Must Read: God’s Love Letter To Artists by Jon Acuff

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“At the heart of it, the reason the church is not known as being a global leader in creativity and excellence is pretty simple. We missed God’s love letter to artists.”

One of my favorite writers, Jon Acuff, wrote a wonderful eye opening piece about God’s love and specific purpose He has for artists.  In this piece he sites a few passages in Exodus where God issues a call to artists in the desert.  I am not sure I would have even noticed this had he not pointed it out. I’ll let you read the piece and interpret it for yourself but in the meantime, I want to say something.

One of the things that I love about this ministry/blog/whatever God wants it to be is that it is a constant reminder to me that God is concerned with every bit of our lives.  When I get passionate about creative Christians in the mainstream, I think about how much more passionate God must be for His children.  When I think of how much my heart breaks for an artist that is going through something difficult like wrestling with their purpose,  I think of how God’s heart must break so much more.  If there is anything I could say to any artist on any level it would be YOU ARE IMPORTANT.  Not because your gifted, talented, good looking, or charismatic. You are important for the same reason every single person created is: because you were created with a specific purpose that adds to the well being of the entire world. Sure not everyone is under the spotlight but what you have been gifted with and called to is not a mistake or a misconception.  It’s not to be compartmentalized a part from your faith especially when it’s your faith you will need to succeed in the first place.

To read Jon Acuff’s piece, “God’s Love Letter to Artists”, click here and then let me know what you think about it.

Don’t Forget to Add Salt: Why Being Light Without Salt is Missing the Point

Over ten years ago I was working at a Christian music marketing company and was forwarded a phone call by a popular hip hop DJ.  He had recently become a Christian, which to me was exciting because I had jammed out to some of his most popular songs at parties for years.  However as we conversed about what he wanted to do with his talent since he became a Christian, I started to become increasingly worried.

Him: “I want to do a hip hop version of *Insert popular CCM franchise here*”
Me: “But….that’s copyrighted. You just can’t take that. Why not do something new?”

The more we talked, the more I felt that he was trying to play it safe by changing up his style and trying to force himself into a system that was not going to allow him to be himself musically.  He explained to me that he was discouraged about how since he became a Christian, he was receiving criticism about how his music had become watered down.  If you know anything about hip hop, you know that is exactly the opposite of what a hip hop artist wants to hear. They don’t want to hear that since they have decided to be a  follower of Christ that their music is no longer relevant in the streets. However, this story is not uncommon.

I fear that when it comes to creativity that too often believers strive too much to be light at the risk of failing to effectively be salt. Because of this their art suffers.  In reality, we don’t have to strive to be salt and light.  It’s not something we have to try to be because we already are. The question is not if we are salt but are we effective salt?

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” – Matthew 5:13

I looked up some things about salt as an ingredient and found some pretty interesting things as it pertains to our lives, particularly as creative people.  By definition salt is “an element that gives liveliness, piquancy or pungency.”  It’s used to preserve things by drying out bacterial cells that cause spoilage. In other words, it keeps things fresh by making it hard for bacteria to cause things to spoil. It seasons as well as it preserves.  It enhances flavor, it doesn’t just simply blend in.

So how does salt lose its saltiness?  By being contaminated by exposure to water and becoming watered down.  I think that can happen to talent.  I think that talent and creativity can be contaminated and watered down by fear and compromise when it comes to Christians. One of the things I would say to an artist who is a new Christian would be this:  Don’t water down your talent for the sake of blending in because really you weren’t created to.  Don’t think that watering down your talent will make it easier for you to be a light because in regards to being salt and light, that’s not even how that works.  Light illuminates darkness and much like salt it enhances, it does not blend in. Also, please be clear: watered down talent doesn’t always equate to becoming G-rated.  There are plenty of artists that have watered down their talent by going the R-rated route with the delusion of that being the pathway to being a light in the industry.  This is not what Paul meant when he talked about being “all things to all people”. Paul walked in freedom as he did this (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

Bottom line, as my new favorite YouTube sensation Kid President so plainly states,  if it doesn’t make music/art/television/the world better- don’t do it. If it’s not adding flavor or enhancing things, simply don’t do it. Don’t kid yourself and think that just because something is “hot” that it has flavor. Something can be hot and bland all at the same time and to put it simply, that is just a hot mess. If you are a new Christian and are having difficulty with what to do with your talent, don’t be afraid to be uniquely you for fear that you won’t blend into “Christiandom” or “church culture” because frankly, both need a kick in the pants anyway.  We need salt to stay salty! We need to get things livened up!  We need new chords. We need new TV shows. We need new art.  We need new designs. We need new structures. Overall we need new creative things that are making the world better and that can only done by keeping our salt salty and not contaminated by fear or playing it safe.

In regards to “playing it safe”- unfortunately what has happened is that we have too many people becoming Christians and leaving the very industries that need them, to then come over to an industry that does not want to or even know how to accept them as they are supposed to be.  Thus, music has been spoiled with little salt to preserve it.  A really good book that I am reading called The Rock & Roll Rebellion: Why People of Faith Abandoned Rock Music and Why They’re Coming Back by Mark Joseph addresses this very thing.  In it he tells the stories of a few artists who battled with where their place was in the industry after becoming Christians.  This book is really insightful and I will most likely be quoting it here often.  In his opinion, many have forsaken being effective salt and light in our culture by leaving it completely. He writes “Incredibly, successful artists who experienced life-changing conversions were encouraged to give up their loyal audiences who may have been interested in hearing what their favorite artists had to say and were relegated to the CCM ghetto and urged to make music for fellow believers.”

In conclusion, if you have to leave the industry for a time to get stronger in your faith because of the depravity and temptations that exist there, by all means do so. But if it is God’s will, please do so with the intention of going back.  If you are in hip hop and you have decided to give your life to Christ, you go just as hard as you did before you made that commitment. We need you to. By the guiding of the Holy Spirit and wise counsel, by all means, keep going. Just make sure that whatever you do lines up with the
Word of God (Ephesians 5:15-17). Come correct not only lyrically but musically without compromise.  In this day and time, we need your salt to preserve our culture.  What we don’t need is for people to leave, water down their talents and try to blend in somewhere else.

“Being salt and light demands two things: we practice purity in the midst of a fallen world and yet we live in proximity to this fallen world. If you don’t hold up both truth in tension, you invariably becomes useless and separated from the world God loves.”- David Kinnaman, author of Unchristian

My Interview on Divine Dialogue About Christians in Secular Music

This past Thursday I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Candice Benbow for her online radio show Divine Dialogue.  I love the work that Candice is doing within the church to bring a variety of topics to light that need to be discussed.  I also love that Candice is all about solutions. We need both- discussion and solutions and I hope to be a part of that more soon and often. Please be sure to tune into her show as it is live every Thursday night 5:30 pm EST. Below is the link of the interview I did where I discussed the opposition a lot of Christian artists deal with when pursuing a career in mainstream, how the church should always be a safe place for entertainers, PJ Morton, Fantasia, and the impact of Whitney Houston’s life and tragic death. My interview is in the second half of the show, around the 50:00 mark, but the entire show is worth a listen. At the top of the show she interviewed Rev. Niechelle G. Jones out of Chicago and discussed the relationship between young adult African-American Christians and todays Church. Thanks again Candice for having me!

“Why Does It Hurt So Bad?” My Thoughts on the Passing of Whitney Houston

Note:  I have tried with all of my might to write something that would encourage everyone who this ministry is aimed towards who is reeling over the death of Whitney Houston.  The fact of the matter is, I too am reeling.  I try my best to write life lessons but for once I’d like to just share my personal thoughts.  I shared this on my personal Facebook page and it looks like a lot of people have been able to relate. And although this piece is strictly cathartic for me, I really hope it does something for you too.

It’s crazy. I wasn’t even 1/8 the fan of Whitney as I am Michael Jackson and her passing has hit me harder than his did.  With MJ’s passing I was numb for about a day.  But with Whitney’s passing I just can’t seem to shake this sadness. It wasn’t until I read a tweet by Questlove did the pieces start to come together:

@Questlove: man. 4:40am & this whitney {stuff} is still {messing} w/ me. dunno why….i mean MJ was my idol & i cried but i wasn’t depressed. THIS however…

And that’s when the light bulb came on.  Michael Jackson was magic. I mean deep down we thought he MIGHT be a regular dude but he was still Peter Pan. He seemed to be this untouchable mystery.  But Whitney? She was one of us.

she knew how to weave between the worlds
even when the gospel community balked–
yet wanted the allure of her celebrity
she saw the bigger picture–
a work that her mother began and whitney carried on

Tim Dillinger “Whitney Houston: Gospel’s Child”

It was when I remembered why I began the Hilltop City,  that I began to understand why I was taking this new reality personally.  Whitney Houston embodied the very type of artist that I hope this ministry, once it gets off of the ground, reaches. The music community is full of Whitneys.  There are plenty of artists, aspiring and accomplished, that grew up singing in church and are incredibly gifted. I have plenty of loved ones like this. Now while it may not reflect on the radio, it’s very true. Unfortunately most are ill prepared for the pressures that the spotlight can bring.  And that’s why I started it. To give artists and others in the industry the support that they need and that the church for the most part has neglected to give them. That is why this hurts so much. Because I feel that I have a responsibility and I know I haven’t done enough. That is going to change. It has to and it will.

After I considered that, I thought about how everyone probably has had a loved one like Whitney. Someone who battles addiction and whose ups and downs you are familiar with; who you pray time and time again that they can finally kick their habit.  Some of them have been successful, like I actually believe Whitney was at the time of her death, and some are still struggling. Some of you may even have been that friend or relative.  Even I can identify with Whitney on some level. A Jersey girl who grew up in church, loved to go with her mom to hear her sing, and has struggled under the pressures of the “good girl” moniker with an affinity for bad boys? Oh absolutely! Criticized harshly by people of her own race for “crossing over” (remember when she was booed at the Soul Train Awards)? Yup. All day. Whether she was your idol and inspiration to start singing or you just loved her music, there was something about Whitney that made us feel like she was some sort of not so distant relative. I think that’s why for many this hits too close to home. We saw her and accepted her at her worst. We absolutely adored some of her antics. Many of us had a “Oh that’s just her way” type of reaction to her that many don’t have with a lot of artists. I think that was because she was so real and we could relate. Whitney was one of us.  I look back on Maya Angelou’s poem “We Had Him” that she wrote about Michael Jackson’s passing and it reminds me a lot of her:

Only when we confess our confusion can we remember that he was a gift to us and we did have him. 

He came to us from the creator, trailing creativity in abundance. 

Despite the anguish, his life was sheathed in mother love, family love, and survived and did more than that. 

He thrived with passion and compassion, humor and style. We had him whether we know who he was or did not know, he was ours and we were his.

This was not supposed to be the demise of someone with so much promise. Someone who at 19 was poised to be the next big superstar. And for anyone who says things like “we all knew it was going to happen eventually” or “I”m shocked but not surprised”, I’d like to go half on a lottery ticket with you. Because unless you predicted that she would die in a bathtub after taking Xanax (this was what the reports are now saying), I’d like to extend to you a heartfelt invitation to shut up. I am so tired of society, especially the media, making it seem like your entire life is summed up by your last public mishap no matter your accomplishments or what you have done to become a better person. This is evident every time the Grammys come on and pictures of Rihanna’s battered face resurface all over the internet. It’s amazing to me how the public will hold a grudge longer than the people who have resolved their matters in private.

And while I am venting about people’s obsession with past mistakes, as a die hard fan of all things New Edition, I have got to address the matter of Bobby Brown performing after he found out that Whitney died. Now I’m not an entertainer and for those that are, if I am wrong with how I think he may be feeling, feel free to chime in. There is no place I’d rather be than around people that love me when tragedy hits. That airplane ride to the unknown around the time of tragedy is a rough one. I completely understand him wanting to be with five other people on stage who know exactly who he is and can hold him up. And from what I’ve heard from those that are performers, sometimes getting onstage and doing what you love is the cathartic thing to do. For all we know it could have been the absolute best thing for him to do in order to prepare for what he was going to have to face from now on.

So now I prepare myself to watch the Grammys tonight and not do the same thing that I have just pointed the finger at many for doing. To not judge people by their past or present mistakes. To understand that I will never know the pressures of those that at one time just wanted to sing and live out their dreams and are now caught up in the machine of the industry. It is my hope that the timing of Whitney Houston’s untimely death (I don’t even know if that phrase makes sense but roll with me) is a wake up call for artists and industry people alike. You cannot deny how crazy the timing of all of this is.  The King and Queen of Pop are dead and as of now there are no successors. We need to care about music again but more importantly, we need to care more about the people behind it while they are here.

I just can’t believe she’s gone.

1 Corinthians 13:6- 7 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

“Gotta Serve Somebody”- The Debate Between Serving Both God and Money in Regards to Christians in Mainstream Music

I find it very interesting that often times one of the reasons given why Christians should not perform mainstream music is that “you can’t serve both God and money”  (Matthew 6:24).  Out of all the scriptures in the bible that I find most misinterpreted, this is high up on the list; right behind “The love of money (which is usually misquoted as just money itself) is the root of all evil.” Interestingly enough these scriptures are very similar.

I find this argument interesting because it is presumptuous to think that one would pursue a career in mainstream just to chase money . Quite honestly, I think it is just as easy to say that there are those that pursue careers in Gospel/CCM music for the same reason.  This is purely my opinion (one that I stand wholeheartedly by) that there are believers who have been called to impact mainstream culture but because of the competition, criticism, and when we get right down to it, the grind that is required, they shy away.  I am not trying to make the career of one in Gospel/CCM sound trivial but for the most part there is a plan laid out.  You play these set of churches, you get on this particular gospel show, you play these types of conventions… there is a set blueprint.  But unfortunately there are not too many trailblazers who have been successful in mainstream while not compromising their faith.  It is difficult trying to find a sure shot pattern to follow.  Because of our lack of impact, music itself is suffering greatly.  It’s evident every time you turn on the radio.

I fear that there are too many talented believers that are desperately needed in mainstream that are defaulting to singing gospel/CCM music (please don’t take that as a slight to those industries.  A career in either is not easy at all.)  I know this happens because I have had conversations with artists where they have revealed to me that that they were going to go gospel.  I am all for doing that if that is where you are supposed to be but these conversations that we were having were out of frustration due to lack of success in mainstream. Going gospel just seemed easier because of the audience and structure already in place.  At the end of the day it’s not always an artist desire to be rich; they want to eat. They want to consistently pay their bills on time.  For an artist that started out in the church and was most likely urged to only perform in church, it’s easy to have second thoughts and go with what seems to be an easier means to an end.

Unfortunately because these artists aren’t called to be in gospel/CCM music they run the risk of creatively suffocating.  There are certain parameters in these industries that don’t allow room to explore not just different types of content but musical creativity.  It’s not a religious thing; it’s a business thing.  Actually, it’s more of a comfort thing. This industry just isn’t into taking many risks.  It doesn’t matter how many record executives say they like your music because you are “outside of the box”, the Gospel/CCM industry tends to go with what they are most comfortable with.  More times than not, an artist that is outside of the box will have to scale back on their creativity to make their music seem easier to digest, in the industry’s eyes yet not necessarily to the audience’s ears.  I think the average listener would be amazed at what some industry execs think their ears are not ready for or won’t welcome.

Bottom line: Be where God called you to be and don’t pimp gospel/CCM music for money.  The matter doesn’t lie with gospel vs. secular; the matter lies with motive and calling. I know it’s risky but according to 2 Peter 1:3 God’s divine power “has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him that has called us by his own glory and goodness.” If you truly have what it takes and mainstream is where you are called to be, I encourage you to take the road less traveled. Psalm 23:3 says “He refreshes my soul.  He guides me along the right paths for His name’s sake.”   There are people just like you who are going to need some footsteps to follow.