Can You Hear Us?

By the time I arrived in 2000, David and some of the musicians at UBC had already recorded two albums. The first was titled “Pour Over Me” and was released under the simple name “UBC Worship.” Even to this day I have heard only snippets of the album, and I’m not alone. A lot of people have tried to get their hands on a copy over the years, but word on the street is that David and others who had a part in it will purchase copies when they see them pop up on the Internet, in a years-long attempt to eradicate it from public consumption. It was the mid-90s, a time when church musicians were trying to create a sound and culture that was neither grounded in ancient hymnody, nor in the highly produced Contemporary Christian Music sound that had been developing over the previous decade. The early results were sketchy.

In 1998 the independent album “All I Can Say” was released, this time with a band name that reflected the moniker of David, its leader. This was the genesis of the juggernaut and for good reason. The album was unlike anything else that was out at the time. In fact, it predated by a few years a worldwide phenomenon within Christian music that is currently a mainstay in both the church and music industry– The Modern Worship Movement.

Music sung in the Church for the largest part of Christian history was confined to within the four walls of the church building. The exception to this rule would have been when the dividing lines between the institutional Church and the larger culture were thin or nonexistent, such as in the early 20th century American south. But in the 1970s and 1980s, as those influenced by the Jesus People movement of the late 1960s began to take over the reigns of church leadership, the music that came out of that period began to affect the way believers thought about church music. One change occurred within the walls of the church, as “praise choruses,” songs that were heavy on hook and light on substance, began to elbow out old hymns, which were more musically and lyrically complex, yet more difficult to sing.

Outside the walls of the church, the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry was birthed. Christians who were raised on church music, and in a culture that placed a heavy emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus began to create music that could be heard and experienced where people typically hear and experience music—in their cars, on their personal stereos, through their headsets. The songs were primarily about Jesus, but aimed for a sound that mirrored what was heard on Top 40 radio at the time. The result was usually a sound that mirrored whatever was being heard on Adult Contemporary Radio at the time.

The songs that came out of the CCM movement, regardless of their quality, were nevertheless songs about God and the life of Christian faith. It wasn’t music sung in the church, but rather music sung outside the church about what was talked and sung about inside the church. Sometimes these songs made it into the church canon, but always from the outside. And CCM artists who began their musical journeys in the church, migrated out to arenas and even stadiums as the market for their craft began to grow.

This isn’t to say that church music was never recorded and released, or that those who made it (bands, solo acts, choirs, etc.) never put on concerts for people who enjoyed it. But those “concerts” were inside the church, and the sales from that music was limited to those who enjoyed singing it in a congregational setting.

But in the 1990’s, popular CCM Artists began to record “Worship” albums, many of which were produced live from church and other worship gatherings. These were usually side projects and never meant to become their own genre of music. And most, if not all, of these artists were career musicians with record contracts, agents and publicity people whose “9 to 5” job was making music. They were not worship pastors at churches.

But David, and a few other worship leaders at other churches around the world, changed the game. All I Can Say, and the context from which it sprang, was different. For one, the music was not just good, it was phenomenal. Christian music had long had a reputation of being “less than” its secular counterparts. Even the stuff that was decent felt bastardized, like a high school garage band trying to mimic its favorite rock group. But the quality of David and his band’s musicianship and lyricism on All I Can Say was in a category all its own.

Most importantly, the songs on the album were not created for the masses. They were created for a church—A specific church with a real name, a real building and a real address where it met for worship. David knew the people who would be singing those songs. In those early days he knew their stories and their struggles with doubt. He shared meals with them and knew about their dreams for the future. He created the music, but in some ways the music belonged to University Baptist Church, and became a part of the church’s identity.

What made UBC especially unique was that it was a revolving door of people. Some came for a week, others for an entire semester, while some stayed for the entirety of their college careers. But almost without fail, they all left. Few people remain in their college towns, especially Waco in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. They go out to cities all across the world. And those who went out from UBC carried David’s songs with them in what can be described as a sonic diaspora. They began singing those songs in their new churches, youth groups and worship events. And some of these events were large, full of people asking “What is this sound I am hearing, and how can I get my hands on it?”

The answer to that question was a record contract.

In the early 2000’s Louie Giglio began sixteps Records as a vehicle to distribute the music being heard at his “Passion” and “One Day” conferences. Giglio had roots in Waco and was influential in my own faith development. (See: Beginning of this book.) While doing graduate studies at Baylor, he and his wife Shelley began an off-campus Bible study that eventually grew into a large weekly event attended by over a thousand people. Through his speaking ministry, Christian college students from all over Texas were aware of his influence, many driving hours on Tuesday nights to hear him. The study was known as “Choice” and included musical worship and a time of teaching. The band that led the singing was made up of students, some of whom would eventually wind up in David’s band at UBC.

Of all the students who drove hours to attend Choice, I was one. In 1995 I was attending Tyler Junior College and involved in the Baptist Student Ministry. On a couple of occasions some guys from the BSM and I would leave East Texas and head to Waco to take part in this exciting time of worship and teaching. The event was held at the Waco Hippodrome, a historic theater located on Austin Avenue in Downtown. On one night we arrived early and spotted Louie in the lobby. I approached him, excited to talk to him and let him know how influential he had been to me over the years. I shook his hand, introduced myself, and hoped have a conversation. What I got was a patronizing nod and a nonchalant pivot, as he returned to what appeared to be a mode of prayer, folding his hands to his chest as he walked out onto the sidewalk outside and toward the side of the building.

I was taken aback at first, but later in the evening I chalked it up to anxiety at what he was to speak about. That night Louie began his talk by narrating the history of Choice. His story was the template for most large, event-centered Bible studies in the evangelical world at the time. “We started small…few people…in our apartment…never had an idea that God would grow our ministry…and now we are here with over a thousand people…isn’t God good?” But at the end of the talk Louie announced he was leaving Waco to help care for his ailing father in Atlanta. It felt like a punch in the gut to every student in the room, like we were losing a friend and a mentor. This was, of course, before the days that live streaming and instant communication were as ubiquitous as they are today. Leaving, back then, meant leaving.

But in the years that followed Louie took the experience of Choice to the masses. He had a vision of a gathering and, more importantly, of a nationwide movement of college students that would be united under the mission of furthering the “fame of Jesus” to the nations. This language came directly from Scripture—“Yes LORD, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; your name and renown are the desire of our hearts.” (Isaiah 26:8)

Although the idea of valuing the renown, or “fame” of God was straight out of the Bible, the emphasis on the idea came from another place altogether, namely, the teachings of John Piper and other reformed (Calvinist) preachers and theologians. Rooted in the Westminister catechism, which stated that the “Chief end of mankind is to glorify God and worship Him forever,” Piper preached an idea that he termed “Christian Hedonism.” This is a complicated system of theology which essentially says that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Therefore, the goal of faith is to glorify God, and the means to that goal is to be satisfied in him.

Although I might have used different terminology, Christian Hedonism on the surface is a harmless, and even potentially helpful idea when thinking of living the Christian life. But the foundation on which it stands is one side of one of the most hotly contested arguments in the history Christianity, that between Calvinism on one hand and Arminianism, or “Free Will” on the other. This debate is so detailed and emotional that this paragraph, if read by those who are well versed in it, will likely be picked apart and critiqued for its flippant and uninformed use of terminology. My goal is not to explain Calvinism, Arminianism, Free Will, Open Theism, TULIP, or any of the numerous terms associated with the debate. (If it were my goal, I would fail miserably. There are far more qualified people who are doing that.)

But the particular brand of Calvinism associated with John Piper is heavily weighed down with fundamentalist baggage. Undergirding its numerous claims is an implicit belief in the value of certainty. Doubt, if accepted at all, should always be a temporary gateway into certainty. Watch a sermon given by Piper and you will get a sense that he rarely, if ever, makes a statement that he will one day later say of, “You know, maybe I should rethink what I said there.” He is a gifted preacher and, from what I have heard, a phenomenal pastor. But in the theological world, he is a lightning rod.

Piper, along with others who embraced similar theology, were centerpieces of the early “Passion” and “One Day” gatherings that Louie Giglio and his ministry created. (They continue to be.) Yet even though the messages preached at these meetings are heavily Calvinist and fundamentalist, you will rarely, if ever, hear those words. For Giglio, Piper and others, what they are preaching is not a “Calvinist reading of the Gospel,” it is simply “The Gospel.”

By contrast, the beliefs held by those at UBC, from what I could tell, and especially by those in the leadership, were not only not Calvinist, there was a certain antipathy toward the Calvinist understanding of the gospel. The ideas of the emerging church we were swimming in questioned the certainties with which both Calvinists and Arminians proclaimed their beliefs. This caused more than a few of us to scratch our heads when David began associating with Giglio and the Passion Movement. I was still new and didn’t know him well. We had only exchanged pleasantries at church events. I knew Kyle was close to him and his wife and trusted that perhaps his association with the Passion folks was simply a mutually beneficial partnership in which they agreed to disagree on theological suppositions.

In 2002 David and his band signed with the Giglio’s newly formed record label, which was created to distribute the music of the artists who led worship at the Passion and One Day events. Their first album released was titled “Can you Hear Us?” and was packed with worship songs that were lyrically thoughtful, something that was (and still is) rare for recorded worship music, and musically creative. It began a period of almost a decade where David, and the guys in his band, would become a worldwide phenomenon, expanding their influence, and the influence of UBC, around the world.

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