We all know what Christian music is. We must. We use the term often. A google search for the phrase summons over 300 million results. Look for Christian music on iTunes. You’ll find songs, albums, artists, genres, apps, playlists, and more. If we use the phrase this much, we must know what it means. Right?

Give me your best definition of Christian music. Seriously, close your eyes and write a one sentence definition in your brain. I’ll give you a minute.

My guess is that this is more complicated that you may have thought. What is Christian music? Is it music made by Christians? Is it music featuring Christian subject matter? Is it music intended for Christian audiences? Some combination of the three?  The term “Christian music” is simple enough until we actually ask what it means. In this post and the next three, I’m going to explore what it really means for music to be Christian. I hope we’ll all be better people at the end.

 

Is it Music Made by Christians?

So what is Christian music? Is it music made by Christians? Sounds good right? But don’t get too excited yet. I have a few question for you.

Is every song that Christians write automatically Christian? Have you ever heard a Christian write a song that contains bad theology? I have. Have you ever heard a Christian write a song that doesn’t mention anything explicitly religious? I have.

And then here are some fascinating questions to add to the mix: Have you ever heard a non-Christian write a song that is explicitly religious? I’ve heard tons. Have you ever heard a non-Christian write a song that contains solid theology? I have.

Francis Schaeffer explains what is happening here:

“Just as it is possible for a non-Christian to be inconsistent and to paint God’s world in spite of his personal philosophy, it is possible for a Christian to be inconsistent and embody in his paintings a non-Christian world-view. And it is this latter which is perhaps the most sad.”[1]

The reality is, you can listen to a non-Christian musician and learn a lot about God and the world he made. Of course, we don’t uncritically accept every lyric we hear. Far from it. But all musicians are made in the image of God, and all musicians experience the world as God made it. They’re going to see something true about God’s world from time to time (often, even), and those truths are going to find their way into music made by non-Christians. So something “Christian” is going to show up in the music that non-Christians write.

And Schaeffer’s second point, which he thinks is “the most sad,” is also important to keep in mind: Christians often think, say, and create things that are contrary to God’s truth. Here’s a valuable life lesson for you: don’t believe everything you hear on Christian radio. Just because it came from a Christian label (or a Christian artist, or a Christian minister) doesn’t mean it actually fits the Christian worldview. So something “unchristian” is going to show up in the music that Christians write.

Of course, Christians are going to be looking at God’s world in light of God’s revelation, so they are bound to see the truth more clearly than their non-Christian counterparts. Even so, the situation is far from cut and dry. If we’re looking to classify Christian music, we’re going to have to dig a little deeper.

Because of these complications, I suggest that we rule out “music made by Christians” as a definition for “Christian music.” But don’t worry. We have other options which we will explore in the following posts. Maybe Christian music is music that features Christian subject matter. Or maybe it’s music intended for Christian audiences. Or something else. We’ll see.

 



[1] Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible in The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, Volume Two: A Christian View of the Bible as Truth (Wheaton: Crossway, 1982) 402.

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Mark Beuving

Mark Beuving currently serves as Associate Pastor at Creekside Church in Rocklin, CA. Prior to going back into pastoral ministry, Mark spent ten years on staff at Eternity Bible College as a Campus Pastor, Dean of Students, and then Associate Professor. Mark now teaches online adjunct for Eternity. He is passionate about building up the body of Christ, training future leaders for the Church, and writing. Though he is interested in many areas of theology and philosophy, Mark is most fascinated with practical theology and exploring the many ways in which the Bible can speak to and transform our world. He is the author of “Resonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music” and the co-author with Francis Chan of “Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples.” Mark lives in Rocklin with his wife and two daughters.

8 COMMENTS

  1. I had this discussion with a group of friends a few years ago, and the definition we finally came to was that Christian music is music made to glorify God. Whether they are singing about God or not, if their intention is in some way to glorify God through what they are singing, then they are making Christian music.

    • Great thought, Heather! I like that. Of course, I don’t want to ruin the rest of my series by saying too much now, but I’ll ask you a leading question. You’re identifying motivation as the key factor. But what about musicians whose goal is money, but who nonetheless succeed in glorifying God? Should their music be considered Christian or not? (Keep in mind that you have musicians on both secular and Christian labels whose goal is money.)

      I’d love to hear what you think.

  2. Derek Webb said something like, “if you put Christian before anything but a human being, it’s a marketing gimmick.” I’ve been studying this whole thing more and more lately, and I actually squealed when I saw you blogged about it because I’ve been thinking about it so much. I have also been OPPOSED by people who “only listen to Christian music.” Here in Zambia, because we have one of those people on our team, we have a “no secular music” rule (which I find highly irritating, since CCM drives me batty). But I have been finding more and more that it’s a false dichotomy to label something as Christian or Secular. Is it more “Christian” to listen to a song by a non-Christian who is seeking something deeper and knows they’re missing something, or to listen to a worship song written by a man who had a six-year marital affair? These are the questions that really muddy the so-called “Christian-or-Secular” lines for me. I’m so glad you’re addressing this and I look forward to reading the other entries too. Thanks Mark!

    • Great thoughts, Torri! I agree with you that this is a significant issue, and I think the secular/sacred dichotomy is near the heart of it. I expanded on that a bit more in today’s post (part 4). I’m also planning a post on the Christian music industry for Wednesday. I think there are some goods and bads there. Hopefully it will help a bit.