On Using Songs From Churches I Disagree With: The Case of Hillsong and Jesus Culture

Update 11/14/14: Dan’s post is still up on his blog but it is now password protected.  Hopefully he will take the password restriction off soon.

When I was young my dad always told me that if you’re going to start writing a blog, start with a controversial topic (ok he never said that, but if blogs had been around then I’m sure he would have).  So let’s get controversial.

Rejecting Songs From Bethel Church and Hillsong

Hillsong United - Picture by Wei HsuThis morning I received a text from a good friend and one of my worship team members asking about the fact that some people were making a fuss about using music from Hillsong and Jesus Culture (out of Bethel Church) because of what their pastors teach.  I shot him back a short response that seemed to settle the matter and I thought that would be the end of it.

But low and behold about an hour later (completely by accident) I stumbled upon the very blog post that was raising this issue.  The post is by Dan Cogan over at his Anchor Line blog and you can read it here.  Now, I don’t know Dan and have never been to his blog before today, but from a quick perusal of his posts it appears that he is a spiritually mature worship leader who tries to think deeply on theological issues related to worship.  This is extremely important because worship is theology.

I mention that because I don’t want anyone to think I am attacking Dan personally.  After reading some of his material I have a funny feeling he and I would have some really interesting and challenging and enjoyable conversations were we ever to have the opportunity to sit down together.  And I certainly affirm the fact that he is a brother in Christ, regardless of some disagreements we may have over secondary issues.

That said, I do think Dan is misguided on this particular point.  I strongly encourage people to read his initial post, but to summarize his argument, he chooses not to use worship songs from Hillsong or Jesus Culture because he disagrees with what the pastors of those churches teach (in this case a version of the prosperity gospel and a low Christology).  I don’t necessarily disagree with his assessment of those teachings, though I do think he exaggerates a little bit.  Regardless, I have to admit that were they geographically accessible, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t feel comfortable attending either of those churches regularly (but that’s another post for another time).

However, I would, and do, feel completely comfortable using the songs that are being written in those churches.  In fact I’m introducing a Hillsong song to our congregation this Sunday.  So how do I justify that seeming discrepancy?

Songs Stand Alone

The simplest way I can explain it is that I believe songs stand on their own merits.  Or to put it another way, a song can never be guilty by association.  The truth is the vast majority of worship songs (including hymns) were written by people with skeletons in their closet, sometimes theological, sometimes moral.  Martin Luther became a pretty outspoken anti-semite in his later years.  Horatio Spafford ended up leaving the orthodox Christian faith and joined an apocalyptic cult at the end of his life.  And there is evidence to support the notion that Isaac Watts was a Unitarian, denying orthodox formulations of the Trinity.  I could go on and on, and we haven’t even gotten to our modern songwriters, but you get the point.

The line I texted to my friend who asked about this issue was, “if we only sing songs from people and churches who are doctrinally and morally pure, our hymnals would be pretty empty.”  This shouldn’t come as a surprise to Christians, for we would all admit that we’re fallen beings continually in need of God’s grace.

But I want to take this thought a bit deeper.  As I mentioned above, songs stand on their own merits.  In other words once a song has been written, it takes on a kind of artistic life of its own.  I believe the same is true of all art.  Making assumptions or judgments about it because of its author or creator does an injustice to the song itself.

All of us could point to paintings, dances, movies, or stories that we consider truly beautiful works of art that were created by people who disagree strongly with us on matters of great importance.  Our disagreement doesn’t invalidate their art.  The same is true of music.  A song can be beautiful and true in and of itself, regardless of who wrote it.  It’s cliche but still true that, all truth is God’s truth.  The same goes for beauty.

But wait, does that mean I’m saying we can use songs written by anyone in worship?  Well, no.  Because the role of worship is so specific to Christians, I personally limit the songs I use for worship to those who profess faith in Jesus Christ and who are writing songs to be used in a worship context.  Even that is too strict of a boundary for some in my generation, but just like you wouldn’t put a modern abstract painting in the medieval gallery at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or have the Pennsylvania Ballet include twerking in their rendition of Swan Lake, so too songs that are not specifically worship songs generally don’t belong in worship (FWIW I do believe there are some exceptions to this).

Worship Song Boundaries

So my boundaries for what songwriters I will consider looking to for new worship music are twofold.  1.) Are they Christians who professes faith in Jesus Christ as outlined by the historic creeds? 2.) Are they writing music for corporate worship?  I’m not saying that songs that don’t meet this criteria are inherently bad or evil, just that they serve a different role than worship songs.

Now that doesn’t mean I’ll use every Hillsong or Jesus Culture song that comes down the pike.  In fact I’ve rejected several popular songs from both these bands that other churches use regularly because they don’t fit my requirements.  I’m very selective on what we sing in our church (I’ll be posting a series on how I choose songs for our repertoire soon).  But the point is at the end of the day, though I disagree with some of the things their pastors teach, I assess the songs produced by Hillsong and Bethel Churches the same way I assess any other song, because I believe the people who write them are my brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of our disagreements.  And both Hillsong and Jesus Culture write some really good, theologically sound worship songs (a point Dan concedes by the way).

So for Christians who are trying to figure out how to decide what worship bands to listen to and worship with, my encouragement is to let the songs speak for themselves, to the glory of God.

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About Stephen Wilburn

I am a worship director at a suburban Philadelphia church and currently a doctoral student at Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, PA
This entry was posted in Theology, Worship Controversies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to On Using Songs From Churches I Disagree With: The Case of Hillsong and Jesus Culture

  1. Michelle Saddic says:

    Hey Stephen, what are your thoughts about incorporating Hillsong’s song “Healer,” after the Michael Guglielmucci scandal?

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    • Hey Michelle, that’s a good question and a very interesting example. I’ve never actually used “Healer” in a worship service mostly because I think the lyrics “you heal all my diseases” are troubling for people in my congregation with terminal illnesses. But that’s just my own opinion and I know many churches use this song (it’s still on the CCLI top 100), and I don’t fault them for that.

      But assuming I didn’t have any other issues with the song itself, I don’t think I’d have a problem using it in a worship context. I know it was written with deceptive intentions, but I also know that it has brought life and hope to many congregations, the vast majority of which don’t know the story of the song’s origin. I do believe songs take on a life of their own once they’re out in the public sphere and I think that’s a good thing.

      At the same time though, I would completely understand if a church decided not to use it because of its history. I will say my one qualm about using some of these songs that I didn’t mention in the post above is the royalties that the songwriter would get from churches playing it. That’s a more complicated issue, but one I could see causing legitimate hesitation for some worship leaders and pastors.

      Mainly for me, though, I’m willing to use whatever songs represent God faithfully and draw people closer to him, even if their origins are not always as clean as I’d like them to be.

      What do you think about using “Healer”?

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      • Meesh Feesh says:

        Actually, everything you said are things I have considered – except I never considered the royalties aspect of it!

        I think I’ve mentioned in conversation with you before that my church rotates worship leaders, since we are volunteers. We have 4 of them, and we basically each take one Sunday every month. One leader in particular incorporates this song fairly often. The first time I was in the congregation when we sang it, that line you mentioned “heal all my disease” seemed a little off since my immediate response is to take things literally (although I do believe that God CAN heal any affliction).

        Otherwise, during that first time singing it, I was reminded of people who I love who were suffering from (basically) spiritual diseases, and I worshiped God and claimed Him as the ultimate healer and prayed for them through the song.

        Other times I’ve worshiped through the song, I have been reminded of the trials and suffering that God has delivered me from and, in the process, used to strengthen me.

        However, at one point, my brother told me about the fraud behind the song, and I researched it. Now, I am so distracted by the story behind it, that I find it hard to take the song seriously. I have been a back-up singer during a church service while we sang this, and I just tried to remind myself that God sees the heart and tried to let Him win over the negativity.

        So basically, I go along with it and try to put my heart in the right spot when others lead with it. But I personally can’t bring myself to use it – there are other songs. I worry that others in the congregation may also find it distracting if they know the back story.

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      • I think your approach makes a lot of sense, especially since you try your best to engage with the song when it’s being lead by someone else. That shows a spirit of humility and grace for the other leaders and the rest of the congregation. At the same time I can definitely understand your concern with the backstory of the song and not wanting to it to cause issues for the rest of the congregation. As I mentioned in the post, generally I tend not to use songs that are on the edge for any reason simply because there are so many other good options available.

        Liked by 1 person

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