If I hear one more contemporary gospel song talk about God’s favor, I’m gonna lose it.
“Favor,” wails Karen Clark Sheard. “You will never want for anything.” “Nothing can stop the favor of The Lord,” proclaims Israel and New Breed. “It’s my time for God’s favor,” shouts Kurt Carr. “I ain’t waitin’ no more!”
Since these aren’t exactly new songs, let me offer instead an example from the world of holy hip-hop, a song called “Favor” by William “Duce” Branch, a.k.a The Ambassador (formerly of The Cross Movement), from his latest album entitled Stop the Funeral:
It wasn’t a fancy car, it wasn’t a diamond ring / it wasn’t friends or lovers at the end of the day / ‘cause we know this life’s hard, and it can bring trouble / in the midst of this trouble, no one can take it away / you need His favor, His favor, His favor, His favor
I don’t want to sound like Debbie Downer here, because the truth is, I really like each of these songs. They’re good songs. Musically and emotionally, they have been a blessing to me at various times.
But I’m concerned that by continually singing songs like these, gospel musicians might be unintentionally sending a bad message.
The truth about favor
The problem with songs like these is not that they’re not true at all, but that they contain enough truth to be dangerous. (After all, the worst lies are mixed with the truth.) So for example, I do believe that as Christians, each of us do have divine favor. We love and serve a God that is for us, and not against us. And this favor isn’t because of what we’ve done for Him, but because of what He’s done for us — specifically that He made us alive in Christ, even when we were dead in our transgressions.
But this news isn’t complete if we are not articulating more clearly and accurately the basis of God’s favor on our lives. After all, most Christians believe that God loves everyone, but I don’t think the folks who sing these songs believe such favor is universally accessible to everyone regardless of faith background or life experience. We sing these songs with the mindset that God’s favor rests exclusively on those who are … well … Christians.
In other words, God’s favor may not cost money, but it costs something. However one defines the Christian life, that’s what it supposedly costs.
The view from the outside
Unfortunately, what we on the inside see as a joyful celebration of God’s favor can appear from the outside to nonbelievers as either selfish gloating (“Favor? Why you and not me?”) or indulgent self-delusion (“Favor? Who are they kidding?”). This misunderstanding often comes because of moralistic therapeutic deism, which says, among other things, that good people go to heaven because they do good things (like going to church). So if you’re not socially accepted within your church circle, too bad. No church, no heaven, no favor.
This is clearly NOT the gospel message, but we shouldn’t be surprised when people get it twisted up. Gospel music has become so appreciated and appropriated by mainstream culture that the very term “gospel” means and connotes Black church style more than it does a message of salvation through faith in Christ.
I suppose it’s fair to say that different songs are aimed for, marketed toward, and enjoyed by different segments of people, so that a song written by and for Christians shouldn’t be evaluated by non-Christians, because that would be like an apples-to-oranges comparison.
Except that I compare apples and oranges all the time. (I like oranges better.)
And it’s also fair to say that one song should not have to serve as an overall theological representation of a particular artist, church, or organization.
But what if one song is all that gets heard?
In the marketplace of competing ideas and ideologies, we Christians can’t afford to ignore our public perception. We need to be aware of what it might look like to our nonbelieving friends on Facebook if or when the dominant themes reflected in the gospel songs we share are about a divine favor that looks and feels alien and inaccessible to those not steeped in Black church culture.
Theology from below
The truth is, God’s favor truly is open to everyone. Anyone can receive the good news and become a follower of Jesus. You don’t have to know the lyrics to “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” to get in on it. An authentic Christian life does not need to be stamped with cultural markers for divine approval.
So part of what we need is to be able to view our theology “from below” — that is, with the needs of the marginalized in mind so that we can make sure that what we’re saying actually sounds like good news to those who need it.
The bitter irony in seeing The Ambassador record a song about favor is that he operates within a cultural persona that is, in the Black church, particularly unfavorable. First, he is a hip-hop emcee, so by cultural association he is seen as loud, audacious, and overly confrontational (or borderline demonic if you ask G. Craige Lewis). Second, he has recently rebounded from an infidelity scandal that could have torpedoed his marriage and career, though thankfully both have survived.
Either way, his artistic and pastoral voice represents a growing segment of Black men who no longer feel at home in the church. So in the context of all the other songs about God’s favor that fail to address many of the social ills that afflict Black people, Amba’s song “Favor” seems like another example of a popular Black artist drinking the prosperity Kool-Aid in order to gain broader acceptance within the church.
Having listened to the rest of Stop the Funeral, I don’t really think that’s true.
But that’s how it looks.
My plea is for Christians who make music for a living to pay closer attention to the words and ideas they use, and do the best they can to be as accessible as possible to listeners of different cultural backgrounds.
Because Ambassador is right — God’s favor is a wonderful thing.
I just hope his listeners get the rest of the message.
Israel reinvented his sound for his new solo album, The Power of One. But he brings it strong, with the same passion for praise and worship.
From the moment he says hello, I can tell Israel Houghton’s probably wearing his trademark (PRODUCT) RED Converse sneakers. There’s that unmistakable twinkle in his voice. He sounds like a man wearing red shoes — a little too happy, like he’s up to something. But maybe he’s just giddy — after all he does have a lot to be happy about these days. Since his new album, The Power of One, debuted at number one on March 24th, he’s been in demand by everyone from TBN to Ebony. People are saying it’s Israel’s moment.
And they’re probably right. After a string of live albums with his gospel ensemble New Breed, this new solo studio venture from Israel isn’t just a good Christian album; it’s a good album. People have long praised the ability of Israel & New Breed to push contemporary Christian music forward into a multicultural sound. But this latest effort is more aggressive than those albums. Whereas New Breed projects have a distinct sound that appeal to a multi-ethnic audience of worshipers, The Power of One is itself multi-sonic, rolling from rock to reggae to urban and traditional gospel on hit after hit (check out the Blues Brothers–inspired video for the single “Just Wanna Say” below to hear what I’m talking about). In that sense, The Power of One is almost a better illustration of diversity. Each song is so uncompromisingly niche that there’s no loss of the unique sonic identities of each track, and yet each song complements the next. I tell Israel I’m proud, like I’m his mother and he just brought home all A’s.
“Well thank you for that,” he laughs. Twinkle, twinkle. “That’s kind of you to say. I’ve really enjoyed the creative process of this record. I have to be honest, I expected a little more ‘we don’t understand why you didn’t do a live record’ response, or, ‘how come a few of these songs don’t feel like the typical thing?’ Instead it’s been met with an overwhelming sense of freshness; the response has been kind of scary positive.”
Israel’s referring to the fact that The Power of One has remained on the Billboard charts for six weeks, peaking at number one on the Top Christian & Gospel Albums chart. Fueled by a genius marketing program, complete with a custom iPhone application, and the residual momentum from his involvement in the CompassionArt charity project, The Power of One isn’t going anywhere soon. Israel seems okay with that. He’s been itching to lengthen his leash on New Breed for a while now.
“I felt like we did three records in a row that were very similar: Another Level, Alive in South Africa, and A Deeper Level. They were good, and I really loved that there were a lot of songs between those three records that have become a part of church culture and helping worship teams,” he explains. “However, I didn’t want to get stuck in that particular wheelhouse and say this is what I always, always, always do. I felt that I needed to challenge myself a bit–still lyrically and conceptually putting in songs that help people sing along, declare their faith and connect with God. But at the same time I wanted a different vehicle. It’s sort of like I’ve been driving a certain car for a while, and I wanted to try something different.”
In other words, it’s time to grow. And though he’s trying out new sounds, Israel is keeping his heart focused on ministry. When you speak with him, you can tell why; loving people is his gift. After ten minutes on the phone, I can’t help but start confessing my own issues, launching into a rant about my passion for racial reconciliation. He listens patiently and offers a few tips on building a diverse church.
“First of all it can’t just be a passion that you want to be cross-cultural. There has to be something in you that says not only do we want to be cross-cultural, but also we want to be cross-cultural because we know that’s the kingdom of God. We understand that when we get to heaven, there’s not a white section or black section,” he laughs. “There is heaven, and there is all the earth with every tribe, nation, tongue, skin tone and background coming together. And so if we’re saying let it be on earth as it is in heaven right now, then we’re essentially saying let’s figure out what the heart of God is all about.”
Israel knows a thing or two about racial reconciliation. He’s not just waxing poetic. For years he’s been the worship leader for America’s largest mega church at Pastor Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston. Plus, Israel is biracial, and having been raised in a predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood of San Diego, he’s been a cultural bridge-builder since his childhood. Through the years of his ministry, he’s witnessed practical steps to creating a diverse congregation. Naturally, he begins with music.
“I think you have to look at that [worship music] and ask can we mix it up,” he challenges. “New Breed is all about that. We’ve been together 10 years now, and we are very intentional about putting something in it for everyone. Every record we do, we make sure everybody — regardless of their background — can find themselves involved.”
Power Source: As an artist and a worship leader, Israel believes it’s important to “mix it up” as far as musical styles go. “We are very intentional about putting something in it for everyone. We make sure everybody–regardless of their background–can find themselves involved.”
But it’s not just a matter of Steven Curtis Chapman versus Fred Hammond. Diversity has to start at the top. “The other thing I’ve seen work really well is to have a staff pastor who looks different than you, who comes from a different background than you and who is very visible to what’s going on. That’s a very practical but very powerful way to say, ‘Hey, we’re walking this out from the top down.’ I’m sure there are many more, but I’m not an authority on it. I think there really just has to be a love for people regardless of where they’re from.”
It’s these kinds of small structural changes that Israel is discovering lead to powerful results. That’s why he loves the (PRODUCT) RED campaign, which utilizes the consumerism of our culture to enable people to support charities through everyday purchases. He appreciates justice built into the foundation. Similarly, Israel’s involvement with CompassionArt emanated from that same desire to go beyond one-off donations of money to a good cause and build charity into the core of a project from the start.
“We agreed up front that all proceeds — every last dime of whatever songs we wrote in that particular timeframe — would go to this charity trust that would last forever. For the life of the songs, whatever ancillary things come out of the project will all go to this cause,” he explained. Essentially he and the other artists are seeding their income for years to come.
“We’ve come to find out that it’s completely unprecedented in the music business; not just the Christian music business, but the music business period. The idea has never been done and never been accomplished on that grand of a scale.” But moving into uncharted territories is the M.O. for Israel’s life right now. As the bubble of opulence and plenty bursts in America, causing many people to give less and focus inward, Israel feels more compelled than ever to turn outward and love others. Thankfully, the weight of the world’s need hasn’t left him discouraged.
“One of the things that keep me from getting discouraged is realizing that in my scaled down state because of the economy, I am still so excessive. Even if it came down to I had one pair of shoes and one change of clothes, but I had a roof over my head and I had a way to drive to where I needed to go, I’m considered one of the wealthiest people in the world based on that. When you can go to Haiti, Honduras, Botswana, Zimbabwe or Jakarta and see real poverty, it’s like, ‘Oh wait, I don’t know why I’m complaining.’ It’s a bit of a sliding scale when you get it.”
And perhaps that’s the secret to the twinkle of joy in Israel’s voice — he gets it.
Behind the calm demeanor and raspy voice that sounds like silk on wax is a strength that can only come from knowing he’s blessed beyond measure. And with the overflow of provision in his life, Israel is doing what he can to bless others. It’s the power of one who understands that God is the source of his success.