As a pastor and professional musician, I find American Idol interesting on a number of levels. It’s fascinating to see how a simple idea can capture the attention of millions, how people respond to evaluation, how people can be so misled about what they actually sound like, how ordinary people handle massive fame, the difference between gifting and hard work, and more. I also appreciate how some of the contestants have used the platform to bear witness to their faith in Christ. Melinda Doolittle, from last season, stood out for her humility, modesty, and joy.
Yesterday, I had started a post on my response to Wednesday night’s program. It was American Idol’s “Give Back” show. You may know (or maybe not) that it was a two and a half hour mix of music, comedy, and humor, with the expressed goal of raising as much money as possible to aid those who live in poverty, both inside and outside the U.S. A worthy goal.
I was working at my computer under headphones for most of the show, but as it ended, I caught the eight remaining Idol contestants stepping forward and belting out the worship song classic, “Shout to the Lord,” by Darlene Zschech. Only they replaced “My Jesus” with “My shepherd.” I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. Isn’t there a disconnect between shouting to the LORD on American IDOL?
But before I finished this post, I saw the beginning of last night’s show as the entire group of Idol contestants sang “Shout to the Lord” again. Only this time, the name of “Jesus” was clearly proclaimed.
I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. What is going on? Is this an advertisement for Hillsong Church? Who chose this song? Do they even know what they’re singing? Who made this decision? Worship has hit the big time! What made them change “Jesus” to “shepherd” the first night and bring back “Jesus” on the second tonight?”
After the dust in my mind cleared, I had two thoughts:
It’s amazing that this happened. My next thought was, it’s concerning that this happened.
Lest you think I’m schizo, let me explain.
The Bright Side
In the positive column, someone watching”Shout to the Lord” on American Idol might be led by God’s Spirit to download the song, or even to start going to church again. They might hear the Gospel and be gloriously converted, all due to hearing “Shout to the Lord” in one of the most unlikely places. For that potential, I praise and thank God.
One blogger pointed out that there are many countries you’d never hear a clearly biblical, Christian song on prime time TV. Instead, you’d be persecuted for even mentioning the name of Christ. That’s reason to give thanks, and to pray for those less fortunate. Also, hearing a Christian song on American Idol might remind a Christian that they don’t have to be shy about their faith. It could provide an evangelistic starting point around the water-cooler or at the lockers. It’s also possible the producers of Idol recognize the Christian contingent to their fan base, which may lead them to include other Christian references and more “all-contestant” worship songs.
On the Other Hand
But there’s a dark side. There’s something paradoxical about worship songs being sung on prime time TV by people who don’t know why Jesus came. Does the world see any difference between what’s taking place on American Idol and what we do on Sunday mornings? Has worship become part of the entertainment culture? It’s unsettling when Christian songs or worship leaders are acclaimed by the masses. Jesus said in Luke 6:26, “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.” He also said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Mt. 15:8). Both verses temper my unbridled enthusiasm.
American Idol, for all the good the show is seeking to do, will never be a platform for worshiping a crucified Messiah. The Gospel has to be gutted of a bloody cross to find a place on prime time TV.
It’s doubtful that most people who heard or sang along with Shout to the Lord were aware of its implications. The Savior they were singing to was crushed for the sins of every person who would ever trust in him. He is Jesus, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, and the One who gave his life as a substitute to pay the punishment for our transgressions against a holy God.
So I had two more thoughts. First, we need to do everything we can to sing and promote songs in the church that clearly, biblically, passionately, and faithfully proclaim the one and only Savior – his work, his words, and his worthiness. Along with songs that express our love for the Savior, we need to sing songs that “teach and admonish” (Col. 3:16), that celebrate and rehearse the foundations of our faith and fill out our vague conceptions of God with clear, theologically informed biblical truths.
Second, we we need to live in such a way that it’s clear being a Christian is more than giving money to worthy causes and being emotionally moved as we sing songs of every genre together. We want to do all we can to ensure that those who walk into our meetings see clearly that we’re not a local version of American Idol.
A Reason to Pray
Hearing “Shout to the Lord” on American Idol is an opportunity to pray that God would use this event for his glory and fame, for the advancing of the Gospel, and the building up of his church. It also motivates me to pray for purity, discernment, and holiness in the church, and that we would reach out to those who don’t know Jesus without embracing worldly values or godlessness.
Would it be great to see more Christian worship songs sung on American Idol? Sure. But when a Christian song receives national attention or reaches number 1 on the charts, it’s no clear sign one way or the other that the Gospel is advancing or the church is having more of an influence on our culture. It can just as easily be a sign that the church is being swallowed up by the culture because it’s indistinct from the world.
Still, God is sovereign, and I know he will use this for his glory and purposes regardless of what the Idol producers intended.
Finally, my prayer is that we will be known more for lives lived worthy of the Gospel than our songs. May God’s Spirit work through us to enable those around us to turn from their empty idols to serve the only living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9-10).
Update: My senior pastor, Josh Harris, has written some insightful thoughts about this topic on his blog.