by John J. Thompson
Who Shapes and Names Beauty in Our Midst?
Nashville is an amazing place for crafters of worship art. It’s crawling with musicians and studios and is practically dripping with a collaborative spirit. But it can also be a treacherous place for those same people, and often for the very same reasons. Industry need not be the mortal enemy of beauty, but it can be if we’re not careful. There’s a boutique cheese shop in my East Nashville neighborhood where I can find carefully curated fromage from local crafters and international specialists. I can also find boxes of ageless Velveeta on the shelves down the street at the Kroger. Business itself isn’t the problem. How that business impacts our underlying craft is. When that craft is worship, the stakes are high.
If you know your calling as an artist called to worship, know your audience, and have a firm foundation on which to build your creative house, there’s nothing quite like the flow found in Music City.
The access to smart, industrious, hard-working business and tech-minded folks can help your work immensely when the time comes. If your compass is off, however, or your concept of “success” is formed by values borrowed more from Music Row than from God’s Word, you could be setting yourself up for the worst kind of heartache. Or worse, you might become a hit!
Nashville is a city of dreams and dreamers. It’s also an incredible machine. It’s impossible to count the number of artists and songwriters who have sought their fame and fortune here. And yes, I’m talking about Worship artists. While the numbers may pale compared to how many country and pop hopefuls roam the streets, there’s no way for me to even guess how many aspiring worship artists I have met here over the last decade. While most come as visitors, some pack their bags, leave their homes, and move here with plans to become the next Chris Tomlin or Kari Jobe. At least the kid who wants to be the next Taylor Swift is clear-headed about her ambition. When someone layers a sense of ministry calling in with their ambition things can get very strange very quickly. Some have a much clearer sense of what it takes to “make it” than any theological understanding of what worship actually is.
The desire to find success and celebrity in music is easy enough to understand. It’s been around for a long time and Nashville has learned to exploit it particularly well. The artist longs to be heard and recognized – maybe even understood. The obscure creative soul hungers for significance. The poor inner-city kid wants a taste of the “good life.” The audience wants to be entertained; distracted from the trials of daily life. Fame is just a desire for community, on crack. Celebrity is the drug of choice in Nashville. Churches are not immune to the seductive power of these marketplace dynamics. A quick glance at the close parallels between the modern worship music scene and the music celebrity machinery makes that perfectly clear.
Art is an amazing, inherently spiritual, mysterious, and powerful gift that God gives humanity to help us connect with the divine and with each other, and we use it to sell cheeseburgers, and worse. But when Jesus people, especially those charged with leading others in worship, cast these pearls before swine, it’s especially tragic.
Our culture consistently values celebrity over talent, beauty, discipline, excellence, transcendence, and just about everything else. These days the right amount of celebrity can land you just about anywhere. Celebrity is our highest form of currency. It’s truly the god of our age. It distorts our values. It dents our sense of calling. It corrupts our communities. Worship, if we understand it correctly, should be the antithesis of that. It is about directing all of our spiritual resources; heart, mind, and soul, to place God back onto the throne of our hearts – the throne that we too often fill with fear, hustle, and self. When we allow the currency of the culture to pollute our sense of value, we compromise our worship. We use Christian words to sing to golden calves. It’s not hard to see numerous examples of this in the modern Ministry Industrial Complex.
When you endeavor to create art for the purpose of worship, whether it is a song, a painting, a story, a sermon, or something else, what are the thoughts that go through your mind as you prepare? Are you wondering if the song will work at radio or are you wondering if the folks in your community will be transported into the presence of God? Is your primary task to actually worship God, or to craft a commercially viable piece of product? Are you working to uncover a piece of beauty from the rubble of a broken world so that the Maker of that beauty might be glorified, or are you hoping for a little recognition of your own? Who is your audience? What is your product? Why are you writing? Who are you writing for? Or are you even trying? Are you satisfied to allow the Nashville writers to supply you with the Worship Hits of the Day? Who will capture the stories of what God is doing in your community? Who will curate the melodies and rhythms of your local family? Not long ago, a road trip across America meant different music on the radio and different food in the roadside restaurants. Now it’s all the same wherever you go. Our regional differences are fading. Is that a good thing?
We know all about beauty here in Nashville; both the natural and the plastic kind. What kind of beauty will you bring to the conversation?