David Kinnaman notes that many “exiles” who have left the church are creatives who felt their gifts are unwanted in the Church. Yet we lose something valuable when we lose their unique, Spirit guided insights.
How many of you know that I am singer/songwriter? Yes, many of you know that I have a picture at the end of each article of me from a few years ago holding Rose my Electric Guitar after a Chapel service at Gordon-Conwell. But did you know I have written over 300 songs and performed over 100 shows made up of primarily my own music. While I was working for AltRockLive CMG I would even talk to artists like Kiros and The Classic Crime about my own music, got to sit down with Matt Bronleewe and somewhere have an email exchange between us with critiques about my own music. There was a time when, before John Walk and the Opened Eyes and the “Land of the Living EP” I was seriously pursuing a music career. When I got to Graduate School, I put that dream on hold except for the occasional John Walk concert with the guys. I was in the process of recording another EP when life just got to busy, and I gave up the pursuit altogether. On top of that I was starting to feel a little tension between my music and what I sensed those in the church wanted me to play. I lead worship at Chapel a few times with my unique folk-rock blend (and Crowder songs), then was never asked to lead again until my fourth year when I volunteered and the day I was asked to lead something with my schedule or the new baby, I can’t remember, kept me from doing so (though I played drums and guitars multiple times).
The message was becoming clear, your music is great for Broadway Market in Sterling, or the Youth Group Lock-In at the Baptist Church or even the open Mic at that bar in Wichita. It works wonderfully for entertainment during the Seminaries big clam festival and the yearly Kalos Talent Night (which I organized one year) but your music is not ‘church music’ so until you learn to play Chris Tomlin or “Mighty to Save” we will see you later. I understood, or at least I thought I did, I was different from the Hillsong types that seemed to be the ones leading worship with their droning keyboards and questionable theology were what was in and I should conform or stop trying.
Okay, it was not that bad, and to be fair, the worship at the seminary became something so much more than that by the time I graduated. I suppose I am not even bitter; I have never claimed to write or sing church-music but prefer Downhere’s self-description of “Ministry-Music.” That is, I write songs that are designed to minister to people in the moment they are in. I write songs to express my own longing for Christ and to process with my brothers and sisters the pain of reconstruction and healing. If someone hears one of my songs and knows they are not alone in what they are experiencing or that they can be pointed to Christ through one of the songs I wrote, I consider it a service to Christ. I have experienced a lot of hurt and joy in my life and the outlet of songwriting has allowed me the grace of processing with God and others. I have also had the blessing of hearing those stories of the few people who have been impacted by the music because God used it to minister to them. That is a humbling thing, and now that I am not playing as much, or if I am it is someone else’s material, I do not get to hear those things as much.
I have been thinking about this because I just finished reading Andrew Peterson’s new book “Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling and the Mystery of Making” and because of it I am deeply aware of the way I have allowed myself to put aside a part of myself that God has put deep within me, that is part of my created personhood in Christ and an essential part at that. I have also been reminded of a central ideas within the David Kinnaman book “You Lost Me” which states that Exiles (of which I would be one were I not a Pastor) are exiles because they have felt the church has stifled a part of the way God has made them. Creatives, like myself, have been told there is a way to do these things like worship or art or novel writing and any diversion from what is often strict, and rigid is seen as an annoyance, or worse, rebellion. The status quo is prized above all else, even above God’s calling on the community, and if one violates that status quo it is demanded they either fall back into place or leave. The result has been that creatives have either left the church and the faith all together like the award-winning worship artist Michael Gunger now agnostic. Or they seek out other avenues to use the expression of creativity God has built into them outside the church which usually involves leaving the church altogether. Their faith is remaining intact, but their relationship with the body of Christ is severed on a relational level because they have been told they do not belong there.
I know Andrew Peterson necessarily has no qualms with the praise craze of the 2000’s but CCM lost something when it happened and continues to lack something because it is gone. For instance, I am listening to Caedmon’s Call right now, at one point they, Andrew Peterson, Rich Mullins, Jars of Clay and others were the standard bearers of Christian Music. The music was intricate and beautiful, and the lyrics had a lot to say. The closest equivalent to them in the 2000’s upward was Casting Crowns who succeeded despite what the rest of the industry was doing. I started listening to heavier Christian Music in High School precisely because the CCM that adorned our car radio had almost (Casting Crowns and Tenth Avenue North being the exception) nothing to say to what my friends and I were experiencing and “positive and encouraging” did nothing when a friend took their life to suicide or when I was struggling with suicide after my brain injury in 2015.
I know this sounds incredibly selfish, but what BARNA research has shown us is that many people my age feel as though the institutional church and its products (like CCM) do not speak to what they are experiencing in a way that draws them to Jesus or addresses relative issues that are important to them in any meaningful way. When they need answers to questions, CCM has given them a gentle pat on the back and given them the power of positive thinking over and instead of the Gospel. This is why one of my criteria for reviewing an album at ARLCMG was the relevance to cultural issues. It is also why one of my top five albums of the last decade was KB’s “Today We Rebel” because it addressed topics people our age were concerned about, mainly justice and how the Bible tells us we should pursue it in obedience to God, not man-made laws.
Perhaps ironically, what has happened in the church is captured perfecting in a CCM song, namely, Casting Crowns “City on a Hill” which in the first verse says this: “Have you heard of the city on the hill, said one old man to the other, it was shining bright and it would be shining still, but they all started turning on each other, you see the poets thought the dancers were shallow, and the soldiers thought the poets were weak, the Elders saw the young ones as foolish, and the rich man never heard the poor man speak.” I have a hard time imagining a more accurate poetic description of church culture in North America than those lines, and they haunt me as I pastor in a ministry where I am the youngest adult there most Sundays. If I had a penny for everything, I have had someone grumble to me about my generation only to follow it up with: “but not you, you’re obviously an exception.” I can tell you that hurts, and so do the facebook posts about millennials based on stereotypes that are not true. Of course, I do not want to turn around and do the same thing to them by using the equally disrespectful cultural phrase that has gained popularity in the last several months, “okay boomer” because that only perpetuates the divide and returns the animus inherent in these debates.
What Andrew Peterson has done in his book though is to remind us what C.S. Lewis did a generation ago, that we as Christians are called to create and to do so with the Gospel in mind. Through the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us and when we do that the entire body is edified and encouraged in Christ, through what God is doing through creatives. Though he never quotes the Casting Crowns song, you can hear in the chapters of the book the second bridge: “It is the rhythm of the dancers, That gives the poets life, It is the spirit of the poets, That gives the soldiers strength to fight, It is fire of the young ones, It is the wisdom of the old, It is the story of the poor man, That’s needing to be told.” One thing that Peterson hits one, perhaps without knowing it, is that we are literally all connected as the lyrics quoted above remind us. Everyone in the body of Christ needs everyone else and needs to be “devoted to one another in family love, showing preference for one another” (Romans 12:10 translation and italics mine).
Last night at Men’s bible study we talked about what it means to do exactly what the verse above states. We talked about how a better translation of Philadelphia in scripture than brotherly love would be “Family love” or “Christian family.” The word, which appears 220 times from Acts to 2nd Peter literally means: “Love for those of the same womb.” The Christian then is not a lone, wondering soul trying to figure out his discipleship on his or her own, but a brother and sister in love and in fellowship and communion with other members of the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit. This isn’t just community as we know it in the modern day, but a remaking from a person to a people who all share the same spiritual parentage, God the Father who has adopted us through Christ (Gal 4:4-8). I like what Joseph Hellerman says then in “When the Church Was a Family,” that we should, so much as copyright allows, sing our worship songs using corporate pronouns like “we” and “us” instead of “I” and “me.” This would better foster a sense of family over and against the radical individualism we love so much and which may not survive another generation anyway, at least not in the church.
I have been a part of what can happen when the church does this, it was the hallmark of my last two years of seminary. I saw what can happen when we think of each other as brothers and sisters instead of just the people we go to church with. What I did not mention before is that even though I did not lead worship, many of the other super creative and talented people in our community did and it was awesome what the Lord did with it. I think of my brother Brandon who introduced his own songs into worship, something I had tried to do two years prior only to not be asked to lead again. I think of my sister Tiffany whose passionate piano playing and vocal style was a cry to God that vocalized what our hearts were feeling. Outside of Chapel I think of Neil and Tyler and Frank and Gerald, the amazing musicians who made up John Walk & The Opened Eyes. From day one of making music together we just used our gifting on our instruments and voices to make music for the glory of God. As a side note, those four are the best musicians I have ever worked with, and I am unlikely to work with better. I think of the girl whose name I do not recall, who painted a picture on stage of what the Chapel speaker was describing, her way of worshiping and praising God for His death and resurrection. I think of my friend John, a seminary employee, who wrote poetry and would recite it at Kalos (I encourage you to read it, click here). My friend Mark who used his significant theological and philosophical powers to bear on issues in our culture in hopes of having a theological discussion on how we might address them biblically. I think of Dr. Adams whose “Story Theology” shapes my spiritual formation and devotional life to this day. Dr. Singleton whose creative means of lecturing mean I will not forget his stories or his wisdom (Nor will I forget Neil’s impression of him).
Without these men and women and so many more our family at the seminary would not have thrived in the way that it was by the time we graduated. I pray that not only do those things continue, but they find greater traction and draw in more and more people. But also that this might be an example to the church in the United States on how to live as a family that uses the “ingrained desire to follow our creator in creating,” as C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity. I create music because my creator created everything and like Him, because I am made in His image and reflect Him. If I suppress that creativity because it is not kosher in the evangelical church culture, then I am denying something which God put within me to do. If I tell God I will use one gift He has given me, the preaching gift, but not the other gift, the musical gift, then I am not functioning in my full capacity. If I tell the artist that they are not allowed to draw or paint and donate those items to the church to be displayed, I am stifling their ability to use their gift for the edification of the family of God. If I tell the poet that poetry is only for the worship song writer or hymn writer, then I am not allowing them to fulfill their full calling within the body that is meant to build up the body. God is not the God of the status quo and we should be endlessly grateful for that reality. We should be ashamed that there are Christian Communities are popping up outside the church for creatives because they have been told they have no place in the church.
Yet just a cursory glance at musicians would show us that the majority of Christian Music is not the mainstream praise craze stuff that feels skin-deep and even fake at times. But is the deep, faith infused, beauty-oriented music of the margins. If you look at art, (in every medium) you find a renewed interest in theological art that depicts scripture and its stories. If you look at poetry, there is a renewed interest in poetry modeled after the psalms with their many styles and ideas. What is happening on the margins, though in need of some guardrails in places, is quite deep, quite biblical and quite good, and there is a lot of it out there encompassing just about every style, genre and theme you can imagine. Not only do these young men and women point to a brighter day for the church, they also are restoring something to Christianity that has been missing in this depth since Cranach painted his famous painting of the reformation. I even picked up my guitar the other day, which has not been used to write since I wrote the song “Type A” in 2015 and wrote a song based on what I have been studying about the Church as a Family of God bound up in and devoted to one another in that love that only exists in the family of God. Not one of those happy-clappy “God loves you” songs, but a deep lament over what has been lost by making the church just another institution that we attend, not the family of God and a prayer that we would be called back to that. It felt good, other than sermons, which are an artform all their own, I had not crafted much of anything since I graduated from Seminary and The Opened Eyes all went our separate ways.
Community has been another area the church has struggled, but it is something that our artists tend to be good at. I have rarely met anyone who likes to create and keep that creation to themselves. Like Andrew Peterson and the Rabbit Room, we want to share with one another. That was the premise behind the band at Seminary, God has gifted us with talent on different instruments (and these guys were seriously good) and so let’s use those gifts for God’s Glory to make music to encourage the flock. When we were all exhausted because Seminary, life and kids were piling up, we knew we could gather to play music or go grab a drink at THE FARM or Fibber McGee’s to unwind. We also knew we had other friends, brothers and sisters in Christ who we could take with us and who would encourage us as we encouraged them. This type of community built on mutual love and encouragement was something we were worried we would not find when we moved to Iowa. God, however, had other plans as my first week there we met another couple just a few years older than us who we instantly connected with and then a chance meeting at the park between my wife and another young mom would spark another friendship and that those two couples were already friends. The first six to eight months of pastoral ministry, usually known as the Honeymoon period, can be the loneliest for a new pastor and family, and though they have been lonely, the loneliness has been lessened a great deal by what have becoming monthly gathering at one another’s homes built on an understanding that we are brothers and sisters in Christ living in mutual love and encouragement.
Both these families are farm families and I think farmers are the greatest artists of all. Think about it, you would not be able to look down from an airplane in the summer and see that patchwork of yellows and greens without the farmers who plant the seed and tend the crops. God uses them to magnify the beauty of His earth, especially when you drive by a golden Kansas wheat field right before harvest, or the deep green on an Iowa bean field right before it turns brown and is ready for harvest. The farmer becomes the instrument through which God paints His landscapes, making them the greatest artists of all. I know this is probably a really mushy thought, and I promise I am not just trying to curry favor with our new friends, I really do think that way, as one who has flown in and out of Wichita many times in my adult life, and have wondered at the beauty of the fields.
I say all of this to say this: We need to bring back our creatives as a church and create space for them to create whatever the Holy Spirit guides them to create. There is still room for theological guardrails, because they have to exist, but we should drop all lot of the manmade junk that has determined what is and what is not Church music. I love the organ, I do not want to get ride of it, but I also love guitar, violin, drums, clarinet and banjo. I love the old hymns but there is a lot of new hymnody that is just as deep if not deeper than some of what we consider deep in our churches today. I want to have a space where I can create what God has given me to create and in such a way that I can ask the hard questions and even try to answer the hard questions. And I do not just want this for myself, I want it for my brothers and sisters who love the Lord as deeply as I do but do not think they have any place in the church because their creative expression is not “normal” within the walls of the church.
Religious Art is one of the ways Historians learn about the people of the past. I fear our lack of it will speak volumes to the archaeologist who exhume the remains of our buildings. That thought saddens me, so much so that I want to fling open the doors and tell my creative brothers and sisters to come in and dwell with me on the deep things of scripture and God and then by the Power of the Holy Spirit create together wherever God leads us. I want to see Achdenbuilds lining the walls and hear every kind of instrument reverberate off them, I want us to do what the early church did and use whatever we had before us for the glory of GOD and I want everyone who can in on it.
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.