Are You a Minister or Entertainer?
In Thoughts In Solitude, Thomas Merton’s classic meditation on the contemplative life, the great monk master begins chapter nine with what is perhaps the most profound page of prose written in the last half of the 20th century:
What does it mean to know and experience my own nothingness? It is not enough to turn away in disgust from my illusions and faults and mistakes, to separate myself from them as if they were not, and as if I was someone other than myself. This kind of self-annihilation is only a worse illusion, it is a pretended humility which, by saying “I am nothing” I mean in effect “I wish I were not what I am.”
In reading Merton’s timeless instruction, one cannot help but wonder how it is that words of such eloquence and precision came to be quoted by someone like me.
Last Saturday I was setting gopher traps in the front yard, and I noticed there was a garage sale across the street. I found a book by this guy Thomas Merton in the 50-cent box, but I didn’t have 50 cents. I told the lady I’d catch her gophers for free if she’d let me have the book.
I quickly set the last gopher trap and hurried into my special little room in the house where I get my best reading done, and I began reading Merton’s “Thoughts In Solitude.” But I never got past page three because I kept nodding off to sleep and banging my head on the bathroom sink.
My point in telling you this story is for you to take any expectations you might have about journal articles and dramatically lower them.
So why, you may be wondering, am I writing this article, and what credentials do I bring? In fact, I can think of only three real credentials that would make you want to read on:
First, as some of you may know, I was a youth pastor for six years at a church in Denver back in the eighties. This was right up until I started doing music full-time.
Second, I share with all of you a passion for seeing the gospel of Jesus transform young people.
And third, like all of you, I, too, want to see every lawn and garden in America gopher-free by the year 2005. Amen?
Actually, my third credential has nothing to do with gophers. Not only am I a former youth worker, not only do I share with you a passion to see the gospel of Jesus transform young people, but I’d like to present myself as a fellow Christian who is now spending a good chunk of his time working in mainstream entertainment and media. As many of you know, I started a company three years ago called Squint Entertainment that does that very thing.
We all know that people working in culture-shaping professions tend to view the culture through the lens of their own particular discipline or area of expertise. Politicians believe politics make the world go ’round. Business people believe all human interactions are grounded in economics. Academics view education as the predominant force shaping society. And so on.
As a youth pastor in the early 1980s, I started to notice a major cultural shift taking place in America. We were moving into what’s now often termed a “post-Christian” society. This is something of which you’re all very much aware. These days it’s not so much that young people haven’t heard the gospel, it’s that they think they know what Christianity is, and they’ve decided they don’t want any.
So how do you get the attention of people who don’t want to listen? It seemed to me at the time that, regardless of how this state of affairs began, this post-Christian influence was being felt most profoundly in the worlds of entertainment and media. As the entertainment world’s influence increased, and as young people became an increasingly targeted consumer group, the climate for evangelism and discipleship seemed to become more and more difficult.
So what was my response? I left my job as a youth pastor (a position I dearly loved, but one that I knew a number of qualified people were capable of filling) and decided to pursue a career for which I was better qualified: I became an artist/entertainer.
Minister or Entertainer
You might say, “Well hold on, Steve. You were still a minister, you were just using entertainment as a vehicle for ministry.”
And it’s funny you’d say that. I feel that I need to weigh in on this one argument that has largely defined the history of Christians in entertainment for the last 30 years, particularly when it comes to music. “Are you a minister or an entertainer? Are you here to minister to our kids, or are you just here to entertain them?”
My answer is that I’m not going to answer, because I think it’s a bogus question. And I’ve been hearing that bogus question for the last 17 years. People keep asking it like they’re quoting scripture or something: “Are you a minister or an entertainer? Thus asketh the Lord!”
Is there a biblical text of which I’m not aware, some stirring passage in the Old Testament where Jehovah God appears to King David in a dream and says, “I don’t know about these songs of yours, David. Are they ministry or are they entertainment?”
The result of this bogus question is that we’ve managed to communicate to our young people and to the artists among us some thoroughly unbiblical concepts. The first, which was pointed out to me by the English journalist and poet Steve Turner, is that God has a hierarchy in the world of work. At the top are evangelists, missionaries, and all those in full-time Christian service. The next rung would be doctors, nurses, and all other caregivers; then come teachers, veterinarians, law enforcement, the guy who invented smoothies, and close to the bottom of the list we find artists and anyone else working in entertainment.
Then we make things even worse. We send out the not-so-subtle inference that if you have to be an artist, if you can’t find a more worthy, spiritual profession, you can redeem yourself by way of a thoroughly unbiblical sub-hierarchy in the world of artistic expression. At the top of the truly Christian pursuits in the arts are all songs that mention Jesus by name, followed by end-times novels and movies, followed by the sequels to end-times novels and movies, and at the bottom of that list are any forms of artistic expression that allow room for imagination, nuance, and renewing of the mind.
Am I exaggerating? Not much.
Is it any wonder that we’ve got so few quality artists claiming Jesus as Lord? For better or worse, people tend to go where they’re wanted. We’ve managed to tell a generation of artists, “Your work has no value to God unless you’re willing to turn it into lowest common denominator propaganda. But if you are, we’ve got a system in place that can provide a pretty comfortable living for you.”
Christian or Mainstream
What’s been the result? We’ve got a Christian music industry that is putting out better produced, higher quality product in larger quantities than ever before. In spite of this great Christian talent pool, the artists remain virtually invisible outside the walls of the church. And I’m telling you, the best of them are getting pretty frustrated.
I’d like to propose that for most artists, telling them they can spend their life creating propaganda for a Christian subculture is not much of a challenge. It’s like telling a gifted swimmer to become the best they can be, but they’ve got to stay in the wading pool. Understand—I’ve got nothing against Christian entertainment, and I certainly support excellence in worship music and other forms of artistic expression being produced for the church. I just think we’ve got more than enough.
Meanwhile, we’ve seen an unprecedented rise in mainstream entertainment targeted at kids that steals their innocence and rapes their minds. And what did we expect? The Bible says we reap what we sow. We’ve sowed virtually nothing in that world. We’ve spent all our efforts and resources in building a Christian entertainment subculture. And guess what? It’s now so profitable that most of it’s been purchased by some of those same mainstream media conglomerates that exist solely to increase shareholder value.
We all share a passion for seeing the gospel of Jesus transform young people, but I’d say none of us are satisfied with the way things are. And most of us would agree that the vast majority of entertainment and media are making our job more difficult.
“But Steve,” you say. “We live in a post-Christian society! How can we get the attention of people who don’t want to listen?”
Are you ready for this? Here’s how we’re going to start changing all that. You talk about God using foolish things—I believe God’s granted me this platform for a reason. Last year, I got to speak at all three National Youth Worker Conventions and write this article for the country’s leading youth ministry periodical. I, Steve Taylor, a non-speaker and non-journal-article-writer, got to reach tens of thousands of youth workers, the most influential people in the country, for I truly believe that’s what you are.
Imagine if I can convince all of you of the importance of this, and you turn around and every year for the next few years convince at least one of the really talented kids in your youth group. Imagine if those kids enter the world of mainstream entertainment and media as a Christian committed to being salt and light in mainstream culture. That could be—what? Five kids times tens of thousands, that’s like…a lot of young people out there transforming the culture. Think about it!
This quote is from Bob Briner’s “Roaring Lambs”:
Despite all the fancy buildings, sophisticated programs, and highly visible presence, it is my contention that the church is almost a nonentity when it comes to shaping culture. In the arts, entertainment, media, education, and other culture-shaping venues of our country, the church has abdicated its role as salt and light.
Now those are pretty harsh words. But in the two years I’ve been sharing that quote, I have yet to come across anyone who argues the point.
Salt and Light
Some of you might say, “So what? What’s so important about shaping culture? We’re here to make disciples.” That’s exactly the point. That’s why following Jesus’ command to be salt is so important. Salt acts as a preservative for meat. It retards the process of decay. “We are the salt of the earth,” according to Jesus. “But if we lose our saltiness, we’re worthless.” If we’re not actively engaging culture, if we’re not showing our world the relevance of Jesus to all walks of life, we’re being disobedient.
And when we disobey in one area, the rest of the plan starts to fall apart, which is what we see happening today in our “post-Christian” society. Being salt prepares the way and preserves the opportunity for evangelism. When we’re negligent, the culture decays, and proclaiming the gospel becomes a lot tougher. And, of course, when evangelism suffers, there are fewer people to disciple.
This is all pretty obvious stuff, isn’t it? Nothing controversial here so far. Of course we need to be salt and light. If Jesus commands it, we do it. But if it were easy, it would certainly be happening a lot more. So what’s stopping us?
I believe part of what keeps us from being salt and light and effectively modeling what that means to our young people, is a sort of collective unconsciousness that exists within the American church. We’ve almost been conditioned to accept, regardless of our denominational upbringings, certain concepts and ways of thinking. If you grow up in church, you eventually just pick this stuff up, regardless of whether or not it’s true.
Maybe it’s a saying like, “Don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.” I’d always been told to guard against this until a few years ago when my pastor challenged us that not only have we probably never met anyone like that, but that according to scripture, “being heavenly minded” is a good thing.
Or as another example, most of us grew up in church learning that it’s okay to be enthusiastic about our faith, as long as we “don’t start beating people over the head with a ten-pound Bible.” Now come on…have any of you ever witnessed any type of physical assault with a ten-pound Bible? Do any of you even own a ten-pound Bible?
My point is that while some of these may seem sound, many of them are unbiblical and keep us from being salt and light.
One of the misconceptions I mentioned earlier was the idea that God has a hierarchy when it comes to work, and that God views certain vocations as more spiritual than others. It’s this mindset that has virtually shut out Christian thought and influence in a number of culture-shaping professions.
The Weird Ones
Another is the way we tend to unconsciously marginalize or be suspicious of the “weird” kids. Oftentimes, these are the kids who don’t quite fit in, who are drawn to things that are out of the mainstream, who may be a bit eccentric.
These are the kids who often become artists. If we show no enthusiasm for their artistic passions, chances are their faith will play no future role in helping shape and inform their careers.
A friend of mine says these kids often hang out in the back row of the church. Chances are they’re introverted; they may have a hard time following all the rules. And they don’t have a safe place where they can exercise that gift that’s so close to the heart of God—the gift of creativity.
If our churches and youth groups can be a support and refuge for budding artists, who knows what might happen? My friend knows. His parents divorced when he was thirteen, and he was that kid in the back row at church. His youth pastor/guitar teacher gave him encouragement and direction in his art and his Christian faith. And since then Phil Vischer has gone on to create Veggie Tales, the number one kids video series in the country, selling 20 million videos to date, and ranking ahead of even Pokémon and Scooby Doo.
A third unconscious concept that we’ve been almost subliminally taught is that if we’re doing it for the Lord, it doesn’t really matter how well we do it. I don’t know where we got that—maybe it’s because we’re nice people who don’t like to criticize, but the fact is that bad, derivative art and entertainment made by Christians is still bad. At Squint, we follow two principles that were drilled into me by my friend and mentor Bob Briner.
The first principle is that character trumps talent. If, as a company, we truly want to be salt and light, we have to stress to our artists and staff that as important as talent is to everything we do, character is ultimately more important. Oddly enough, this isn’t a principle you’ll find in force at most mainstream entertainment companies.
The second principle is if you don’t have talent and a passion for excellence, don’t bother. The point is simple. We live in an entertainment- and media-saturated society. The reason most art and entertainment produced by Christians never finds a world audience is simply because it’s not good enough.
A fourth unconscious limiter is directly contrary to scripture, yet it governs much of what we model to our young people. We’re afraid! We read in 2 Timothy that God has not given us the spirit of fear, and yet an unspoken, often unconscious, fear keeps us out of culture-shaping careers in the arts and entertainment.
We see good models of what it’s like to be a committed Christian and, say, football star, thanks to organizations like FCA who have sown and reaped abundantly over the years. But we have a harder time imagining what a committed Christian who’s a movie star would look like, or a faithful Christian who’s a network television executive, or a morally grounded Christian who’s a mainstream rap star.
A lot of these fears are based on legitimate concerns. Imagine a vocation where compromise lurks in even the smallest decisions, where it’s dog-eat-dog 24/7, where sexual temptation is a constant threat and the use of illicit drugs is rampant.
I’m talking, of course, about the world of investment banking.
You see, the business world isn’t necessarily any more “ethical” or “moral” than Hollywood, it just wears a suit and tie. Our young people need solid, biblical training and the mind of Christ for any vocation they pursue, whether it’s writing network sitcoms or translating Scripture overseas. And Bible training sticks with them far more effectively if it’s modeled by living examples. Which is why all of you are so important.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying any of this is easy. I’m saying that as followers of Jesus, we have no choice. “You are the salt of the earth!” Jesus doesn’t give us a choice as to whether or not we want that responsibility. “You are the light of the world! Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven!”
If I was going to take a poll right now and ask you which genre of music is currently having the biggest effect on your kids, most of you would pick the world of rap and hip-hop. And you would most likely be correct. Eighty-five to ninety percent of your kids list hip-hop as their favorite genre of music.
I’ve got a last rhetorical question. “Steve, you’ve been talking about artists and entertainers becoming salt and light in mainstream culture. But what does that look like? Show me an example. How do I know this isn’t just a way to weasel out of boldly proclaiming the gospel?”
Well, the Squint group Sixpence None the Richer was on Letterman one night. My wife and I were in the audience during the show. Letterman brought Leigh (Sixpence’s lead singer) up from the stage to have her talk to him at the desk, which he almost never does with musicians. I got this sick feeling that he was going to make fun of the group or their name. But then as she told the band’s story and talked about its Christian roots, you could see his expression change. It was certainly our happiest moment as a company.
Now I don’t believe that broadcast brought thousands of people across America to a saving knowledge of Jesus. I do believe that Sixpence None the Richer was being faithful with the gifts God entrusted to them. I’ve been watching Letterman for twenty-some years, but I never thought I’d see a moment like that.
It shouldn’t be that big of a deal. But it is, because there’s such a lack of moments like that in popular culture. And you know what happens to your young people when they see those moments, whether it’s Sixpence on Letterman, or POD on Total Request Live, or Jennifer Knapp playing Lilith Fair, or Kirk Franklin at the Grammys. They start seeing the way these artists let their light shine, and they start asking the right questions. “How can I do the same thing with my life? How can I be salt and light in the vocation I choose?”
And little by little, that process of cultural decay that we see happening all around us at such an accelerated rate, starts to slow down. And little by little, shafts of light start penetrating dark rooms, and the people inside them are able to truly see for the first time. My friends, we need more of that, and I believe you are the ones who hold the key; you are the ones who can provide the direction, the inspiration, and the patient and loving support to make it happen.
That’s just about all I’ve got. But I’d like to leave you with this word of caution. We Americans love the idea of fighting wars without casualties. But to impact our culture, to truly be salt and light, it’s going to take resources, world-class talent, dedication to the cause, a better work ethic, and more thorough training in scripture.
It’s also going to require some casualties. We’re going to send out young people who we’ve taught and trained to be salt and light in mainstream culture. I pray regularly that it doesn’t happen, but some of them are going to grow weary, lose heart, and compromise. And some might even become the very things they were trying to change, and they’re going to disappoint us. One of them might be a Squint artist.
I’m here to tell you that this overriding fear of casualties is just a lame excuse. We’ve seen the very same things happen within the church to some of our artists, entertainers, counselors, teachers and pastors. After all, the church is made up of sinful human beings, too. God help us if we use that as an excuse to keep from doing the right thing.
God has not given us the spirit of fear. The command of Jesus is clear. I trust that we will obey.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.