The Future is P.O.D.

Multicultural voices have an edge in reaching a rapidly changing America.

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today, October 7, 2002 (vol. 46, no. 11), p. 104.

The band Jars of Clay can fairly be called a Christian success story. The four former students from evangelical Greenville College have made their mark on popular music with innovative, intelligent music animated by a faith that is neither preachy nor shy. Their 1995 eponymous album went platinum in a year. This fall they’ve been touring with pop rocker Sheryl Crow and enjoying critical acclaim for their latest recording.

But the most astonishing current example of Christians winning a hearing in secular pop culture are four musicians whose second album—released, by coincidence or providence, on September 11, 2001—went platinum in one month, double platinum in five months, and triple platinum in a year. At the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards, they were the only serious rivals to foul-mouthed rapper Eminem. And while you might not want this heavy metal-hip-hop-reggae-rock band playing a concert next door while you’re trying to lead a Bible study, P.O.D. represents a bright future for Christian witness in America.

A few years ago, salsa replaced ketchup as the number one condiment in America; in the 1990s, P.O.D.‘s hip-hop dethroned Jars of Clay’s rock as the dominant musical genre among youth.

Actually—given that P.O.D.‘s Satellite has also gone gold in Ireland, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines, and platinum in Canada, Germany, and Indonesia—make that the world.

There is no way to account for popular success; nor is it a foolproof index of cultural influence, let alone faithfulness. Still, lessons can be learned, and encouragement found, in the stories of both Jars of Clay and P.O.D. And perhaps the most important lesson comes in the striking difference between the two bands.

The four white guys in Jars of Clay would fit right in at any Gap-clad gathering of evangelical Christians. The four guys in P.O.D., with roots in gritty South San Diego, look like the world (with a few extra tattoos). Between them, Wuv, Marcos, Traa, and Sonny can claim half a dozen ethnic heritages, from African American to Mexican to Filipino. Their music is an electrifying gumbo. And their audience, every bit as culturally diverse as the performers and the music, is a picture of the future of North America. It’s a picture that evangelicals need to examine closely.

For by the time this generation dies, people of strictly northern European descent will make up less than half of the population. White Americans are not being supplanted by another homogeneous ethnic group. Rather, for the foreseeable future, the United States will become more polyglot and multiethnic. A few years ago, salsa replaced ketchup as the number one condiment in America; in the 1990s, P.O.D.‘s hip-hop dethroned Jars of Clay’s rock as the dominant musical genre among youth. America’s ethnic blender is set to high.

Meanwhile, 50 years after Billy Graham courageously desegregated his crusades, the face of evangelicalism struggles to display one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity—melanin. In part this is because many evangelical denominations were founded to serve the needs of European immigrants. As the face of America changes, evangelicalism risks once again becoming simply a collection of ethnic churches—this time reaching a declining rather than a growing segment of the population. And when some of the most vibrant expressions of faith in America come from communities like South San Diego, evangelicals risk missing out on much of American Christianity’s vitality.

Individual churches, of course, are embedded in neighborhoods, which are often ethnically homogeneous—though not as much as church leaders assume. (One megachurch explains its homogeneity by saying its surroundings are largely white, even though thousands of its members drive through ethnically diverse areas to attend its services.) But many parachurch enterprises, from seminaries to media to evangelistic ministries, seek to serve a national or global audience. It is they who should worry most about looking like Jars of Clay instead of P.O.D., with the attenuated credibility and influence that will follow.

The world outside the church is falling over itself to court bicultural people with talent and potential. Few of them want to be token representatives in an organization where leadership stays in the hands of one cultural group. Leaders in the evangelical community are made, and often born, by being inducted into a complex array of opportunities and relationships. Will evangelicals choose to open doors for those whose ministry will look very different from their own? The next C. S. Lewis or Billy Graham is likely to be multicultural. Will evangelical leaders put their money where the demographics are?

To be sure, we could do worse than to inspire another generation of cultural missionaries like Jars of Clay. But wouldn’t it be a shame not to create more like P.O.D. instead?