Many of the criticisms warning evangelical churches from using the songs of the prosperity gospel movement are unwittingly liable to some of the same errors they critique. Critics are right to warn of superstitious tendencies within prosperity gospel churches. Sacred words, rituals, practices, and objects do not have magic power in themselves. And this means that neither are songs magically holy nor unholy based on their material associations. To maintain so would be to promote yet more superstition. Likewise, we should not allow financial concerns automatically to prevent the use of perfectly edifying songs for our congregations. Equating money with blessing automatically is a legitimate error of the prosperity gospel.

In general, I fear these criticisms indicate a perhaps obsessive tendency that, in its pursuit of purity, has left the path of theologically robust and sustainable thinking. Critics proscribe particular songs, not because of the content of the song, but because of the origin and association of the song. This logic indicates, to my mind, some unreflective and short-sighted tendencies in the Christian worship ecosystem. Instead, churches ought to steward whatever resources they have available for the building up of their people. I propose three insights for leaders to consider when deciding whether to sing songs from prosperity churches such as Bethel and Hillsong.

1. Edification Is the Goal of Worship

The goal for all Christian worship services must be edification, and so, the highest priority for local church leaders choosing songs must be that they build up those particular people.

This priority renders as secondary questions like: Who sang these songs first? Who wrote them? Who recorded them? Church leaders must recognize their emerging role as hymnbook editors in the ecosystem of contemporary song choice. As such, they can learn from previous compilers of hymnals. Charles Spurgeon wrote in the preface to his hymnal, “A good hymn is not rejected by the character of its author, or the heresies of the church in whose hymnal it first occurred; so long as the language and the spirit commended the hymn to our heart, we included it, and believe we have enriched our collection thereby.” Similarly, John Rippon’s supplement to Watts’s Psalms and Hymns declares, “It has not been my Enquiry, whose Hymns shall I choose, but what, Hymns; and hence it will be seen that Churchmen and Dissenters, Watts and Tate, Wesley and Toplady, England and America sing Side by Side, and very often join in the same Triumph, using the same Words.” Secondary concerns, like original context, author, or tradition, only matter to the degree that they add or subtract from this first goal of edification.

2. The Most Relevant Context Is Local Context

A most relevant context for edification will be the local context. And the primacy of edification means that it is more important to avoid songs that cause distraction, rather than songs with unsavory origins. On occasion, it may be the case that a particular season, location, or proximity to a public scandal could make the origins of a song more prominent and, therefore, distracting. And such a distraction could hinder a song’s usefulness for edification. When a song acquires a strong association to a particular event, person, or ministry, a congregation might think, “Wait a minute! That’s a song by ____.” A local church can always avoid a song that may have an unusually strong association that could cause a distraction, but the choice to avoid a song ought to be made because a known distraction could hinder edification in a particular context, not some ethereal standard of liturgical purity or spiritual taint from an unworthy author. Let me provide an example to illustrate that what is distracting in one place is not distracting everywhere. I served as the dean of the chapel at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids. One of the frequently sung songs in our chapel was “Your Love Is Strong” by Jon Foreman, the lead singer from Switchfoot. 58 The bridge of the song asks, “So why should I worry? Why should I freak out? You have all I need. You are all I need. Your love is, your love is strong.” The song was well loved by the undergraduate students in Grand Rapids. It was useful for their spiritual edification. But I could not sing that song at my church in Minneapolis. When undergraduate students in Grand Rapids saw the lyric “Why should I freak out?” many of them thought, “Yeah! Why should I freak out? God has everything I need.” But if I put that same lyric before the older, more conservative people of Bethlehem Baptist Church, they might actually freak out. We didn’t sing that song in Minneapolis because it would have caused a distraction to that group of people that would have hindered its usefulness for edification.

It is easy to imagine that a worship pastor near Redding, California, whose congregation would be more likely to have strong negative associations toward a song by Bethel, could choose to avoid the song due to that distraction. The leaders of a local church may discern that such a distraction hinders a song’s ability to edify their people and wisely decide to not sing it.

3. Consider Varying Contexts

A third insight comes from ethnomusicologist Tia DeNora and her book Music in Everyday Life, and it is the call to consider the songs in varying contexts. Imagine a song that featured a heavy, percussive, rhythmic dance beat, with lyrics that said, “Move your body, Move your body, Get up and move your body.” Now, if a conservative Christian person heard that song in the context of a club in, say, Miami, he might quickly want to leave that club. However, if he heard that same song in the context of the YMCA gymnasium in Louisville during a cardio-funk class, “Move your body, Get up and move your body” might be the sort of exhortation needed to get him through high-intensity aerobics. The same song and lyric, performed in different contexts, has different inferences. In the club, it may mean something very sensual, while in the Y, it may simply mean “Hey, dad, get moving.” This is one of the powerful, beautiful, and dangerous aspects of music—a song can change its meaning upon different contextual hearings. The criticism that assigns essential meaning to a song because of its original context fails to appreciate a fundamental function of music as an artform. The heresy of the prosperity gospel withers outside its native context and evangelicals have an opportunity to engage in faith-filled subversive re-contextualization of songs in their faithful local church. There, a song once performed with professional production in palatial spaces can be recontextualized with faithful, hobbyist volunteers in aging, Baptist sanctuaries. Songs once promoted with attractive, charismatic, celebrity endorsements and slick marketing can be recontextualized with, well, evangelicals. Instead of the context projecting “the good life as young, beautiful, celebratory, and, of course, loud,” Local churches subvert the prosperity gospel by contextualizing the songs with faithful expositional preaching, historic hymns, screaming infants, confession of sin and lament, meaningful church membership, church discipline, faithful volunteers, generosity toward missions, ministry to the aging and disabled, and strong doctrinal content. You know, church.

This article is adapted from a chapter in Healthy and Wealthy? A Biblical-Theological Response to the Prosperity Gospel edited by Robert Plummer.