Should Christian Musicians Play Secular Music?

Posted: September 10, 2012 in Christian Living, Music & Videos
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Phil Keaggy made a comment years ago about the lack of spiritual Christians involved in the secular music field. It made me think about the legitimacy of Christian musicians playing secular music. How should we think about it? Is it always wrong? Or is it something we should encourage? The most important question to ask (and sometimes the most difficult to answer) is, “What are my motives for wanting to be involved in secular music?”

While we should never assume someone’s motives, there’s a big difference between someone who lives to play on stage and someone who lives to serve God and others with their gifts. As a Christian musician, if I want to play music in a secular venue I have to make an honest evaluation of my motives. Because a Christian’s success in the general marketplace is no proof, one way or the other, that the Gospel is being proclaimed.

A chart-topper isn’t necessarily a sign of God’s blessing. In most cases, it’s the result of savvy marketing or great musicianship. In many “Christian” songs, the lyrics fail to communicate anything that’s distinctly Christian. Also, “secular” music doesn’t necessarily equal godlessness or anti-Christian. In fact, there are many popular secular songs that can relate to the Gospel. (My Sweet Lord by George Harrison comes to mind) But because of marketing, many may assume that there’s no difference between secular musicians and Christian ones – it’s all about the music. (And the money) God can use Christian musicians in the general marketplace to advance the Gospel – but he doesn’t need them. God’s people are, and always will be, the primary means God uses to spread the Gospel and to make disciples.

There are countless examples of popular songs that present moral values, insightful perspectives, and meaningful commentary on life that don’t specifically reference God, Jesus or Scripture. We can use our music to entertain without glamorizing or promoting the idols of materialism, pride, and self-centeredness.

We may tend to judge people from their dress, language, attitudes, and actions, but it can be difficult to tell the difference between a rebellious, unsaved person and a new, uninformed convert. We can’t be certain about a musician’s motives from a distance, but that doesn’t mean musicians who claim to be Christian are above scrutiny. It just means that in most cases we should focus more on God’s grace than pronouncing  judgments. At the very least, our private prayers for an artist should equal our public critique.

A Christian musician may not overtly sing about salvation or the cross, or play music composed by Christians. But we should never allow our Christianity to take a back seat to our musicianship either. Kerry Livgren was criticized for using non-believers on his recordings but he made a difference in others lives that way. Some Christians will serve God in the church. Others will serve the Him outside the church. Both are demonstrating through their lives that Jesus is the only Savior and sovereign Ruler of the world.

There are no musicians who “just happen to be Christians”. Our identity as Christians governs everything else we do. Being involved in secular music is no justification for minimizing our faith. Sometimes Christian musicians justify their lack of spiritual message in their songs because they don’t want to come off as being too religious saying, “I’m a sinner like everyone else.” That is just not true. The Christian isn’t a sinner like everyone else because a Christian is a sinner who was forgiven and redeemed! And this alters our whole relationship to sin! Because the cross changes everything. The Gospel redefines our priorities, redirects our passions, and reshapes our worldview. We now live our entire lives no longer according to the pattern of this world, but we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. (Romans 12:1-2) The world needs to see people in every arena who have been genuinely changed by the gospel.

Christian musicians in the general marketplace have the unique opportunity to influence non-Christians not only with their music, but with their lives. God has given them opportunities to share the Gospel with others who may never be reached otherwise. When we ignore that opportunity we are telling God that our own popularity is more important than being a light to the world.

A Word for the Church:

Music is a powerful medium that can affect us positively or negatively. However, the root of the division is often traditionalists who insist that they know what kind of music God likes. It hasn’t helped that these proponents are often arrogant, insensitive, and impatient. However, we can make an idol out of what’s old and familiar as easily as we can make one out of what’s new and creative. Music must be wisely chosen for its ability to serve both the lyrics and the listener in order to truly honor God. But thinking that we need a certain type of music to truly engage with God is, at its root, idolatry. And idolatry is sometimes rooted in traditions that these Christian proponents use to justify their judgments on Christian musicians.

Even churches that claim to be non-traditional have traditions. A tradition is simply something you’ve done more than once. Can traditions serve God’s purposes in the church? Absolutely! Paul encourages the Thessalonians, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” (2Thess. 2:15) But are our traditions today equal to Scripture in authority? Absolutely not! Every generation is responsible to examine whether or not their traditions are biblical and truly help people draw closer to God. The idols of familiarity and comfort are often revealed in the words, “We’ve never done it that way before.”

But it’s not just the old traditions that can become a problem. New creativity in church services can also become an idol. We’re convinced that some fresh, different, never-been-done-before idea will make our congregational worship more powerful or more appealing. Maybe it’s a modern lighting and sound system, or a multimedia set up, or some other artistic activity. Creativity should never be our goal in worshiping God. It’s simply a tool for displaying and seeing the glory of Christ more clearly. New forms of communication can give us a different perspective and cause the truth to have a greater impact on us. But if we come away from worship more affected by creativity than our Savior… then God help us.

I’m aware that what I’m writing may offend some. But this I know: God is committed to receiving all the glory, honor, and praise every time we gather as His people redeemed through His Son’s atoning sacrifice. Whether we are playing in a church service or in a local night club, God will have no rivals. “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.” (Isaiah 42:8) God should be the all-consuming center of our attention and affections. His greatness and splendor should become bigger in our minds, hearts, and wills. His desires and commands should become more precious to us. Jesus Christ and His atoning work should be more glorious and amazing to us.

Isaiah 42:10 tells us to… “Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands, and all who live in them.” Yet not all music written and sung by Christians needs to expound the full Gospel. Russ Bremeier, a contributing writer in Christianity Today wrote, “Some music explicitly shares the Gospel, and some merely plants a seed that can lead to the Gospel.” Our music is a diverse reflection of who we are as the body of Christ. Whether it’s used in the church, on a CD, or  in a night club, we can rest easy knowing that God can use the music we make in numerous ways to serve his purposes. I pray that all types of music will be written and performed from the perspective of those who live in the light of the Gospel’s joys and realities.

Bottom line: Know your heart and seek to make music for the glory of God, no matter where you play or sing. Our music isn’t about us. It’s never been about us. It’s about drawing attention to the God who gave us music in the first place. No other kind of music is going to last anyway.

Scriptures that mention music:

Psalm 95:1

Psalm 108:1-3

Psalms 150:3-6

II Samuel 6:5

I Chronicles 13:8

2 Chronicles 5:13

Ephesians 5:19

Colossians 3:16

  1. I’m reminded of Kathy Troccoli’s recording, “Everything Changes.” It’s an upbeat, postive song that easily crossed over. I believe Christian artists should make the message of the gospel their primary focus and leave it up to God to determine who all will hear it!

    • I agree Lisa. Unfortunately, many Christian musicians and singers have missed the point of my article and have taken what I wrote as a judgment on Christian artists who perform secular songs. That was not my intent. My intent was to point out the importance of using ALL of our God given talents to glorify God and to draw others to Him. Isn’t that what God created us for in the first place?

      • Yeah! He created us so that His Son would have lots and lots of brothers and sisters to fellowship with. Doesn’t it feel good to be a gift for Jesus from His loving Father? I’m glad you addressed the issue of “traditional” worship music, Jonah. I’ve often thought it would be nice to hear a mixture of contemporary songs and old hymns. I like hearing old hymns presented with a contemporary feel to it. I used to get tired of singing four hymns every Sunday morning, but now I miss those wonderful old songs. Cynthia Clawson recorded several hymns and made them sound new. “Softly and Tenderly” is one of her most memorable recordings.

  2. singertenor says:

    You hit te nail on the head with your words, “A Christian musician may not overtly sing about salvation or the cross, or play music composed by Christians. But we should never allow our Christianity to take a back seat to our musicianship either.” And as you write in your above comment, there is a need to take seriously our talents as God-given, and therefore, good so long as they glorify the good things that God has created. There is a lot of meaning to unpack here, and, perhaps, a series of posts would be necessary before the people might begin to understand your real purpose. Yet, while we cannot control other people’s thoughts, either, while, I understand and agree with your claim that all talent may necessarily be used for the Kingdom of God, without necessarily succumbing to a particular “Christian” style (if there is such a thing). I am reminded on a regular basis, that even hymns were main stream once. The music behind the hymns that we know in the church in today only made their debut in the church service as a means through which to attract people who frequented bars. Ministers used music from drinking songs and applied Christian lyrics to them in order to establish a platform for the unchurched in their day to cross into the life of God and the Church.

    Keep writing, brother. And let me know if you ever play in Kansas City.

  3. lukas says:

    Hi! I think you really hit the nail on the head. It IS important to reflect Jesus in the secular marketplace if we are a truly born again Christian who has been blessed to have an open door in the secular music marketplace. I would say though that while Music is also designed too worship and glorify God, I believe that it can also be used as a tool of creative self expression ( artistry). I disagree with some in the Body of Christ who make the fundamental stance that music is ONLY to be used in a worship setting or as worship music and I think that being creative in God’s image makes allowance for simply making music for fun and creativity too. But fundamentally, it should also be well rounded where Christ and God is a central theme. At least thats what my band does with a clear conscience. Great article.

    • Thanks so much for your comment. With so many Christian musicians today compromising with the world, it is refreshing to know that there are those who use their talents to unashamedly present Jesus to the secular world in a creative way and still glorify God. Let me know if your band has a website and I will do my best to promote you.

  4. MzLiz says:

    Music if a gift from God. The Bible mentions “and your gift shall make room for you” is that only in the church?Some church people are so critical towards the musician having a life outside the church its pathetic!

  5. CJ says:

    This is an issue that I encounter a lot. Most people who express an opinion on it to me are not musicians. Though I mostly get very positive comments and feedback when I perform, the ability to perform like that did not come easy. It came with a lot of hard work and dedication over a long period of time, enduring much frustration… and pain, since I play the acoustic guitar. It was not easy at all and I had to endure that initial learning period where many people not only were not encouraging, but were often discouraging and saying things like that sounds bad, or you’ll never be any good, etc. So after coming through and enduring all of that and getting to the point where I can now perform and people say things like ‘you’re really good’ (translation: I really practiced a lot), when those people whose image of music is something they just flip on the radio or insert a CD to hear, as though it it comes from out of the air, try to tell me what I should and should not play is really not something I am going to pay much attention to. First, what I play are simple ballad type songs from the 60’s. There is nothing about them that is vulgar or wrong in any way. I just like that genre of music, and have for a long time, though it is not necessarily of my era. I also play some contemporary Christian songs and like them very much. However, the reality is, and I believe anyone serious about music and who was not a ‘natural’, but like me had to become good by shear hard work and diligent practice and not letting discouragements, pain, etc. stop them, knows that actually performing music is simply a lot of work. It’s basically a job. Only a few Christians work in the church or do mission work. The majority have secular jobs. Nothing wrong with that. The Apostle Paul was a tent maker, a secular job. Being an itinerant preacher was an avocation for him, in terms of making a living. However, it seems to be more than a little bit of a double standard to suppose that all musicians who are Christians play only ‘Christian’ related songs, i.e., WORK in that field of music, because if that is a requirement, then all of those who work in other secular fields should immediately quit their jobs and go work for the church or work in church related work. That won’t work, because there will be no one to build and maintain the roads, ensure that we have sufficient and clean water, electricity, a police department, courts, hospitals and medical services, airports, energy production and on and on. In other words, society as we know it would stop functioning, and I don’t think anyone wants that. Anyone who has been to a 3rd world country knows what that’s like and the general suffering that goes with it. What I’ve said may be strong, but I think it’s true, and is maybe a perspective not often considered, or at least expressed.

  6. Tawana says:

    amen! May glory be to Jesus!
    Thank you I really needed this as Im in the process of making new music and had questions about it as its a different method. Please pray for me during this journey! amen!

  7. Allen says:

    This topic was on my mind so I just searched this out in Aug 2014! I agree with CJ wholeheartedly. There’s a book by Doug Sherman entitled “Your Work Matters To God” that addresses this issue in greater depth. Doug Sherman said it, CJ echoed it…there aren’t enough “Christian” jobs…period. As musicians, or whatever income-producing task we’ve chosen to do, we are to be “a light in the world”, not behind the isolated walls of a “church building”. Go forth, brothers and sisters – let your light shine!

  8. Ian says:

    My Sweet Lord is deff not about God. How can it be coming from a band that promoted eastern mysticism, and said that they were more popular than Jesus, and John Lennon described Jesus as a ” Greasy little yellow fascist” Showing handsigns of the triple 6 and flashing the “el diablo” on an album cover, show me EXACTLY who their “Lord” was.
    On Sgt. Peppers, they put pictures if people “they really admired” – one of those was Alistair Crowley. Wonderful. The most notorious satanist if all tme.

  9. Ezekiel says:

    nicely said. makes much sense too..

  10. Dude says:

    “However, we can make an idol out of what’s old and familiar as easily as we can make one out of what’s new and creative.” Agreeing with most of this article, the above quote from it is misleading at best. Today’s/new Christian music is anything but creative! It is actually very bad musically and poorly composed It lacks musicianship and does nothing but follow a trend in formula And like it or not it is just as much based on marketing and pandering to Christians as any other genre in the world.

  11. Joseph Linsner says:

    Where are the credits for this article?

  12. Chris Junker says:

    The initial article quoted Phil Keaggy saying there should be more Christians playing secular music. I agree, just as I agree there should also be more Christians in other vocations. To many who only listen to music, it’s just a form of entertainment, but for performing musicians it is work, and a lot of work to develop the instrumental and or vocal skills to be able to credibly perform. I do not think Christian musicians should perform songs with anti-Christian messages like, for example, “Highway to Hell”, though maybe a song with a similar title with different lyrics talking about redemption from being on the wrong road in life to following the teachings of Christ would be fine. There are also many great Christian contemporary songs to perform or the traditional classics if that’s what one likes. But because one is a performing musician and a Christian that obligates them to perform only Christian songs is like saying if one is a Christian and an architect they should only design and build churches, or if one is a photographer, another form of art, they should only photograph churches. That’s not right. Unfortunately it seems some who give opinions about this issue aren’t performing musicians and they equate music with entertainment easily accessed by turning on a radio or mp3 player, not with hours and hours of difficult practice and hard work which is what it takes to be able to credibly perform music.

    • Thanks for your input. I agree with most of what you say. The bigger problem I have is Christians who consider themselves”music ministers”and then spend more time, money and effort promoting their music and talent than they do promoting God and Christian living.

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