When did worship music get reserved for one specific category? Why can't we sing "secular songs" as worship? Honestly, I feel like many songs in mainstream music are far deeper than much of the typical worship songs today. Example: “Sigh No More” by Mumford and Sons. I suggested that we sing “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen the other night and I was laughed at.
This is actually a familiar issue, one that I've heard college students and young adults raise more and more often. These postmoderns are not comfortable with compartmentalizing and labeling the experiences of life. The project of modernity was to dissect and reduce everything to categories which could be handled, studied and manipulated. This tendency toward "foundationalism" has been helpful for understanding our world and appropriate up to a point, but there is a downside. For instance, the scientific method brought us remarkable advances in medicine, but an unintentional outcome was the divorce of the physical from the spiritual (i.e. Western doctors treat physical illness but they have nothing to say about spiritual health).
The same thing has happened with music and the arts, and this directly impacts our understanding of worship. Modernity left us with bifurcated concepts like sacred and secular, holy and profane. In premodern times, these kinds of distinctions weren't made--all of life was linked to the supernatural. Today, we struggle with questions like "Is this sacred or is this secular?" This gets especially tricky when applied to music and art.
Having said that, here are a few thoughts about worship and the secular/sacred dichotomy.
- I'm not sure we can label a piece of music, or any work of art, “Christian.” If we are going to say, "This song is Christian and it can be used in worship," and, "This one is secular so it can't be used," what criteria are we to use in deciding whether it is or isn’t? In other words, what would be the qualities that determine if a song is sacred? An extension of that same question would be to ask what makes a painting Christian. Is it the subject of the artistic piece? Is it that the painter/composer/author professes a Christian faith? We might say that a thing is Christian because it bears witness to God. But by that logic, a car would be Christian if it has a fish (ichthus) sticker on it (and doubly so if it has a fish eating "Darwin"). Another issue: how would we know if a piece of instrumental music is appropriate for worship? Is it acceptable if it's written and performed by Michael W. Smith? What if it's originally written by Smith but later performed by a secular artist--would that disqualify it? There's an untold number of scenarios that make judging the sacredness of music very difficult. We don't make it a habit to determine whether a photo or a painting or a sculpture is Christian, so why should we do that with music?
- Whether a song is Christian or not, there are certainly some subjects that are taboo in the worship service. We tend to have two types of songs in the contemporary church: praise and confession. And those are usually filled with shallow theology and narcissistic preoccupation with the self. We get a lot of “Jesus is my boyfriend” and very little substance. While declaring our personal love for God and confessing our individual need for him is important, worship music has the potential to be much broader. For starters, we need music written from a community perspective (“we” rather than “I” language), and music that focuses on who God is rather than what we want or need. If we did this we would be singing more scripture, writing original material that emerges from the context of the congregation and thinking through a range of topics that wouldn’t be considered common or typical (maybe even taboo).
- On a related note, when was the last time you heard a song on Sunday morning that talks about doubting God, a song that celebrates sex, a song that gives financial counsel, or a song that warns about social injustice? All of these topics are part of scripture and should be part of our worship. The bible has a fair amount of content that is not overtly spiritual (or "Christian"), but can’t be ignored. Examples:
Psalm 13 is a song from the Hebrew worship hymnal that literally calls God out. The psalmist is mad at God and expresses doubt through his unmitigated honesty.
How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
The Song of Solomon is a passionate love song that would be stamped with an “explicit lyrics” warning if recorded today. This 3000-year-old poem is filled with provocative language that the people of the ancient near east would immediately recognize as nothing less than erotic. Try singing a song with these words in your Sunday morning service and the odds are pretty good that you’ll be looking for a new church in which to serve.
How beautiful your sandaled feet, O prince’s daughter! Your graceful legs are like jewels, the work of an artist’s hands. Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine. Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by lilies. Your breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle. Your neck is like an ivory tower.
Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit. I said, “I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.” May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine, the fragrance of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the best wine.
(It’s amazing how many Christians don’t even know this is in the bible!)
Proverbs is another source of worship material that is rarely used. Much of it could easily be considered secular because there is very little mention of God. Money is just one subject of many that might be incorporated in worship.
Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold.
Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle. (Proverbs 23:5)
Better the poor whose walk is blameless than the rich whose ways are perverse. (Proverbs 28:6)
The prophets of the Old Testament consistently warn God’s people to beware of social injustice and to speak out for the poor and those who are oppressed. This topic certainly doesn’t show up in many worship sets.
“In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “the songs in the temple will turn to wailing. Many, many bodies—flung everywhere! Silence! Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land.” (Amos 8:3-4)
Woe to the city of oppressors [Jerusalem], rebellious and defiled! (Zephaniah 3:1)
In sum, it's completely appropriate to ask whether a particular song is worthy to be part of a worship service. But, a problem arises when we start labeling things secular or sacred. A better question to ask is, "Will this song in some way help us to consider God and better understand his activity in the world he has created?" Our worship is in desperate need of creative, imaginative, Spirit-led artisans who can help us experience life with God through music and the arts. Anything that drives us to a deeper level of reflection on and worship of our Creator can be helpful material for the church body.