It’s the great debate that has permeated modern Christianity for the last 50-ish years: should Christians listen to secular music? With the creation of our Spotify account, where the team and I hope to share our favorite music with you all, I thought that it was a good time to write an article addressing this issue. I would submit that there are times that it is okay for a Christian to listen to secular music. But before you rush to the comments section to express your disagreement, please allow me to give you some background on my musical past.
Music that drains
Growing up, my dad listened to Southern Gospel music. My mother, on the other hand, listened to Christian rock. All the music in our house was “Christian,” regardless of genre. In my middle and high school years, my favorite groups were The Newsboys, TobyMac, Barlow Girls, Relient K, and Point of Grace – all Christian bands. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I actually had CDs from what might be called a “secular” band. Celtic Woman was my one and only jam for several months and I credit them to this day for helping me to develop as a soprano.
It was during this time that I experienced a curious event. My mood began to change. I became more easily irritable. I was craving something that I just couldn’t put my finger on. Something was off. Then one day I switched from listening to only Celtic Woman back to my old collection. Listening to Christian music again was like jumping into a pool on a hot summer day. This was what I had been missing. I realized that I had listened to only secular music for too long.
I know some of you are backing away from the comments box, but another group is rolling their eyes and saying “Oh come on... Seriously? You felt spiritually drained by listening only to secular music? Does music really affect you that much?” Well, I would say, “Yes. Yes, it does.” Whether it’s food, music, the air we breathe, or the things we see – everything we take in undeniably effects us in some way. So to say music does not have an impact on us is a fallacy.
So back to the question of “Should Christians listen to secular music?” I would answer that question with another question: “What makes Christian music ‘Christian’ or permissible for a Christian to listen to?” The answer I believe is edification. To edify (according to Merriam-Webster) is to “teach (someone) in a way that improves the mind or character.” Simply put, to build or establish. In 2 Peter 1:5-8, Peter encourages his fellow believers to make an effort to gain faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, and love for each other. Essentially, Peter is commanding Christians to grow spiritually and build each other up, i.e. edification. In Philippians 4:8, the writer admonishes believers to dwell on things that are pure, noble, lovely, etc. Why? In the very next verse we find the answer, “ The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9).
In an earlier verse (Philippians 4:6) Paul mentions that the peace of God guards our minds. In essence, he is saying it is essential for us as believers to focus on Christ and His peace in order to grow and protect our minds. We can do this by focusing on things that edify and build us up both humans and Christians. Thus the ultimate goal of our music should be to point us to back to Christ.
Music that edifies
So does this mean that all secular music is bad? Let me share another story.
Last year the secular group Imagine Dragons released their second full album titled “Smoke + Mirrors.” The first track’s chorus goes like this:
“I’m sorry for everything,
Oh, everything I’ve done,
From the second that I was born it seems I had a loaded gun,
And then I shot, shot, shot a hole through everything I loved,
Oh, I shot, shot, shot a hole through every single thing that I loved.”
Listening to this song for the first time, my mind immediately made the connection to the concept of fallen mankind. In fact, when I listened to this song for the first time I found myself becoming convicted. Thinking about all the things I was currently dealing with in my life, I suddenly realized that a lot of it was a product of my need to be in control of my life and follow my own ideas and plans. But those ultimately fail because I am sinful. Seeking repentance that day was the best release of tension and anxiety I could have had. “Lord please forgive me,” I prayed. “I’m so sorry for everything I’ve done. I’ve shot a hole in everything I love. I’m fallen. Please take control again.”
So yes…I found edification for my Christian walk in a secular song. Why? Because it contained truth. Truth is one of those things to think on mentioned in Philippians 4:8. Truth, by its very definition, is consistent and unchanging. Therefore regardless of who says it, it is truth. Period. And even those with a secular worldview can understand truth to an extent. As I have mentioned in previous articles, the need for redemption is written into the heart of mankind and thus we can often find it leaking out of secular media even when the artists may not be aware of it.
There are however may secular artists who are in no way edifying. I don’t even have to give you any examples because they are in the majority. This is where discernment comes in. Just like with all forms of media, you can shun all media altogether, or accept all media with no filter, or go the toughest but most beneficial route and ask God to help you discern.
Musical sugar fluff
“So,” you may ask, “If a secular song doesn’t talk about redemption or some Christian theme, is it bad? What about songs that don’t contain any questionable content, but don’t have any edifying qualities either?”
One last story. I love cotton candy. It’s fluffy, sugary, and just plain fun to eat. When I was a small child the chances to have cotton candy were few and far between. I rarely had it, but when I did… man was it good. Then one evening in college during a late night student sports event, they offered cotton candy to the students for free; first come first serve. The short version of this story is that, with no one around to stop me, I ate way too much cotton candy. In fact, I ate so much that the next morning I woke up with the worst headache of my life, which my mother diagnosed as a “sugar hangover.”
Cotton candy in itself isn’t bad, but it is bad when you eat two whole bags of it like I did. There are things in life that are fine in moderation. Secular music that is neither here nor there in worldview is this way. It’s like sugar. In mass quantities, it does more bad than good because of a lack of nutrients, but in small amounts is neither beneficial nor destructive. The words may not be edifying, but they may not be poison. They may just be sugar fluff. Songs like Ed Sheeran’s “I see Fire,” Adele’s “Hello,” and Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” don’t push us drastically in any direction when it comes to worldview. They may lean in a direction, but they are just songs. Beats and words that tell a story or express an emotion and nothing more. This is musical sugar and not bad in moderation. But again, it takes discernment to separate the sugar fluff from everything else.
As Christians, what we take in is important. So yes, secular music can be detrimental to our spiritual edification if we never come up for air. But there are a few nuggets of truth to be found. You have to discern where they are and not throw the baby out with the bathwater while also being aware that some trash is just what it is: trash. There is nothing wrong with enjoying music, but what we take in long-term should be edifying and not solely cotton candy sugar fluff.
All that being said, it really comes down to what your convictions are. Just like with all other types of media, convictions are an essential thing and shouldn’t be mocked, made fun of, or belittled. Ask God to show you what edifies and then go and enjoy music.