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Fragile faith

Culture | Popular worship songwriter’s doubts send ripples through the Christian music world
by Mary Jackson
Posted 8/16/19, 05:10 pm

Worship leader Marty Sampson of Hillsong Church announced earlier this week he is “losing” his Christian faith in a lengthy and since-deleted Instagram post. The news drew swift and widespread reaction, surprising even Sampson, who posted Thursday, “I could not imagine the response. … I never expected to create any waves.”

Sampson, 40, clarified he has not renounced his faith but said it is on “incredibly shaky ground.” He is an original member of the worship band Hillsong United and up until recently has written or co-written numerous popular songs for the band and others such as Hillsong Worship, Delirious, and Young & Free. His hits include “Take All of Me” and “All I Need Is You.”

His admission comes just weeks after I Kissed Dating Goodbye author and former pastor Joshua Harris announced on Instagram he was leaving Christianity. Many have noted the parallels: Both men are middle-aged and have huge Christian platforms. Sampson also opened his Instagram post with emotive language––“I am so happy now, so at peace with the world right now”––before telling his followers Christianity “is not for me” and “just seems to me like another religion at this point.”

Hillsong United, with its simple, heartfelt lyrics pledging devotion to Christ, has become one of the most popular and influential worship groups in the modern era, especially among Christian youth. Eight of Hillsong United’s albums earned a No. 1 spot on Billboard’s chart for Christian albums, and the band’s songs average 3.5 million weekly listens on the online streaming service Spotify.

But despite Hillsong United’s success in bringing Christian worship music to the masses, critics have for years cautioned the band’s music lacks theological depth and rigor. This makes Sampson’s Instagram post particularly poignant: He asserts “no one talks about” pastors failing, perceived contradictions in the Bible, the existence of hell, and the lack of miracles.

“Sampson raises questions basically every Christian apologist has raised since the dawn of time … he doesn’t seem familiar they even exist,” G. Shane Morris, a senior writer for Breakpoint, told me.

After deleting his post, Sampson told The Christian Post he is studying apologists, both Christian and atheist, and posted quotes from several of them on his Instagram account this week. He did not disparage Hillsong Church, telling the Post, “If anything, all I have ever received from Hillsong is support and the opportunity to follow my own mind.”

Hillsong United was born out of Hillsong Church, founded in 1983 in Sydney, Australia. Now a global megachurch, it has 23 sites in cities spanning six continents, an average of 130,000 Sunday worshippers, and a large celebrity following.

In response to Sampson, John Cooper, lead singer for Christian band Skillet, posted on Facebook that Christians “must STOP making worship leaders and thought leaders or influencers or cool people or ‘relevant’ people the most influential people in Christendom.” He warned that the church has been shaped by modern praise songs more than the Bible, and singers are “too young, too ignorant of Scripture, too unaware, or too unconcerned about the purity of Scripture and the holiness of the God we are singing to.”

Getty Images/Photo by Mike Stobe Getty Images/Photo by Mike Stobe Kyle Giersdorf after winning the Fortnite World Cup solo on July 28

Dangerous games

Kyle Giersdorf, the 16-year-old gamer who won $3 million at the Fortnite World Cup this summer, had to set down the controller when armed police showed up at his Pennsylvania home Saturday. Giersdorf got “swatted,” a practice among gamers in which one reports an in-progress crime at the house of another. Upper Pottsgrove Township Police Cpl. Albert Werner said a caller told police “he was Kyle and said he had shot his father multiple times.” Police called the home before entering, and the teen’s father said everything was fine. Giersdorf was live-streaming a round of Fortnite at the time. The entire incident took only about 30 minutes but used up a lot of police resources, Werner said.

Swatting has proven deadly in the past. In December 2018, police in Wichita, Kan., shot and killed a 28-year-old father of two after a caller from Los Angeles reported a fake hostage situation at his house. The caller, Tyler Barris, pleaded guilty to federal charges and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. —Lynde Langdon

Facebook/Jimmy Kimmel Live Facebook/Jimmy Kimmel Live Jimmy Kimmel

Don’t take that tone

The ABC television network owes the U.S. government $395,000 for using an emergency alert tone in a comedy sketch without permission. The Federal Emergency Management Agency unveiled the nationwide mobile phone notification system, called the “Presidential Alert,” with a test in October 2018. Late-night comedians poked fun at it, and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! used the actual tone in a parody skit. The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday announced more than $600,000 in fines against ABC and several other networks or programs that have included the sound effect. The FCC said it limits the use of the tone to “protect the integrity of the alert system by helping to avoid confusion when the tones are used, alert fatigue among listeners, and false activation of the [emergency alert system] by the operative data elements contained in the alert tones.” —L.L.

A place in the choir

A German boy’s choir that has been around since before the time of Martin Luther does not have to admit a 9-year-old girl, a court ruled Friday. A Berlin administrative court said the State and Cathedral Choir had the right to choose only boy members. The choir, which has never had a girl member since its founding in 1465, said the girl could have joined “if her voice had matched the desired sound characteristics of a boys choir.” —L.L.

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Mary Jackson

Mary is a book reviewer and reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Greenville University graduate who previously worked for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. Mary resides with her family in the San Francisco Bay area. Follow her on Twitter @mbjackson77.

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  • Big Jim
    Posted: Sat, 08/17/2019 03:03 pm

    "And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.

    But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved."

    Mat 24:12-13 KJV

  • Jebby
    Posted: Sat, 08/17/2019 05:38 pm

    Big Jim, I always love your comments.  I don't understand faith being on "shaky ground"...seems to me if this Christian thing is real, we should be able to find evidence of it.  Spoiler: there is evidence everywhere.  I'd love to discuss if anyone is interested...


  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Sat, 08/17/2019 09:57 pm

    We Christians need to be more skeptical of our faith.  Skeptics test their faith, so their faith grows deep taproots.  I believe that Messrs. Harris and Sampson did not dig deep.  Therefore their faith grew shallow roots.

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Sun, 08/18/2019 12:16 am

    Perhaps the evangelical church model (smile and greet in the lobby, sing three songs, hear announcements, watch a video clip or two, listen to a 20-30 minute sermon loosely based on Scripture, share a prayer request, smile some more and shake a few more hands over coffee) just doesn't meet the difficult challenges the world is hurling at Christians every day of their lives? Has the church made media its centerpiece rather than a relationship with Christ? Perhaps what's being thought of as losing faith in Christ is really losing faith in the evangelical church model?

  •  phillipW's picture
    Posted: Tue, 08/20/2019 03:56 pm

    Frances Chan would agree.

  • VolunteerBB
    Posted: Sun, 08/18/2019 04:25 pm

    I have never liked the praise songs and really disliked that so many churches were ditching the hymns for them.  They are repetitive and chant like without a lot of substance, I always said a third grader could write one of these songs.  I also predicted that since they were Christian equivalent of cotton candy, they would not last.  Of course they cannot be blamed for someone "losing their faith" or whatever they are calling it, but if one only feeds on junk food, the body will suffer.  The old hymns spoke of sin and the wonderful redeeming grace of Jesus Christ, etc., they are great poetry and many are wonderful sermons in five verses and the chorus.  Just go and read one from an old hymn book...Praise Him Praise Him; Redeemed; Since I Have Been Redeemed; Just as I Am; There Shall Be Showers Of Blessings; 'Tis So Sweet To Trust in Jesus; Yield Not to Temptation; All the Way My Savior Leads Me; More About Jesus; Let Jesus Come into Your Heart; I Know Whom I Have Believed; I Will Praise Him; Heaven Came Down and Glory Filled My Soul.  Of course I could go on and name each song in my song book. These were substance and once learned they stay in the heart and soul for a lifetime.  Nothing wrong with a good "praise song" once in a while, just like a nice slice of apple pie or chocholate chip cookie, after a delicious, life sustaining substantial dinner.  Feed on the good stuff!

  • Rich277
    Posted: Mon, 08/19/2019 04:17 pm

    We have brought an American Idol mentality to our faith; there is a celebrity sub-culture that puts individuals not just on  pedestals, but on altars all their own.  It shouldn’t surprise us, then, when some of these individuals start to see themselves as the measure of all things.  They cannot serve two masters.

  •  phillipW's picture
    Posted: Tue, 08/20/2019 04:01 pm

    "In response to Sampson, John Cooper, lead singer for Christian band Skillet, posted on Facebook that Christians “must STOP making worship leaders and thought leaders or influencers or cool people or ‘relevant’ people the most influential people in Christendom.” He warned that the church has been shaped by modern praise songs more than the Bible, and singers are “too young, too ignorant of Scripture, too unaware, or too unconcerned about the purity of Scripture and the holiness of the God we are singing to.”"

    John Cooper is spot on.  I was once involved with Promise Keepers and volunteered to drive a shuttle bus for VIPs at the event.  I was driving one of the bands to the airport, and some of the comments coming from the band and their agent have stayed with me ever since.  In short, the spoiled, self-centered nature of these artists was no different than the secular music industry.  They write a few Christian-based lyrics, throw 3 or 4 of the same chords over it repeated hundreds of time, to a cool beat, and snappy sound, and pass it off as "praise and worship."  The fact that the church has swallowed this consumerist music hook, line and sinker, in the hopes of attracting younger people, and coming off as "hip" tells you that the church may be a mile wide, but it's less than an inch deep.

    I won't be surprised if we read about more "Christian" musicians renouncing their faith going forward.

  • Joe M
    Posted: Thu, 08/22/2019 12:53 pm

    Hillsong is an evangelical version of Pentonix. The members of both groups look and sound like they belong on a series like "The Vampire Diaries."