I know I’m dating myself here, but I just don’t think the church has produced a musician in the last 30 years equally passionate as talented as the late Keith Green. He’s probably not my favorite Christian artist, but he was certainly the most influential on me, particularly over my teenage years—despite the fact that I was just 6 years old when he died in 1982—and he casts a long shadow over the Christian music industry Green both used and also disdained.
There really hasn’t been another artist like him. Rich Mullins comes close in terms of influence and uniqueness. But there were a few things about Green that make him a singular figure. And I think preachers of the gospel can learn a few things from him. Here are just three:
Green really believed what he was singing! He wasn’t performing—at least, not in the sense we’ve come to think of performing. He didn’t see his music as a way to make a living. Indeed, he is famous for having basically begun the “pay what you can afford” approach to Christian business, even refusing to charge for much of his early records and cassettes. But beyond that, what you get in Green’s music—from the praise chorus “Oh Lord, You’re Beautiful” to the prophetic rebuke of “Asleep in the Light”—is a man fully consumed by his subject(s) and honestly moved by the implications of Jesus Christ’s Lordship for the world and the church. He sang without pretense, without preening, without posturing. Imagine if we took to our pulpits with the same earnestness? What if Sunday wasn’t just going through the motions? What would our sermons sound like if we really believed what we were preaching?
Green was an outsized personality—and, according to some accounts, somewhat hard to take by many of his contemporaries, who found him prickly or in some cases too rigid—was perhaps the least likely of CCM’s stars, if only because he didn’t really care about his “image.” This included his looks, of course, but had more to do with his devotion to straight-forward, no-frills, literalistic “Jesus music.” The man was completely unembarrassed by Christ and the gospel. Many of his songs can sound pretty “cheesy” by today’s standards, lyrically speaking anyway, but Green didn’t seem to think at all about how to obscure the point, use metaphors when literalism worked just fine, or appeal to listeners who liked their Jesus music less Bible-y. Once you dug in a bit deeper than his music, you can see that Green’s theology could use a fair bit of work, but I think we could use a lot more pastors who preach Christianity like Green sang it—men un-embarrassed by the Bible, unashamed of an explicit gospel, and un-self-conscious about how all of this might play to the flesh.
Green was a force of nature. His singing, his piano playing, his little homilies between (and in the middle of) songs—he did it all 100 percent. He was driven by the force of belief, by the conviction that what he was doing could literally make the difference between someone’s going to heaven or hell, between the church’s being found faithful or unfaithful before a holy God, between Christ being glorified or the world. “He left it all out on the field,” so to speak. He wasn’t wishy-washy or chit-chatty. He sang like eternity hung in the balance. Compared to the Contempo Casuals style of evangelicalism so popular today, Keith Green is the second coming of John the Baptist. His earnestness was refreshing. But many earnest men can be boring. Green’s earnestness came with passion. Lord, give us more preachers like that, preachers who from their guts just want us to behold the beauty of Jesus like that vision is all that matters.