Merle Haggard died a few days ago, and oddly enough, that makes me thankful for my father.
I say that because my family, albeit unknowingly, was part of the separatist evangelical movement in the 80’s and 90’s. I say “unknowingly” because I don’t think my parents were hateful towards society, I think they just wanted to raise me right. But I was homeschooled. I made a vow when I was thirteen to abandon secular (think, non-christian) music. We didn’t watch R-rated movies at my house. Cussing wasn’t a thing. Drinking wasn’t even in the question. My parents knew that holiness meant we needed to be set apart. They took that very seriously.
And I’m thankful for that. I have moral backbone and a strong faith because of it. However, my dad fudged the rules a bit. He let me listen to outlaw country music. In fact, that’s how I learned to play guitar — strumming along to a Waylon Jennings album. Now I’m a worship pastor. Go figure.
While I missed basically every pop song in the 90’s and early 2000’s, listening to the old outlaws gave me a taste for genuine music. If you didn’t know, the outlaws got their name because they were kicked out of Nashville. They didn’t jive with the bible-belt moralism that dressed country music in a false righteousness. So, they went to Austin, Texas and recorded songs that, while a tad amoral, were original. They sold millions of albums and smoked a lot of weed.
I think my dad thought I was far enough removed from the outlaw’s time to not actually do the things they were singing about. He also taught me to filter the music, to enjoy the good and throw out the evil.
And now my daughter is getting to that age when music is going to become a big part of her life, and I’m a little concerned.
I’m concerned because I don’t think she’s going to love outlaw country music. She’s a Taylor Swift fan. She loves the beat, the easy lyrics. Pop music is her thing; the problem is that Pop isn’t very Christ-like.
You see, I had an advantage over my daughter that went beyond outlaw country music. The 90’s evangelical counter-culturism gave birth to the rise of Christian Alternative, music that was often blatantly God-centered but also genuine. Bands like Audio Adrenaline, DC Talk, P.O.D., and Relient K were certainly playing to evangelicals’ counter-culture ideals, but they made good music. They honored their genres and tried to produce something fresh with every new album they made.
It’s not that way anymore.
My wife and I have a little game we play on road trips. We find the christian radio station and tune in. Then we count how many songs we can stomach before we turn it off. We usually can’t make it through one whole song before we look for music somewhere else. Since our daughter’s in the car, we usually just turn to NPR because they don’t sing about sex and bad decisions. The news is safe.
So here’s what I have to say: Christian music has nothing to offer my daughter. I mean, for the most part. I do have to give a shout out to the worship artists because they’re the people carrying the torch of creative freedom that honors God. I’ve found good stuff in the worship genre that is authentic and not trying to sell me a record — they’re trying to make good music (see: Hillsong United, Loud Harp, Rivers and Robots, Lowercase Noises). But some days you need something that’s not worship. Kids might need something about a break-up. Adults need something about tragedy. We all need something that speaks about our humanity. Christian pop does that in the most basic sense, but music is more than G-rated lyrics. Music has to come from the soul, not a formula that sells records.
Secular Pop is doing a great job of pushing creative boundaries. So is Worship Music. But there’s no in between. My daughter needs something to listen to.
So I’m going to let you in on a little secret.
Christian Pop is the way it is because of parents. Parents are the people that buy music, and when parents listen to artist “X” on Christian radio, they think “This is wholesome! I bet my kids would love to listen to this!” They promptly buy X’s albums and drag their kids to see X headline the giant Christian music festival full of artists that sound just like X. Meanwhile, their kids plays along, but secretly listen to secular music when the parents aren’t paying attention.
Parents, our kids won’t enjoy what we like to listen to. Kids never have. It’s how life works, so let’s stop force-feeding them.
To be clear, I’m not mad. I’m a parent. I know that we’re trying to do right by our kids. But the answer isn’t to keep supporting bad music. We need to empower our kids and challenge them to find music that both sounds good and honors God. So here’s what I’m asking you to do:
Send your kids on a sonic treasure hunt.
We live in an age when literally every song ever recorded is at our kids’ fingertips thanks to Apple Music and Spotify. While that can be terrifying, it’s also a huge gift. Challenge your kids to find good music about God. If they spend just an hour digging around the depths of streaming music, they’ll find what they need.
Mainstream Christian music is driven by sales, period. There’s a lot of good artists who are starving and subsequently quitting because their music doesn’t fit the Christian Pop formula. We can change that if we stop throwing money at what’s there simply because we don’t take the time to find something better.
You have the power! Empower your kids and change the mainstream.