In defense of Christian popular music

I have a love-hate relationship with Christian music, especially the newer stuff. I had really unique and constant church music experiences growing up (my dad was a minister of music), and music praising God was literally the center of my life. Then I majored in music in college and learned lots of things about teaching music. Needless to say, I have lots of major opinions about how music should go down in church and/or how music that is designed for worshipping should be. So when I listen to songs on Christian radio, I find myself more often than not rolling my eyes. Oh, this one again? 🙄

I get really worked up as I listen to Christian radio. I wonder about and get really nit-picky about the theology of some songs (did God really not want heaven without us? That seems very human-centered instead of God-centered)(why are we inviting God here? Isn’t He already here because two or three are gathered in His name? It’s kind of asinine to invite God somewhere, really). I question the wording of some songs (“you took the fall, and thought of me, above all” – really? Jesus placed me above everything else? Again, that seems a little human-centered. God constantly says in His word, particularly throughout the prophecies in the Old Testament, that He is doing things for His sake, and that Israel should remember that it is not for their sake that He saves them). And then there are the little things that just bug me or rub me the wrong way (that random whistling in that one really actually great Danny Gokey song…what is UP with that whistling for just two seconds at the climactic moment? It’s like God is an old man in a rocking chair chewing on hay for a second)(the Christmas season Jingle Bell Rock where they sing “mix and mingle with the jingling FEET” instead of BEAT, I mean seriously, you can’t look up the lyrics to make sure they’re right before the song gets nationally produced? Come ON.)(Oh and then that super fun song “Higher” that I actually love, but the lyric “higher” goes lower in pitch as it is repeated. Haven’t those writers heard of text painting? The word is “higher,” the notes should go higher. Drives me bonkers). It also bugs me how shallow many of the songs are – they often just seem like filler lyrics because they rhyme or lazy songwriting where you wanted a hit so you sing about how good God is. I mean, I do get it, He is really really good, so I can’t blame them, to an extent. And then there’s the cheese factor (“hold me Jesus, cause I’m shaking like a leaf” – really? “heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss?” You couldn’t get something less gross and cheesy to fill that lyric space? “That’s why God made tears?” Gag-face.). And don’t get me started on all of the water metaphors (even though all of those songs are REALLY good)(“you call me to deeper waters, you said don’t be afraid,” “you call me out upon the waters, the great unknown where feet may fail,” “you have made me brave, you have made me brave, you call me out beyond the shore to the waves” – I heard all three of these on the radio today, dead serious). And lastly, the number of times per day I hear Chris Tomlin’s voice. I seriously think he writes a number one hit every time he goes number two (talk about holy crap, amirite?). But really, there’s lots for a (please read my sarcasm here) super mature and theologically developed veteran Christian like me to pick apart.

And then my incredible God reminds me of what I just mentioned above – it’s for His sake, not mine. And I am humbled and reminded of why Christian music is worth it, after all (above all? I kid).

1. These songs are written to market to a large multitude of people of all walks. Sure, some of the songs don’t really speak to me lyrically (Third Day’s I Need A Miracle), but they do speak to someone. Am I such a self-centered Christian that I need every song to move me or speak to my personal needs regarding growth? I hope not. Instead, I hope I can be renewed in the simpler truths of God each time I hear them. Worship is a choice – I can choose to worship when listening to any song that isn’t sinful regardless of the lyrical depth. God’s mercies are new every morning, great is His faithfulness. I can sing the same lyrics again and be renewed, similar to how Scripture can still be meaningful after the millionth read (this is especially true if the song lyrics are actual Scripture). An example of this would be I Could Sing of Your Love Forever. For years, I’ve hated this song, and I’ve rolled my eyes every time it has played. Again? Really? I’d think. But there is something to be said in repeating the title lyrics. Could I sing of his love forever? I will, won’t I? How cool is it that people of every tribe and tongue will come together to sing of his love? How cool is it that my favorite thing is to sing, and it is one of the only things that carries over from earth into heaven? I get to sing of His love forever. That’s actually pretty awesome. And now I no longer want to gouge my eyes out, but instead my heart is filled with renewed love for a Savior who went out of His way to keep His promise to Israel, and then extended that promise to a lowly Gentile. I will open up my heart and let the Healer set me free. I’m happy to be in the truth, and I will daily lift my hands, for I will always sing of when your love came down. Beautiful.

2. Even though not every song is deep or spiritually great, many, many, many are. Take a listen to “Tell Your Heart to Beat Again,” “Blessings,” “Thy Will,” “Broken Together,” “Even If,” and “How Can It Be.” All of these songs are about choosing to praise God when things don’t make any sense. There is a necessary level of spiritual maturity to even understand those songs. Then, there are all the great songs that outline our faith so well. Take a listen to “In Christ Alone,” “Glorious Day,” “We Believe,” “Forever,” “Doxology,” “Be My Everything,” and “All I Have Is Christ.” Honestly, I’ve found that it is worth it to listen to the shallow stuff for a while just to hear some of these played once. I bet some of these songs drive other people nuts, just like I bet some of the songs that drive me nuts mean the world to someone else. There is so much to grow in with our faith, and in different seasons, we have different needs. Certain verses have meant so much to me during particular times in my life, but they aren’t as profound to me now. I would hate to dismiss an entire ministry because I’m irritated by some songs when there are so many excellent ones, too.

3. Many people argue that modern Christian popular music is too emotional, but there is an emotional side to humankind. I’d say it’s half. We are half emotional, and half logical. While I do think we need to practice caution in getting so emotional that we stop thinking and therefore reject truth in favor of feelings, I think it is totally okay to get a spiritual high from singing to Jesus, especially when singing His truths. Some people are really turned off by the wavy-armed, tear-covered faces of worshippers because “they aren’t really worshipping, they’re just having an emotional experience.” I think we’re forgetting that those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. I almost always get emotional when I remember what God has done for me. When I see the incredible, totally unwarranted blessing that He has showered on me, I am moved. When my heart is moved, my hands and feet start moving, too, and I become a doer of the word rather than just a hearer. This morning, we visited the church Ryan grew up in. That church has an amazing culture of worship – every voice sings. There are only like 200 people in there, and there was one pianist, one guitarist, one box-drum player, and one female vocalist, and that room was totally filled with singing. I couldn’t even sing. I just stood there and cried. This is a glimpse of heaven – people coming together and shouting for joy His praise. “You are good, you are good, when there’s nothing good in me…oh, I’m running to your arms, your everlasting love will always be enough.” It refreshes me and spurs me on to keep living for Jesus. He is enough! I am glad to be emotional over Jesus. He is certainly worth having feelings about.

4. The biggest reason that I’ll celebrate Christian radio is that it allows me to consistently put thoughts about God and His goodness in my head throughout the day. Every time I drive, I think about Him. Whether I eat or drink or whatever I do, I can praise Him in it. The constant thought of His presence reminds me that He is there, and it helps me focus on Him in what I’m doing instead of ignoring Him (and that’s really why we sing about inviting His presence, isn’t it, so that we acknowledge and remember Him?). The reminders of my sin (I am guilty, ashamed of what I’ve done, what I’ve become, these hands are dirty, how can I lift them up to the Holy One) help me confess. The moments of reveling in His glory (worthy is the…lamb who was slain, holy holy is He) and dreaming of heaven (I Can Only Imagine, Glorious Day, I’ll Fly Away) move me and give me a reason to live well, really. I can actually meditate on God’s word all day with minimal effort, just from turning on my car. I think this is the modern equivalent to writing the words on our foreheads and meditating on them day and night. These songs get stuck in my head, and I find myself singing little snippets all the time. I didn’t even realize I knew some of them! Something is always going in our ears these days – what could be better than praise to Him? What we listen to affects us – I know that I’m a more Christ-centered, kind, loving person when I regularly meditate on God’s word.

Christian songwriters should be held to the same standard as pastors, as they are essentially teachers of the Word. The lyrics and meanings of any song written about God should be carefully scrutinized to ensure that it contains biblical truth, not false doctrine or heresy or blasphemy. This can easily happen when songwriters are rushing to put out the next number one or create a song for attention or glory. We should pray, critique, and carefully edit our words of praise since we are imperfect. Overall, though, we must remember how good God is at using things for His glory even when they aren’t quite right. He is the author and perfecter of our faith.

Even though I love to roll my eyes at those same old songs playing again on the radio, I am so grateful that there exists a ministry whose goal is to spread the love of Christ through song. May God give those people clean hands and pure hearts as they work for His glory, and may we always remember that worship isn’t about our personal likes and dislikes, preferences and desires, but it is about giving back to the One who gave us absolutely everything.