I have been wondering a lot recently on the kind of songs and music we play or sing in church these days, then i came across an article  Worship Links blog about the legalities of secular music in the church. the article  pointed me to the fact that it’s a global issue in the Church today. With different perspectives, contexts, and opinions on the issue,  I’ll try to cover it from a broader angle. 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 to ministrations. What was once unthinkable to many is now a common place in churches all across the World even in Nigeria. What’s going on? Why is this happening? Should we be worried or is it no big deal?

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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

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 re-purposed for church use if they fit with the message or the theme of Sunday’s sermon.

  • 3. Cultural Reality

A while back I was told of a Church in Lagos (Nigeria) that allowed Korede Bello (a Well known NON-GOSPEL Musician) to sing a song from his album. I asked about it and found out that his music was considered by the Pastor of the church as uplifting, hence worthy to be placed on the altar. It wasn’t for the purpose of engagement and it wasn’t some sort of compromise, but it was just an attempt to blend with the cultural reality of our present society which majority of our church members stem from. 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.

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 heard of some 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 ( Double dutch, 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 in that style before and have had some very fruitful ministry talking to people on the street or public places who came closer because of the music.

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 (such as the songs in the Nigerian Main stream) every week to connect with unbelievers is both silly, and unnecessary. I also don’t think its a big deal if a church band or choir 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 Life 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 also 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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Comments
  1. […] An idea that’s often discussed but will probably never be resolved is the use of secular music in the worship service. Ralph from Freeman’s Lounge writes: […]

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