July 31, 2014 6 min to read

The Big Question of Christian Music

Category : Blogs (Faith), Life-Ecstatic (Faith)

I suppose the first thing I should say is, is Christian music really a big question? When I was younger, I thought so. My teenage years as a Christian were largely formed by my fledging album collection. I never really paid much attention to preaching or reading (besides the Bible) – my Christian music heroes discipled me from afar. My dream was to be a like them – a Christian rock star. I used to stare at the back of the CD covers of my Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline, and Tree63 CD’s, dreaming about the day when it would be my turn – when my music would also count and make an impression on people.

Recently, John Ellis from Tree63 came under a great deal of fire when he had jokingly said in an interview with well-known personality Gareth Cliff that he had written Christians songs ‘for the money’. He also stated that Tree63 were not a Christian band – in an effort to try and make the (rather tired, by now) distinction between a “Christian band” and a “band full of Christians”.

Over at JohnEllis.co.za, Ellis put the record straight and apologised for the whole ordeal. The money comment was, in Ellis’s words, a “wry joke, badly timed,” and regarding the issue of a Christian band versus a band full of Christians, Ellis says:

“I tried to make the age-old distinction between a band full of Christians and a ‘Christian’ band. It’s a thorny issue that’s been raging since the very first idea of Christian-themed pop music ever surfaced, and any band that has sung about spiritual things in the secular arena (Stryper, U2, Kula Shaker, Delirious?, Switchfoot, Tree63 etc.) has had to field those questions. It can come across as splitting hairs, which is ironic for a bald man to do… essentially Tree63, as ‘Christian’ as it became, was primarily a rock band singing about Jesus, not a church band with a missional agenda and music as second-thought.”

Meanwhile, in the comments section at his post, you can see how people responded. Some happy, others shocked.

Is there such a thing as a Christian dentist?

My brother-in-law, Jonno Warmington, said this to me the other day when we chatted about this: Is there such a thing as a Christian dentist? If you mean a dentist who does his work for the glory of God, well that’s fine and well – that’s what we all do. But if you mean a dentist who only ever does dentistry on Christians; only ever works in Christian mouths; and only ever pulls out Christian teeth; wouldn’t that be a rather odd practice? Most of us wouldn’t think it strange and a sell-out when a Christian dentist says he is happy to work on anyone’s teeth.

But when it comes to music, we seem to think that, for some reason, it ought to be different. In fact, it seems that this is really a general problem for most of Art – there’s some reason why you can’t be a Christian musician, or a Christian writer, or a Christian painter, without looking to use your art exclusively for overt evangelism. Why is this?

Perhaps it’s because of how art appeals to the imagination. But the problem is this: once you try and dictate to an artist what his art is supposed to look like (AKA, how Christian it’s meant to be) you sell the art out to the corporate, one-size-fits-all squeeky clean mass-produced culture. In other words, you actually force the artist to become the very thing you complain about: a sell-out.

Let artists be artists and then you’ll be surprised what they can do. Force them to fit your mould and wishes and you’ll be shocked at how they’ll respond. Never corner an artist. In place of it you’ll get a raging beast who will bite back, feeling trapped and confined. They don’t fit in the box, so why expect them to? Why tell them they must? It goes against the very God-given gift and personality they have.

Christian leaders are not always the best in telling people not to be rock stars

In my younger years, when I wanted to be a rock star, I noticed something that’s worth saying here, even if it is a bit harsh. A lot of Christian leaders had a lot to say to me about my desire to be a rock star, but for some reason they were blind to their own “rock star” ambitions. You know, the very real ambition to become a big deal in the church. A superstar preacher. An apostolic asteroid. The guy with the biggest church and the most influence. And for some reason, all that kind of ambition is okay because a lot of Christian leaders hide behind the idea that all that is “for the advancement of the Kingdom.” Actually, it’s the advancement of their own Kingdom and built on their own need for affirmation, and pastors and preachers and evangelists and apostolic guys need to face the reality and motivation behind the ambition in their own hearts.

I feel perfectly comfortable calling this what it is because I’ve had to work through it. Here’s a post I wrote that spoke a bit about it: I’m not interested in counting for God anymore. This sort of unhealthy ambition is one of those sins in the church that too few leaders bother to address in their own lives but are quick to see in others. I’m by no means pointing fingers at anyone in particular, but I am making the point because I think it does add value, especially when I consider how celebrity focused the evangelical church has become. (Cue this week’s unhealthy finger-pointing furore over Mark Driscoll.)

So, is Christian music important?

In short, I say no. Or, rather, not as much as we seem to think. I believe music is a nice-to-have for church services, but I don’t believe (as I used to) that it’s imperative. Most of the mainstream evangelical church puts a heck of a lot of stock in it, and I can’t really see why any more. We can use music as a “means of grace” (a way in which we connect with God and experience his grace in an intimate way) but there are plenty of other “means of grace” (I use the term loosely, not as some liturgical churches would use it) which seem to get less airtime. In fact, one of the most legitimately Biblical “means of grace”, the breaking of bread, gets far less airtime in contemporary evangelical churches than music – yet there’s scant reference to music in the New Testament.

In fact, we can’t really know for sure how the early church incorporated music into its worship services (one can build a stronger argument for liturgical practices than for the modern day contemporary service, by the way). If we thought about how we’ve put music on a pedestal in Christian living carefully, we wouldn’t get so easily shocked and shout the “sell-out” label when good musicians want to just be good musicians and make a living off it. Rather than do that, why not find ways to support the arts in our country – because you may not realise just how little support it receives in Corporate South Africa.

About Ryan Peter


Ryan Peter is a writer, journalist and ghostwriter from Johannesburg, South Africa. He writes fantasy, sci-fi, inspirational fiction, and on faith. Ryan is also part of the New Covenant Ministries International (NCMI) translocal team.

Leave a Reply

Comments (2)