If I hear one more contemporary gospel song talk about God’s favor, I’m gonna lose it.
“Favor,” wails Karen Clark Sheard. “You will never want for anything.” “Nothing can stop the favor of The Lord,” proclaims Israel and New Breed. “It’s my time for God’s favor,” shouts Kurt Carr. “I ain’t waitin’ no more!”
Since these aren’t exactly new songs, let me offer instead an example from the world of holy hip-hop, a song called “Favor” by William “Duce” Branch, a.k.a The Ambassador (formerly of The Cross Movement), from his latest album entitled Stop the Funeral:
It wasn’t a fancy car, it wasn’t a diamond ring / it wasn’t friends or lovers at the end of the day / ‘cause we know this life’s hard, and it can bring trouble / in the midst of this trouble, no one can take it away / you need His favor, His favor, His favor, His favor
I don’t want to sound like Debbie Downer here, because the truth is, I really like each of these songs. They’re good songs. Musically and emotionally, they have been a blessing to me at various times.
But I’m concerned that by continually singing songs like these, gospel musicians might be unintentionally sending a bad message.
The truth about favor
The problem with songs like these is not that they’re not true at all, but that they contain enough truth to be dangerous. (After all, the worst lies are mixed with the truth.) So for example, I do believe that as Christians, each of us do have divine favor. We love and serve a God that is for us, and not against us. And this favor isn’t because of what we’ve done for Him, but because of what He’s done for us — specifically that He made us alive in Christ, even when we were dead in our transgressions.
But this news isn’t complete if we are not articulating more clearly and accurately the basis of God’s favor on our lives. After all, most Christians believe that God loves everyone, but I don’t think the folks who sing these songs believe such favor is universally accessible to everyone regardless of faith background or life experience. We sing these songs with the mindset that God’s favor rests exclusively on those who are … well … Christians.
In other words, God’s favor may not cost money, but it costs something. However one defines the Christian life, that’s what it supposedly costs.
The view from the outside
Unfortunately, what we on the inside see as a joyful celebration of God’s favor can appear from the outside to nonbelievers as either selfish gloating (“Favor? Why you and not me?”) or indulgent self-delusion (“Favor? Who are they kidding?”). This misunderstanding often comes because of moralistic therapeutic deism, which says, among other things, that good people go to heaven because they do good things (like going to church). So if you’re not socially accepted within your church circle, too bad. No church, no heaven, no favor.
This is clearly NOT the gospel message, but we shouldn’t be surprised when people get it twisted up. Gospel music has become so appreciated and appropriated by mainstream culture that the very term “gospel” means and connotes Black church style more than it does a message of salvation through faith in Christ.
I suppose it’s fair to say that different songs are aimed for, marketed toward, and enjoyed by different segments of people, so that a song written by and for Christians shouldn’t be evaluated by non-Christians, because that would be like an apples-to-oranges comparison.
Except that I compare apples and oranges all the time. (I like oranges better.)
And it’s also fair to say that one song should not have to serve as an overall theological representation of a particular artist, church, or organization.
But what if one song is all that gets heard?
In the marketplace of competing ideas and ideologies, we Christians can’t afford to ignore our public perception. We need to be aware of what it might look like to our nonbelieving friends on Facebook if or when the dominant themes reflected in the gospel songs we share are about a divine favor that looks and feels alien and inaccessible to those not steeped in Black church culture.
Theology from below
The truth is, God’s favor truly is open to everyone. Anyone can receive the good news and become a follower of Jesus. You don’t have to know the lyrics to “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” to get in on it. An authentic Christian life does not need to be stamped with cultural markers for divine approval.
So part of what we need is to be able to view our theology “from below” — that is, with the needs of the marginalized in mind so that we can make sure that what we’re saying actually sounds like good news to those who need it.
The bitter irony in seeing The Ambassador record a song about favor is that he operates within a cultural persona that is, in the Black church, particularly unfavorable. First, he is a hip-hop emcee, so by cultural association he is seen as loud, audacious, and overly confrontational (or borderline demonic if you ask G. Craige Lewis). Second, he has recently rebounded from an infidelity scandal that could have torpedoed his marriage and career, though thankfully both have survived.
Either way, his artistic and pastoral voice represents a growing segment of Black men who no longer feel at home in the church. So in the context of all the other songs about God’s favor that fail to address many of the social ills that afflict Black people, Amba’s song “Favor” seems like another example of a popular Black artist drinking the prosperity Kool-Aid in order to gain broader acceptance within the church.
Having listened to the rest of Stop the Funeral, I don’t really think that’s true.
But that’s how it looks.
My plea is for Christians who make music for a living to pay closer attention to the words and ideas they use, and do the best they can to be as accessible as possible to listeners of different cultural backgrounds.
Because Ambassador is right — God’s favor is a wonderful thing.
I just hope his listeners get the rest of the message.