Secular Music In Church?

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

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18 thoughts on “Secular Music In Church?

  1. Pingback: Secular Songs In Church Redux | Worship Links

    1. hi John,

      I absolutely agree that we need to have the fear of the the Lord as it says in Ps 111:10. I don’t know that I agree totally with your premise thought. I don’t want to offer anything to the Lord that is wrong or done in a wrong way. But can the Lord take something man meant for evil and redeem that thing for his glory? I know a man who, the day after he was saved, didn’t know any worship songs so he started singing “Jesus Christ Super Star” and “Jesus is Just alright” because there were the only songs he knew that talked about the God who had saved him. I believe in that moment those songs were redeemed from this world into holy things.

      Not to be combative, but for honest discussion; How do you define what is “from the world” and what is not?

    2. Godchild

      I think this is a great article and I also agree about bringing people to God. I think that’s why
      a lot of churches might use the background music of rock, rap, r&b or whatever for praise songs and I don’t think it’s worldly at all, when we are trying to bring people from all backgrounds to God. I feel that there will be several people in church and some may not be saved and the only music they listen to is rock or reggae so in order to bring them to God the church band might be playing a little bit of christian rock or christian reggae so I think whatever it takes to get souls saved is what matters, now of course I’m not saying play rap music with someone cursing or talking about rims on cars or country music talking about beating women and cheating (and again I’m aware that not all rap or country music is negative.)

      1. Godchild,

        thanks for the comment.

        i absolutely agree that we need to be careful about what music we allow in the church.

        when it comes to styles, for me its not just about bringing people in, but what makes sense for us to play. all the “sacred, church music” was secular at one point, and someone decided that it was “holy thing” because its what they preferred or were comfortable with.

        thanks for commenting, feel free to do so anytime!

  2. Pingback: FALL Q&A | Real World Worship Leading

  3. Child of the most high

    I personally believe that playing secular music in church is crazy. Your taking what is supposed to be a Holy place and perverting it with the world. It’s doing more harm to people then helping them because people are coming in expecting a move from God and God want move because the place is out of order. There has to be a separation between the world and the church. The church can’t conform to what the world is doing. all it is is a bunch of churches looking to keep themselves relevant by relating to sinners. No where in the bible did Jesus use any type of tricks/tactics in order to gain followers. No where! See churches are disregarding (John 6:44 KJV) No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day. That scripture alone eliminates part of the reasoning that churches use to play secular music. If God doesn’t draw them then they want be drawn to Christ. Another point is just because a secular artist mentions God in they’re song doesn’t mean they’re talking about the God of the bible. It’s time for us a the body of Christ to rise up and stop being so careless with the things of God and get serious because it’s situations like this that let you know God is coming back soon. Be blessed!

    1. Child of the Most High,

      I would disagree with you about a “holy place”. We are holy because God has made us holy, the building is just a building.

      Regarding John 6:44. I agree that no one comes unless the Father draws them. The thinking for churches that engage in this practice is that they are making it easier for the message to come across. I don’t agree with them that it’s necessary, but I think that they would agree with you about the verse’s interpreation, just not on its application.

      As for a separation between the world and the church: Jesus is our separation. Are you suggesting that styles of music or expression are you inherently worldly?

      Thanks for commenting!

  4. Pat Warner

    I agree that God can and does use things that are not in and of themselves “Holy” for His purposes. But I do have a problem with churches who use truly secular music in their worship services. If they want to connect with the culture there are plenty of Christian bands in all music genres – there is no need to hold up the creation of ungodly men and women, especially in the context of worship. Why not lift up Christian artists like Mute Math- reggae Christian band; House of Heroes- heavy metal Christian Band; Demon Hunter- old style metal Christian Band, or Life House, POD, Creed, Family Force Five, etc. ? These bands are played on secular stations as well as Christian ones (in fact, some of them are played more on secular stations than Christian ones). If you want to connect with the culture, why not use God’s envoys who are prayerfully working to reach that culture instead of connecting your Church culture to the ungodly?
    What happens when someone hears a secular song in church and likes it, and goes home and googles it, and ends up listening to other stuff that artist recorded. Maybe that song in church was the only thing that artist ever recorded that is even remotely acceptable. Why would you invite them to encounter that negative influence?
    Or what about when you have church members who (like me) are not BUICKS (brought up in church kids) who lived a life of degradation in the world, who have spiritual and emotional connections to those secular songs? I spent years after getting saved driving out the worldly music that occupied space in my head with spiritually uplifting music. I don’t need to come to church and be reminded of time I spent getting high in the park while listening to that song.
    Let’s not forget, that music has a spiritual element to it. That’s why it is such a powerful force, not only in worship, but also a force used by the enemy. It’s not just the lyrics, sometimes its the song itself that can become connected to something within our spirit. Music has been for me a catalyst for some of the most meaningful worship experiences, and some of my deepest, darkest struggles.
    I understand that there are circumstances where using secular things to point people to the sacred is called for. Paul said “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” But he also said “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” I doubt “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” would include songs written by Jewel (What if God was one of us- just a slob like one of us) or even “My Sweet Lord, but George Harrison, whom I saw in concert sing this song. He prefaced it by inviting the audience to sing along. When there wasn’t much participation he encouraged the audience by saying that although he wrote the song to Lord Krishna, we could sing it to Lord Jesus or Mohamed, or whomever we chose. I personally don’t want to dishonor God in a worship service by singing songs that were written to another God. Since when does God need warmed up leftovers? Do we not have an abundance of talented people that He has lifted up and called to write music to both bless God and His followers?
    Just as Paul did not continue day after day to preach the gospel of the unknown god, we should not get derailed by a momentary necessity and make it our main thing. Let’s stay focused on the main thing, and that is Christ crucified, the hope of glory.

    1. hi Pat,

      thanks for commenting! I love hearing back from people who read the blog.

      There’s a lot in your comments that I can agree with, but a few things I can’t. Several of the “christian” bands you mentioned aren’t prayerfully trying to reach their culture. They’re artists trying to make good art, or entertainers trying to entertain. They also happen to be followers of Jesus. Many of who’s art wouldn’t be accepted by “Christian” outlets like KLove, etc. I agree that there are many talented musicians and artists in the church, but are they writing music that speaks to the culture?

      The point of my article wasn’t to promote the use of secular music in the church. I think my point was best summed up by this statement I wrote towards the end of the post: “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.”

      Thanks again for commenting. I really do want this to be a conversation starter and I think you’re thoughts and experiences are really valid and things that some who do use secular music in their services should consider.

      -Adam

  5. As a person who grew up as a young christian in a youth ministry and worship team I understand this question all too well. At the moment I still lead worship in a youth ministry and at church and have and will never compromise either on lyrics or the spirit behind the song. Gods Holy Spirit can and does give us tremendous songs for His church today, not those singing gospel to make a fast buck and who themselves do not know or wish to know Jesus Christ as lord, master and Savior with the word of God as our absolute and only foundation as a written foundation. Jesus told us to test every spirit for not every spirit is from God, how much of the stuff going on today in modern church is from God. Many have fallen into deep compromise and are in conflict with Almighty God Himself and therefore will undergo punishment and rebuking from the Lord according to His word. We think anything goes, really, when last did you ask the Lord for His input and direction and wisdom on what is going on in churches today. All this smoke, lights and professional worship bands and leaders is over the top, but many will not listen because they love it that way, it is home away from home, it is so very much like where they came from, one cannot really tell the difference. Needless to say such will not impact the world with the true gospel. This generation, especially the young people run after entertainment and groovy stuff, the word of God is not really important to them, we just want to have a good time. Its no wonder they have no endurance, backbone or wisdom. Does not scripture say that the true worshipers will worship Him in spirit and in truth…..do we really see that today??????

    1. Andre,

      thanks for commenting!

      I think you raise some really good points but I think you lumps some things in there that deserve their own, separate discussion. For example, lighting and such should be discussed separately than the issue of secular music in the church.

  6. Amy

    Thoughts on using songs like Call me Maybe or gangum style in youth ministry? I personally feel these songs send the wrong message to teens, even if only played in the background while shooting hoops. I get playing a song like Lean on Me. But what about these other songs?

    1. Hi Amy,

      I can’t speak for “Call me” cause I’ve honestly never heard the song (I know it exists though 🙂 ). But for Gangum style, I wouldn’t play it cause of the swears, but I would play like the sample or a clip of the song in the background of a video if we were trying to promote a youth event or something. Someone else wouldn’t and that’s totally fair. This is after all a very grey area. I play secular bands like Miike Snow, Justice, or Daft Punk in the background music before and after youth group, mixed in with worship bands like Citizens or rappers like Lecrae.

      But the whole thing is one big moving target.

      1. Lisa Seidel

        I know this post has started a while ago, but I came across it as I was doing a little digging on this subject. My spirit is aching right now. My family and I attended Easter service this last weekend at the church we have been considering calling “home”. We ended up leaving early. Why? When it was promoted as a very large event in our city and went out from the church to the Civic Center, as thousands attend this service. The CEO Christians (Christmas and Easter only). Well, talk about a rock n’ roll show over the top! Flashing lights, smoke and a little Rhianna to light it up. Songs which were played were “We found love in a hopeless place” (which we went home and looked up the video on You Tube and were appalled.) If drug abuse, domestic violence and heroin are the new trades for the day instead of Jesus Christ, than this service won the lottery! Singing a duet like that after an alter call? What? The yellow diamonds she sung about were not diamonds in the pearly gates they were referencing to heroin. And this has what to do with salvation and the high price that was paid for sinners such as us???? On the Lord’s day of all things! Other top hits included one by Cold Play, Funk You Up by Bruno Mars with a little dancing going on by the audience. Songs in past weeks included John Lennon’s “Believe” (who was also a practicing atheist and may have sold his soul to the devil?) and a song by U2. These are all I remember.

        My daughter who is 21 and very much the younger generation herself was so appalled, and thank goodness she had insight into these songs and who the so-called artists are and their lifestyles. Another question: Why would a church sing a song that was written by a person who is involved with the Illuminati? What right do we have in portraying a spirit in the place that is other than Godly? Just as the Holy Spirit is a master, the counter fitter himself will seek ways to emotionally and spiritually tie us in wrong places.We felt so dirty we left the place. My daughter wrote an e-mail to the board of this church and my son’s girlfriend who attended the service the next day witnessed the same thing. She left in tears! When asked what the matter was, she told this person. This person’s reply was, “I’m not sure why this is such a big deal to you.” Ummm excuse me? This shouldn’t even be an issue. Well, my daughter and son’s friend got reply’s back immediately (the same ones in fact) and they said the topic was just too in depth to discuss over e-mail and that they should come in and discuss the reasons and that this dying world needed to be reached. They both said, “There is nothing more to discuss.” This church obviously doesn’t care one iota about the “sincere” Christian feelings in this place but popularity is the game of the day. Oh and forget Jesus Christ and the price He paid–that’s old school. We just want to have fun. After all it is about our comfortable zones! I do believe in the Bible Jesus or the disciples, for that matter, ever used “music” to bring in the sinners of the culture they were in. I believe the leading was the Holy Spirit and still is the Holy Spirit. Instead the hymns and praises were to God himself. Their culture was very bad and into idol worship of every kind. The tabernacle had such reverence we wouldn’t get past the outer gait of the outer gait in our churches today. So why did the priest have to tie a rope in around his waist when he went in to perform the sacrifice? Things that make you go hmmm!

        We just aren’t comfortable unless we are wearing our shorts, drinking our coffees and dancing to the beat of the gangster rap or whatever genre fills the bill. I am sure the Holy Spirit is grieved by such audacious behavior. I believe some several thousand were saved in one day–why? Because prayer was going on–not desecration of the sanctuary with songs that were probably inspired by satan himself. I like what one person said above about bringing back their past while reliving the songs they tried so hard to get away from. Our music should be God-honoring not humanistic driven to fit OUR comfort zones. We go to church to shut out the world–not bring it back in with us!!! We do live in a deceived world. We are to be the salt and light–not blend in so we look the same! If I wanted to speak to a guy with tatoos all over his body would I go and get all kinds of tatoos myself so he can relate or myself relate? Do I go to bars so I can relate. Not too often because this was my vice before I got saved. I will not defile this temple of the Holy Ghost with the stuff.

        The only job we need to do is share the gospel. It is God’s work to do the rest. Let go and let God! The enemy has made great headway with this foolish thinking that we need to somehow make people comfortable in church. But the one good indicator that comes out of this is that this is proof that He is coming soon! Thank you Lord!!!

      2. Lisa,

        There is a lot in your comment that I’m sympathetic towards. There is also a lot that I find myself disagreeing with. My sympathies mostly fall along lines of substance (singing a song about heroin as if it was a positive thing, instead of singing the gospel), and my disagreements fall mostly along the lines of style (shorts, coffee and musical genre).

        I admit that given you stated convictions that I’m surprised you considered this church as a possible home to begin with. My encouragement to you sister as both a brother in faith and as a pastor is that you find a church home that you can be both blessed at and be a blessing to and allow the Lord to be Lord over churches like the one you’ve mentioned. Before their own master they will stand or fall (Romans 14:4).

        I would also encourage you to consider your statement that “The only job we need to do is share the gospel.” I would suggest that this church has that goal as well, we would just disagree on how that is accomplished.

        Be blessed and at peace.

        -Adam

  7. Pingback: Can A Non-Christian Worship God? | Real World Worship Leading

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