by Joseph Weyel
I recently attended a Home Free concert with my 14-year-old son. For those of you not familiar with them, Home Free is a “vocal band” made up of four singers and a talented beat-boxer. The group, which performs a cappella mixes of popular country music hits, shot into stardom after winning season four of The Sing Off on NBC.
The concert was quite enjoyable. The singing and performance were excellent throughout. There were, as expected, a couple of less-than-stellar song selections, including “Honky Tonk Bone” and “Badonkadonk” (it is country music after all). Overall, the content was not only PG, but wholesome. At the close of the concert, the group performed their arrangement of “How Great Thou Art” which was an opportunity for real worship as the words penetrated to the heart and soul.
But what caught my attention came earlier when the group covered “My Church” (2016), one of the most popular country music singles of the past year by singer Maren Morris. Despite its name, the song is not remotely Christian; it is the latest in a dangerous trend which seeks to transform the essential elements of religion and spirituality by substituting an inferior mix of emotionalism and vice.
I am, perhaps oxymoronically, a Christian and a fan of country music. My personal affection for country music goes back to early childhood when I was entertained with a large collection of my parent’s and grandparents’ vinyl LPs of country music from the 1950s through the mid-‘70s. I lived through the changing styles and messaging of the genre through the ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s, and honestly have gotten lost somewhere along the way. Ultimately, my growth as a Christian has forced me to limit my exposure to popular country music and has fixed my interest on the alternative sounds of bluegrass and folk or old-style artists such as Joey+Rory, Ricky Skaggs and similar artists.
This is not to suggest that oldies country music is either morally upright or necessarily pure in its sound and messaging. From the earliest times, country music has worked to earn its reputation for dealing with — and sometimes celebrating — themes of drinking, cheating, partying and lifestyle choices that directly oppose the directions of God’s word. From Jimmie Rodger’s “Gambling Bar Room Blues” (1933) to Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin’” (1948) and Johnny Cash’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (1970), country music has a long history of questionable lyrical choices and messages that — while doubtless connected to the reality being lived out by its fans — is not something with which a Christian ought to associate.
One of my fathers in the ministry was a gifted musician who, early in his ministry, had to lay down his guitar and separate himself from the country music world because his conscience wouldn’t allow him to play a bar room on Saturday night and then preach on Sunday morning. Once, after playing an amazing version of the bluegrass standard “Good Ole Mountain Dew,” he looked at me with a big grin and said, “I know it isn’t a good song, but it’s good bluegrass.”
Recently, country stars have adapted to the degeneration of our American culture with songs celebrating illicit sexual relationships and ungodly lifestyle choices and encouraging every form of vice and self-gratification at the expense of every principle we ought to hold dear. These songs are packaged neatly with seductive videos and catchy tunes that get stuck in the heads of unsuspecting Christians. If we’re not careful, we find ourselves subconsciously singing along.
In spite of this immoral and ungodly messaging, gospel songs are an inseparable part of the genre, performed in almost every concert set. Traditional country acts will almost invariably close their nights in the bar with a performance of “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” or any number of gospel hymns usually received by a drunken mob in silence and submissive awe.
As my teenage son and I sat in the crowd watching and listening to the a cappella country of Home Free, I was shocked to my core by the performance of Maren Morris’ “My Church.” This song, along with several other recent hits, takes the inconsistency of country music’s mixed messaging to another, more dangerous level. One of those songs is “H.O.L.Y,” last year’s hit single by Florida Georgia Line, in which the singer addresses his girlfriend with these lyrics:
You’re an angel. Tell me you’re never leaving
‘Cause you’re the first thing I know I can believe in
You’re holy, holy, holy, holy
I’m high on loving you, high on loving you
You’re holy, holy, holy, holy
I’m high on loving you, high on loving you
I don’t need the stars ’cause you shine for me
Like fire in my veins, you’re my ecstasy
You’re my ecstasy
You’re the healing hands where it used to hurt
You’re my saving grace, you’re my kind of church
A young professing Christian defended this song to me saying that “H.O.L.Y.” is simply and acronym for High On Loving You, the name of the song. However, the lyrics plainly attribute to its object the attributes and character which can only be assigned to God. They direct young listeners to replace their love and faith in the Creator with the inferior love (or lust) for the created.
Morris’ “My Church” takes this messaging to a whole different level. As the group came on stage, the lighting dimmed and the background vocalists produced a church choral sound giving the impression that a gospel song was about to be performed. The beat kicked suddenly in and the following lyrics came forth:
I’ve cussed on a Sunday
I’ve cheated and I’ve lied
I’ve fallen down from grace
A few too many times
But I find holy redemption
When I put this car in drive
Roll the windows down and turn up the dial
When Hank brings the sermon
And Cash leads the choir
It gets my cold cold heart burning
Hotter than a ring of fire
When this wonderful world gets heavy
And I need to find my escape
I just keep the wheels rolling, radio scrolling
Until my sins wash away
Hey, Can I get a hallelujah
Can I get an amen
Feels like the Holy Ghost running through ya
When I play the highway FM
I find my soul revival
Singing every single verse
Yeah I guess that’s my church
At this point, the chorus was repeated three or four times as the entertainers attempt to engage the crowd, imploring them to echo back the hallelujahs and amens in an attempt to generate a sense of worship and spirituality. The obvious problem is that the worship does not have God as its object, and the message is that we don’t need church if we have Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
I have heard “My Church” countless times over the past year blaring from the speakers of cars traveling through Tifton, Georgia, from overhead sound systems in various retail outlets, and — most disturbingly — on the playlists of church-going Christians I know. I have even found myself humming along from time to time.
The prevalence of the lyrics is one of the reasons I was drawn to country music. Words have meaning. So what is the message of the song “My Church”?
The songwriter says she’s a sinner. But where does her salvation come from? Instead of looking to Christ for redemption, she makes a shocking theological statement: She finds “holy redemption” when she puts his car in drive, rolls the windows down and turns up the dial. Suggesting that the answer to sin is music is bad enough. But she goes on to say that the kind of music that is redemptive is the music of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. To be fair, it must be acknowledged that both Hank Williams in his Luke the Drifter productions and Johnny Cash in his last few albums did produce some worthy gospel/Christian messages — but the songwriter isn’t referring to this music. Even the best of Christian music is not a substitute for the redemption that is in Christ Jesus and the salvation that is found in the gospel.
The songwriter then declares that the “Holy Ghost” is a feeling rather than a person of the Godhead. “Feels like the Holy Ghost running through ya, When I play the highway FM.”
Finally, the song concludes, “Yeah, I guess, that’s my church.” The message is, who needs church when you have country music? Sadly, this song has even resonated with millions of American Christians. They’ve helped make Marren Morris the latest pop country icon, revealing the high opinion people have of country music and the low opinion they have of the purpose and role of the church. Is it any wonder that church attendance and membership are in decline? If attending church is about feeling good, and experiencing the kind of redemption that can be gotten from a good road trip with the music turned up, then why go to church at all?
My church is not a place that I go to feel good about myself. It is not a place that I go to find encouragement in continuing in sin nor comfort through the realization that others are in the same sinful condition in which I find myself. Redemption is not a feeling of peace that comes through the soothing influence of a catchy tune.
My church is a fellowship of saints whose commonality is not found in their condition as sinners, but rather in their shared union with Jesus Christ. Redemption is not found in any work of flesh or mind, but rather in the blood of Jesus Christ shed for many for the remission of sins. Accessible through the obedience of faith is a peace which passes understanding far superior to that which is obtained through the temporary release of musical surrender. The music is based in Christ-centered lyrics sung by the voices of the saints as they speak to themselves “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in their hearts to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19, KJV).
My church is a coming together of the saints of God to worship their creator, their Savior, and to join in a mutual commitment of accountability and service as they receive the blessing of fellowship with Jesus Christ and with the church He purchased with His own blood.
My church is where the Holy Ghost clearly speaks through the Word and the gospel, calling men to repentance, to knowledge and to truth. To reject that message in favor of a poor imitation is dangerously close to blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, a sin for which there will be no forgiveness (Matthew 12:31).
Do not be deceived by the clever packaging and impressive artistry of the world. What is offered in pop culture today is no substitute for the redemption found in Christ Jesus. The radio, iTunes, Pandora — none of these are substitutes for my church if my church is His church.
Joseph Weyel is a pastor and businessman in Tifton, Georgia.