Ain't Just Putting On the Ritz

Only a few days after Josh Harris told Instagram that he is no longer a Christian, Marty Sampson similarly announced that he is "genuinely losing [his] faith." To briefly summarize, the former Hillsong United lead singer is apparently the first person to notice that miracles aren't commonplace today (it might have be good for him to first study why miracles are less common today than, say, the days right after Pentecost). Sampson also mentioned that he is tired of Christians saying "I just believe" without giving reasons, which certainly is a problem. Still, neither of these are actual arguments against Christianity; they are arguments against a shallow faith that does not seek out answers.

It is always discouraging to hear someone say that they have abandoned the faith. Each of us, if we've lived long enough, have known, loved, and trusted people who eventually became apostate. Yet if social media is any indication, many are particularly crushed at the news about Sampson leaving the faith. They listened to his songs day after day. In some cases, they even sang his songs on Sunday mornings, and took spiritual encouragement from them. 

I might gently suggest that it was never God's intention for Christian singers to occupy such an important spiritual place in Christians' lives. Many Christians have learned to shape their spiritual lives and experiences around Christian music and radio. I'm not saying that those things are bad, or that God cannot use them in our lives, but there's a problem any time Christians begin to replace their own exposure to the Bible and preaching with music.

It may be tempting to look at singers as spiritual leaders, in part because music is powerful. Music creates a sensation and provides an experience that is undeniable, similar to how eating cotton candy provides an experience. But if we lived our lives for that experience, our stomachs would eventually go hungry and our teeth would fall out. We need substance that feeds, strengthens, and undergirds the experience.

A few weeks ago I saw a documentary about the band U2. I remember hearing a remark by Bono about their concert set list:

"Whenever we want God to walk through the room, that's when we play 'Where the Streets Have No Name.'"

I think I know what he means: When they want to lift people's eyes up with a sense of grandeur, to transport people to another place where they feel small in the universe, they play that particular song. I've seen U2 in concert numerous times, and I've felt that sensation myself. Music has the power to create powerful experiences; the temptation is to want to live for those experiences. We may even wonder why our church isn't like that, and begin to yearn more for inward experience rather than the reality of what God has actually said and done. 

When I was a teenager in the mid/late 90s, I really enjoyed listening to a Christian band called Skillet. They had a crunchy, industrial guitar sound paired with heavily distorted vocals (think Nine Inch Nails, if you know who that is), but the lyrics were basically Christian. They're still around today, and lead singer John Cooper recently reflected on Sampson's apostasy: 

"My conclusion for the church (all of us Christians): We must STOP making worship leaders and thought leaders or influencers or cool people or "relevant" people the most influential people in Christendom. (And yes that includes people like me!) I've been saying for 20 years (and seemed probably quite judgmental to some of my peers) that we are in a dangerous place when the church is looking to 20 year old worship singers as our source of truth. We now have a church culture that learns who God is from singing modern praise songs rather than from the teachings of the Word...singers are not always the best people to write solid bible truth and doctrine. Sometimes we are too young, too ignorant of scripture, too unaware, or too unconcerned about the purity of scripture and the holiness of the God we are singing to." [1]

Another one of my favorite Christian singers from the '90s was Rich Mullins. Mullins did what he could to steer people away from himself as some spiritual source and steer people towards the local church. I recall at one of his concerts he simply stopped after one song and reminded those in attendance that his concert wasn't a church service: 

"It's so funny being a Christian musician. It always scares me when people think so highly of Christian music, Contemporary Christian music especially. Because I kinda go, 'I know a lot of us, and we don't know jack about anything.' Not that I don't want you to buy our records and come to our concerts. I sure do. But you should come for entertainment. If you really want spiritual nourishment, you should go to should read the Scriptures." [2]

I know it sounds like I'm bagging on Christian music, but I'm really not. Christian music has a place in my own life, and I appreciate it. But we should be careful to put it in its place and maintain a healthy perspective on its relationship to our own hearts. The ordinary means God has given us to grow are prayer, the sacraments, and the reading and preaching of the Bible. Let's start there, and build our spiritual health around those things first and foremost.


[1] Posted on Facebook, August 13, 2019.

[2] cf. Lufkin, Texas Concert Transcript, Carpenter's Way Christian Church, July 19, 1997.

Adam Parker is the pastor of Pearl Presbyterian Church (PCA) and an adjunct professor at Belhaven University. Most importantly, he is husband to Arryn and father of four.

Related Links

Worship: The Chief End of Man (Quakertown Conference on Reformed Theology 2019)

The God We Worship, edited by Jonathan Master

Reformation Worship Conference: Anthology

An Open Letter to Worship Leaders by Scott Swain