Rocking the Church (Nov-Dec 2001)

By Matt Dabbs

by Randall Williams
November – December, 2001

The lights go down in the arena and thousands of well-scrubbed and even better behaved kids (and a fair share of adults) go wild as the band launches into a familiar hit that sounds and looks like any modern rock show but has a sanctified slant: “Shine, make ‘em wonder what you got/Make ‘em wish that they were not/On the outside looking bored/Shine, let it shine before all men/Let ‘em see good works and then/Let ‘em glorify the Lord.”

Yes, it’s an interesting paraphrase, but it is biblical. As one who works with and mentors youth, what a perfect distraction – up tempo, modern rock with biblical lyrics. But as a nearly obsessive observer of pop culture, I would’ve been skeptical at such a performance. I’d be more skeptical if it weren’t for the fact that I was one of the five on stage making all that noise.

For the past eight years I’ve been touring and recording in the Christian music industry in Nashville, Tenn. My band Big Tent Revival has so far recorded five albums, four of which were nominated for Grammy Awards. While our group is taking a break from touring, I have played guitar for the Newsboys, the popular Christian band with the hit song, Shine.

It wasn’t an easy road getting to that stage in Ohio with the Newsboys. I mean, how does a dyed-in-the-womb member of the a cappella singing Church of Christ end up playing – gasp – Christian music? First, I gave my God-given creative gifts back to Him and let Him direct my course. Looking back, I realize that’s what I did, but it took years of struggle, confusion, a tiny bit of rebellion, and a bit more guilt. This is my story, this is my song.

Playing guitar made sense to me: the strings, the neck, two hands operating simultaneously yet independently. Throughout my teen years I was that musician that every youth group seems to have: I sat in the back row, wore concert shirts and always seemed to be the one who snuck a portable stereo to church camp.

Thanks to a heavy dose of respect for my parents and basic shyness I never went the route of long hair, tattered clothes, or starting a band. That came years later.

I had a guitar, the talent to play, and I wanted to ROCK! But I had no one to play for, and even if I did, I had nowhere to play. I always grew up in fairly moderate churches, but even then, my artistic outlets were relegated to touring a cappella vocal music groups and designing murals for vacation bible school. That was okay, but MTV was much more intriguing to me than barbershop quartets.

I was a good kid – I didn’t use drugs, never drank, got along great with my parents, loved my youth group, loved God and loved music, but the only spiritually uplifting art I could relate to, much less find, was U2 or Mr. Mister. I would scour the lyric sheets of Van Halen, Pink Floyd, Stevie Ray Vaughan – anyone who made sense to me musically – for a sign that I could enjoy and listen without guilt. I knew that much of the music and videos were not what good Christian kids ought to tune into.

What brought our culture and churches to this tension between rock and Christianity?

Rewind to 1965. That year something happened that forever changed the relationship between rock and roll and the church. John Lennon was asked what he thought of the phenomenon called Beatle Mania. With his usual candor he said that he thought the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus Christ.” Christians heard his statement as blasphemous.

Add Lennon’s comments to the hippie movement and its accompanying drug and sexual experimentation, the so-called Summer of Love in 1967, the Woodstock music festival in 1969, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Doors, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin…all of a sudden, rock and roll wasn’t just a silly phase the kids were going through. Rock and roll was dangerous.

There was a revolution threatening to disrupt everything sweet and pure about American life. The church chose to deal with it, by and large, in two very different ways. We either ignored it, or we fought it by burning records and picketing concerts. What seemed to be overlooked was the fact that the Doors, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin were offering something that kids and young adults were hungering for.

During the 70s, however, many Christians began engaging the rock music culture with their Christian faith. I didn’t know anything about the growing Christian music scene until I went to Harding University, and my roommate introduced me to Phil Keaggy, Amy Grant, and the Resurrection Band. My roommate had grown up in a conservative charismatic background and couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of these musicians.

I was amazed that there are people who play guitar and sing about their relationship with God and ride in tour buses and play loud music. Much to my dismay, however, the administration at my university discouraged future instrumental Christian music concerts on campus.

Despite such a reaction by my alma mater, my band, Big Tent Revival, was booked to play several Church of Christ events over the years. I even got to share the stage with Jeff Walling, who was responsible for much of my spiritual growth as a teen.

I’ve met many prominent evangelical authors and preachers, but nothing was quite as exciting (and affirming) as when Jeff took me aside and told me how proud he was of me and encouraged me to keep expanding the boundaries of the church.

Since then I’ve met countless people in the music industry (both Christian and mainstream) who grew up in the Churches of Christ. We always have similar stories: we grew up with a God-given gift but had no idea we could use it to the glory of God. I’ve learned quite a bit these past eight years about art, rock and roll, and the discipline of giving our gifts back to God.

In Genesis 22, Abraham is instructed to take his only son Isaac and sacrifice him as a burnt offering to God. This is a compelling story of a man who longed to be blessed with a child, was given the child after decades of prayer and patience, and then was commanded to return the gift. God gives gifts, but the gifts aren’t blessings until they are put back on the altar, and allowed to be used as God sees fit.

Since the political, social, and cultural revolutions of the late 60s, art has pretty much been considered a dangerous thing by the church at large. Yet, during this time God was still giving artistic gifts to people. But what to do about those youth group kids with shaved heads, piercings, and tattoos? They’re a pretty radical lot and often become radical Christians. They certainly don’t care what anyone thinks of them, and Christianity becomes the ultimate rebellion against society. We could all learn from their gall and boldness.

Many of these kids have been given a special calling from the Lord. However, without solid biblical teaching and mentoring these passions, desires, and abilities can be misinterpreted, manifesting in selfish, self-centered expressions. Creative people can become egotistical because they are creating something from nothing. That’s why I believe it is important to equip creatively gifted believers with biblical teaching on how to use those gifts to God’s glory. This hit home to me when I read about shock-rocker Marilyn Manson growing up in church and attending Christian schools. He lamented that instead of receiving nurture and encouragement, he was made fun of and ridiculed for being different. To be sure, he is an extremely talented person, but his gifts are being used selfishly to promote his now twisted beliefs and distrust in the church.

God is the Great Artist. Just look outside at His creation. Most likely, there are members of your congregation who will never look, act, dress, or think the same as you or me. Praise God! It’s also very likely that these folks have been given the same Godly creativity that was present when He said, “Let there be light.” Creativity is a powerful gift. I want to challenge you to seek these people out and mentor them in a healthy, prayerful way. In His timing, God will reveal the specific purposes of these gifts. Imagine the impact if a young John Lennon had received this kind of training, or if a teenaged Brian Warner (Marilyn Manson) had been encouraged to make shocking art that revealed God to a dying world?

Do we really expect Hollywood, or the music industry to clean itself up because we’re preaching that they should? Not going to happen. But, if there are churches who understand the social impact of the arts, they will be equipping, training, and encouraging creative Christians to go to Hollywood, or to write songs, or take inspiring photographs all to the glory of God so that He may be revealed, uplifted, and ultimately redeem humanity one film, one song, one person at a time.New Wineskins

Randall Williams

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About...

This author published 1598 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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