You Are What You Sing

Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of the Christ Note: This is a slightly edited repost from September, 2010.

If you’ve been to an average American church, no doubt you know what a cheesy Christian song is all about.  From “Shine Jesus Shine” to “From The Inside Out” to “I Can Only Imagine,” solid theology is out and emotions and feelings are in.   I like what Stephen Nichols has to say about this.  Commenting on “I Can Only Imagine,” he writes that it

“…Has a rich sound and explicitly religious, even Christian, lyrics, but in the end it presents a rather vacuous theology.  These crossover artists remind me somewhat of the Osmonds.  They are wholesome, safe, and clean-cut, especially compared to their purely secular counterparts, but you can listen for a long time and not hear anything overtly Mormon.  Perhaps the same could be said of Christian crossover artists.  They too are wholesome, safe, and clean-cut, but not much Christianity crosses over with them.”

“In some ways this problem confronts more than the crossover artists.  The whole sweep of CCM may come under its purview.  CCM itself attempts to crossover, combining tastes and styles of the popular culture with the sensibilities and (a modicum of) the lyrics of church music.  How well it straddles that fence becomes a point of debate.  One problem that arises, however, is what CCM communicates in general about evangelicalism’s ambivalence to culture.  While the early days of Jesus music had an edge, arising as it did from the streets, CCM today has dulled the edge, producing music that is safe, not all that complex and artistically ranking a little below the songs on pop albums that don’t make it into radio circulation.”

“CCM has become ghettoized, the Christian suburban youth’s counter to what their unchurched friends listen to.  James Davidson Hunter refers to this dynamic as parallel institutionalism, which means that you can listen to Christian music on Christian radio stations or at Christian concerts or on CDs brought at Christian stores.  You can even download Christian ringtones for your phone bought, hopefully, from a Christian-owned-and-operated kiosk at the mall.”

“Hank Hill, the character from the animated series King of the Hill, sagaciously quipped in relation to Christian rock, ‘You aren’t making Christianity better, you’re just making rock and roll worse.’” (p. 134-5).

Since Christians learn much of their theology from the songs they sing in corporate worship (and privately), no wonder American Christianity is a mile wide but only an inch deep.  You really can’t expect Christians singing quasi-Christian pop music week after week to mature into doctrinally sound believers (cf. Heb 5.13).  The phrase “you are what you sing” might be a little cumbersome, but there is for sure some truth to it.

Get this book by Stephen Nichols: Jesus: Made In America (Downers’ Grove: IVP, 2008).

rev shane lems

10 thoughts on “You Are What You Sing”

  1. Reblogged this on Schreiberspace and commented:
    One caveat: I like “Shine, Jesus, Shine!” :)

    “Since Christians learn much of their theology from the songs they sing in corporate worship (and privately), no wonder American Christianity is a mile wide but only an inch deep.” Well-said, Rev. Lems.


  2. Ah. Well said. I agree with Andy. Additionally, as a parent, I’m very concerned about the “Christian” music as well. True that it’s much safer for kids to listen to than most of what’s on the radio or on tv and in movies today, but what is it really doing for them in the long haul.

    Additonally, emotions are so fleeting! Our hearts are so decietful that we don’t even know HOW much so! I could go on, but it would be repeating what was already said. :)


  3. Haha, I love that King of the Hill quote. It’s from a great episode all about the topic of Christian youth culture. I think this sort of thing stems from the constant temptation Christians have to create a “Christian culture” and equate a particular culture with our faith. It must be one of those innate human tendencies, because you see it all kinds of forms in different Christian circles.


  4. One of my teachers said, “No matter what a church *says* it believes, you can tell what it *really* believes by the hymnbook it uses.” My modification of that is: “No matter what a church *says* it believes, you can tell what it *really* believes by the hymns it chooses to sing — or not to sing — from the hymnbook it uses.”


    1. Great points, Alan, thanks much for that.

      This is one objective way to test how biblical and Reformed a church is: check out the words to the songs it sings (whether in a book or on an overhead). You can get all the words of the songs down on paper and evaluate them in light of Scripture and the confessions.

      I appreciate your comment. I’ll no doubt use your quote in the future (giving credit where it is due, of course!).



      1. You are welcome to quote me, but you’d better also give credit to the person from whom I heard the original — an RCA pastor, the Reverend Daniel Meeter.


  5. A few weeks ago I found a similar article on another URC member’s blog. That post was actually responding to the “viral” video satirizing contemporary Christian music, which you can find at this link if you’ve not seen it:

    Copying a previous comment seems like a copout, but I guess some of the thoughts I shared there are appropriate here as well. So here’s an edited version.

    What came to mind as I watched this and read the comments (both there and here) was the striking difference between our music in the Reformed tradition and the music exemplified in the video. Our lyrics are either drawn from or inspired by the Scriptural Psalms themselves, and whatever musical instruments we use are secondary to the congregation (which is really the primary “instrument” in Reformed worship). Interestingly, this perspective completely circumvents most current debates on lyric content or instrumentation.

    What also amazed me as I watched the video was how few comments were posted on the YouTube page challenging it. It seems that the overwhelming majority of commenters were more than willing to acknowledge the shallowness and insincerity of this kind of “Christian” music–many of them even admitted that they sang it in their own churches!

    So, as we note the growing interest in Reformed theology among American churches today and emphasize the unique comfort our tradition has to offer, maybe we should keep in mind that the simplicity of Reformed worship will come as a breath of fresh air to many of these dissatisfied churchgoers as well. I’d say we ought to make sure we are doing music well in our churches, but I don’t think we need to change anything about its content or form to make it more appealing to newcomers. Let the Psalms speak and the congregation sing, and that is enough.

    More specifically in regard to this post, I have to heartily agree with everything that’s been said so far (and I especially love Rev. Meeter’s quote). Of the various hymnbooks we use in my own church, there are some songs that certainly ought not to be sung. But I fear that it will be difficult to objectively remove objectionable hymns if we are not grounded in the psalms as the basis for our worship. It’s no better than the proverbial house built on the sand.

    Michael Kearney
    West Sayville URC (member/musician)
    Long Island, New York


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