The Music Church People Make

Part I

I once played an online game to guess whether lyrics of modern songs were from contemporary Christian music or from secular music. I had a tough time distinguishing between the two. Such fluffy lyrics tend to either get me disinterested or full on irritated. It is a topic that I had planned to blog about for a while but as I sat in front of keyboard and screen I realised I had more questions than answers.

Music is such an important part of human life and it plays a vital role in the life of the Church. Something as rich and complex as musical expression, I should have known, would not be so easy to analyse. Yet there is a problem and it needs to be correctly diagnosed if we are to find a solution. Where I am coming from there are two music scenes that need to be addressed, the local and the international (which essentially translates to what’s popular in the US.) Since I am in no respect an expert but a lover of all sorts of music I need to lay bare what my musical tastes are since these will obviously influence my judgment.

My family lived in the UK while I was in primary school and we attended a small Elim Pentecostal church in the coastal city of Southampton, England. The exposure to the kind of music they played, which was basically anything from integrity music compilation albums from the late 70s to late 90s, is what shaped early on my musical preferences. Of course we sung many hymns as well and I thoroughly enjoyed all the worship music. I didn’t listen to pop music even though I was well aware of it and it really didn’t attract me. Names like Lenny LeBlanc, Paul Baloche, Don Moen, Amy Grant, Darlene Zscech, Matt Redman, Paul Wilbur, Ron Kenoly, Tim Hughes, Michael W. Smith, Graham Kendrick etc. informed my young musical palate.

When we returned to Ghana I was immediately struck by the pulsating, dance inducing, drum driven, rhythms of Ghanaian music. This was a drastic change of pace from what I was used to. The range of expression in a Ghanaian Pentecostal worship was way beyond what you would expect in an English Pentecostal setting. Though I settled quickly into the new modes of worship it took me a long time to fully enjoy Ghanaian Christian music. This was partly because I had to relearn my first language Twi which I had almost lost during my stay in England. Most Ghanaian music is in Twi. I am still far more comfortable with English. More importantly my music sensibilities had already been shaped by Western English speaking styles and expectations from an early age. To this day I am not interested in the mainstream local Gospel music scene and I prefer the ‘alternative’, ‘underground’ types. When I entered university my musical horizons broadened significantly as I encountered Christian hip hop (CHH), contemporary Christian music (CCM), all sorts of ‘secular’ music and even classical stuff. Now I have very eclectic tastes in musical genres but if I had to choose a favourite it would probably be hip hop.

Not only have my musical preferences changed but also how I judged music. My first love was Christian music and I naively thought that was the only thing that should be listened to. It really did not matter quality of the music, as long as it was Christian, it was acceptable. In my defence what I was exposed to early on, even though it was not necessarily new, edgy and exciting, it certainly was not poor. So I naturally assumed that was the baseline quality for all Christian music. What for me qualified as Christian music or rather non secular music was anything that contained words like ‘God’, ‘Jesus’, ‘holiness’ and other key churchy words. It was far more convenient to discern and eliminate secular music because in my mind that was the stuff you shouldn’t listen to. What was left over was by default in my mind acceptable. Along with the lyrical content I followed a similar process of elimination when it came to the style of music. I noticed early on there is generally a distinction between Christian and secular music styles, so automatically some genres, namely pop and especially hip hop, were automatically black listed. Even if I liked the song I made a conscious effort to at least ignore it. Pop music is very hard to escape. At the time I entered university, when a friend introduced me to music that was both Christian and hip hop (I think it was I’m A Saint by Lecrae) it opened the floodgates, and I began to explore other styles and genres. That song was the first hip hop track I learned to perfectly rap. Also my personal theology matured which allowed me take a more nuanced look at the world. Besides I was growing up.

Whether local or international there are basically two trends I see in Christian music. Older Christian music tends to be God oriented while more recent stuff tends to be ‘me’ oriented. This is of course a gross generalization but I think it is a fairly accurate observation. Local Christian music is centred on personal struggle, combating worldly and spiritual forces militating against the prosperity of the individual and his family. Western Christian music is about the so-called ‘personal relationship’, which I have addressed elsewhere, characterised by signature Western individualism and aspirations along with a healthy serving of ‘everyone got issues’ pop theology of the human condition. Foreign hymns and older Christian music along with their Ghanaian analogues are more about who God is, referencing and weaving scripture into the lyrics more regularly and organically. Even though I do not know the words that well the old Twi Pentecostal songs are so rich, theologically robust and enduring. I am not saying older equals better. It is simply what I have observed.

As for the question of what music is acceptable or legitimate, it is more complicated than it might seem on the surface. Even though I might dislike or even despise some types of music, I do understand there is such a thing as artistic license. However, with any good license it does come with certain responsibilities and the artist is not exempt from this. I believe the artist’s duty is to respect the subject and portray it faithfully. What then is the source material? Should it be my personal experience or God’s revelation of himself? My relationships or his relation to me as my God and Father in Christ Jesus? The two poles of consideration ‘I’ versus ‘Him’ in Christian music, manifests itself in other ways particularly along the fault lines of the religious-secular divide. However, as I will point out it in the next part, these differences are not always clear.

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