The other day, my sister (who was visiting from out of town) walked into our kitchen during the chaos that is breakfast prep. Over the usual din (“What cereal do you want? Oh, all three kinds? No, it’s too late for eggs”) she heard the song that we were listening to (it happened to be “Wake Up Sleeper” by Zac Hicks and Coral Ridge Worship) and, after probably three seconds, said, “Is this Christian music?”

I’ve had this conversation many times during my life–why is it that you can always identify “Christian music” within seconds of hearing it?–but I’ve never been able to come to as satisfying an answer as I did that morning in my kitchen. We started talking about how funny it is that Christian music is so readily identifiable, and my sister’s suggestion was that there was always a certain happiness about it. That, though, didn’t seem quite right. For instance, the song we heard next, “Most Merciful God,” is a gorgeously contemplative setting of Thomas Cranmer’s general confession which repeats the line “Have mercy on us” over and over. At some point, the listener has got to get it through his or her thick skull that mercy is what we need…or else go crazy. It’s anything but “happy.”

That’s when my wife nailed it.

“It’s not happy,” she said. “It’s hopeful.”

This is why all Christian music sounds the same, even when it doesn’t. Whether a song is a funeral requiem, a praise chorus, a medieval processional, a communion anthem, or a heart-wrenching confession, there is an underlying hopefulness for which the Gospel allows. “Things might not be looking up for me right now,” we might sing–in fact, we might even be literally dead–“but I have hope for a new life.” This is why all Christian sermons sound the same, too…even when they don’t (N.B. when I say “Christian sermons” here I mean sermons that do the proper work of bringing the hearer face-to-face with their sin in order to then bring them face-to-face with their savior). The words might be different, the illustrations will be personal to the preacher and the audience, the piece of Scripture referenced will be unique…but the message will be the same: in a world of hopelessness, there is hope. In other words, the beats and the lyrics may change, but you’ll feel like you’re hearing the same song…and it’s instantly recognizable.

In music that is true to life, hopelessness is born of the idea that you need to get to work saving yourself. If that’s telling you to ditch your “9 to 5” or to find that one other person who completes you, “secular” music usually doesn’t have much ultimate hope to offer. There might be a little hopefulness, but there’s nothing really to base it on. Rick Springfield is certainly hopeful that “Jesse’s Girl” might eventually decide to be with him, but there’s no evidence it’ll happen. She and Jesse seem pretty happy. Rick, it seems, has unfounded hopes, and is destined to be miserable. What is it that Rob (John Cusack) says in High Fidelity?

What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos; that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?

Hopelessness (synonym: hope without foundation) leads to misery. The Gospel–the proclamation that we no longer have to save ourselves but have a savior who has given his life for ours–is the anchor for our hope, which leads to joy.

And so, finally, Christian music all sounds the same and Christian sermons all sound the same because Christian people are, at their core, all the same. We are those who have run into the brick wall of self-salvation. “Jesse’s Girl” has decided to stay with Jesse. After all, why would she choose someone like us? But, incredibly, someone has chosen us. In another Zac Hicks and Coral Ridge Worship song (“God Has Decided“), they’ve changed the lyrics to the all-time classic “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” The new first line? “God has decided to save my lost soul.”

This knowledge that we are chosen despite ourselves–that a savior has come to us instead of waiting for us to get to him–inspires a joy that is impossible to repress. It comes out in songs like “Wake Up Sleeper” and in songs like “Most Merciful God.” It comes out in funeral requiems, praise choruses, medieval processionals, communion anthems, and heart-wrenching confessions. This is what makes us all the same: we all need saving. Desperately. But we’re the same in another way, too: Jesus has come for every one of us.

Let us sing.