He describes himself in his Instagram bio as a Jesus Follower, Missionary, Artist, Author, Humanitarian, Activist. But right now, Sean Feucht may be best known as a volunteer Bethel worship leader who has spent his summer leading around two dozen outdoor worship concerts.
Feucht’s events are “a mix of Christian concert, healing service, guerrilla street theater and spectator mosh pit,” Religion News Service recently reported.
They can also turn political. After the city of Seattle recently refused to give Feucht and his worship team permission to host a concert in one of his parks, likely because concerns of masking and social distancing, they held their show on a nearby street.
As the concert began, he informed the audience. “Politicians can write press releases, they can make up threats, they can shut down parks, they can put up fences. But they can’t stop the church of Christ from worshipping the one true God. We are here as citizens of America and of the kingdom of God and we will not be silenced.”
There’s something really powerful when people bring together music and mission, says Leah Payne, associate professor of theology at George Fox University and Portland Seminary.
“I found this great quote a while back when I was researching temperance workers who were wanting to use hymns to their cause, and they said music was the key to doing that because they said it was a sentiment maker,” said Payne. “It was magical. It could create within people the emotional logic that they needed to overcome their objections to something. And I think that's something revivalists have been especially good at. They understand that music moves people—any and all kinds of music, harnessed in any particular direction.”
Payne joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen and discuss the religious traditions that inspire Feucht’s ministry, if people should be surprised to see worship leaders voicing political beliefs, and why so many popular worship leaders are good at Instagram.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #231
Who is Sean Feucht and what is the tradition that he comes from?
Leah Payne: To understand Sean Feucht, you really have to understand the church that he comes from.
To understand Sean, you need to understand Bethel Church and to understand Bethel, you need to understand Bill Johnson, the influential senior pastor there, and to understand him, you have to think about the roots of that church, which they are historically an Assemblies of God church.
And in understanding the Assemblies of God, I think Sean makes a lot of sense in that frame. Because the Assemblies of God is a part of a Pentecostal movement, and while Pentecostalism is this huge category, the Assemblies of God is one of the biggest, most powerful denominations in that Pentecostal umbrella.
They are historically a white denomination and they're historically more likely to participate in conservative evangelical political action, some scholars might call it the religious right. The Assemblies of God has a long history of being involved in political action. And they're also concerned about religious liberty. So understanding Sean as a part of a church that has ties to the Assemblies of God, he makes a lot of sense in that.
And then also, it's a West Coast charismatic church and West Coast charisma is it's very own distinct kind of a thing. Sean Feucht himself has made connections between what he's doing and the Jesus Movement, which was a revival movement in the 1960s and 1970s that created a ton of really influential music.
So some of my favorite music—that I was raised with actually—Keith Green, Larry Norman, Second Chapter of Acts, those kinds of musicians came out of a charismatic revival that was largely held on beaches in Southern California in makeshift urban concerts. So when I see him doing that, I see him evoking that kind of expression. And really, the Jesus Movement created music that was super influential in American evangelicalism. Bethel is doing the same today. So if we want to understand him, he's best understood coming out of that church.
And all the things that he's doing, I think he's coming around at a time when people have a lot of interest and energy in it. But, this kind of stuff has been going on for a long time.
There seems to be a difference between the ’70s early Jesus music, which was commentary about behavior or social issues, and the politics around elections that we hear today. Is that fair to say? Are we talking about slightly different politics?
Leah Payne: Well it is a big movement, so you find instances of both of those things there. With Feucht and the way he talks about things, I think one of the things that's distinct about it is the people who are listening. Because for a long time, the types of charismatic songwriters and singers, the folks of his ilk, if you will, if they were speaking about political things, not that many people were listening.
To me, what's distinct about what's happening right now is that Feucht and many other worship leaders in his network have been invited to the White House. They've been kind of courted by faith outreach people in the current administration. And that feels new because what people would think of as “respectable” denominations were the ones that got courted before. Like you want a really nice, intellectual Presbyterian and a Baptist.
So while there are instances of charismatics and Pentecostals being deeply concerned about the world and wanting to make statements about particular issues—it could be a cultural thing like divorce, or it could be something like the common political talking points like abortion and religious liberty. But now, I'm curious about who's listening. I think it's a much bigger stage for these types of people than it has been in the past.
In the beginning, Feucht was identified as a volunteer worship leader at Bethel, but as the summer has gone on, hasn't Bethel distance itself a little bit from him?
Leah Payne: You know, I was actually looking into that and I couldn't get a lot of details. So I don't know what the official relationship is between them. I do know that Bethel has a collective of worship ministers who are in and out and sometimes more closely related to the church than at other times. So, to be honest, I don't know what his current status is with them.
Ted Olsen: I've got a statement here that Bethel sent to The Washington Post and here's what it says, Sean Feucht's mission is to “bring worship, prayer, healing, and unity into a landscape of division, violence, and unrest through the power and presence of Jesus. We love this vision and celebrate him for leading from his convictions.”
So that statement is both celebratory and I would say distancing a little bit. There's a lot to read in between the lines from that.
In the cities that Feucht has visited, how have Christians on the ground responded to his concert/evangelism sessions? Has Feucht found any surprising allies? Who are the folks that have not been so thrilled to have him in their cities?
Leah Payne: He came to Portland, Oregon, which has been in the news a lot lately for a lot of reasons. And I talked to a few pastors who were aware of it, and who were in some of those same networks. And to be totally honest, many pastors in the Portland area are just exhausted because it's been months and months of the pandemic and there's been no relief from that, and then months and months of anti-racist protests, and then weeks of counter-protests and violence. And then they've been under the microscope nationally because Portland is one of the president’s lesser favorite cities.
And so some were enthusiastic about [Feucht’s concert] and really excited for the opportunity to get outside and be with people because it's been a lonely time for the whole world. And then others were concerned, they felt like this kind of gathering didn't really read the room of what was going on in Portland—it's hard to know, unless you're here, all the ins and outs of what's been happening. And then others were just plain against it. An evangelical leader in the area posted a sign with Amos 5, “Away with your noisy hymns of praise. I will not listen to the music of your harps.”
So there was a broad spectrum of responses. It’s kind of what you would expect with someone who's using the language of protest. It means he's okay with it being something that divides people in terms of “for” or “against.”
How much would you say Feucht’s concerts are a response to or commentary focused on racial justice and racial reconciliation, and how much of it is him just going where the people are to keep Jesus at the foremost in conversations?
Leah Payne: In my first book, I wrote a lot about Aimee Semple McPherson, who was the founder of the Foursquare Church and was a relentless and unashamed self-promoter. She was a classic revivalist who, while she predated the film world, would see no camera that would be too far and too outrageous for her to try and occupy in order to talk to people about Jesus.
So I think that there’s a kind of traditional revivalist bent [to Feucht’s work] where there's no such thing as bad publicity. And I'll use the word opportunist as neutrally as I can. I think he has seen an opportunity.
But he ran for a congressional seat in California on a very conservative platform, so I interpret his activism side, the religious liberty piece that he brings, as being part of his own political vision. And we'll see where he goes with that. This is kind of a non-public office way of doing that.
So I'm really interested to see where he goes. Will he stay with the revivalist music scene? Will he dip his toes back in politics? I'm fascinated.
There was a story last year when worship leaders Kari Jobe and her husband Cody Carnes went to the White House. Afterward, she said, “I'm so thankful to be part of this today and see what God's doing in our White House” and her husband said, “We've gotten to worship, we've gotten to pray for the president. I've been so encouraged today because there's so many good things happening out of this house, so many good things for the faith community.”
Some of their fans were surprised to see them visit the White House and come away with these really positive remarks. Was anything they said surprising to you? Or is even the fact that they went to the White House surprising? Have we seen other worship leaders who are outside the charismatic fold act similarly?
Leah Payne: I wasn't surprised to see that because I knew that the Trump administration had been very deliberately reaching out to charismatic and Pentecostal celebrities in particular. Probably the most famous, or infamous, one he has a relationship with is Paula White.
In the months leading up to his election, he went to some pretty large charismatic congregations. And I think that if you know anything about charismatic or Pentecostal worship, you know that music is one of the most powerful things. I would argue that music has sacramental value for charismatic and Pentecostal worshipers.
So people who come from the mainline tradition may think, why is this a big deal that a worship leader is engaged? But a Pentecostal or charismatic worship service could be mostly music and worship leaders have a tremendous amount of standing in charismatic and Pentecostal services. And then they also have a tremendous amount of influence in wider evangelical circles.
The Trump administration has been very solicitous and has invested in things that charismatic—especially historically white charismatic and Pentecostal churches—care about like a focus on Israel, religious liberty, anti-abortion.
And there's the history of evangelical and charismatic worship or music people being involved to a certain degree in politics. Probably the most famous example of that was Michael W. Smith singing at the Republican National Convention in 2004, so it's not unprecedented at all.
Ted Olsen: Well, it's interesting to me that most people have the assumption that worship is the least political thing that the church does. But historically-speaking and theologically-speaking, worship is extremely political. Worship at its root is very much political if you think about it.
If you talk to the early church about what worship is, it is the declaration of Jesus as Lord, the declaration that we are people under the lordship of Jesus, and that's a very political statement. They would have framed the discussion of what worship in terms of the political and ethical discussions and not so much in terms of music or even the liturgical life of the church. So for me, it's really interesting just how apolitical people assume worship is.
But there's also this unintended consequence. Christianity Today was formed out of this desire that Carl Henry and other people had to say, “Hey, wake up, fundamentalists and evangelicals; your faith has social implications!” And then when that kind of gave rise to more of the religious right and more of a fundamentalist take on politics, people like Carl Henry were very annoyed by that.
I think a similar thing has happened with some worship leaders. There's been a lot of worship leaders saying, worship has implications, worship is a kind of a political and community statement about the way things should be. And sometimes when people grab onto that and put it in the service of a certain political party and earthly politics, some of the very people who were saying worship has political implications say, that's not what we meant by that.
Leah Payne: I think in the cultural soup that we all live in there tends to be this idea that because we have a disestablished relationship between the church and the state that there's a distinct church realm and then a distinct state realm. And of course, it's never been or never will be like that. There's always a blurry line between those.
I found this great quote a while back when I was researching temperance workers who were wanting to use hymns to their cause, and they said music was the key to doing that because they said it was a sentiment maker. It was magical. It could create within people the emotional logic that they needed to overcome their objections to something.
And I think that's something revivalists have been especially good at. They understand that music moves people—any and all kinds of music, harnessed in any particular direction. So I agree with you a hundred percent.
There’s been a lot of spectacle that seems to accompany Sean Feucht when he's traveling around. How common has it been for evangelists and preachers to secure local partnerships on the ground before they show up in places? Do they tend to have everything super organized and work with cities to get permits and all that type of stuff beforehand? Or is it more ad hoc?
Leah Payne: Well, I think you see both. Some of it has to do with the personality of the ministering or preaching through song.
But traditionally, going back to people like George Whitfield, some revivalists just went outside, stood on a stump, and started preaching to whoever would be there.
And then there were other folks who'd be a lot more organized about it. I'm thinking of somebody like Charles Spinney, Billy Graham, those that had a well-organized operation that was going on, um, with them. So I think some of it has to do with just the orientation of the person.
I think I saw on his Instagram page that he's been fundraising. I wouldn't be surprised if we see a much more highly organized method going forward, but we'll see. It'll be interesting to see if he does or not.
I would imagine with the kind of the type of music that they do require some setup. It wasn't just him and a guitar. And the photos too—they got some amazing photos. So there was a plan there somewhere. I don't know if it was super organized, but they were organized enough to be able to promote it.
With a lot of the worship cohort, there's a particular aesthetic that they have with how they dress and even how they write captions on Instagram. It feels very much similar to a lot of the ways that Instagram influencers interact. What type of things does this suggest about how this community views cultural engagement?
Leah Payne: Not to overemphasize this, but I think that evangelicals—if we want to include charismatics and Pentecostals in that, some people do some people don't— just always had a value and an understanding of how to harness mass media.
There's a really funny account of Ben Franklin cynically describing what George Whitefield was doing way back in the day with a little bit of admiration and a little bit of cynicism. So I think that there's just a long-standing tradition there.
There are certain talented people who do it better than others. And some people think that it's anointing from God. And some people think that they're just extra good at engaging with mass media. I look at that and I see like a long history.
To me, on the Instagram influencer stage, there are two outstanding religious groups. It’s evangelicals and charismatics, and also LDS influencers. So, I think maybe there's something about how they think of themselves—and I grew up in one of them, so I don't mean this in a derogatory way—a way of thinking about who you are and your Christian responsibility that's very outward-facing. Like, how does this look to other people and who I am as a person, how am I bearing witness?
And so I think there are just certain groups where they innately understand that there's a media approach to it. And there's kind of an argument about it, but a lot of historians think of charismatics and Pentecostals as an American religious innovation. Certainly, the LDS church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, they are an American innovation. And so when I see that, I think there's something about how in the U.S., we think about media and its power.
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