Songwriter Marty Sampson and the Unsustainability of Feelings-Based Faith
I remember a dilemma I faced as a worship leader figuring out whether we should add a particular worship song into our mix. Solid lyrics, catchy tune—however, I had just learned that the songwriter had been covering up a years-long affair during the same time he was writing chart-topping worship songs. What do we do when the songwriter writes exponentially better than he lives?
Of course, the quintessential worship leader was King David, “man after God’s own heart” and yet adulterer and murderer. No one can deny that God still uses David’s songwriting for God’s glory, notably his Psalm 51 which admits David’s affair and asks God to “Create in me a clean heart.” Falling on the grace they sang about, both worship leaders—the ancient psalmist and the modern songwriter—came back to repentance. Fallenness in humanity is one thing, but fallenness from pulpits and music stands is particularly painful. Still, it’s mercifully true that God offers “grace that is greater than all my sin.”
What about apostasy? Longtime Hillsong songwriter Marty Sampson helped write all sorts of great worship songs. “God Is Great,” “Now That You’re Near,” and “My Best Friend” were mainstays during our worship concerts as a touring worship band in college.
Recently, Marty Sampson posted on Instagram that, in light of disillusionments like the fall of Christian preachers, the lack of modern miracles, alleged contradictions in the Bible, the Bible’s teachings of eternal judgment, and the onward march of science, “I’m genuinely losing my faith.” And yet he’s very much at peace: “I am so happy now, so at peace with the world.”
Fitting for a modern worship songwriter, Marty keeps returning to the same refrain in his deconversion declaration: “No one talks about it.” Hardly any miracles? “No one talks about it.” Contradictions in the Bible? “No one talks about it.” Four times he says it.
Seriously? No one is talking about these things? Ever heard of theological study? Ever heard of apologetics?
This is going to sound more biting than I mean it to sound: Marty, it’s not your faith that doesn’t talk about these things; it’s your songs that don’t.
I say that as someone who has gotten a lot of good out of leading people in worship using Hillsong songs. True, some of Marty’s songs were sometimes a bit shallow; we used to call some of them “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” songs. Still, Hillsong puts out some rich material. There’s often depth, not just lyrical cleverness and melody hooks.
All the same, Marty’s songs were never going to build the theological foundation which would answer doubts. The portrait of God painted by much modern worship isn’t false, but it is often partial. Let’s face it: we don’t like to sing about God’s wrath. We might paint Noah’s ark on the nursery walls, but we stop singing about the Flood after “The Lord told Noah to build him an arky arky.”
All of this leads me to a modest, but I trust, helpful point: Worship culture isn’t enough to cultivate lifelong faithfulness. People need to be discipled.
Put another way, we can praise God for the teen event which shakes the kid out of his robotic daze and convinces him to start following Jesus. But we need to pray all the harder for disciplers to come into that kid’s life, to teach him day-by-day how to keep following Jesus through the loneliness, temptations, and doubts he will face.
“The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time” (Matthew 13:20-21).
Worship culture isn’t enough to cultivate lifelong faithfulness. People need to be discipled.
Marty, thanks for some great songs that help point us to God. In return, here’s some advice that could help point you to Him: A partial version of God which incorporates only half the story is easy to dismiss as fantasy. Much like a mermaid or centaur. Experience which leaves behind robust theological training is incomplete. Jesus as best friend but not coming Judge is incomplete.