2 Corinthians 10:4-6 (ESV)
4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, 6 being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.
I’ve decided not to use the Billboard chart anymore. Today, we are looking at the top Christian songs according to K-LOVE Radio. On that chart, “Greater” by MercyMe is in the top spot while Hillsong’s “Oceans” isn’t even on the chart, and that makes me happy. It is one of the better songs we have reviewed here. Sadly, “We Believe” by Newsboys is not on this chart either, so this chart reflects a certain geographical demographic (dictated by where KLOVE is broadcast) so I may just have to bounce around radio charts to focus on the top 5 across the nation. Again, I’m open for suggestions / requests as well.
Today we are looking at the #2 Song on the KLOVE chart, “Thrive” by Casting Crowns. Today’s review will be a little different because Casting Crowns is a different sort of band. The lead singer is a youth pastor whose heart is really for training young adults in the Christian walk. As such, when they release an album, it isn’t just a means to drum up ticket sales or whip a crowd into a frenzy (ala Hillsong or Passion); rather, they seek to teach and challenge youth by their music and by their bible study material to grow in Christ. I truly believe their heart is in the right place, though I do have some concerns regarding this “Thrive” study/song. We’ll look at both the song lyrics and the associated study material and I will share some of my concerns later. For now, please understand that I am impressed by their commitment to teach and not to merely entertain the youth.
Here in this worn and weary land
Where many a dream has died
Like a tree planted by the water
We never will run dry
So living water flowing through
God, we thirst for more of You
Fill our hearts and flood our souls with one desire
Just to know You and to make You known
We lift Your name on high
Shine like the sun, make darkness run and hide
We know we were made for so much more than ordinary lives
Its time for us to more than just survive
We were made to thrive
Into Your word, were digging deep
To know our Fathers heart
Into the world, were reaching out
To show them who You are
Joy unspeakable, faith unsinkable
Love unstoppable, anything is possible
Speaking of just the merits of this song on its own, I love the focus on digging deeply into the Word of God, drinking of the Living Water that flows from Jesus Christ, and the imagery of being a tree planted by that water. The audience for this song is clearly for the Christian listener. This song is not so much a Praise and Worship song as it is an anthem setting up the rest of the album (also called “Thrive”), and a look at the album art demonstrates that the imagery of being a tree planted by the water is central to the album. Let’s jump into some scripture, beginning with the Lord’s answer to Jeremiah in chapter 17 beginning in verse 5.
Jeremiah 17:5-13 (ESV)
5 Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. 6 He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.
7 “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. 8 He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? 10 “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”
11 Like the partridge that gathers a brood that she did not hatch, so is he who gets riches but not by justice; in the midst of his days they will leave him, and at his end he will be a fool.
12 A glorious throne set on high from the beginning is the place of our sanctuary. 13 O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.
The context here is not limited to any covenant or time period, because here the Lord God is declaring Truth about mankind and about Himself. He is setting forth Law that identifies a cursed individual and a blessed individual. He is pointing to salvation, and we know that we can only find it in Him, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. And blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and in His Son, from whom flow streams of Living Water.
While I do wish this were somehow better conveyed in the song, at least we have the Scriptural imagery upon which to draw and research and be edified. In the various introduction videos and lesson videos, the theme of growing deep roots and stretching out long branches does play out, it doesn’t really get fleshed out from scripture; rather, it is presented in anecdotal form, which brings us to our concerns regarding the song and the teaching presented with it.
Concerns | False Dichotomy
Mark Hall (the lead singer and youth pastor) sets up a false dichotomy between “being so deeply rooted that you produce no branches or fruit” and “being all branches and no root”. I believe it is an honest mistake (not done with malice) but it remains a problem. The analogy of the Tree being planted by the water doesn’t really leave room for this dichotomy. Either the tree is planted by the water or it isn’t. A tree with deep roots that has not forsaken the fountain of living water cannot possibly be a tree with no branches or fruit. It simply doesn’t fit what Scripture describes. This dichotomy doesn’t find its place in Scripture, rather, it finds it’s origins in our post-modern progressive culture.
There is a post-modern progressive seeker-driven ideology that often erects a straw-man of the Christian who takes everything to Scripture and insists on Sola Scriptura as being an unloving, self-serving, legalistic, heartless, and fruitless Christian. The seeker-driven community is quick to label a Pharisee anyone who would dare to point out doctrinal errors, or rebuke even outright false-doctrine. That’s the progressive extreme, and I don’t think Mark is in that camp, but he invoking their straw-man. So, what Mark seems to be trying to do with this dichotomy is to find a neutral ground where Christians “keep a healthy balance” between Law and Gospel. But is that really for us to balance? If our roots are tapped into the Living Water of Jesus Christ, we needn’t worry about the year of drought, for our leaves will remain green and we will continue to bear fruit. The false dichotomy has no real answer, so ultimately the solution to the problem Mark sets up gets a little muddled. The real dichotomy is a tree whose roots are not digging toward Christ; but towards something else. In one of the videos Mark describes the “all root” straw-man as someone who is learning the Greek and Hebrew (good things) and reading each new book (uh-oh) and rejecting one teacher because he doesn’t like how he explains something (mayday) as well as this other guy… well, now we’ve totally broken the Scriptural image of the blessed tree. Such a person isn’t digging deep roots toward Christ, or God’s Word, he is in-fact placing his trust in man. That’s not to say that we can’t learn something about God or His Word that has been written recently (otherwise, why am I sharing these blogs?) but if you are constantly chasing after the ‘new doctrine’ you will die of thirst. You will become the shrub in the desert rather than the Tree planted beside the Water.
If our trust is in the Lord, and we dig deeply into His Word and drink from the Living Water that flows from the Son of God as a promise of the Holy Spirit of God to all who believe, growing branches and bearing fruit isn’t a concern on our part. For it is the Holy Spirit that grows and matures and bears fruit. Our task, is to trust in the Lord. Everything flows from our trust in Him, just as the health of the tree depends on its roots and from where they draw their nourishment.
Concerns | Ordinary Life and Surviving
Another concern I have is with the implication that “an ordinary life” is somehow sinful, or that “surviving” is somehow failing. What is the definition of “thriving”? If the definition of thriving is tied to that of the tree, then we’ve already demonstrated that there is nothing for the tree to do besides be planted by the Living Water, which is to trust in the Lord. In one of his videos on the page, Mark even teaches that we can’t focus on “producing fruit” because it isn’t something that can “be done” it’s something that grows by the Holy Spirit. So he teaches it right, and he also does a great job of pointing to the heart of the Gospel (that Christ did the work, not us) in the Colossians video, but the song still has that dangling implication. Let’s look at some scripture.
1 Peter 2:9-19 (ESV) 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. 18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.
Often times what happens in self-esteem sermons the preacher will use verse 9 as a springboard to prosperity and living the blessed life as royalty in this life. But does that fit the rest of what Peter is teaching? Does that even fit Peter’s life? No. Peter is now in Heaven, and enjoying the blessing of being a royal priesthood. While Peter was on this earth, he was a worker, a servant, a shepherd under the Shepherd. And so we must consider our days on earth. We are to be subject to every human institution, not for “our own good”; rather, Peter makes the appeal “for the Lord’s sake”. If we define “an ordinary life” as one that indulges in the passions of the flesh, then indeed it is a sin to live such a life. But if living an ordinary life includes living a life in submission to authority of the human institutions (the government, your boss at work, the tax collector, your creditors, etc.) then how can we rightly declare it to be somehow “less-than”? Less than what?
The bit about “just surviving” is also troublesome, but to a lessor degree. I think the song makes clear that they are talking about an attitude that betrays faith, an attitude of “I don’t know if I can make it”. The truth is you can’t. You were dead before the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and your flesh still tries to kill you (by its sinful passions). That is why we must not put our trust in man or in our flesh, otherwise we will be a shrub in the desert where we will wither up and die again. But there is an element of survival that is central to the charge Jesus gave us when He taught about the days ahead for His Church:
Matthew 10:21-23 (ESV) 21 Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
Matthew 24:9-14 (ESV) 9 “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
If thriving is about temporal success and prosperity we are all doomed. However, if thriving is about enduring through the year of drought, bearing fruit and green leaves despite the lack of rain, then we have our commandment to place our trust in the Lord, Jesus Christ, the fountain of Living Waters. The truth is that regardless of how much hype and raw emotion or self-esteem you drum up, if you trust in your own actions, motivation, or effort you will not survive.
Concerns | From the Last Teaching Video
This final concern actually doesn’t come from the song “Thrive” at all. It popped in the final video and it is the false-idea that the means of sharing the Gospel is about sharing “my story”. No, it isn’t. He even makes the foolish statement, “people can argue with your verses, but they can’t argue with your story”. He makes the argument in hopes of removing the bad excuses people have for not sharing the Gospel themselves, but it remains a foolish statement nonetheless. He says that loving Jesus and loving on the world is how we share the Gospel. Uhm, no. How we share the Gospel is preaching the Word of God. When we preach ourselves, it had better be part of the Law in that apart from God we are all sinners and dead in our sins (which is kind of what he does right at the tail end, but it is subtle). The Gospel is not “our story” the Gospel is His (Jesus Christ’s) story. Mark’s heart is in the right place, his teaching is just a bit convoluted and appeals too much to anecdote and psychology of self-esteem. As he continues talking, truth comes out, but in small bits.
The song is not bad, but what really has captured my attention in this project is the work that Casting Crowns has put into the website and the album to remind Christians of the Gospel through their music. I wish more Christian artists took this approach to ministry. Sure, I have some concerns with some of the content, but that is bound to happen and as long as we contend with one another in love and in the Word of God then we build each other up in Christ. So this is one of those cases where the conclusion is in support of the band’s approach to ministry despite the shortcomings of this song. I didn’t research the rest of the 3 week YouTube studies through James and Colossians, so I can’t speak to the rest of those. Casting Crowns has truly set themselves apart from the other Christian Bands we’ve reviewed thus far. I look forward to reviewing more of their music.