Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Songwriting

Yesterday my worship pastor sent out a lead sheet and MP3 for a new song we’re going to learn and sing this coming weekend at church, and it’s causing me some odd internal conflicts. Not because I hate the song, or because I think the content of the song is bad or anything like that. No, it’s because I opened up the lead sheet and had a strong reaction to the name of one of the songwriters. In this case, the song is called “Only King Forever” by Elevation Worship, and the songwriter in question is the pastor of Elevation Church, Steven Furtick.

This is not about my pastor’s choice of this song or about Furtick specifically. I don’t want to get into those arguments. What it is about is this question that’s nagging me. How much should my opinion of a songwriter affect my reaction to their songs?

Don’t go dissing on my fun music

First off, let’s agree that this is specifically about songs used for worship in church services. Because when it comes to music I listen to for fun, I really don’t care. I’ve honestly got very little idea what Sergei Rachmaninov’s theology, morality, or politics were, but he’s still my favorite classical composer because his music is awesome. Heck, I’ve got a pretty good idea that John, Paul, George, and Ringo had fairly lousy theology and morality, but that doesn’t prevent me from enjoying a good Beatles song.

But when we get to “Christian” music, and more specifically worship music, the dynamic changes somewhat, though the Christian/church music industry’s application of standards seems to be uneven. For example, Jennifer Knapp’s excellent record Kansas fell out of Christian music favor when she came out as a lesbian. On the other hand, Phillips, Craig, and Dean don’t believe in the Trinity and still get played ad nauseum on Christian radio.

Did you just forget to take your cynical pills today, Hubbs?

So then we come to this song, and Steven Furtick. What’s the issue with Furtick? Well, maybe it’s me as much as anything. He’s a megachurch pastor from Charlotte, NC, in the Southern Baptist denomination. Good enough so far. However, there have been some significant concerns raised in the past couple years when his church had “plants” in the congregation to “spontaneously” come up for baptism and when he built an 8500-square-foot mansion on a 19-acre lot in a gated development from an undisclosed church salary and book deal. And if I’m honest, I’ve watched some of his sermon videos, and there’s something about the guy and his approach that just feels wrong, that gives me the creeps. It’s not humble teaching and servant leadership to make disciples; rather, it’s manipulative performance art for the sake of inspiring giving and driving attendance/membership numbers.

(Again, I’m not claiming that I’m completely right here about Furtick – only describing why I have the reaction I have to him when his name comes up.)

I don’t really have any issues with the content of the song itself; it seems theologically sound, certainly more Jesus-proclaiming and less mushy than some other stuff we sing. But I’m still struggling to get past the authorship.

Am I holding a double-standard here? Probably. I mean, sure, we’ve all heard about Horatio Spafford writing “It Is Well With My Soul” after a great personal tragedy, and stories about Fanny Crosby’s saintly approach to her blindness, and I’ve heard good things about that Charles Wesley guy who wrote a bunch of solid hymns. But I know very little about the personal lives or theologies of most of the other songwriters whose songs we sing on Sundays. And in general that’s OK with me. As long as the song is good, let’s sing it.

And yet…

But, Chris, you sing songs written by Pentecostals and Catholics and others of every theological stripe and enjoy them. Why is this different?

It does seem different somehow. I think it’s because in those cases, while I don’t personally agree with those folks’ theology, I can understand how someone could, I find it reasonable, and I wouldn’t shy away from recommending someone attend one of those churches if it otherwise made sense for them. Furtick’s case is different. It’s not necessarily his theology, but his personality and apparent views toward leadership and money and pastoring. I can’t imagine I’d ever recommend that somebody go attend his church.

Isn’t your attitude then just basically ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ with regard to songwriters’ beliefs and personalities?

Yeah, I guess maybe it is. But hey, don’t ask, don’t tell has some Biblical basis, after all. Isn’t that what Paul basically advised Corinthian Christians with regard to eating meat sacrificed to idols?

Hey, couldn’t we just solve this by singing nothing but Psalms in church?

Well I dunno, King David wrote most of those and he wasn’t always an upstanding moral example, either… wait, you’re just trying to confuse me now, aren’t you?

Well, maybe…

Anyway, we’ll be singing the song on Sunday, and if it seems like a good fit, likely many Sundays after that. I suppose I’ll learn to live with the internal conflict. Maybe my friend Jason summed it up best:

12 thoughts on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Songwriting”

  1. The song is a warm cup of meh. I would not want it at my church if not any other reason than there are a lot of better songs. I am not sure it would have seen the light of day except for who wrote it.

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