Casting Crowns, That Preachy CCM Band

Back when I was an IFB, I was convinced that contemporary Christian music was sinful, and one of the reasons for that belief was that all contemporary music was antagonistic toward preaching or even sounding preachy. That is the impression I was given by various sources of IFB traditions, which will remain nameless.

I was flat-out wrong about that whole thing, though, as I have come to realize over the past few years, and the more CCM I listen to, the more I realize that there’s a great deal of preaching & teaching going on in the songs.

In fact, perhaps my favorite band at the moment is Casting Crowns. They’re about as contemporary as they come as far as sound is concerned — with songs ranging from soft ballad (“Your Love Is Extravagant”) to fast-paced worship songs (“Father, Spirit, Jesus,” “Praise You with the Dance”) and the driving almost-metal of “Set Me Free.”

But their message is far from what may be considered contemporary, and you will be hard pressed to accuse them of attempting to use music to “reach the world for Christ,” a phrase which seems code for “sell as many albums and concert tickets as possible, with in and without the church.”

In the words of Casting Crowns lead singer Mark Hall, “It’s discipleship set to music.” And it really is. My favorite Casting Crowns songs tend to be those which, when they play, simply kick my butt with conviction. What do I mean by that?

Take for instance the song “If We Are the Body” from their eponymous debut album. In it, the church is all but indicted for its complacency toward those seeking comfort or compassion. The first verse recounts the story of a young girl who arrives in a crowded worship service, quietly finding a place among the congregated. Far from being greeted with the love and compassion of Christ, the girl is met with teasing laughter. We are not told why. Maybe she had no home and smelled as we imagine Lazarus may have smelled as he lived at the rich man’s curb. Or maybe she was coming straight out of a subculture that seemed to the girls’ eyes to be wholly out of place among the straight-laced pew-sitters. Whatever the case may be, she was not made to feel welcome.

In the second verse, Casting Crowns tells us of a man who was far from home traveling — business or personal we are not told. Like the girl from the first verse, he quietly slips into a church service. He does his best not to disrupt, even choosing the last row. It isn’t teasing laughter that greets him — but it also isn’t warm hand shakes and attitudes of compassion either. Rather, he is met with judgmental glances — perhaps he wasn’t dressed just right, but again we are not told. And rather than concluding that the church is a place of love, comfort, and worship, he concludes that his chances in dealing with whatever he faces are better out on the road, away from the critical looks of the churched.

To both of those instances, Casting Crowns challenges, “If we are the body / Why aren’t His arms reaching? / Why aren’t His hands healing? / Why aren’t His words teaching?” What a shame that instead those who need Christ are being pushed away by His body. “And if we are the body / Why aren’t His feet going? / Why is His love not showing them there is a way? / Jesus is the Way.”

That is preachy, and I love it. It is a message desperately needed in the churches. And if I may be so bold, this preachy message is greatly needed among those groups who believe that one of CCM‘s biggest faults is that it isn’t preachy enough.

Look also at the song “Stained Glass Masquerade” from their sophomore album, Lifesong. It’s probably just me, but it seems as though this song could be a sequel to “If We Are the Body.” “Stained Glass Masquerade” tells the story of a visitor — or even a regular attendee — who has caught on to how to fit in at the church, and as is evident from the title, it involves putting on a mask.

The song is sung from the first-person, and our narrator opens with a few questions as he wonders whether anyone around him at the church is as imperfect as he is. “Am I the only one in church today feeling so small?” he ponders, certain that “they’ll soon discover / That I don’t belong.”

The narrator must like it there, or maybe as bad as it is, it’s still preferable to anyplace else. Whatever the case may be, he “tuck[s] it all away, like everything’s okay,” hoping that by putting on “a painted grin” he’ll be able to fit in and not be found out as being the imperfect, falling, failing man that he is.

The second verse continues the questioning, as the narrator asks if anyone else has “traded / In the altar for a stage.” As far as the narrator is concerned, the church services are simply performances, and “we know every line by heart.” Nobody dares break down in front of the congregation. Nobody dares dispel the air of perfection.

But playing the part is not what the narrator wants to do. “Would it set me free / If I dared to let you see / The truth behind the person / That you imagine me to be.” Is it worth shedding the painted grin, casting off the pretended perfection in favor of the mess behind?

The narrator isn’t certain, and in another short series of questions we come to the most demanding question of all. “Would the love of Jesus / Be enough to make you stay?”

What about your church? Is it filled with “happy plastic people / Under shiny plastic steeples”? Or is your invitation truly to “every heart that has been broken”? Are the pews lined with those who are content with the status quo, irritated by anyone who would dare bring their problems into the church: How dare they cause us to run a few minutes past noon; were their problems really worth stopping everything for prayer?

Or is your church comprised of those who not only know the love of Christ but are compelled by it to embrace those whose lives are a mess? Are we forcing those who seek comfort to take part in a stained glass masquerade, or are we inviting in the tired, the sick, the needy, the broken, the lost, the torn, and the confused with the desire that we might by God’s grace impart to them hope and direction?

Is your church a beacon of hope or a dressed-up stage act?

That too is preachy, and to Casting Crowns I can only say “Preach on!”

And while their preachiness is by no means limited to those two songs, you are invited to explore the rest of their songs on your own. The message is pertinent, the worship is pure, and the music is powerful.

Oh, and as “Here Am I” by MercyMe plays (another preachy CCM band), I have to simply add that preachy CCM songs are by no means limited to Casting Crowns.

Oh again, it just occurred to me that preaching is limited by some theologians as being that act which is evangelical in nature, though it doesn’t prevent pastors from preaching to their congregation a multitude of messages which aren’t evangelistic. Indeed, the line between teaching and preaching is often one of style only. In this article, “preachy” is used in the sense of a message intended to convict. As Mark Hall was quoted as saying earlier, it is about discipleship. So perhaps you want to consider Casting Crowns to sound “teachy,” and that’s fine.

Can music, then, be used in a truly “preachy” manner (read: evangelism)? I would argue if tracts, t-shirts, banners, and bumper stickers can be evangelistic in nature, so can a song. Singing, after all, is far closer to verbal preaching than ever a tract could be!

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