I was listening to Bob Baker's Music Marketing Podcast which featured his guest Peter Hollens, a vocalist from Eugene, Oregon, whose YouTube channel has over 1.5 million subscribers. And after listening to this video, I can see why.

This is a smooth a cappella version of John Newton's beloved hymn, Amazing Grace that features Peter along with Home Free, winners of season 4 of NBC's The Sing-Off. The blend and the harmonies are impressive.

Thank you for watching this version of Amazing Grace.

If you enjoyed this video and wish to have more content like this, leave a comment below. Also, don't forget to sign up for the newsletter and check out my own music at http://music.gregricesings.com.

The Bestsellers

A short time ago I launched a new Sunday series called “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I will look at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. So far we have looked at titles awarded Platinum status in 2005 and 2007; today we advance to 2008 and a book that served as the voice of a generation.

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

blue-like-jazz3_2Donald Miller was born in 1971 and grew up in Houston, Texas. He left home at twenty-one and traveled across the country until he ran out of money in Portland, Oregon, and decided to remain there. In 2000 Harvest House Publishers published his first book, Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance, which told the story of his cross-country journey. The book made minimal impact until it was retitled Through Painted Deserts and re-released in 2005, following the breakthrough success of his second book.

Two years after Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance, while auditing classes at Reed College in Portland, Miller wrote Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. It was published in 2003 by Thomas Nelson. Sales were slow at first, but they soon picked up, and eventually the book would make its way to the New York Times list of bestsellers. It would prove to have mass appeal both for what Miller said and for the way he said it.

Blue Like Jazz is a spiritual memoir, a semi-autobiographical account of Miller’s spiritual transformation. The catchy title is borrowed from the world of jazz and the characteristic freedom and ambiguity of that musical genre. “I was watching BET one night, and they were interviewing a man about jazz music. He said jazz music was invented by the first generation out of slavery. I thought that was beautiful because, while it is music, it is very hard to put on paper; it is so much more a language of the soul … The first generation out of slavery invented jazz music. It is a music birthed out of freedom. And that is the closest thing I know to Christian spirituality. A music birthed out of freedom. Everybody sings their song the way they feel it, everybody closes their eyes and lifts up their hands.”

Miller had been raised with a kind of cultural Christianity and had been tempted to walk away from it all together, thinking that Christianity was necessarily synonymous with fundamentalism and Republicanism. He had experienced the all-too-common moralistic therapeutic deism that marks so much of Evangelicalism. He had grown weary. What he comes to see is that Christianity is far wider and far better than what he had experienced as a youth. He comes to see that the Christian faith continues to be relevant even in a postmodern culture. He writes, “I don’t think any church has ever been relevant to culture, to the human struggle, unless it believed in Jesus and the power of His gospel.”

Through Miller’s time at Reed College, and through the relationships he developed there, he describes his arrival to a form of Christian spirituality that is imprecise and difficult to define, just like jazz music. Where jazz is nearly impossible to score, so the Christian faith is difficult to define, describe and limit. Where many Christians see life as a journey guided boldly by the Bible, he sees life as more of a meandering journey. “For me, the beginning of sharing my faith with people began by throwing out Christianity and embracing Christian spirituality, a nonpolitical mysterious system that can be experienced but not explained.”

This journey is told through skillful, self-deprecating writing, and an irreverent tone that draws many people, and young people in particular. In his memoir he arrives at an ambiguous relationship with many key doctrines of Christianity, with sin, with the local church. “At the end of the day, when I am lying in bed and know the chances of any of our theology being exactly right are a million to one, I need to know that God has things figured out, that if my math is wrong we are still going to be okay. And wonder is that feeling we get when we let go of our silly answers, our mapped out rules that we want God to follow. I don’t think there is any better worship than wonder.”

Sales & Lasting Impact

Sales of Blue Like Jazz began slowly, but began to increase after a couple of years. In 2007, three years after its release, the book had sold 500,000 copies and was awarded ECPA’s Gold Book Award. Just one year later it had crossed the one million threshold and was awarded the Platinum Book Award.

Blue Like Jazz was released at the dawn of what became known as the Emerging Church movement. Miller’s journey from fundamentalism to Christian spirituality quickly branded him as a leader in this movement even though he was not officially a part of any Emerging organization. His voice was a fresh and powerful one and extended through that movement and far beyond. His writing attracted many young people—primarily Gen-Xers—who were equally disaffected with the faith of their youth. In many ways, Miller became their spokesman, putting into words what many were feeling and desiring. Jonathan Leeman says it well:

I don’t have the exact quote, but Emerson said somewhere that great writers hold up a mirror to the world around them and say, “Here you are.” Blue Like Jazz holds up this mirror for the Gen X segment of 1980s and 90s evangelicalism—my own peer group. We grew up with one foot in the world of seeker-sensitive worship services and another foot in the world of MTV, shopping malls, and sitcom laugh tracks. We eventually discovered how much the first world borrowed from the second to keep us coming back. This realization in turn led us to be skeptical toward the whole Christian program, as if Jesus were just one more product. Many of us therefore left the faith, while those of us who remained insisted on something more real, more authentic, from our Christian spirituality. Often, this search led us outside the boundaries of conventional churches.

Where Miller’s diagnosis was insightful, many conservative Christians criticized his book on a number of counts, and especially for its postmodern ethos which led to a lack of grounding in the authority of Scripture. Miller often eschews firm answers to matters of life and doctrine and this concerned those who hold up Scripture as a clear and final source of authority. Miller was also critiqued for what many reviewers saw as a weak and man-centered gospel displayed in statements like this one: “I realized, after reading those Gospels, that Jesus didn’t just love me out of principle; He didn’t just love me because it was the right thing to do. Rather, there was something inside me that caused Him to love me.” Finally, many reviewers were concerned with his depiction of Jesus which emphasizes his kindness and gentleness while downplaying his justice and his wrath. Reviewers determined that while this is a Jesus Miller and his readers may want, it was not the Jesus of the whole Bible.

Parenthetically, one of Miller’s most memorable characters was “Mark the Cussing Pastor,” a Seattle-area preacher who was known for his foul mouth. One year later, this preacher—Mark Driscoll—would release a book of his own: The Radical Reformission.

Since the Award

Since Blue Like Jazz, Miller has written several books, including Searching For God Knows What, To Own a Dragon: Reflections On Growing Up Without a Father, and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Today he is Founding Director of The Burnside Writers Collective and hosts semi-annual Storyline conferences which assist people in creating life plans. He also travels widely and speaks at a variety of conferences.

In 2012 a film adaptation of Blue Like Jazz, directed by Steve Taylor, made its way to theaters. The film fared poorly at the hands of reviewers, with fewer than 40% of them reviewing it positively. It earned less than half of its production cost at the box office.

More recently Miller has ignited controversy through his admission that he no longer attends a local church and has found alternative ways to experience God.

A Personal Perspective

Ten years ago the Emerging Church and other expressions of postmodern Christianity were surfacing as significant forces in Christianity. Donald Miller served as a much-loved, widely-respected, but controversial voice. I reviewed his book in 2005, just as it began to hit its stride.

I have long believed that the church growth movement and seeker-sensitive, big-box Christianity spawned a significant kind of rebellion shortly after the dawn of the new millennium. Some gravitated toward postmodern expressions of Christianity and found a voice in Donald Miller and other emerging voices. Many of those who did not gravitate toward postmodernism discovered Reformed expressions of Christianity and found a voice in John Piper and in others like him. In this way Miller’s book was polarizing. While most appreciated the diagnosis, only some took the cure.

PraisesAbout a year ago, I was in the car with my son and saw a billboard that took me by surprise. It was for a new church plant in our area and proudly displayed the words, “Church that doesn't **** (a word that I will not use  here because it is absolutely inappropriate!) ” Really?! Is this the best we can do? Is the Gospel so boring and flat that we have to resort to this kind of ridiculous “marketing” tactic to “bring in the sheaves?”

I really wish that this was an isolated example of how far many churches seemed to have moved away from fully trusting in the power of the Gospel to change the hearts of men. Unfortunately, there are quite a few more examples that I have seen over the past few years in this trend. These include using coarse language in sermons, featuring secular songs as worship songs (for example, Joan Osborne‘s “One Of Us” “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us…”, or ACDC's “Highway To Hell”) or tailoring their sermon series to the felt needs of “seekers” rather than trusting the Word of God to equip true Christians in strengthening their faith so they can preach the Gospel outside of the walls of the church with a boldness that will draw people to the Cross.

Recently, I was speaking with a good friend of mine who had left a church that is certainly well within orthodoxy, but has allowed it's focus to fall on the excellence of musical performance rather than the excellence of the Word of God. Before he and his wife left the church, he had a meeting with the worship leader and told him that the reason they were leaving was that the music was TOO good and it overshadowed the preaching of the Word. Now, this is not to say that we should not strive for excellence. We serve the Almighty Eternal God and He is certainly worthy of our best offerings of praise. But just as my friend said, it seems that some congregations are focusing on using music to draw crowds to the church rather than focusing on preaching the Gospel to draw men's hearts to Christ.

What is it that are we called to do? Are we just more self-help peddlers who feel that the pulpit is an extension of our blog sites? Or are we frustrated rock musicians that secretly (or maybe not so secretly) would rather be rocking out the downtown arena than playing for a bunch of squares in a stiff “traditional” church? Why do we try to compete with what the entertainment industry does anyway? (They have much larger budgets and are so much better at it than we are.) But even if we could do it as well as the world what is the point? What is it that changes the hearts of men? Is it helping them in their marriages? Is it helping them with their finances? Is it helping them be better parents? While all of these things are well and good and can be the RESULT of a changed heart, these are not the things that bring about that change in the first place. In Mark 7:15, Jesus said, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” Therefore in order for a man's actions to change, his heart must first be changed. But, can that truly happen if what we are doing is simply catering to the desires of men whose hearts are darkened by their own sin? Paul Washer of HeartCry Missionary Society once said, “The church in it's desire to become relevant makes itself look like a fool in the midst of it's enemies. The church today in America looks like a Six Flags Over Jesus. Because if you draw people using carnal means, you will have to keep people using carnal means” In many ways, we have allowed the style of our worship to trump the substance of the Truth. Besides, if we have to use some kind of laser light show to counter the short attention span of a bunch of people with ADD tendencies, what does that say about our own opinion of the Gospel? If we don't have a respect for it, is it any wonder that others don't either? Paul in Romans 1:16 said, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

So what is it that we DO have that is better than the world and they cannot duplicate? The Word of God. Paul spoke of this in Romans 10 when he was discussing how one comes to faith in Christ. Verse 17 says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” In order for anyone to be able to receive the gift of faith in Christ, they must first hear the word of Christ. The only way that can happen is through the preaching of the Word. Let's let the Word of God do what it is capable of doing and that is changing people's hearts.

Let's keep our focus on the right things. For our worship services, leave the blog posts on the blog sites and the arena rock for in the arenas. While we can have different styles of worship services, in the end, style must take a back seat to the preaching of the Word. Worship services are not for Tony Robbins or Metallica wannabes. They are for those of us who are redeemed to worship our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in spirit and in truth, stemming from our love for Him and our love for His Word.

And, that is certainly something the world cannot duplicate!

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John Piper has an excellent post on his blog from yesterday regarding singing and poetry. (Being a musician, I tend to gravitate to posts of this kind. Hmmm. Imagine that!) I found it to be clearly insightful regarding how music awakens our affections, which I think is an incredible description of the affect music has on us as human beings.
You can read the entire post here.
Do you find yourself spontaneously singing praise for the Lord? If not, maybe you should make your “calling and election sure.” (2 Peter 2:10) Check out www.needgod.com.
I pray that God will place within your heart a melody!
Bob Kauflin

I am a huge fan of Glad. Their Acapella Project is an all-time favorite CD of mine. One of their former members is Bob Kauflin, who is now the Director of Worship Development for Sovereign Grace Ministries in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He is also one of the featured speakers for the Desiring God National Conference in September. This is a video clip of Bob explaining the power of sound theology in the lyrics of our songs and how singing them helps us to retain the theology in those lyrics.