July 20, 2009

Secular Music in Worship

I find myself down in Wilmore, KY for another class at ATS during the second summer session. This week my class is Technology in Ministry and looks to involve video editing, digital photography, photo editing and powerpoint work. Those are the practical aspects of the class, the philosophical aspect of the class involves a discussion around the effective use of technology in a worship service setting. It looks like we will be wrestling with questions of when, where and how things like video clips, music and slides can help create an atmosphere of worship.

The very first example Dr. Boyd used in class this morning was a slide show using the lyrics of a Paul Simon song entitled "Slip Slidin' Away". Of course I know who Paul Simon is and actually I like his stuff but I must admit that I had never heard this song before this morning but that is beside the point. I found it interesting that he chose to use a "secular" song as his first example for us, which played right into something I have been thinking about for a while now...should secular songs be used in worship services?

If you don't know this about me, you should know that I like music a lot. To the point that it becomes annoying for some people around me because I have music playing almost constantly. I am also a self-proclaimed music critic which has led me to avoid the majority of "contemporary Christian" music. I tend to think it's just not very good. Having said all of that, I believe that God can and does use "secular" and "Christian" music to connect with people in one way or another but am still working through the use of "secular" music in a worship service setting. I'm not saying I'm for or against it just yet, just that it seems like surely there has to be enough decent "Christian" music out there to use instead.

I guess I'm not sure that when unchurched visitors join us in our worship services and hear songs from Hootie & The Blowfish, The Beatles or Three Dog Night they leave thinking they experienced the presence of God, just attended church and/or plan on coming back. Sometimes it is easy for me to make a connection between a particular "secular" song and God but that's coming from someone who has an established relationship with Jesus, what about the person who is unfamiliar with church, God or His Son?

I'm not convinced either way at this point but would certainly love to hear what you think.


johnmeunier said...

Great question.

My concern with using secular music is the sometimes clumsy use of it. For instance, I've been in worship where John Lennon's "Imagine" was used without commentary or discussion.

That is one example. More common are love songs repurposed as praise songs to God that include lyrics that are a bit too much about human love and sex to be sung about God.

I think such repurposing often fails because people already have associations with the songs that do not have anything to do with faith.

I'm not against "secular" music per se as long as the lyrics are ones you could sing to or about God.

Anonymous said...

Some people will be turned away by the use of secular music in worship, others will find it refreshing. I personally wonder why so much Christian music is so bad, when the lyrics make it Christian, not the music style or sound. You also run into the danger of playing secular music with inappropriate lyrics/ themes/ meanings that aren't always apparent upon first listen. OTOH I have heard several secular songs that make me think about God. For the most part I agree with the previous poster--when love songs are repurposed as praise songs to God, it's kind of icky.

Matt Lipan said...

johnmeunier: thanks for the read and comment.

good point, sometimes the songs that are selected are simply not a good fit. either for the message or the content of the song itself. i like your point about "as long as the lyrics are ones you could sing to or about God."

Matt Lipan said...

Anonymous: thanks for the read and comment.

i often wonder why it's so bad as well. it truly is a mystery. i completely agree with your point that love songs made into praise songs is just creepy.

Christopher said...

I just wanted to put out there the notion that Hootie and the Blowfish are not secular so much as pure evil.

Good luck in figuring this out.

One more thing, when employing Simon and Garfunkel or even the Beatles, beware of antiquated references to pot. My high school's marching band once played "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" at a pep rally during which I chuckled with delight.

Matt Lipan said...

Christopher: thanks for the read and comment.

your Hootie comment is hilarious!

Matt Algren said...

I don't know if I've ever seen 'secular' music actually work in a worship setting. It always seems to come across as trying too hard to be hip.

There's also the issue of finding music that's current enough for those under 30 but is inoffensive to those over 50. That limits your options to a limited selection.

Slide shows are tough too. I've seen really good ones and others that were uncomfortable to watch. They fail miserably when the editor isn't experienced with story, pace, emotional flow, time constraints.... It's so much more than slapping a few pictures together with a star wipe.

Joe said...

Christian music drives me crazy sometimes. While I think there are some great Christian songs...they seem to be few and far between.

It seems that there has been a style of music that is now the formula for Christian music. It is somewhere in the mix of U2 and Cold Play. Lots of delay on the guitars and a very fixed drum beat. (how many Christian songs have the kick drum on every stinkin quarter note throughout the entire song?)

It seems that Christians are the least creative group of people I've ever heard. There are plenty of Christians doing music in different Genres but they end up being clones of other mainstream bands...just not as good.

I think one of the biggest cancers to Christian music is the fact that there are like 20 songs out there and EVERYONE remakes them and records them over and over and over and over.

Maybe if we focused on writing our own new music drawing on out own experiences with God and life and forget about redoing some other schmo's song, we would have more good music out there.

I''m going to stop there for now, I could rant, rave and yell for days on this subject. Hopefully some of that made sense, I tend to get over enthusiastic when I talk about Christian music.

Matt Lipan said...

Matt Algren: thanks for the read and comment.

it does seem like it can get pretty tricky trying to pull off the effective use of a secular song in worship. certainly a lot of factors to keep in mind if we hope to come close.

images can make such a big difference as well. pick the wrong one and it becomes a total distraction where the right one keeps the experience going.

thanks for the thoughts.

Matt Lipan said...

Joe: thanks for the read and comment.

i would have never guessed you feel this way about "christian" music...ha, j/k! i agree with you, it seems that the majority of Christians (i know this is a very general statement) lack any sort of originality or creativity. this seems especially true when it comes to music and marketing, at least in my opinion.

so, i'm still curious to hear whether or not you like the idea of using "secular" music in worship?

Joe said...

As much as I think Christian music can be incredibly lame sometimes...I'm not all that comfortable with secular music in the worship setting.

I think if you are going to use a secular song you have to do a pretty intense study of the lyrics and songwriter first. Take into account any other possible meaning or innuendo that might be there.

I agree with John above. Most secular songs that sound "Christian" end up being more love songs about a sexual relationship or the religious undertones have more of a pantheistic or buddhist point of view.

Take the band Live for example. Many of their songs have religious and spiritual meaning. They could easily be viewed as Christian...but if you do your homework you find out that Ed (lead singer and lyricist) is more into buddhism than Christianity.

It's just really risky to use secular music. You run the risk of giving someone a VERY wrong impression about Christ. The point of (musical) worship is to reflect God's glory through music back to him. It is very hard to do that when buddha is sitting right next to you.

I'm not saying there aren't a few secular songs out there that would be fine and work well...it's just too much of a risk to me to give someone the wrong impression of Christ. If they walk out of your service thinking Christ is someone he is not, we have failed.

Matt Lipan said...

Joe: again, thanks for sharing.

i like that you talk about the risk factor in using "secular" music in worship. i think you're right, there can be a HUGE risk of conveying a message that doesn't quite match-up with the message of Christ if the wrong song is used or a song used in the wrong way.

BanksyBoy said...

Well... I am a huge supporter of using appropriate mainstream music within worship, check out a filmed interview and some audio clips here:

Redeeming Culture

Let's face it. so called Worship music is generally very poor all round and there is such a wonderful resource out there that can make joins for so many folk usually outside the church.


Peter B

Matt Lipan said...

BanksyBoy: thanks for the read and comment.

i think you make a valid point, as i would agree w/you that finding good "Christian" music is not easy. i think there is still somewhat a risk factor when attempting to use "secular" music in worship, not to say it's not possible just potentially risky in my opinion.