Note: I introduced some of these ideas in a blog I did back in November. This blog is a further development of those ideas that is perhaps a bit more coherent.
A few months ago I read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, an intriguing look into what really makes certain people successful. Outliers no doubt challenges many of the commonly held ideas in our culture concerning success, namely that success is simply the product of brilliant individuals who ‘pull themselves up by the bootstraps’ and make it by sheer grit and determination. Gladwell digs into the success stories of Bill Gates and the Beatles, among others, to show that success has just as much to do with what a person has access to as it does with talent or ambition.
For example Bill Gates happened to grow up in a town that had one of the first supercomputers and just happened to go to a school where he and a few friends were allowed free time to program on the computer during the off hours. This meant that by the time Gates was 20 he and his companions knew as much as anybody in the world about computers. He was certainly smart and had drive and ambition, but apart from living in Seattle during those years and having access to program on some of the first supercomputers he would not have had the knowledge and experience to succeed in the way he did.
Gladwell also makes the case that The Beatles logged in thousands of hours playing live gigs in Hamburg, Germany before they ever made it big. During the Hamburg years The Beatles would play 10 hours a day, seven days a week which, as Gladwell sees it, prepared them to be great performers, songwriters and to go on to be the biggest rock band of their day.
I wonder if this Gladwellian theory might be relevant concerning the successful contestants on American Idol as well. I found it interesting that in the last season of American Idol more than half of the finalists were either worship leaders at their churches or sang in church on a regular basis (in fact Chris Allen, the winner of American Idol, was a worship leader at his church). What’s more is that these Christian worship leaders beat the other contestants not while doing gospel songs but while doing pop music. Gladwell’s theory would look at this tendency of worship leaders making the top 12 on American Idol as an indicator that churches have now become the place where more people have access to participate in music, specifically pop style music, than anywhere else in America (at least for a certain age demographic). In other words, just as Bill Gates had access to program on some of the first computers at a young age, and just as the Beatles had an opportunity to play thousands of hours of music at a young age in Hamburg, more than half of the contestants on American Idol have had access and opportunity to be involved in music from a young age and to be consistently singing in front of people… and just like Gates and the Beatles, this has put them at a competitive advantage.
In one respect it is really cool that churches have actually become a place where folks can engage with music in a serious way (not just ancient hymns but the kind of stuff you listen to on the radio). The downside is that the church has so learned to speak the cultural language concerning performing music that it has lost some of it’s perceived authenticity and credibility which has had the effect of disconnecting it from the very ones in the culture which it desires to reach. In many ways Christians have beat the surrounding culture on it’s own terms, but this has come with a high price tag. The reality is that for many in our world worship music is nothing more than jingles to sell God rather than songs that truly connect folks with the presence of God in an authentic and meaningful way. Worship songs are perceived by many outside of church in much the same way as a performance of songs on American Idol are—inspiring perhaps, but nothing more than that (watch the Youtube clip of "Shout to the Lord" and it is no wonder why they might think this). There is very little sense that one might actually encounter God in a time of singing songs together and this is perhaps the biggest downside to the success of worship leaders and worship albums in our culture right now. Whether you see Christians breaking into the mainstream world of pop music as a good thing or not I think it speaks a lot to the complex issues of Christians trying to connect with the culture and connecting the culture to God. Any thoughts?