This week, the popular gospel artist Tasha Cobbs Leonard appeared on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series. A regular show which features some of today’s top artists performing in a small corner of the NPR office. Starting off as featuring many up-and-coming indie artists and branching out to feature a broad range of acts such as Anderson Paak, Khalid, Yo-Yo Ma, Tyler The Creator, Tom Misch, Mac Miller and even Sesame Street recently!
Starting off her set with a brief introduction: “Hey everybody, I'm Tasha Cobbs Leonard, I'm so excited to be here. We're gonna do a few worship songs today, and just have some fun, loosen up, we're gonna go to church...” - Tasha then leads into the popular worship song ‘Break Every Chain’.
Personally, I found there was something really refreshing about hearing worship songs I’ve sung in church being played on a show where I’ve listened to many of my favourite mainstream artists. But, there was also part of me that thought ‘well, why not?’.
This same weekend, UK rapper Stormzy took to the stage at Glastonbury - the biggest music festival in the UK, where he performed his song “Blinded By Your Grace, Pt 2” during the headline slot in front of around 100,000 people, all singing along to the words of his gospel-inspired track:
“Lord, I've been broken,
Although I'm not worthy,
You fixed me, I'm blinded by your grace
You came and saved me”
Now, he may not be considered a christian artist (the rest of his set had it’s fair share of explicit language and controversial themes), but there was certainly something special about this moment towards the end of his set, seeing a crowd of people at Glastonbury singing these words.
My point with sharing these moments is not to say that we should aim to write and create art for the purpose of being loved and accepted by the wider world - Jesus himself said told his disciples they would even be hated by people for following him: “if the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” (John 15:18). Looking at Jesus’ life and ministry as example, he wasn’t always liked or popular (he was crucified by people who hated the things he did and said). But what he did was also very visible. And for some people, it was good news that led to a life changing moment for them.
I remember reading an article in the Independent called “Why don't Christian Contemporary Music acts ever make it into the mainstream?”, which was eye-opening for me. Writer Rhodri Marsden seems really surprised at never having heard of any of the artists included on a compilation called “The World’s Favourite Worship Songs”.
“…these artists are huge; they tour extensively, release successful albums and have thousands of fans and followers on social media. Why have they never drifted into my line of sight?”
It did seem strange to us that artists who are so well-known in the Christian world remain so unknown in the mainstream world. Why did these two worlds become so separated? How did we end up making music that is never heard outside the church walls?
This is one of the things that led us to the decision to hold our Gather worship nights in public venues in the city. When the band United Pursuit reached out and asked us to help them find a place to play in 2014, we decided to reach out to one of our favourite concert venues in the city, The Deaf Institute. There was something so amazing about standing at the back of a sold-out venue, full of people worshipping Jesus, and seeing the looks on the faces of bar staff and security who looked like they’d never seen something like this before. Since then, we’ve held our Gather events in clubs, bars and coffee shops all around the city, and we’ve heard stories from people coming in from the streets, or staff working at the venues like “I’ve never seen something like this before. Everyone looked so joyful!”. I once asked a staff member what she thought of what was going on and she said “It feels really powerful when everyone is singing like that”, being quick to add “but I’m not a christian or anything!”
Sometimes there is of course good reason why we keep our worship times to churches and christian gatherings, but I wonder if we’ve subconsciously just ruled out the possibility of singing these songs or bringing christian art into more public places, choosing to keep them in our own christian world.
Our primary objective doesn’t need to be creating something that is loved and celebrated by the world - but I would encourage our fellow artists and creators in the church, don’t be afraid to do something visible.