One night last fall, my fiancee and I were in downtown Orlando on our way to meet some friends when she mentioned in passing a rumor that Lauryn Hill was playing a secret show at a club nearby. Not to let such a treat pass us by, we bee-lined it for the club in question just to make sure. We pulled up, rolled down the window and asked the bouncer if the rumor was true. “Yeah,” he said nonchalantly. Holy cow.
For those of you living under a rock, Lauryn Hill is the ex-Fugee member whose solo album, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, sold 14 million copies and cleaned up at the Grammys a couple of years back. Her music is soulful and bold—and her message is overtly Christian. Needless to say, we went to the concert, and it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event. There she was, 15 feet in front of us, alone on a stage with nothing but a stool and her acoustic guitar. She wouldn’t sing any of her old stuff, only new songs from an upcoming album. The music was awe-inspiring.
She began the concert by telling the crowd she chose to have no accompaniment because she wanted us to listen to the lyrics. Listen to what the songs were saying. Truly get them. And they didn’t disappoint. The spiritual bent of her previous work pales in comparison to her new stuff. Every song she sung had overtly Christ-centered content.
From “Jerusalem,” which was nothing but beautifully interwoven Scripture, to songs sung from God to His children, to songs about righteousness, to the river of God, to freedom in Christ, on and on they went. “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions,” began the first song of the night. To answer her critics: “They don’t know me, if they don’t know my Father.”
I heard more truth in that club than I have in church in a long time. Last night I saw in living color what it means to be light in the darkness. Last night I stood within earshot of someone I deeply respect and admire, someone who will touch millions of lives through uncompromised lyrics and amazing music. She will give answers to people asking, “God, where are you?” She will point people to a relationship with Christ. Yet, the Church won’t acknowledge her. She’s “secular,” and her music isn’t sold in Christian bookstores.
When I read the manuscript of our Relevant Books release, WALK ON: The Spiritual Journey of U2. I have to tell you, I saw Bono—and the Church—in a completely different light. The book details the story of a man, and a band, that came out of the fires of spiritual renewal in Dublin. In the formative years of the band’s existence, Bono, the Edge and Larry were unashamed, on-fire Christians. They attended the Shalom Fellowship in Dublin faithfully, and they talked constantly about God in their music and in the media. Then, after their debut album, Boy, and the growing fame that came with it, their church told the boys that the Lord wanted them to disband the group. They were forced to choose between the wishes of their sincere, yet misguided, congregation, and the passion God put in their hearts to make music that would change the world. They chose the latter, and their church shunned them.
With great insight and analysis, the book then goes into the story of U2’s music and careers, how the three have never wavered in their faith in God and their love for Him, but did grow to reject legalistic religion. (Good for them.) As much spiritual impact U2 has had on the world over the last 20 years—from raising billions of dollars for the world’s poor to pointing people to Christ through their lyrics—imagine how much more impact they would have had had their church chosen to embrace them instead of reject them. Imagine if they had a spiritual umbrella to support and guide them through this journey, rather than throwing them out there to find their own way in a life of sheltered fame. Imagine if the Church supported them rather than criticized them. Imagine.
The question is pertinent because the Shalom Fellowship is not unlike almost every American church I know. Where would Creed be if Lee University had not expelled lead singer Scott Stapp when they caught him smoking weed as a student there? What if they would have helped him get his heart and life straight instead of slamming the door behind him? Creed has sold something like 12 million albums over the last few years. In their music, they are crying out for God, but they don’t know where to find Him because the Church has said, “We don’t want you.”
I think artists like Lauryn Hill, Lifehouse, Creed, U2—all who started in the Church and are at the top of the charts—need the Church to stand up and support them. If we’re ever going to get outside of our bubble and impact culture, we need to stand with, support and embrace the voices out there that love God—or are looking for God—and just happen to be outside of our comfort zones of familiarity.
Imagine if for the last 20 years Bono was getting fed at the Shalom Fellowship, what a difference it would have made in the lives of millions of people. Imagine Lauryn Hill with the Church standing by her side. She’s bringing the only Christian message most of her fans will ever really pay attention to.
You think most of the people at that club with me at 1 a.m. were in church that morning? No, these artists aren’t perfect, but in their own ways they’re pointing millions of people to the Lord. They’re impacting more lives than the preachers on TBN ever could. They’re out there in the trenches, on a journey to find a relationship with their Creator, and they’re bringing an entire radio-listening and video-watching generation with them in their quest. I say it’s time the Church wakes up and gets out there. It’s time the light stops shining upon itself and starts to make a difference in the darkness, because that’s where it’s needed most. That’s where these artists are. That’s where the real mission field is. And I think that’s where Jesus would be, too.