As soon as you mention the phrase “contemporary Christian music” (hereafter abbreviated as “CCM”), people generally respond with great conviction either in favor of it or not. On one hand, many Christians feel that CCM is a fantastic tool for evangelism and that it provides them with a variety of pure, uplifting music for their listening pleasure. On the other hand, many other believers (I’m assuming that most non-Christians aren’t big fans of CCM.) argue that it is simply not as good as most secular music, and that they would rather listen to music that’s GOOD – regardless of their personal theological disagreements with the song lyrics – than listen to music that they don’t like simply because it mentions the name “Jesus” here and there. Being a life-long music lover myself (as well as one who plays guitar, has spent many years working in Christian retail, and previously worked as a party D. J.), I see the wisdom in both sides of this “debate” (if it’s even reached that level of significance), and feel that I have a few significant thoughts of my own to contribute to the conversation. For several days last week, I attended the “Unity Music Festival” here in Muskegon, featuring a whole slew of popular Christian music performers, and it has reminded me again that this is a conversation worth having, because – well, even Christians listen to music!
So, I suppose the question that I really want to begin with here is this – “Should mature, thinking Christians listen to popular Christian music?” One natural response might be, “Why not?” In some sense, music – like art, literature, and many other artistic modes of personal expression – is simply a matter of personal preference. You like what you like, you don’t like what you don’t like, and it really doesn’t matter who sells the most CD’s. We’re all different, we all have different life experiences, and some music appeals to us more than other music. So, with this in mind, it may be that we really “can’t help” what we like or don’t like – that’s just kind of the way it is.
What we CAN help, though, is what we listen to enough times to decide if we like it or not. For example, if a professing “Christian” declares that they “don’t like Christian music”, does it really mean that all Christian music sounds just alike (which it doesn’t), or does it simply reveal that the individual has not yet heard any Christian music that he or she has determined to continue listening to? Furthermore, does this kind of crass statement indicate that the person doesn’t like the whole idea of music that sings about biblical themes, regardless of whether the music is good or not?
Christians know that the Bible calls us to guard our thoughts, and to be selective in what we listen to or contemplate on a regular basis. The most commonly quoted verse which pertains to this is Philippians 4:8, in which Paul writes, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Truthfully, what is more praise-worthy or excellent than God and the rich teachings that He has given to us in Scripture? Nothing at all! Still, does this biblical truth require us – as faithful Christians – to only listen to songs by Christian artists, recording on Christian record labels, who sing songs explicitly about God? I don’t think so.
Since the Christian music industry has grown into an increasingly lucrative business market, there is increasing reason to suspect that some people (though I certainly don’t think the majority!) have stepped into the world of Christian music purely as a business venture. It’s a disturbing thought, but a likely one, nonetheless. On the other hand, who’s to say that a Christian who happens to also be a talented musician can’t record on a mainstream label? Are Christians really “forsaking God” if they write songs about life and love, with little direct mention of God, provided that they aren’t contradicting what they believe to be true about God? The simple truth about the music industry is that there is a lot more ungodly behavior in the CCM groups and organizations than we care to admit, and there are more Christians involved in secular music than we likely realize.
What is my goal in saying these things? I am hoping to help build a bridge between Christians, so that they can begin to develop an appreciation for music that may vary from what they have personally opted to listen to. Some people say, “If you listen to anything other than Christian music, you’re toying with sin.”, while others declare, “Christian music is shallow and inferior to mainstream music.” There is some element of truth in both of these perspectives, but neither is a completely accurate picture of music today.
Thankfully, CCM has come a LONG way since it was first begun a mere forty or so years ago. Today, there are Christian musicians in every musical genre who are singing songs about their faith. Yes, much of it is still simple and in the “pop” style – but not nearly all of it! Regardless of what style of music you prefer to listen to (rock, rap, blues, folk, alternative, etc.), there is definitely something for you in the world of Christian music. Your frustration shouldn’t be that it doesn’t exist, but that Christian radio stations don’t play it! Unfortunately, many Christians don’t learn about all of the great music that’s available to them because radio stations are so limited to playing (often because of contractual agreements) the same top radio singles over and over again. That is truly sad, and it hinders many people from enjoying Christian music who might otherwise do so.
Back to my original question, though – “Should mature, thinking Christians listen to popular Christian music?”. To those who might argue, “no”, I must reply by asking, “What else do you suggest that we listen to?”. Now, many of my pastoral / scholarly Christian friends would make a strong argument for the fact that much of Christian music is lacking depth in lyrics, to the point that they might even be embarrassed for other Christians to learn of them listening to it! They would go on to argue that secular music offers many more thought-provoking artists who are more worth listening to. There is truth to this kind of thinking, but – thankfully – CCM has improved significantly in this area. Many talented musicians have learned how to apply both their minds as well as their hearts to their songwriting abilities, and the result has been a growing number of Christian singers who definitely have good things to say and teach to us.
In terms of Christian musicians with thought-provoking lyrics, I suggest researching the profound truths in the music of Rich Mullins, Caedmon’s Call, Indelible Grace (who are known for modernizing great hymns of the faith), Todd Agnew, Switchfoot, Brandon Heath, and Leeland, among others. To the Christians who think that “secular” music should be forgotten and ignored, I encourage you to consider the profound, theologically-themed ideas found in the music of U2, Bob Dylan, Collective Soul, Five for Fighting, and – one of my favorite musicians of any style – David Wilcox. I am confident that people who are willing to step out of their “comfort zones” a bit will find new reasons to appreciate some artists that they might have previously opted to ignore.
So, I suppose my “argument” here is that there IS – today – a great deal of good and even thought-provoking music in the CCM scene (in addition to some that’s certainly less worth listening to…), just as there are some mainstream musicians that Christians should have some appreciation for (along with many less beneficial ones). It’s good to learn how to appreciate music for the quality of its songwriting and the “truth content” of its lyrics, regardless of which songs you most prefer to personally listen to. Remember that “all truth is God’s truth”, and God can help you understand something true about Himself regardless of what human source that truth comes from.
Also, there is clearly a growing measure of respect for CCM – even among reputable Bible teachers and scholars – and we no longer have to be embarrassed to go to Christian concerts. Dr. John Frame, a theology professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, has authored two significant books considering the value of contemporary music in the context of church worship. My friend Dr. David Naugle, a professor at Dallas Baptist University, has been very open about being a full-fledged “fan” of the band Switchfoot (as am I), having seen them live over twenty times – and even hosting them once for a concert in his own backyard! The list of Christians who acknowledge music as a valuable tool for teaching and self-reflection is growing, and I for one am extremely pleased that this is the case! The music that appeals to me most is not determined as much by what record label releases the CD, as it is by the integrity of the singer or group who produced the music, the thoughtfulness of the song lyrics, and – of course – the appeal of the music itself. I hope that this is the case for my readers as well, and that you will always think in a way that honors Christ, and listen to music that you enjoy, but which also helps you in your endeavor to serve Him more faithfully.