Pop Culture by Daniel Blackaby September 17, 2019
Singing America Back to Church: An Honest Conversation about Kanye West and Hollywood’s Spiritual Awakening
If you’ve been following pop-culture of late, you’ve probably noticed that “the Jesus thing” is on the comeback trail. Brad Pitt recently shared about his own complicated spiritual journey during an interview, and Justin Bieber made waves on Instagram about how a dark period of his life has led him back to Christ. Perhaps the most headline-producing spiritual awakening of all is Kanye West and his “Sunday Services.”
Kanye’s Sunday services began as a private event for only family, friends, and some fellow A-List celebrities. More recently, however, Kanye has taken the show on road, including a stop last week in Atlanta. The services are predominantly music-driven, with full choirs, the occasional celebrity guest, and moments of prayer or testimony. As with virtually anything involving Kanye West, reactions to these services have been mixed.
When Christians engage the culture, they won’t always have all the answers, but they should at least be asking the right questions. So, let’s take a look at the recent (and unexpected) resurgence of open spirituality in Hollywood, and what it might mean—for better or worse—for the Church and for America.
Due to the divisive attitude surrounding this topic. I want to approach the conversation by giving a voice to both ends of the spectrum, and then seeing if we can find a landing spot somewhere in the middle.
When the rich and famous express their newfound spiritual awakening or a “return to Jesus,” they are often met with a hefty dose of skepticism. After all, we’ve been down this road so many times before. There are times when Jesus and Christian spirituality are back in vogue. There is something romantic and artistic about spirituality, as opposed to a cold and mechanical materialistic worldview.
However, it’s far easier to celebrate Christ’s victory on the cross than to pick up our own cross and follow him. It is one thing to pray, “Lord God”, but another thing to actually live as though God is Lord. Christians have been burned by the excitement of a celebrity professing Christ, followed by the disappointment when it turns out to be just a fleeting fad or publicity stunt.
While some people are excited that the name of Jesus is being spoken of openly in Hollywood, this excitement should hinge on how it is being spoken. As a I wrote HERE, star power and artistic talent do not mean that an individual is equipped or prepared to be a spokesperson for the faith. The Bible prescribes the strictest standards to those who are called to represent Christ in a public or ministerial position. Hollywood is embracing the spiritual, but is this spirituality grounded in biblical truth?
Kim Kardashian West describes her husband’s services as, “More of just a healing experience. There’s no praying, there’s no sermon, no word, just music, and just a feeling.” On the surface, this description falls in line with what sociologist Christian Smith calls Moralistic therapeutic deism, which essentially places us as the master and Jesus as the servant.
There is therapeutic power in music, but true spiritual healing comes only when we submit ourselves to Jesus and let him truly be lord of our life. We “come to Jesus” not only to be healed, but also to be conformed to his image. Due to Kanye’s services, people are “going to church,” but what kind of God are they experiencing? One that demands little, but gives much? A God of therapeutic good feelings, or one of holiness? Having the Gospel proclaimed widely is only good news if that Gospel is true.
In an age where the reputation of the Christian church is being constantly dragged through the mud, and young adults are abandoning the faith in droves, to be wholly pessimistic about Kanye’s services seems short-sighted and calloused. I’m reminded of the preachers who stand at the pulpit on Easter or Christmas and scold the visitors who only attend on special holidays, rather than thanking God for the wonderful opportunity to have the unchurched back in church (even if only twice a year). At a time when many young Christians are done with church, we should celebrate when some return—regardless of what brought them back.
Celebrities have a (mostly well-earned) reputation as being out of touch with the rest of the world. People tend to assume that everything they say or do is insincere and driven by only selfish motives and an addiction to publicity. At the same time, who are we to so quickly judge the salvation of someone who professes Christ, celebrities included? Did not Jesus come to save the famous and the anonymous alike? When we doubt that Christ can or will transform the life of a celebrity simply because of their fame, we are simply revealing our limited view of God’s power.
The Bible teaches that followers of Christ will be known by their fruit (Matthew 7). Time will eventually expose the false prophets from the true. However, if our immediate reaction to God’s apparent activity in the life of another person is skepticism and disbelief, then perhaps it is our own understanding of the Gospel that is being distorted and false.
Only time will tell what the impact—if any—will be of Kanye’s church services, and of other celebrities becoming more vocal about the name of Jesus. History suggests that many will fall away; but this is as true of people in the church as it is of celebrities on the stage. If we are going to complain about celebrities using their platform to spout secular and humanistic ideologies, then we should at least hold our judgment on those who profess Christ.
In the Bible, God often used evil kings and sinners to accomplish His will. Surely, He can use rappers, musicians, and entertainers to do the same. As Christians, we should be watchful and ready to correct any false gospel or distorted view of God. Yet, we should also be prayerful and expectant that God is at work in our world. As in Jesus’ parable of the workers who were all paid the same wage despite working different hours, let’s not become so jaded and focused on the fine print that we miss God’s power and grace at work all around us.