American Idol Worship: What An American TV Show and an Australian Worship Leader Have In Common

Posted on April 18, 2008


I don’t watch American Idol, though I peruse it now and then as I’ve been told it is the number one show on TV right now. Even people in my church feign it’s wonder. But, I do teach worship and culture at a local undergraduate college. So when this was sent to me today, I was obviously intrigued:

To paraphrase from another popular song, I can only imagine that there were many who were thrilled that one of the top worship songs in the world, written by one of the most well-known worship leaders in the world, got to take center stage at one of the top TV shows in the world. And I could also imagine what backlash there might have been too, at the syncretism, the compromise (as you notice they changed the name “Jesus” to “shepherd,”) and the commercialization of “worship.” After perusing the blogosphere for a couple days, that is exactly what we find.

So, it seemed good of me to reflect thoughtfully on what this really means, and how we ought to respond to the confluence of church and culture.

One more preface note. Josh Harris posted some great “inside scoops” (his third post) into the whole thing that are well worth reading. He includes other post quotes from Fox and Hillsong that are worth listening to and informing how we ought to respond. (post #1 here, #2 here). (I too loved the quote, that we should “reserve our outrage for the real tragedies of this world.” Thank you, Hillsong, for taking the high road.)

First, a little historical perspective.

1. There is nothing new under the sun. Have we forgotten (oh, geez…more song references) about Amy Grant, Sixpence None The Richer, John Tesh (???), Larry Norman, uh, Martin Luther, and countless others? Whether one is thrilled at the song being platformed, or irked at its compromised usage, I’m not sure we’re ever going to get to an agreed upon ethic. What we can conclude is that throughout history, the meshing of church and culture has always caused a sense of divisiveness within the Church community (cf. Christ and Culture, Rethinking Christ and Culture, and others, Christ and the Powers, and many other books too numerous to list) and they’re always on the same polarized sides: triumphal or ticked. In response, Bob Briner attempted to bring some foundations to this controversial subject in Roaring Lambs, a book that ought to be at least perused for anyone wishing to engage in this kind of discussion or caught between these two worlds of church and culture:

I was taught how to be a lamb, but I was never taught to roar. I’m writing this book because I think it’s time for more lambs to roar. It’s time for believers to confidently carry their faith with them into the marketplace so that our very culture feels the difference. I’m writing to parents and ministry professionals with the prayerful hope that they will begin more intensely and systematically to teach and model the reality that every one of us is called to be a minister in our own corner of the world. I am writing with the hope that the dichotomy between professional Christians and Christians in the professions will be greatly lessened. I am writing with the hope that every reader will better understand how to carry out the scriptural admonition to be salt in a world that so desperately needs that preservative. And I am writing with the hope that Christian young people will choose careers and professions that will place them in the ‘culture shaping’ venues of our world.” [1]

So, it’s important to gain perspective. This is not the first, and it is far from the last time that the crossover will happen, and we must learn to decry any sense of ultimate triumphalism or demoralizing defeat. This will not be monumental in either direction.

2. Every convergence is a compromise. Here is where a small bit of good Christology comes in (for us theologians). What was the incarnation except one big compromise of who God actually is in order to communicate to us what we possibly could become? One cannot read Philippians 2 without getting the sense that God “condescended” himself in order to relate, cross the bridge, reach, (however you want to put it), all of humanity (John 1 is the same, but more in the Hellenistic philosophical way rather than the Hebraic poetic way of Philippians). And it wasn’t going to happen by us becoming more godly. It was only going to happen by God becoming more human. God modeled for us what it means to enter into another world for the sake of redeeming it.

When it comes to “earth-to-earth incarnations,” then, we must realize that compromise is inevitable. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just is. It’s the nature of incarnational ministry. Now, some may like the word “contextualization” better, but if we’re really honest, contextualization involves the act of utilizing cultural forms, platforms, languages, and other elements to “carry” the message which we’re trying to convey. And, if Marshall McLuhan is right, then the new “wineskins” in which the message is carried actually changes the very message itself, thus, a compromise for the sake of communication. Everyone does it, and it will continue even more so through a more globalized and acculturated society.

I asked this just recently of a friend who does ASL (American Sign Language) interpretation. While observing her “interpretation,” there were many times when, for the sake of clear communication, she would leave out words or phrases, idioms, colloquialism, because they just didn’t translate into ASL in the same way. It would mean something different. I call this “a compromise of the communication for the sake of clear interpretative conveyance.” I would also consider worship songs on American Idol in a similar vein.

3. Last, this is another reminder of how Christianity is committed to the wrong forms and expressions, and needs to revist again true, Biblical discipleship. The ethic that is communicated in response to this American Idol/Shout To The Lord event is that the Christian calling is somehow won or lost at the platform level or in the eyes of “popular culture.” If we could somehow throw the adjective “Christian” in front of music, movies, food, etc., then we would have accomplished our goal. This, I argue, is not what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Go make disciples.” And, to continually be viscerally engaged at popular levels is to forget (and in many ways, actually oppose) the true strength of the Jesus-way; that is to be the “mustard-seed” agents of God’s presence, known as his “Kingdom” here on earth, steadily and faithfully infusing this world, through our life-style (opposed to our life-styles) with love, uncompromising, self-sacrificial, laying-down-of-life-for-friends kind of love. They will not know we are followers of Jesus if we somehow win out more “worship” songs on popular TV. They will not know we are followers of Jesus if we have more “Christians” than “non-Christians” in popular culture. They will not know we are followers of Jesus if we celebrate Christians “making it” while non-Christians don’t. How will they know us?

I find that the syncretism I’m mostly concerned about, is not with music, TV, media, etc., it’s the syncretism of the disciple’s heart. For we “cannot serve two masters.” And as we try to hold on to our Christian identity, being “Christian” and “believing” all the right things, all the while sustaining ourselves on a diet of popular culture rather than the disciplines of a disciple, I think we’ve missed something huge. The movie “Saved” comes to mind.

And, I’m sure this position is unpopular and easily criticized. Perhaps this is why Jesus is so brilliant. “Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”

[1] Bob Briner, Roaring Lambs: A Gentle Plan to Radically Change Your World, (Zondervan, 1993), 20-21.

Posted in: Culture, Religion