School of The Rock

 

Can Christians Sing “Secular” Music?


Written by Paul D. Race for SchoolOfTheRock.comô

 

Although this question is a “no-brainer” for many Christian musicians, many others struggle with it, especially folks who came up through legalistic systems that label anything that isn’t distinctly ”Christian” as “of the devil.”  I don’t have a “one-size-fits-all” answer to that question, but I have some observations and experiences that might be helpful.

I cut my musical teeth on Folk music, then went through several Rock bands before I got saved.  But for the first twenty-three years of my Christian life, I wrote only Evangelical Christian music and played to predominantly Evangelical Christian crowds. 

I was serious about serving Jesus (I still am), and I determined at the time that writing and performing only songs that glorified God was the best way to invest my creative energies into something with eternal value.  I stuck with it to the extent that, by the end of that period I would have felt guilty doing anything else. 

But life happens and things change.  Having started in the “Jesus Music” era of the early 1970s, I kept up with “Contemporary Christian Music” through all its changes right up through the mid-1990s when everything on “Christian radio” was overproduced, and everybody without a full band had to sing with tracks.  I even made overproduced tracks for many of my own songs and performed with them in concerts for a time.  But that sort of thing no longer interests me, any more than most of the trends that have come since. 

Conversely, most Evangelical and Fundamental churches today have little interest in the styles of music I prefer to write and play.  No, I don’t play “death metal,” I play and write acoustic-based folk-style/singer-songwriter/Americana music - the kind of thing that - ironically - dominated early Jesus Music, but which doesn’t get onto KLove’s Charts or Hillsong’s worship CDs.  

Also, after twenty-some years of being in small churches where I was either important to the music program or was the music program, Shelia and I are attending a 600-member church that, frankly, doesn’t really need an old folksinger-turned-rocker-turned-Jesus Musician-turned CCMer. 

It’s actually more humorous than it is humiliating these days to see a general call in the church announcements for people interested in “music ministry,” and to go say, “I’m grounded in music theory, I’ve sung in a dozen choirs and led one, I’ve written dozens of Christian songs, I’ve given hundreds of Christian concerts in all kinds of places, I led worship for about twelve years, and I play guitar, saxophone, bass, and banjo,” only to have the twenty-something minister of music answer, “Thanks for checking in, but you’re not what we’re looking for.”  

The fact is that if I want to reach people who enjoy the kind of music I most enjoy writing and singing, I have to do it outside my home church and most other Evangelical churches.  Maybe the minister of music was really hearing from God and I’m supposed to do just that.  Well, no, but it is a funny thought.  

Still, there are more adjustments than just changing up my repertoire and the places I play.

“Ministry” Vs. Entertainment

Back when I was leading worship, singing in “Christian” venues, and providing “special music” in various churches, I was pretty much “preaching to the choir.”  Everyone was expecting a certain kind of “ministry” before I even got my guitar out of the case. 

Though I did strive to make portions of my sets entertaining, the focus was never on the “entertainment.”  My concerts might be moving, worshipful, and thought-provoking, but “fun” was served up in small portions.

Conversely, when I started singing in “non-Christian” coffeehouses again, audiences had no idea what to expect.  Often they would listen to my songs and tell me later they really appreciated one or the other - I am a decent songwriter, after all.  But I had no experience at all in being an “entertainer,” and entertainment was the reason they had got out of the house that night.

Smile, Darn You, Smile!

When I watch old videos of my Christian concerts, I realize that I seldom smiled.  That was okay in that context - I had serious truths to divulge or reinforce, and if the audience didn’t do some serious soul-searching before I got off the stage, I had failed.  I was John MacArthur with a guitar and facial hair.

By the way, this is as good a place as any to apologize to anyone who ever sat through my “Christian” concerts (or my sermons) for the “browbeating” I occasionally inflicted.  But in those circles in those days, browbeating those you were supposed to be “ministering to” was considered a sign of “The Annointing.”  (Sady, it still is to some.)

Rethinking Everything

I’ve learned that I have to rethink everything I’ve been doing in concerts for forty years to reach audiences who are not ideologically “captive” like my church and “Christian concert” audiences were.  These include:

  • Using a much higher ratio of upbeat to “thought-provoking” songs (5-to-1 minimum, 10-to-1 is usually better) .
  • Closing on an upbeat instead of something gloomy and “invitational.”
  • Coming up with things to say between songs that will entertain across cultural boundaries

And it wouldn’t hurt me to come up with some new products to sell eventually.  The last CD I self-produced had a mix of  Evangelical songs and Folk-style songs. The result was that Christians who bought or downloaded it were disappointed with half the songs, and Folk fans who bought it or downloaded it were disappointed with the other half.  What would be wrong with having separate CDs?  If time and money were not issues, I could easily fill six or seven with just the ideas I’ve been working on lately.  

Blurring the Wrong Lines?

I know for a fact that a certain percentage of readers will wonder why the “spiritual vs. secular” music questions are even a issue, and just as many who will accuse me of “selling out” when they hear me do some James Taylor song a third of the way into my set. But I hope this article will help other folks who are struggling with such questions.  This is not a prescription for anyone else’s life (I’ve given up on telling other musicians God’s will for their lives).

Even now, to be honest, I would rather sing about Jesus than about, say, the Whistling Gypsy.  I’d rather lead a bunch of Christians in heartfelt singing of a spiritual song than lead a “generic” room full of people in a chorus of some Folk or pop song.  The Lord really does inhabit the sincere praises of His people, and He visits a special dispensation of grace, wisdom, and encouragement on those who so honor Him. 

But it’s not a sin to get a group of people singing along on the chorus of “City of New Orleans” either.  To me, it’s still a good thing.  It just not the same thing.  

Still a Little Squeamish About Some Things

In case you wondered, I’m still no fan of singing to drunks.  I have too many memories of drunks becoming belligerent, rushing the stage, or hitting on our lead singer during my rock band days.  More recently, I’ve had plenty of beer spilled on me at “family” events where beer is sold.  Off the stage, I’ve seen first-hand the damage alcoholism can inflict on a family “to the fourth generation,” so I’m not crazy about being a reason for people to show up places and drink, either. 

Admittedly, I’m at a stage in my life when I don’t need the income some folks get from such gigs.  So I can afford to play at coffeehouses, street fairs, historical reenactments, library or Methodist church concert series, farmers’ markets, plant nursery open houses, and the like.  Finding such “gigs” is challenging, but worth the effort for me.  If I had product to sell, it would even be financially rewarding.  Other folk who need the money or who literally can’t find other places to play may make other choices.

Find Your Own Balance

If I’ve gained no other wisdom in life I have learned not to judge other people’s choices in the kind of issues discussed on this page.  Frankly, I could write a book on all the experiences that contributed to my shift in opinions on such subjects.  And if you make a different set of choices than I do, I have to consider that you have your reasons, just as I have mine.

The only direction I can really give is to make your choices as thoughtfully and as prayerfully as you can, and be sure to maintain your walk with Christ no matter how things turn out.

That's the journey that really counts, after all.

As always, please contact me with corrections, complaints, clarifications, etc.  If your response is responsible, I'll try to include it in the "reader response" section below.

God bless,

Paul Race

SchoolOfTheRock.com

 


Paul Race playing a banjo. Click to go to Paul's music home page.A Note from Paul: Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you enjoy your music and figure out how to make enjoyable music for those around you as well.

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