KEITH THOMPSON is a singer/songwriter with a growing ministry in prophetic music. But what does such a term mean? With Tony Cummings, Keith goes looking for some answers.

Keith Thompson
Keith Thompson

So what is prophetic music? Is it a lady singing in tongues in the middle of a worship service? Is it a singer/songwriter with well-crafted songs that incisively cut through the sin of corporate America, the neglect of the homeless or a hundred other things done in the dark? Is it a musician singing, playing (or both) with such improvisational freedom that he or she doesn't know from moment to moment when the next lyrical exhortation or key change is going to come? As has been observed before in Cross Rhythms, 'prophetic' is one of those terms continually thrown about in the churches. So to get back to the question... what and where do we find genuinely prophetic music? If' 'prophetic' means hearing from God and communicating that revelation, and God is able and willing to speak in an infinite number of ways, it is hardly surprising that 'prophetic music' is an umbrella term. There is a living God who WILL communicate with all those willing to listen. But it is important to get our brains around the different aspects of the prophetic in the church. Otherwise the church is going to be open to musical false prophets, people going into churches to manipulate and exploit a congregation or audience. It may help to subdivide all the aspects of the prophetic, so let's invent some prophetic "categories". I'd emphasise the obvious, the subdivisions are my and Editor Cummings' inventions and are not biblical terms.

It's true when Bob Dylan sang a song denouncing war or Grandmaster Flash made a record denouncing cocaine abuse that there was an element of the prophetic in their creativity. They may not be even aware of it of course. A Sting or a Geldoff may not have a relationship with Christ but God has still been able to bring them insight in some aspect of sin, be it apartheid, nationalistic greed or a thousand more manifestations of the Devil, his powers and principalities. In contemporary music many of the most insightful denouncements of sin come from Christians (take Steve Taylor's harrowing denouncement of euthanasia in "Baby Doe") but by no means all. A song like Harry Chapin's "Cat's In The Cradle" about the sin of fathers being too busy to give quality time to their children has a prophetic edge, or for many of the people who bought the Ugly Kid Joe version of the song, the potential of a prophetic edge. It's dependent of course on the audience being receptive to the truth the song is saying.

The dynamics of man-woman relationships are so complex and can sometimes be a metaphor for Christ's relationship with the Church. Therefore it's hardly surprising that in the millions of 'love songs' written, a few contain insights that the Holy Spirit is able to take up and use. There have already been testimonies published in Cross Rhythms' Touched By A Song series where Christians have been spoken to by God through songs not composed with any spiritual intention by non-Christian songwriters. I remember on one occasion I was drawing near the end of one of my concerts, I had shared my story and the Gospel. Then I felt I should change my planned set and sing "More Than Words" by Extreme. I didn't really know why. As the words unfolded it became clear. The original meaning had changed as God took the words and spoke to the crowd. The second verse in particular conveyed the thought that God had been reaching out to us and trying to make us understand. Our response should be one of trusting in him and that it was by our actions that we would demonstrate how much we loved him, not just our words. The audience was spellbound as they realised what was happening.

Our obsession with little boxes and endless categorising can be VERY unhelpful. (Yep, I know about these Prophetic Music headings this article has saddled you with, dear reader!) We Christians have a tendency to put things in clearly defined boxes, secular/Christian, praise and worship/contemporary. But this is God's world and the only thing that is 'secular' and out of bounds is sin, and all of our lives are meant to be offered in worship to God, so all of our music, contemporary or otherwise, is an act of worship. As Cross Rhythms is continually trying to emphasise, let's stop being hung up on 'this is praise', 'this is secular', this is performance'. When we do that kind of thing we're perilously close to the sin of boxing in God. God won't be tied by our puny pigeon holing. What strikes me about flicking through the past issues of Touched By A Song is the diversity. On a personal level I remember an incident when a young man came to one of my concerts greatly troubled because his pregnant wife was apparently losing the baby. He said that as I opened with the first song, "Against The Odds", he felt the heaviness leave and he knew that his wife would be fine and they would not lose the baby. She was healed and peace was restored. (They had a baby girl.)

AS THE SPIRIT LEADS' PROPHETIC MUSIC. This is the stuff most people in the church, or at least the charismatic church, would associate with the phrase 'prophetic music'. People singing the 'now word of God' in a dynamic of Spirit-led spontaneity. I'm a full time musician working for a number of years in pubs, churches, concert halls, Christian festivals, schools, prisons and for the last 18 months prophetic music workshops and conferences. We need to be aware of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our music. The gifts of the Spirit as listed (1 Cor 12:1-11) are not incompatible with professionalism and just good music. What is prophecy if it is not God communicating to his people to challenge and encourage? As the above shows God's Spirit can take hold of a song in such a way that it can speak a 'now' word to us. Like many other Christian musicians I'd been encouraged by people coming up to me after a gig and saying "God used your song to speak to me". But about 18 months ago something fresh happened. I was at a conference and a minister, Grenville Barber, came up to me and said "I believe you have a prophetic song for us tonight". I started to make all kinds of excuses, my guitar wasn't properly tuned, etc, etc. But finally I stood out on the platform with my guitar. And the Holy Spirit did give me a song for that conference, a proper song with a beginning, a middle and an even rhymed!

After it was all over I found I'd forgotten it! It was just for that conference. Since then I've had many other experiences of being given words and music on a platform. And I have seen people burst into tears as the relevance of the song hits them - a gift of the Holy Spirit working in harmony with the 'natural' gift of music.

Recently I have been working with an American couple called Charles and Paula Slagle. They operate from a foundation of praise and worship music that leads them into prophecy and their ministry is particularly marked with words of knowledge and wisdom. They seem to know things about people and are able to speak with authority and accuracy into peoples lives. This often brings about healing as Charles is led to pinpoint the root of the problem. Sometimes the words are sung, mostly spoken, but the music is there in harmony with the Spirit. Charles says, "We're constantly having to muster up fresh courage just to keep on being ourselves, while yet remaining flexible to develop and grow. Most musicians can attest to the non-stop nitpicking that bombards us, pressurising us to conform to stereotypical images of what is 'commercial' or 'in' or 'religious'. Yet we have found that most people hunger more deeply to see God manifest his presence than they yearn to be titillated by the latest nuances of style'. God can only manifest his presence in the midst of authenticity, so we simply try to be ourselves while encouraging other musical ministries to do the same."

On a personal level, hearing the voice of God and singing it out has really been an incredible new addition to what I'm doing in music. But that's not to say the Church should get so into 'As The Spirit Leads' Prophecy, that Christian musicians don't craft 'composed' songs any more! The METHOD and the TIMESCALE God uses to inspire a song with a prophetic dynamic are relatively unimportant. The Lord might 'give me' a line for a song and a year later it comes to fruition in a 'composed' song.

INSTRUMENTAL PROPHETIC MUSIC. I haven't a huge amount of experience in this yet but clearly there's a whole new instrumental prophetic dynamic... The Springwood Musicians in Cardiff are pioneering in this area. The link between improvised instrumental music like jazz and the work of the Holy Spirit is something the Church needs to spend a lot more time trying to understand.

To conclude I would emphasise again that the above are a few observations, not some systematic theology. The most important thing to grasp is that in order to be as creative as we possibly can, Christian musicians and Christians with no musical gift should experience music as an overflow of their relationship with God our Father. Much soul searching and crying in the desert will undoubtedly be needed to break out of our safe confines. We can reach the top of the charts but easily miss the mark. Let's not judge others for trying to follow God into 'mainstream' music, let's not write off others who don't quite fit our musical taste or don't sell many albums. But above all, let's be more discerning and look for the work of the Holy Spirit within our music. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.