“Your Heavenly Father cares whether and what you sing, but He does not mind how well you sing. While we may have choirs within our churches made up of voices who have expertise and ability, the congregation of a church is the ultimate choir, and it is without auditions – everyone can be in it and should be in it.”
Since I wrote a post back in June on using secular music in worship, I’ve read several more accounts of churches using radio hits and classic oldies as “openers” to their worship services, and I’ve seen folks asking questions about this whole thing on Twitter. It seems like a new enough trend in churches that we’re kind of just catching on that it’s happening. But it’s happening a lot.
Of all the goofy trends that cycle through Evangelical worship, this one gets a foot in the gray area a little more, and is a little easier to justify, I think, as a well-meaning strategy to connect with the unchurched. But again, however well-meaning, is it still a good decision? I did address the trend in more detail in that previous post, so here I just wanted to add a few clarifications.
- Secular music (and art in general) is not all evil. Sometimes folks jump to the conclusion when I mention using secular music in church is a bad idea, that I’m just not a fan of secular music as a whole. But this isn’t the case. To be honest, I probably listen to more “secular” music than “Christian,” once we factor in all the instrumental and classical stuff I’ll play throughout a given week. I love The Beatles and Radiohead, Chris Thile and Tom Petty, Bach and Debussy, and Switchfoot. And all, I think, with a good conscience.* But the point goes beyond any of us admitting what music we personally appreciate. Every single person, and therefore every artist, is still created in the image of God. So you’ll see fractured glimpses of truth, goodness, and beauty breaking through art created by unbelievers. Mozart was sort of a terrible person; but the beauty of his music is mostly unparallelled. And on the flip side, some art made by Christians is just kind of bad on its own merits, as I’m sure many of us will agree. Skill and competency, and operating in-touch with beauty does not necessarily correspond to one’s presence or maturity of faith.** Though sometimes it might. All this is to say, the question of whether secular music in church is helpful is NOT a question of whether secular music is BAD.
- The church makes unique demands of its gathered worship. Here’s where the rubber meets the road. The question again isn’t whether we find glimpses of God in secular art, that redeem its use in church. The question is, what does the church actually need; or rather, what does God want for His church? I think, ultimately, the inclusion of secular songs in church worship just stems from confusion over what the church of Jesus Christ is, and what Scripture says it should do when it gathers. The New Testament is actually pretty clear and specific about this, and avoidance of Scripture’s guidance will lead one to the “If it’s done for Jesus, and if it reaches people for Him then it’s fine!” mindset. But I’ll argue that it’s not all fine, or helpful. Read Hebrews 10:19-25, Ephesians 5:15-21, and Colossians 3:15-17 for three clear passages instructing what Christians should do when they meet. And secular music, used for whatever reasons, just doesn’t seem to fit with the important stuff: confessing the Gospel, and letting the Word of Christ dwell in us richly. The church’s days on this earth, as an outpost of Heaven, are numbered. And there’s so much Gospel treasure to give our people, in song, prayer, and preaching, let’s not settle for, or waste time in our gatherings with gimmickry, or just doing what we think might be fun. There are a lot of foolish ways to kinda’ sorta’ do what the New Testament tells churches to do. But the better ways are clear.
- Do people really want this stuff? I’ve become convinced that we Christians often get together and decide what unbelievers want to see and hear when they visit church…but it’s not really what they want. We also do this with youth, or singles, or married couples, or Millennials…one group deciding in sort of a vacuum what another group wants or needs. As I’ve talked to folks visiting our church the past couple of years, I’ve repeatedly heard a similar refrain – something like, “We’ve visited a few churches lately, and some were trying to do a rock concert, or copy songs we hear on the radio, or stuff we see on TV, and it just didn’t seem enough like church for us.” They were actually looking for a church experience – an engagement with God in a community of believers, through the teaching of God’s Word, singing sacred songs, without frills or gimmicks or spectacle. And the truly unchurched, at this cultural moment, haven’t had enough experience with traditional church to be tired of it. There’s value in a church discovering the core of what it’s supposed to be, and returning to it again and again.
Some people will get a kick out of hearing a Bon Jovi tune in worship, for sure. And we’ll always have some folks that wish we’d do something more exciting or outside-the-box to make our churches more impactful. But what finally needs to win us over is the confidence that God’s Word is infinitely exciting, and alive, and powerful – able to raise dead hearts to eternal life and joy in our good King. I want to read this Word, and hear it preached, and sing the truths in it every week until the King appears. Let this form our philosophy of corporate worship.
* The article “The Man and His Song” published at Desiring God by David Mathis, is a great recent example of a mature Christian, appreciating and paying tribute to an artist who by outward evidence was not a believer, but made beautiful stuff.
** The point is worth making again, that any work of art can cross a threshold where there’s more evil in it than good, and which may not be helpful for a Christian, or anyone, to look at or to listen. There are definitely certain songwriters who will probably only bring darkness into your imagination when you listen, and should be avoided. But for most cases this will still need to be a matter of believers’ individual consciences.
I want to get a few thoughts up here about using secular songs in church worship. I’ve had some opinions about this for quite a while, but lately as I’ve seen more churches revisit this trend, I’ve been revisiting my stance on the whole thing.
There’s definitely some pressure to consider including secular music in a purposeful way, especially as some high-production, “popular” churches are including recent pop songs, or playing “oldies but goodies” in themed worship services (maybe you’ve seen examples of this at North Point Community Church in GA, who have done a “Beatles Sunday” and some 90s themed weeks of music where their worship band has covered *NSYNC and other 90s pop stuff). First, to be fair, I don’t think any one of the churches I’ve seen doing this chooses a whole set of secular music; they’ll have one or two songs with a transition into two or three worship tunes. But I’ve been seeing this happen more and more in quite a few churches, and I’ve really been trying to figure out what motivations are behind this trend that recurs every five to ten years. I’m not totally sure since I can’t find many pastors, worship leaders, or churches saying much in writing about why they’re choosing to include secular popular music in their worship setlists. So my goal here is not to judge motivations, per se, since I do think some of the folks making this decision are well-meaning in their desire to use music to reach out, and build community and engagement. And obviously, I can’t see their heart either way. If you’d like to check my opinions with someone else’s, read this critique from piratechristian.com which, though it may seem harsh, is intensely biblical and, I think, justified in its evaluation. In-fact, I’d highly recommend that post as well, as it exposes the connection to wider trends of silliness in the Bible-believing church.
But what I’d like to do here, as a worship leader and pastor, is address the decision of whether or not to include secular music in our worship gatherings, which I think can be done totally independent of a critique of anyone’s motives. The plain question is, should we do it?
And my short answer is, emphatically, no we shouldn’t. Now here are a few key reasons why I say this.
- The commands of Scripture are limiting, in a good way. Study what your Bible says about music, and its role in the church, and you’ll find some specific commands and exhortations that keep us, if obeyed, from singing secular music in church. The Old Testament is key, especially the composition of the Psalms, as we see content and form really married together. And actually, God has given us the words to the Psalms, and not the sheet music; so really, content plays the greater role. Everything related to the worship of Israel in the OT, including worship at the temple, is taken very seriously, and is all explicitly done for God, and speaks of Him. I can’t imagine the Levite priests including a Justin Timberlake tune as part the worship at the Temple (though I really do like JT’s stuff). This isn’t just because the style obviously wouldn’t translate in any way to ancient Israel, but because the content, or really the whole package, taken together, would be an affront to the purpose of worship. Jump ahead to the church age, and read the commands for us today in the New Testament, telling us to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). My question here is, how can singing as a congregation, or listening to the worship band perform a pop song from secular radio, help the word of Christ live in our hearts and minds? Even if the song connects to the theme of a message or preaching series, we have to ask ourselves as we plan worship, does this song teach and admonish and encourage a Christian to know and walk with Christ? Does it build Godward thankfulness into our hearts as we sing or hear it? Maybe…depending on the song choice. Which leads me to the next point.
- We only have so much time in a worship gathering. On average, a worship leader gets the majority of their church people once a week in a corporate worship setting. And that’s probably an hour, to an hour and a half, with around thirty minutes of music. Many churches that provide more than two services work with even less time, and will have an average of three to four songs per service. Working with that short amount of time, I ask you, worship leader, would choosing to play “Can’t Stop the Feeling” make the wisest use of that time? Maybe you have some real thoughtful reasons behind playing a secular song. But are you maximizing your opportunity to do what Scripture says is most helpful to the souls gathered in your church, to play a song they could have heard twice on the radio on the drive there? Is that song helping the word of Christ dwell in the hearts of your people – you included – as well as a song written for this purpose? There has been such a resurgence in the past few years of skillfully-written, doctrinally rich worship music, I really believe there’s no excuse for not packing your worship setlist with as much Gospel treasure as possible, to send your people into their week fully armed and encouraged with the glories of Christ. Don’t waste time in your worship gatherings.
- The church should, purposefully, offer its people something different. In our culture, our church folks are bombarded by messages, arguments, and temptations from a fallen world. Especially with our widespread pseudo-community spread across social media, communication is lightning-fast, and often counter to the message of the Gospel. I hear the argument often that, since our people see live music produced on stage at concerts, and on shows like The Voice, we should attempt it in church because it’s what people like and want. But I don’t buy that. I think we should be skillful at always communicating and presenting the Gospel as attractively as possible, and adorn this beautiful message as beautifully as we can; but this does not equal providing what people see and hear in the rest of the culture. In-fact, I would argue that since culture bombards us the way it does with so much content, it’s best for all of our hearts if the church is different, both in the kind of content speaks into our lives, but also often in how it’s presented. If our people watch The Voice every week, with all of its audio production and pro lighting, it may be best to purposefully provide a little less in worship, to allow for contemplation of what we’re singing. If people are hearing hedonistic song lyrics about sexual revolution on the radio and on their Spotify playlists six days a week, is it really helpful to choose one more song from that catalogue for our worship gathering? Again, I ask, is picking music like this really helpful? Or as helpful as it could be? Some people…a lot of people…might like it. But are they really being built up in the faith, and given weight and substance to keep them treasuring Christ until the next Sunday, and to help them through their next trial?
As ministers of the Gospel, and of the word of Christ, let’s be purposeful, and really help our people. Give them real Gospel glory every week. Let’s not miss the brief chance we have each week to really provide life to our gathered church.
This past week we were given a great interview from MPR (Minnesota Public Radio), with Chris Thile about his transition with Garrison Keillor for the job of full-time host of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion. If you’re not sure who Thile is, he is one-third of the progressive folk band Nickel Creek, one-fifth of the band Punch Brothers, and an accomplished composer and songwriter on his own and in other small collaborative projects. Thile is one of my personal heroes – has been for quite some time now – and it’s super exciting to know he’ll take over creative control and hosting duties on PHC this coming October.
You can read more elsewhere about Garrison Keillor handing the show off to Thile, but please listen to this interview. There’s lots of good stuff here about music, and about creativity in general. I connected with a lot specifically because I’m a worship pastor in a church, and a few things Thile says here are very helpful if you’re involved in the week-to-week corporate worship and music planning aspects of ministry.
Again, give the interview a listen; but here are a few of those extra helpful points I mentioned, for musicians and for church worship leaders in particular.
- The joy of creating something new for people every week. Thile talks in the beginning of the interview about the joy and excitement he has, as an artist, to get to create every week for the joy of others. A responsibility like this can be either a privilege or a burden; for a vocational artist, especially one who is saved and serving a local church, this should be exciting as we plan services and liturgies, arrange, even write, and lead in the song and prayer of our churches. As Thile said in another interview published only yesterday, “The prospect of getting to make things for people on a weekly basis … is beyond compare. It’s what I love to do.”
- Practice your craft. A lot. Thile says he practices between three and five hours of mandolin every day. It’s that important to his life and work, and he does it because he wants to. Those hours aren’t wasted, but a necessary and good part of his vocation and “calling” (can I say calling here?) as an artist. And we wonder how someone like Thile gets so good at what he does… He puts the time in. Quality takes time and discipline, and it’s worth the effort.
- Don’t let your instrument “go to sleep.” Thile answers some questions about bringing his mandolins out of a “sleep,” which happens to the wood of a mandolin, or a guitar, or a violin too, the longer it sits without being played. Especially when a newer wood instrument sits, and the wood dries, if you don’t play good sound into it the wood won’t open up to the sound waves. Not many people know about this aspect of stringed instruments, but it’s super intriguing. Play your guitar, or whatever you play, often so that it stays responsive and produces all the tone that it can. Listen to the interview, because Chris Thile can talk more eloquently about this point than I can.
So there you have it! And there’s lots more in the eight minutes of that interview that’s worth your time. And check out A Prairie Home Companion if you’ve never listened.
In his book Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith builds a case for an understanding or “anthropology” of mankind that is liturgical. He argues that we are liturgical beings, shaped not only by ideas, but also, and even more so by our practices. We practice routines and habits in our daily living, that shape us over time into certain kinds of people.
Now, if this is the case, then reading and thereby immersing ourselves in certain “worlds” in reading fiction, for instance, just might shape us as well. Our imaginations are stirred by the stories we read and hear, and stories have proven to shape us into certain kinds of people in the same way as our real-life routines. Think about this: if I carve out some time to read through a book over, say, a couple months’ time, and this book captures my imagination and brings me into contact with a world where good is lauded and portrayed as good, and evil is exposed for being truly evil, my mind and heart might take on the rhythms and feelings and colors of that world of the story.
May we not neglect to immerse ourselves in the Bible, since it’s truly the only Story ultimately capable of really transforming anyone. God does not work through any other book or piece of art the same way. But I obviously think of Lewis’ Narnia books, or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, both top favorites of mine, as stories worth reading for their shaping influences. In these stories, we immerse our imaginations in worlds where Hope is real, Joy is solid, and there are sovereign purposes at work in the universe. And spending repeated sittings in these books may, over time, turn you into the kind of person who thinks the same ways about the world and about yourself. If you read trashy fiction, enough exposure to it just might shape you into a trashily-minded member of the created order.
In a similar vein, I’ve thought recently about how this liturgical anthropology has a very specific bearing on the content of our songs in corporate worship in a church setting. Does your church sing songs that are vague, disjointed, and/or theologically messy? Worship leaders, do you listen to, and pick songs for your church families that are rich in truth, and that express that truth clearly and poetically? Smith’s anthropology argues that even the way our songs express truth will shape us, even if everything the songs say is technically correct. Go through enough rhythms of singing true, but sloppily written, vague songs in church and you’ll start to think the same way the songs do.
In my role of picking songs for my church to sing in worship, I’ve had a couple times in the past few months where I’ve had to seriously consider scrapping a song, or a verse of a song, that caused more head-scratching and confusion than not. And I confess I had to get over my own pride in these situations, to stop singing a song I really do love to sing, but that wasn’t helpful for a gathered church.
I want to make sure I feed my own soul with the right kinds of shaping influences, and this is probably needed now more than ever in my lifetime, and in our cultural moment. I want to think clearly about God, myself, and the world; and I want to love good and abhor evil. Not in a gooey, subjective way, but in a real, solid, clearheaded, die-for-what-I-believe-in way. To do this I need all the help I can get.
I’ve been really sad about James Horner’s death. I’ll miss having him in the world with us. I’ve told a lot of folks that he’s my favorite modern composer. Out of his whole canon of work this might seem a little funny, but for me, one of the most iconic scores he wrote was for The Rocketeer. This music is my childhood. I think I love certain kinds of adventure stories because my dad took me to our MANN 6 theater to see The Rocketeer when I was 8 years old; and that film wouldn’t have been the same at all without Horner’s music coloring the whole thing.
“James’s music affected the heart because his heart was so big, it infused every cue with deep emotional resonance.”
James Cameron and Jon Landau, from a joint statement about the composer’s death
A good buddy asked me a couple weeks ago about what he should read next, now that he finished Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He asked if I knew of anything like that, with that kind of richness. I thought for a little bit, and I gave two or three suggestions of other books that might scratch some of the same itches. But I realized that I couldn’t recommend anything quite as good as The Lord of the Rings. And I definitely couldn’t recommend anything better.
The following here applies beyond Tolkien (or whoever your favorite author or book happens to be). Reading a great book that’s the best in its genre is like having scaled the peak of the tallest mountain in a range. In all of the breathtaking beauty and precipitous slow-going, you’ve known the mountain and you’ve seen the view from the top. Any other hill or mountain peak won’t be quite as imposing and full of serious joy as the experience of that tallest climb.
So what do we do? There’s definitely joy and fun and richness in the other books. But realistically, nothing’s going to give the same experience as that one great book. To risk taking the metaphor too far, heading up that tallest mountain again will definitely not produce the same experience, and that can be a really good thing. There will be familiar places that will ignite the same joy and numinous awe. But on a second attempt, the climb will yield plenty of things you missed the first time. When certain scenes are familiar, you’re freed up to experience other nuances of the place. Your experience on the way up won’t go exactly like it did before, and the view from the summit and the highest places won’t look exactly the same: there will always be more grandeur.
It’s disappointing, but also glorious, that there’s nothing else like the best few books you’ve read. It means you have to keep coming back to them – there’s no substitute. Other books will remind you of that greatest one that was the most full and rich, and gave you the grandest views. So don’t move on exclusively to lesser versions of the giant. There’s a store of joy in the greatest books that’s more inexhaustible. Go back again.