So, last night my son, Drew and I attended a Dave Barnes concert in Louisville. It was billed as a Christmas show (also featuring Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, along with Gabe Dixon), though not every song was a Christmas song. It was an astonishing experience—musically, comically and as pure entertainment. But for me, this became a remarkable lesson in how Christians can penetrate our culture with the gospel.
I’ve written about Dave Barnes here before, but let me introduce him again. Dave Barnes is a singer-songwriter. He’s usually classified in the alternative/ acoustic pop genre, but his style is a very unique blend. Think Bruce Hornsby meets Billy Joel meets Harry Connick, Jr meets Mark Cohn meets James Taylor—with a little Nashville around the edges.
He is insanely popular with young adults, college age through early thirties. As much as it pains me to admit it, I was easily one of the five oldest people in the crowd of three hundred or so who were there last night. Based on a question asked during the concert, most were single and few were parents.
Barnes writes great songs; I’ve honestly never heard a bad one. There are songs about love and loss, marriage and work, despair and longing, hope and questions, failure and fulfillment, everyday life and extraordinary moments. And faith. In Jesus.
You see, Dave Barnes is a Christian artist who is also an artist-Christian. Many of those we hear on Christian radio have songs and ministries that primarily target other Christians. Their songs are seen as “safe”, because it is known that the faith is the most obvious element in their art. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; there are many artists who effectively encourage and help Christians grow in their faith.
But Barnes is different. His artistic expression leads the way and is, at first glance, perhaps more pronounced than his faith. That gives him a hearing among a whole bunch of people who will skip right past the Christian radio stations.
So, back to last night. The concert was not in a church, nor was it sponsored by a Christian radio station. It was at Headliners Music Hall, a small concert venue in Louisville that primarily hosts shows featuring indie rock bands with names like Twiztid and ZoSo: the Ultimate Led Zeppelin Experience. The guys in the black T-shirts marked “security” were very large and had a lot of tattoos.
In other words, non-church people would be very comfortable going there. Dave Barnes came to their world. He met them on their turf.
The first set began with indie versions of classic Christmas songs, like White Christmas and Winter Wonderland before moving into the songs from new projects that most people had not yet heard. Everybody knew the first songs, even if they had only heard them on their parents’ radio.
The “conversation” between the performers and crowd began at on common ground. If the performers had started with their new material, the stuff they were most personally invested in and most anxious to get known (because it sells CD’s), they would have lost the crowd immediately, because nobody could hum along. They didn’t assume a connection; they made one.
As the evening went along, the newer songs were gradually introduced—and often with a story. Funny, sad, poignant, self-deprecating, but always with sweet authenticity. This was not stand-up comedy; it was slice-of-life stories. So you felt like you got a glimpse backstage of their everyday life.
Authenticity invites you closer. You want to know more about that person and what makes them tick. What’s going on inside a life like this?
As the concert moved into its second hour, all the bands had songs in which they invited the crowd to sing along. There were call-and-response times, choruses to echo and more. Young people, who we are told don’t like to sing out loud, sang at the top of their lungs—and even found a way to sing parts! It shifted from being a performance we were watching to being something we were part of together.
There was a community – and we were all invited in. We belonged just by showing up. There was comraderie, joy and lots of laughter, and the creation of beauty that made us sense were part of something wonderful.
While there were moments that referenced faith, one amazing moment changed everything. A little over halfway through the show, Dave Barnes came out with only his guitar and without a word, sang:
Mary was the first of three
Long, black hair and sugar sweet
Daddy’s eyes and mama’s crooked smile
She was barely seventeen, got a job keepin’ dishes clean
Planned to stay in the city for awhile (for awhile)
Joseph ran a lumber yard
About a mile from Olive Park
Quiet boy, he never had much to say
It was love right from the start
Bought a ring and won Mary’s heart
Had hopes for a home and kids someday (kids someday)
The angels scared her half to death
She would have screamed, but she lost her breath
On a midnight there in the middle of May
He said, “Oh Mary, don’t be afraid
You’ll bear a son that the Lord has made
Name him Jesus, He’ll light the way”
She packed the clothes, he made the plans
They had to go to Bethlehem
But there was nowhere left to stay at the inn
So, in a barn she gave birth
To the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords
Just a little bitty thing sleeping on the hay (sleeping on the hay)
The story’s too long to tell
But walked on water and lived through hell
Keeled on a cross, and rose from the grave
We got a King, they got a Son
Mary & Joseph were the only ones
There on that very first Christmas day
There on that very first Christmas day
And thus, the gospel of Jesus showed up at Headliners.
But notice that even here, the story creeps in subtly. You’re halfway through the song before you notice it’s that Mary and Joseph. And in an instant you’re walked from the Incarnation to the cross to the resurrection and ‘we got a King”
It got really quiet and hushed for a few seconds. You had to wonder if just maybe somebody took a step closer to kneeling at the manger, too. And after a few more minutes, they sang Silent Night—the whole thing. Remember?
Christ, the Savior is born…
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus Lord at thy birth.
When Jesus talked with people, he always used parables, eternal truths wrapped in everyday stories. He would often say “ He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” In other words, “if you listen beneath the surface, you’ll hear something significant about God and the stuff that really matters.” Not everybody can or will hear it. But for some, that was their moment.
Dave Barnes’ concerts are a parable. I’m convinced somebody at Headliners last night heard the inviting whisper of Jesus. I pray they have a friend who can make the gospel clear.
This show also shows us a way to think about reaching a generation that everybody says is walking away from Jesus.
Meet them where they are.
Start a conversation on common ground.
Be real and open about life – the silly and profound .
Invite them to belong with you even before they believe.
And introduce the gospel of Jesus.
But before you ever start, pray that they will have ears to hear…Jesus.