What should we think of contemporary Christian music (CCM)? In this discussion, CCM includes Christian rock music, Christian rap music, and Christian “pop” music.
The CCM issue is clearly one of criteria— what criteria should we use to assess music? What rule or standard or yardstick should we use to measure or evaluate CCM?
Two well-known contemporary Christian musicians have offered their opinion on this “criteria” issue:
David Meece: “Basically you have to focus on the lyrics, and what the song is saying. That is my criteria to decide whether the song is right or wrong. It has nothing to do with the music style. It has to do with the lyrics. What is the song saying? What are the words saying? As Christians, we can objectively judge it from that standpoint.”
Sandi Patti: “Music is a very powerful force. It has a way of breaking down barriers….But a lot of artists are taking that very powerful tool and putting negative, horrible lyrics to it, and those lyrics are getting into the hearts of the listeners and are shaping their values….Why can’t we [i.e., contemporary Christian musicians] take that same powerful force — music — put positive lyrics to it and begin shaping values that way?”
If Meece and Patti are right, then CCM is more than just okay—it is a powerful spiritual weapon that we must use.
I believe, however, that both Meece and Patti are wrong. First, they ignore the fact that God’s Word offers criteria for evaluating music that is different from theirs. Second, they both assume (and this is an important word) that we must evaluate music solely on the basis of its lyrics. They assume that the music itself apart from the lyrics is morally neutral, or that the music itself apart from the lyrics communicates no message. These are false assumptions. Tunes or melodies communicate messages regardless of lyrics (or, to put it another way, there is always a message implicit in the music). Bad music that contains “good” lyrics still transmits a bad message. What Meece and Patti (and most other defenders of CCM) do is “rig the game”: they begin by setting the rules for assessing CCM, but their rules guarantee that CCM will come out in a favorable light.
Before I continue, I must clarify something. I’m sure that most CCM performers are well-intentioned and sincerely think that they are doing what is right. Of course, good intentions and sincerity are no guarantees that one is right. And it would be a foolish thing indeed if we blindly assume that CCM performers are mature spiritually, or if we assume that CCM is okay simply because we like it.
I. Criteria For Evaluating Contemporary Christian Music
A. Recall Philippians 4:8: Finally, brethren, whatever things are true (or represent truth), whatever things are noble, whatever things are just (or right), whatever things are pure (or untainted by sin), whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report (or good reputation), if there is any virtue (or moral excellence) and if there is anything praiseworthy— meditate (or think) on these things.
This verse obviously applies to music because music is something that we meditate on or allow our minds to dwell upon. Philippians 4:8 clearly has much to say about a song’s lyrics. All people — even CCM performers like Meece and Patti — agree that a song’s words must be true, noble, morally excellent, and worthy of praise if that song is to be acceptable.
But notice what else Philippians 4:8 says. Good music must be of good report (the New American Standard Bible provides the literal translation “of good repute”). In other words, good music must be of a good reputation, or be wholly disassociated with things that are wrong or contrary to God. If something is okay in itself but it is strongly linked to or associated with something else that is evil, then that thing has a bad reputation. It has a bad report. This is a principle that we all accept. I’ll give you an example: Do you think it is okay for me to go into a store and buy a Coca-Cola? Yes. But do you think it is okay for me to go into a bar or a saloon and buy a Coca-Cola? Even though buying a Coca-Cola is obviously okay, when I buy one in a bar I associate that Coca-Cola (and myself) with things that are evil. It would not be right for me to go into a bar and buy a Coca-Cola because wicked things have given my innocent act a bad reputation or a bad report. Philippians 4:8, then, says that your music must be associated only with good or righteous things. Your music cannot resemble or be linked to things that are evil. If your music is identified with music that is evil or wrong, then your music is not of good report. Clearly CCM is linked to secular rock, rap, and pop music. Indeed, CCM performers consciously try to “cross over” and appeal to non-Christian audiences by making their music sound just like that of non- Christians. Don’t many CCM performers dress just like secular musicians? Don’t they sport hairstyles just like secular musicians (and in disobedience, I might add, to 1 Corinthians 11)? Don’t many male CCM performers go so far as to wear earrings, while some female CCM performers wear clothing that is by any definition immodest?
No one will deny that secular rock and rap music has a bad reputation. Is CCM linked to or associated with secular rock music? Is it sometimes hard to tell the difference between CCM and secular rock music? Do most people see a connection or a similarity between CCM and secular pop music? The answer to these questions, I think, is yes— which means that CCM is not of good repute and therefore does not pass the Philippians 4:8 test.
B. Notice something else about Philippians 4:8. Good music must be pure. This means that good music can not have bad stuff mixed in with it. Music that is 95% good and 5% bad is not pure. Good music, then, must be completely free from contamination or pollution. Does this seem unnecessarily strict? If so, it is only because you don’t realize how important your “thought life” is to God. Because your thoughts shape your character, God is very concerned with (and very strict about) what you set your mind upon. That is why your music must be pure. The Bible says that the world taints and makes impure (James 1:27; 2 Peter 2:20). In other words, when worldly things are mixed with or introduced into something, impurity results. Is CCM worldly? Does CCM liberally borrow from the world and adopt the world’s practices? The answer, I think, is obvious. This is serious. Romans 12:2 says “be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Compare Ephesians 4:23 and 1 John 2:15-17.) This means that God commands us to not live like everyone else. Our lifestyle cannot match up to or be similar to that of other people. If a kind of music sounds like the world’s music, looks like the world’s music, and is marketed like the world’s music, then that music is worldly (what else could “worldly” mean?). Worldly music is impure music.
Is CCM worldly music?
—On Stryper, perhaps the most famous “Christian heavy metal band,” Rolling Stone magazine says, “The band looks and sounds like a bunch of standard-issue hard rockers: polished, guitar-dominated music, glittery yellow and black outfits, shaggy long hair and a flashy stage show.” Stryper no longer uses overtly Christian lyrics in their songs. The band said, “You won’t pick up this record and hear anything that says ‘God’ or ‘Christ.’ That was intentionally done.”
—Rolling Stone magazine said this about Amy Grant: “Regarding her album covers and publicity photos, which portray her as a sexy, attractive young woman, the Christian pop star says, ‘I’m trying to look sexy to sell a record….I feel like a Christian young woman in the Eighties is very sexual.” The video for Grant’s recent song “Baby, Baby” portrays the married singer flirting with a young male actor. Grant responds: “If somebody says, ‘You’re trying to go secular,” I say, ‘Of course I am: That’s the whole point.’”
—With regards to Sandi Patti, The Saturday Evening Post writes that “One of the reasons she attracts the adulation of young fans is her thoroughly modern look, sound and style.”
—Sheila Walsh’s new album, according to Newsweek, “artfully mixed the sacred and sexy.”
—Commenting on CCM, Time writes that CCM performers are “indistinguishable — except for their lyrics — from their secular counterparts.”
The above testimony reveals that even non-Christians recognize that CCM is worldly music. Worldly music is not pure music. Impure music fails the Philippians 4:8 test.
This issue of purity is actually a much larger issue that I will only briefly comment on here. Some people would argue that it doesn’t matter how you reach people with God’s truth just so long as you reach them. Any method of proclaiming God’s Word is valid, these people say, so long as it works. They are really saying that the end justifies the means— which is a sinister and dangerous principle. Indeed, the Catholic Church adopted this strategy around 300 A.D. with regard to pagan rites and celebrations. Rather than telling their converts that they had to give up their false religions, their idols, their holy days, and their superstitious beliefs, the Catholic Church “christianized” those pagan things and allowed them to remain.
This is why the Catholic Church began to worship saints, instituted hundreds of unscriptural (and sometimes demonic) holy days, and developed elaborate ceremonial rituals. Instead of remaining pure and separate from the world, the Catholic Church tried to “baptize” worldly things and then retain them. We see where this unscriptural strategy took the Catholic Church. CCM does much the same thing. Instead of rejecting worldly music, CCM tries to “christianize” it.
Robert Pattison, a non-Christian scholar and a defender of secular rock music, makes this illuminating comment concerning CCM’s attempt to use secular musical forms for Christian purposes:
“Some dreamers have hoped to harness rock to propagate the values of transcendent ideologies. Populist Catholics sponsor rock masses, trendy educators produce textbooks using rock lyrics as a vehicle for inculcating traditional values, various Protestant denominations commandeer the airwaves on Sunday mornings to broadcast uplifting advice larded with rock songs to make the message palatable to young ears…But rock is useless to teach any transcendent value. The instigators of these projects merely promote the pagan rites they hope to co-opt. Rock’s electricity as much as its pantheistic heritage gives the lie to whatever enlightened propaganda may be foisted on it.”
Did you see what Pattison said? CCM performers only “promote the pagan rites they hope to coopt.” Though not a Christian, Pattison is confirming that “christianizing” secular music is a strategy that is doomed to fail. Rock music is simply too strong. The musical medium has a distorting influence on the message.
John Fischer, a prominent CCM performer, says something similar. He admits that “Some art forms have been created to express certain philosophies and are so wedded to those philosophies that they convey that kind of outlook….We can’t assume that we simply plug in a Christian message, and everything will be okay.”
Rock and rap music are so wedded to secular, godless themes that they communicate that outlook regardless of the song’s words.
C. Philippians 4:8 says that music must be morally excellent, noble or something that you could be proud of, and so beneficial that it is worthy of praise. Meece and Patti, you will recall, assume that this only applies to the lyrics of a song. They imply that a song’s music (i.e., the sound only) does not communicate a message. Is this true? No. A song’s music — regardless of the lyrics — does communicate a message. Many doctors, researchers, and musicians — many of them not Christians — agreed that a song’s music does communicate a message regardless of the words. Dr. Max Schoen, for example, writes in The Psychology of Music that “Music is the most powerful stimulus known among the perceptive senses. The medical, psychiatric and other evidence for the non- neutrality of music is so overwhelming that it frankly amazes me that anyone should seriously say otherwise.” (And yet people like Meece and Patti say otherwise!) Dr. William J. Shafer, a non-Christian sociologist, writes similarly that “Rock is communication without words, regardless of what ideology is inserted into the music.” Professor Frank Garlock says that “The words only let you know what the music already says….The music has its own message.” The primary message of CCM lies in its music, not in its lyrics.
If all music (regardless of the lyrics) has a message, then what is the message communicated by the music of CCM? CCM uses the same style of music as does secular, non-Christian rock music; therefore, CCM’s music communicates the same message as secular rock and rap music! Nearly all of the effects produced by contemporary music’s beat, repetition, and loudness are negative. Rock music is mildly hypnotic and can become addictive. Rock music produces chemical reactions in your body that encourage aggressive and emotional behavior. Those same physiological reactions prevent you from thinking and judging rationally. By the same token, contemporary music’s beat, repetition, and loudness unmistakably convey a mood of defiance, rebelliousness, aggressiveness, and self-assertiveness. Clearly these effects are neither “morally excellent” nor “noble” nor “praiseworthy.” Bad music, regardless of comparatively “good” lyrics, communicates a bad message.
How is it that music can affect me? The music itself, regardless of the words, affects your emotions. Even if there are no words to a song or a tune, it affects you. Everybody knows this. Lullabies put babies to sleep regardless of the words. National anthems can at times create feelings of pride or move listeners to tears. Some of the most powerful music ever written — like Beethoven and Wagner — contained no words. Ask any young person why they like rock music and they always say something about the beat or tempo. They are admitting that, regardless of the words, the music itself is quite powerful.
This is important. It means that “good” words does not make something good music. Regardless of the “good” lyrics, the musical score itself has an impact on the listener. Assessing music as good or bad or acceptable or unacceptable, is not simply a matter of evaluating the words. You must evaluate the tune also, because the sounds themselves affect you.
D. Philippians 4:8 says that your music must not only be “not bad,” but that it must be positively good. In other words, it is not enough for the music to be free of evil— the music must strongly communicate a positive message. Is it true that CCM’s lyrics are positively good? Most CCM, it is true, does not contain profanity, does not talk about sex, and does not glorify violence. But do these songs express deep, meaningful spiritual truths (such as you read in old Isaac Watts hymns)? Does CCM teach good, solid theology? Doesn’t CCM usually express a light, flippant, and shallow view of Christianity? I, for one, have rarely heard a CCM song that expresses profound or meaningful spiritual truth.
Christianity Today commented in 1987 that CCM sales were slumping because of CCM performers’ “lack of spiritual commitment and meaningful lyrics.” John Styll, editor of Contemporary Christian Music magazine, complained that “Some ‘Christian’ songs today are so veiled in terms of spiritual content that their meaning is lost to all but the most imaginative.” In other words, Styll was saying that CCM doesn’t even communicate a good message in its lyrics. “Many singers,” writes Christianity Today, “have softened their Christian message in an effort to ‘cross over’ into the secular marketplace. But many now say this practice has damaged their credibility with Christian audiences while blunting their impact on secular customers.”
While it is true that CCM’s lyrics are not filthy, vulgar, or wicked, neither are they positively good. Most CCM lyrics — especially the recent “Christian rap” of performers like DC Talk and Mike-E — contains a weak message or no message at all. At best, these songs encourage a superficial and flippant understanding of spiritual things. At worst, listeners simply ignore the empty lyrics and allow the sensual, rebellious music to influence them.
E. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29) Many, many times we are exhorted by Scripture to fear God and to have reverence for Him. How does this relate to music? If I really fear God, if I really am overwhelmed by His holiness and dignity, if I have great respect for God’s dignity, if I am truly zealous for His Name and His glory, then I will make sure that my music is appropriate for glorifying God. Not only must the words be appropriate for the glorifying of God, but the sound or melody must befit the majesty, the purity, and the holiness of God. I will ask questions like these: Is this music — both words and melody — suitable for glorifying God?
Does this music — both words and melody — cheapen divine things or trivialize spiritual truth? Does this music encourage a non-serious or frivolous view of religion? Might it lead a listener to think that God is Someone that you can play games with or treat lightly?
Does this music — both words and melody — handle sacred truth in a sacred way? Is the music compatible with or complementary of the sacred things of which it claims to speak?
If this music bears Christ’s name (as CCM does), then does it — both words and melody — also bear the marks of Christ’s character? Does this music reflect His holiness, His righteousness, His purity, and His majesty? CCM fails here. It is not a suitable medium for glorifying God. CCM cheapens spiritual truth and encourages irreverent attitudes toward God. Even in songs where the words are okay or even good, CCM employs a type of music or sound that is not appropriate for worshipping God. The sound of CCM is, at very least, casual and worldly.
I realize that this concern may make little sense to some of my readers. We Americans have, unfortunately, grown up in a generation that doesn’t understand what it means to fear God. We have no sense of God’s holiness. We play with sacred things flippantly. We rarely tremble at the fact that our God is a consuming fire. Incredibly, we think that if something is good enough for us, then it must be good enough for God. But Hebrews 12:28-29 merely alludes to something that is suggested over and over in the Bible: God is so holy that many things, actions, or attitudes are simply not appropriate before Him. If you have low views of God’s holiness, then you won’t appreciate my concerns here. But the more you appreciate God’s sacredness, the more you will be concerned about the appropriateness of your music.
A former CCM performer, writing in the mid-1980s, put this well. He said that “For three years I sat under the sound of biblical teaching and those years revolutionized my life. Very soon I learned what the gospel was, and as soon as I did so doubts arose in my mind as to the suitability of rock as a medium for the gospel….When I saw the seriousness of the gospel I saw the paradox of using a non-serious medium to try to convey it.” The musician realized that his “Christian music,” despite his good intentions, actually communicated a non-serious attitude.
II. Other Questions To Ask About Contemporary Christian Music
A. When you listen to CCM, what effect does it have on you? What happens when you listen to it? Do you find yourself worshipping God in spirit and in truth? Do you begin thinking about Bible verses or Scriptural truths? Do you think about God? Are you convicted of sins and failings in your life?
Or do you get pumped up? Do you get psyched? Do you simply start “feeling good”? Do you start playing “air guitar” or “air drums”? Do you feel like getting rowdy?
If you listen to CCM because it produces the second effect, then that should tell you that your music is dangerous. Your music is not glorifying God.
A seventeen-year-old girl from Texas testifies that CCM — despite its “good” words — communicates a bad message through its beat and melody. CCM encouraged her not to worship, but rather to be sexually immoral. She writes: “I would like to share a testimony concerning my experience with ‘Christian rock’ music. I had listened to this music with my friends and at church social functions for several years before I got my own tape, recorded by a famous artist. Buying that tape was the biggest mistake of my life. Under its influence, my moral convictions began to dissolve and I allowed myself to become involved in a relationship with a boy from my church, against my parents wishes. When we were together we listened to ‘Christian’ and ‘soft rock’ music. It was all sensuous and destroyed my inhibitions. I am so ashamed of what happened. The music made me rebellious and pulled me away from my family. I thank God that I can say today that I have not listened to this harmful music for several months now, and I feel a freedom I had not experienced before.”
A fifteen-year-old student from Ohio agrees. He writes that “When I got into secular rock music I was bombarded by many sensual thoughts. Those that think that ‘Christian rock’ is OK because of the words, are wrong. When I listen to that type of ‘Christian’ music, I have the same reaction.” A twenty-one-year old student from Washington writes that rock music “has had a definite bad impression on me. It makes me feel rebellious, and I just have weird feelings when I play it. To me, ‘Christian rock’ is no different than regular rock. It still gives me those wrong feelings.” A sixteen-year-old student from Missouri writes that “I have many contemporary Christian music tapes, and I find when I listen to them that I get a rebellious spirit.”
B. Who is it that is always defending CCM? Who is most vocal in arguing that CCM is actually good? Aren’t CCM’s primary defenders a) the unsaved; b) teenagers who, if they are Christians, must certainly be babes in Christ; or c) people who have only a questionable claim to being Christian? I’m struck by how no spiritually mature men that I know rally to the defense of contemporary Christian music. In other words, it is the spiritually weak that argue that CCM is good.
I’ll briefly mention a related issue. CCM makes songwriters and performers our spiritual leaders. By listening to their songs, we are shaped by their music. Are CCM composers and performers qualified to be our spiritual leaders? Does the fact that someone can put words to rhyme or possesses a good voice necessarily mean that they are qualified to teach us spiritually? Certainly this is a frightening phenomenon. At the same time when young people increasingly ignore preaching and pastoral counseling — indeed, young people often find pulpit teaching boring — they flock to CCM as their source of spiritual nourishment. Little surprise that our children are not saved, and know so little about the great doctrines of our faith?
C. Many young people testify that listening to CCM harmed them. Listening to CCM led many to listen to secular rock and rap music. In other words, CCM is a dangerous “slippery slope.” A few testimonies:
A sixteen-year-old student from Oklahoma: “I began to listen to ‘Christian rock’ without the blessing of my father. He told me that if I listened to ‘Christian rock’ it would open the door for Satan. I just laughed, and listened anyway. It totally deadened my Christian growth and led to terrible immorality, rebellion, and rejection of God. It then developed into secular, hard rock. Now all I can do is go back and pick up the pieces. But I still have a scar in my life that will never be removed.”
A twenty-one-year-old student from Michigan: “‘Christian rock’ has hindered my life because the only real difference between ‘Christian rock’ and secular rock is the words. The beat, rhythm, and the melody are not different; they are the same. It does not matter whether I listen to secular or ‘Christian rock,’ when the songs are over, I feel the same. I feel an emptiness in my soul, a heavy burden. Even ‘Christian rock’ sometimes makes me feel like going out and getting rowdy or even hurting someone else if they provoke me.”
An eighteen-year-old student from Oklahoma: “When I was twelve or thirteen years old, I was given some ‘Christian rock’ tapes by my parents because they thought I was getting into secular music. The truth is, I was getting into some bad music. The ‘Christian rock’ dominated my life for over a year until I could not get the same satisfaction I received the first time I heard it. I went to secular rock music and kept this desire and sin from my parents. I started out on soft music and grew to pop/rock-type music. It was not long before my desire grew to ‘hard rock’ and ‘progressive’ stuff. I started getting into drinking and going to dance clubs. Minor recreational drugs came in and soon my life was going down the drain. One night while drinking, I fell into immorality and my life was devastated….I feel very deeply that if I had not started out in ‘Christian rock’ I would have been convicted about the bad music I got into. Maybe I would not have messed up my life so much.”
A twenty-year-old student from Oklahoma: “When I used to listen to rock music it hindered my spirit and caused a rebellious attitude. I can tell you that when I hear ‘Christian rock’ music, it makes no difference what the lyrics are. It is the music that causes the poor spirit and rebellious attitude.”
A sixteen-year-old student from Florida: “‘Christian rock’ music has probably been the biggest hindrance to my spiritual growth. When I first heard this kind of music, it really bothered my spirit. But then this music was brought into my church. The more I heard it, the less it bothered me. The less it bothered me, the more I listened to it. It wasn’t long before I was involved in secular rock music because I didn’t see any difference. This music caused me to resist the Lord and hold parts of my life back from Him. I was not able to have a freedom to truly serve Him and be totally dedicated to Him until I was willing to give up this music.”
A nineteen-year-old student from California: “I began listening to ‘Christian rock,’ and shortly thereafter I began a fast, steady pace downhill. This eventually led me into a totally backslidden state. I know that my own rebelliousness was the cause of my fall. However, ‘Christian rock’ entered into my life at a very crucial point and added fuel to the fire. I remember the specific day and the song I listened to first. I remember feeling rebellious— like I was going against what is considered acceptable by the standards of Godly people. Within weeks, maybe months, a very apparent breakdown of my conscience, morality, and appearance was evident.”
A seventeen-year-old student from Pennsylvania: “‘Christian rock’ and Christian contemporary music have, in my life, been stepping stones. Not stepping stones going up— but down. Just a few months of listening to ‘Christian rock’ and contemporary music led to a life of being controlled by acid rock. This quickly led to and encouraged rebellion, greed, moral impurity, and trying to protect my rights and hide from my parents.”
A fifteen-year-old student from Nebraska: “When I started listening to ‘Christian rock’ I slowly started to listen to just regular worldly rock (soft rock). Then I was listening to something harder and harder. It not only led me into worldly rock, but I was getting rebellious toward my parents, and I was having sensual and lustful thoughts. I also could not memorize or read God’s Word and understand it or retain it.”
III. How Can You Tell If A Piece of Music Is Acceptable or Not? Where do you “draw the line”?
Based upon the discussion above, and relying heavily on Philippians 4:8, I come up with the following “yardstick”:
1. Good music must have good lyrics. Lyrics must not only be not bad; they must be positively good (i.e., pass the Philippians 4:8 test).
2. Good music must have a good sound. The sound or tune itself can not be conducive of irrational thinking, aggression, or impulsiveness. Nor can the sound communicate a rebellious or defiant mood.
3. Good music cannot be associated with or linked to negative or questionable things. Good music must be pure. Good music cannot be worldly.
4. a) If music claims to be Christian, then (in addition to the above points) it must be music that befits God’s majesty. Christian music must be sober and reverential. Christian music must exemplify or display Christ’s character. b) If music does not claim to communicate a spiritual music (e.g., orchestral music), then (in addition to the above points) that music must be refined, balanced, sublime or subtle, and tranquil.
My conclusion is that much, if not all, of what is today called contemporary Christian music fails to measure up to this yardstick.