Secular Music in Sacred Settings

We stirred up a little bit of controversy at the church I serve recently by using secular songs as background music during the greeting time. As a church, we’ve used secular songs for openers and specials for about 13 years but not in this capacity and not this regularly. The questions raised by our concerned few have led to some great teaching moments as we explore what the Bible says about a Christian’s relationship with all artifacts of human expression and society at large. I present my best understandings below in hopes that they enrich your ministry and embolden your church body to courageously engage in the society they minister to.

1. All truth is God’s truth, regardless of the source. The personal righteousness of a creator or artist has surprisingly little to do with the truthfulness of their work. Many humans who deny God in their personal lives create artifacts that celebrate His truths. We make no apologies for using work (music, video, stories, quotes, or otherwise) by non-Christians if it contains truth.

2. Not every action during a service or assembly is intended for corporate worship. We assemble the church for a weekend service for a variety of reasons: fellowship, worship, teaching, celebrating, sharing, testimonies, and announcements. Generally speaking, corporate worship songs are songs we sing about and to God. Sometimes, there are songs we sing for fun, for teaching, or to edify the body.

3. Music is a part of how we participate in our culture. God has not asked us to withdraw from our society; He has called us to reach our community and share the Good News of Jesus Christ with them. For that reason, we occasionally make use of secular music as an act of hospitality towards those who are unfamiliar with our church culture. Similarly, we also sing a hymn every week as an act of hospitality for those who grew up in church, so they might hear something that is familiar to them. We do this in the spirit of 1 Cor. 9:20-22.

4. There is no clear boundary between the sacred and the secular. The whole Earth is His and everything in it (1 Cor. 10:26). Any attempt to delineate the vulgar from the holy fails and places us in God’s seat. Man looks at the outside, but God judges the heart. We use worship music by despicable and fallen Christian musicians—some are adulterers and frauds; we also use music from atheists and pagans that is profoundly worshipful to those of us that know God. Strange as it may be, all beauty is God’s, whether it is brought to life by a faithful Christian or proud pagan. To us, this only reinforces our belief that God is alive and active in all men, just as He used Rahab, Pharaoh, and Pilate’s wife in the Bible.

I suppose it would be possible to decide that the only expression that takes place in your worship service is corporate worship and then use that decision to restrict the use of mood music (such as openers, specials, house music, and the aforementioned greeting time background music). In doing so, you’d be placing some restrictions on music that you probably wouldn’t place on images, video, or literature. (You are reading Collide, so I’m assuming you’re using video in your services). That clip from Remember the Titans? Not corporate worship. The funny clip from YouTube? Not corporate worship (although that’d be hospitality in my book). The quote from Jack Welch or C.S. Lewis? Not corporate worship.

Okay, you say, not corporate worship, but we only use artifacts from practicing Christians. Great! So U2, composer Oliver Messiaen, Stryper, LeCrae, and author Flannery O’Connor are in, but Spielberg, Malcolm Gladwell, and Bill Gates are out, along with most sports icons and politicians. And who decides what constitutes “practicing” and which person should be practicing? The performer or the writer?

The church I serve is in Franklin, Tennessee, and the guy who wrote the lyrics “I like it, I love it, I want some more of it” for Tim McGraw is a member here. He plays on a praise team and leads a small group. Is that song Christian? Another guy (who leads my small group) wrote for Chaka Khan and the Spice Girls. Are those songs Christian because he wrote them?

You could, I suppose, declare that the purpose of your assembly (or gathering) is teaching, and that those videos, quotes, and pictures are in because they help make a point and support biblical ideas. In that case, the worship set would need to be cut to include only teaching songs, and songs like Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane,” Nickelback’s “Rock Star,” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” should also be allowed in.

Another line you might draw is “Bible quotes only”— your church upholds the Bible and will only use songs that quote from it directly. In that case, U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” would be in (Ecclesiastes 2), but Rich Mullins’ “Awesome God” would be out.

For all these reasons, I really believe that the whole Earth is His and everything in it. Everyone is created by God and tainted by sin. Consequently, every created thing reflects both God’s glory and man’s fallen nature. That is the essence of the human condition that artists continue to explore in their work. When we curate our services, we are modeling for our attendees how to interact with society and culture. Tread thoughtfully.