I saw an article on the Worship Links blog about the legalities of secular music in the church. I thought it was a worthwhile topic and since they only talked about the legalities, I’ll try to cover the broader issue. More and more churches are playing “secular music” in their services. It’s happening both with the live band on stage, and in the background music. What was once unthinkable to many is now a common place in churches all across the Western World. What’s going on? Why is this happening? Should we be worried or is it no big deal?
WHAT IS SECULAR MUSIC?
The dictionary defines Secular as: “denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis”. This is an interesting definition for us to consider. By this definition, many songs that would be considered “secular” would actually not be. This will come into play later, but for now, let’s consider the common church definition*: “anything not blatantly christian”. For the purpose of this discussion, we will only focus on lyrics. I am fully aware that there are those in the church who would want to broaden the topic to include styles of music, and maybe we’ll talk about that someday, but for now, we are talking about the words sung in church, whether the music be Rock, Pop, or Pipe Organ.
*Note: By Common Church Definition I’m going off my own personal experience If you feel like I’m off base, that’s totally fair and you can let me know in the comments section.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT IT IN THE CHURCH?
Why indeed. As more and more churches use secular music on stage and in the background Here’s some thoughts on WHY:
1. Cultural Engagement
Churches tend to run in three streams: Evangelistic, Discipleship, and Social. Evangelistic churches are the ones who will often take and use secular music for cultural engagement. “Whatever it takes to get people in the church to hear the message” is their creed and they follow through on it. This nothing new, Salvation Army founder William Booth put christian lyrics to old drinking songs, and Fanny Crosby (Blessed Assurance & a million other hymns) often put poem and lyric to the popular music of the day.
Secular music is used to draw a crowd to hear the message, or to make people feel comfortable with “songs they know”, so they get used to singing when the “church songs” come up in the set list.
2. Cultural Inheritance
I grew up in a youth ministry that was heavily influenced by Young Life, a para church ministry that has youth group style meetings on high school campuses. Often they will sing popular songs of the day, and it wasn’t much different for us. I came up in a solid youth ministry, with worship times that were often intense and passionate. We were taught books of the bible the same way the adults were. It was serious stuff. But often the youth service would start off with a Beatles song or some poplar song of the moment. I remember the song ‘The Way’ by Fastball being sung a few times when I was in high school, and as a youth leader years later I did ‘1234’ by Feist and “til kingdom come’ by Coldplay once or twice. It wasn’t a big deal, it was just part of our cultural inheritance from Young Life.
All churches have some sort of cultural inheritance. This is where a lot of churches that flow in the Discipleship steam would tend to use secular music. Churches that have a “special” in their service, which is usually a song after worship but before the message may use a secular song with a spiritual theme. Remember the dictionary definition of secular? Many “secular” songs have religious or spiritual themes or meanings. Some webpages that provide chord charts for worship songs have special sections for this type of special music. Songs like “Turn, Turn, Turn”, “Have A Little Faith In Me”, “Lean On Me”, “When Will I Ever Learn (by VanMorrison)” or “Show Me The Way (Styx)” or any number of U2 songs (Yahweh, 40, etc) are often repurposed for church use if they fit with the message or the theme of Sunday’s sermon.
3. Cultural Reality
A while back I walked into a church service and Radiohead’s In Rainbows record was on the PA as background music. The next time I visited that church it was Fleetfoxes, and the time after that it was Leeland. I asked about it and the background music was just up to whoever was doing the soundboard that week. It wasn’t for the purpose of engagement and it wasn’t some sort of compromise, they were just normal people in their church and communities and someone said “we should put some music on before and after service that’s nice to listen to but won’t get in the way of conversations and prayers, etc”. So the sound guy put on two records that work well for that purpose: Fleet Foxes and Radiohead. The next time a different sound guy put his iPod on and it was Leeland. Nobody seemed to notice. This was church of people who were gospel centered and biblically minded. In their context, playing a record with good music and no swears just wasn’t a big deal.
4. Cultural Compromise
Somewhere, someone is reading this blog and screaming “it’s all compromise!!!”. But I’m not talking about the “whats” but the “why” of doing secular music in church, and there is no doubt that cultural compromise is a legitimate reason. Both the Engaging and Inheriting churches above are choosing their music out of well meaning reasons. I was actually surprised that when I tried to think of churches that I felt firm were “compromising” and the truth was that none of them were using secular music much, if at all. I’m sure there is someone, somewhere that I’m not thinking of, but the fact is that for the majority of churches who use secular music in some form in their services are doing so with generally good intentions, historical precedence, and in some cases, with either a biblical reason, or at the very least are operating in biblical freedom.
HOW DOES THE CULTURE ENGAGE?
The people who flow in the Evangelism stream of churches will often say that you need to play a secular song or two will often say that singing is foreign to our culture. I can’t disagree with this more. I just moved from Seattle where some of the largest crowds in the MLS gather to watch the Sounders play. Over 40,000 scarf wearing, screaming, and yes SINGING fans gather to give their full 90 for their team. I recently saw an episode of the Office where the whole staff was on a bus trip and singing songs as they drove. Singing is a part of our culture. Do they really need a secular song to “warm them up?”. Not really, however, on the flip side, hearing the music you’re used to or comfortable with can help set a mood, so I’m fully sympathetic to churches who use selected secular records in their background music because it’s good background music.
WHO ARE YOU PLAYING TO?
If I’m playing worship music the purpose is to sing to God and serve his church by giving a vehicle for the church to do the same. So in that case, playing purely secular music doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Conversely, I have friends who do old school swing music (think a cross between Sinatra and Brian Setzer). They go to public places in their city and across the world. They bring a few kids who know how to swing dance (Lindy Hop, Charleston, East coast, etc) who start to dance and draw a crowd, they then start teaching people in the crowd how to dance. Once you’ve got the crowd, they begin to share their story, and what God has done in their lives. Even more important than the public preaching to their ministry is the one on one conversation that happens. I’ve gone on outreaches with them and have had some very fruitful ministry talking to people on the street who stopped to hear the band play a cover of “Rock This Town“.
WHERE DO YOU STAND ON THE SUBJECT?
I really want this post to be a conversation starter more than an open and shut case. I’m both liberal and conservative on the subject. I think a church that plays a new, trendy secular song every week to connect with unbelievers is both silly, and unnecessary. I also don’t think its a big deal if a church band finds some song with a certain spiritual theme or idea and repurposed it for God’s work.
As with so many things you have to ask questions: What is my cultural context? Both in this city and in this church? What does my leadership say on the subject (if they care at all)? What am I doing? Outreach or Upreach (worship)? Will this serve people? Will this hinder people?
There’s a lot of music out there that’s labeled as “secular” that has some really deep thoughts on life, God, Jesus, and faith. There’s a lot of “sacred” music that has next to nothing to say on any of those subjects.
It’s not as closed a subject as fundamentalists would have you believe, and it’s not as open a subject as those pushing the envelope think.
Thoughts? Leave a comment