Rethinking the Types of Christian Music

As I have been exploring the question of what music Christians should make, I have come to the conclusion that how Christians commonly categorise the music they make is inadequate. From hymns to gospel, Christian contemporary to Christian hip hop, the current genre labels we have are fine but they do not quite capture what Christian music is.

The reason why I think this issue matters is because music has always been an important part of the Church but music has radically changed in the modern world. Because of technological advancements music has exponentially become more accessible and more diverse than ever before. Also music is now a mass market commercial product which is a completely new development in the history of music. The New Testament tells us to make music to the Lord but what music is has in many ways radically changed and the contemporary Church in a media saturated world has to reckon with this.

Now when people refer to “Christian music” they almost always mean music that is religious, something that is explicitly Christian. A possible but ignored meaning of the phrase is simply music that is made by Christians. While these two meanings are clearly related there is an important difference between music that is Christian and music made by Christians. Music made by Christians is not always explicitly Christian in form or content. Now there are people of the view that Christians should only make explicitly religious music. The truth on the ground is that is not always the case.

There are big Christian artists who have had crossover success in secular music. There are also huge secular artists who are committed Christians and have not had success in the world of Christian music. Also, a lot of music made by the American Christian music industry, which has a truly global reach, is only vaguely Christian and is really just a substitute for mainstream pop music. Clearly Christian music means something more than only music that is Christian.

However, once music is made by a committed Christian there is the expectation that even if it is not explicitly religious that it will be consistent with the Christian worldview. Scripture prescribes a certain pattern of expression that is appropriate for godly people no matter what they are saying. Music is a form of expression so for Christians those standards apply as well. Because of this I think Christian music in everyday parlance should be expanded to include music that is simply made by committed Christians.

(I explained in a previous post I do not think Christian artists should make only explicitly religious music. I do think they do have a biblical responsibility to the Church and its music because of their talents but they should not be restricted to making a career out of doing only religious music. They maybe global superstars in mainstream music but on Sunday mornings they have to be part of their local church’s proceedings, as all committed believers should, and be involved in the music the church makes.)

The fact that Christians make all sorts of music and the Bible does not prohibit them from doing so as long as it is not ungodly is another example that the sacred-secular divide is very questionable. I and other commentators have observed that it is an early modern artificial distinction. Apart from astute, historically informed, social observation, there is even mounting empirical evidence (whatever you make of it) that suggests religiosity is an inherent part of the human make-up, even among those who are strict naturalists. The Bible emerged in a world where there was no distinction between the sacred and the secular. A careful reading easily shows that the Bible itself knows no such distinction. As the Dutch politician and influential theologian Abraham Kuyper once said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

If it is not tenable to conceive of Christian music in purely religious terms, then we need new conceptual categories the properly describe the music Christians make. I propose two features as a better way of generally characterising Christian music. They are content and context. By content I mean what is being expressed by the music, particularly the lyrics, and by context I am referring to the setting which the music is most appropriate for. Content and context in music are closely related. Deciding lyrical content affects context in which the music will be found and vice versa. Assessing all Christian music by the aforementioned criteria, with regard to lyrical content Christian music is either religious or not, and when it comes to context it is either liturgical or not. Since music is an art and not a science, I recognize the criteria of context and content will have some ambiguity. As a heuristic for categorizing Christian music I think it is more than adequate for characterizing the broad types of music that Christians actually make. More importantly, beyond being some pragmatic observations, they actually characterize the different kinds of music that are found in the Scriptures. We will soon look at how they map onto scripture but first we need to further examine what liturgical and lyrically religious music are respectively.

Liturgy is the manner in which a religious gathering is conducted. From the very beginning music has always been a key part of Christian liturgy. Usually the word evokes the highly ritualised worship of “high church” traditions like the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches. Those liturgies grew out of the Jewish liturgical practices that characterised Christian worship in the New Testament. Over time however, they became pretty distinct. Newer traditions like Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism are often said to have no liturgy but that is simply not true. Pentecostal traditions actually recover something that is present in New Testament liturgy but is largely absent in high church liturgy, which is charismatic spontaneity. Apart from church traditions, cultural contexts also affect the nature of liturgy. As such these things affect what is considered liturgical music, that is music that is appropriate for church. Now Christian music can legitimately be a number of different things but it must primarily include Church music.

Starting with my first category, liturgical music is by definition religious. (By religious I am referring to the lyrical content.) However, there is religious music not made for church. One of the characteristics of liturgical music as with most liturgy is that the entire congregation participates in it. While there are those who lead the congregation in liturgy, liturgical music is not performed by some to the rest of the worshippers gathered. Liturgical music is designed such that everyone participates in the performance, either by singing along entirely, singing parts designated for them or whatever is required of the congregation by the music. Liturgical music is communal in nature.

Now Christian life extends beyond the set days for gathering. There is also religious music for nonliturgical settings. Whether it is for private devotion or a song for a particular life circumstance, there is religious music suited for life outside church gatherings. Sometimes religious music is just not suitable for church gatherings. This could be because culturally the type of music is not suited for liturgy or the style of music just does not lend itself to congregational participation. Whatever the reasons are, some religious music is not appropriate for a liturgical setting.

Lastly, there is Christian music which is nonreligious which by definition means it is also nonliturgical. Again we are operating with a broad definition of Christian music, that is, music made by Christians and therefore has a broadly Christian outlook. Christians are not obligated to make exclusively religious music neither is explicitly religious music always required in all situations. Nonreligious, nonliturgical Christian music is simply music made by Christians.

Now on to some examples from the categories I have proposed based on the criteria of content and context. I will be drawing examples from within the Bible and also from modern Christian music. Before that, a quick recap of the three categories of Christian music which are liturgical/religious, nonliturgical/religious and nonliturgical/nonreligious. Some modern examples of nonliturgical/nonreligious Christian music is Michael W. Smith’s 90s crossover hit Place in this World and Amy Grant’s Baby Baby also from the beginning of that decade. Skillet is a Christian rock band that has enjoyed a lot of mainstream commercial success in the last decade with songs like Hero and Awake and Alive. Twenty One Pilots is an indie pop duo who are committed believers yet they do not make religious music. They have enjoyed massive mainstream success in recent years with huge hits like Stressed Out, Ride and Heathens. While examples from modern music are relatively easy to find, it might seem that there is no nonliturgical/nonreligious music in the Bible but there is. The biggest example is the Song of Solomon, an entire book of the Bible which celebrates erotic love. Another example is the song the women of Israel composed for young David after his military victories which provoked King Saul to jealousy. “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7 ESV.) Scripture generally assumes there is music for different occasions and social settings which of course goes beyond the liturgical and the religious.

On to the next category which is nonliturgical/religious music. Examples of this are very common in Christian hip hop. The nature of rap music makes it very difficult to adapt for liturgical use. However, Christian rap is for the most part very religious and can be very theologically profound. An example of a very theological rap song is Trip Lee’s Sweet Victory. Examples of nonliturgical/religious music can also be readily found in the Psalms like Psalm 2 which was a favourite among the early Christians. There are also individual psalms of lament like Psalm 22 which was also popular in the New Testament. Then there are the wisdom psalms like Psalms 37 and 112 which are very much like proverbs. As you can see there are variety of nonliturgical/religious songs in the Bible.

Liturgical/religious Christian music abounds both in the Bible and in the Church so I will not waste time citing examples. This kind of music is after all the core of Christian music. One thing I’d like to reiterate is that this music needs to be communal. By that I mean it should be music that properly involves the entire congregation as well as something that represents the life and calling of the Church. A lot of hymns and older Christian music, in my experience tend to be spiritually more wholesome than newer popular Christian music. Before you think I am an older person nostalgic for the good old days I am in my late twenties and I think the overall quality of popular Christian music today has to vastly improve. This is of course not a wholesale endorsement of all older Christian music neither am I saying there are no contemporary gems. However, as part of the English speaking world there is evidence that more recent music tends to lack theological bandwidth. In my part of the world, as an Akan speaker I see a similar trend in Akan Christian music. A lot of newer Christian music is not very biblically informed or biblically literate. The theological quality of our music is in part symptomatic of the quality of discipleship in the Church. These are things we really need to improve on.

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