve gone so far out of my way to critique popular culture and the church in historical, biblical and theological ways. Most of us have simply been naïve in our efforts to honor God with our gifts. Now it is with urgency that we should be ruthlessly evaluating our past and projecting a hopeful vision of what God honoring music can and should grow into. When I say that I’m frustrated with Christian music, it is not an idle critique. I hope I am and can continue to be a part of the change.