The Downward Slide

One sign of the decay in Christianity is its failure to resist recent trends in so-called Christian music. During the last generation, the music made for a Christian audience has shifted dramatically toward a popular sound with blatant elements of jazz and rock. As a result, the special music in many churches today is no longer recognizably sacred, but could with different words be played in a night club. The music targeted for Christian homes is even worse. The recordings available in a Christian bookstore may be as raucous as the Top 40, and a broadcast on Christian radio may offer the same groans, thumps, and wailings heard elsewhere on the dial.

All Christian music that is mass-marketed both through Christian and secular outlets belongs stylistically to the class of music known as CCM (contemporary Christian music). Aside from the lyrics, this is barely indistinguishable from popular music. The reason it is closely imitative of best-selling worldly recordings is not hard to find. The Christian recording companies that once produced godly music have in the last forty years fallen into ungodly hands seeking to extract profits from the Christian market. All CCM comes from the same three global media conglomerates that dominate the production of secular music. Word belongs to the Warner Music Group, a publicly traded company uniting a number of well-known recording labels, all of them secular except Word. Chordant Distribution Group, including such labels as Sparrow, is a branch of EMI Music. The Provident Music Group, including Benson and other familiar Christian labels, is a small part of Sony BMG Music Entertainment. The energizer of such companies as Sony, EMI, and Warner is, naturally, the profit motive. In all their decisions they seek no goal except money.

An alarming trend in recent contemporary Christian music is to ignore Jesus altogether. The secular producers of this music are obviously trying to broaden the market to include people on the fringes of Christianity and beyond—that is, complete outsiders. Another probable reason for setting Jesus on the sidelines is to avoid any message that might be inconsistent with pluralistic relativism, which is doubtless the world view of the people making this music. Their personal world view forbids them from putting out any music suggesting that Christianity is superior to other religions. As they see it, the problem with Jesus-centered music is that it could turn fans into intolerant believers (from their viewpoint), or even prod fans to the deplorable conclusion (again, from their viewpoint) that without Jesus, they cannot find happiness or heaven. So, we see less and less of Jesus in the music they are selling.

A promo for the latest album of the group Superchick (now there's a sanctified handle!) boasts, "Superchick has flaunted a passionate, energetic pop-punk spirit, overflowing with positive messages." No mention of Jesus. In the numerous fan testimonials following the promo, no mention of Jesus. It appears from second-hand that the album has nothing more to offer than some uplifting thoughts about how to overcome life's problems—according to the promo, thoughts packaged as "new-wave-pop-punk-funk-rock." In other words, "Whatever degraded music you like best, you'll find it here."

Some Christian recording companies continue to be led by people claiming to be Christian, but they are accountable to bosses, boards, and stockholders who care about nothing except making money. Since you cannot serve both God and Mammon, the result is less and less of God in what they are producing.

What passes for sacred music in modern Christianity keeps getting worse. How may the downward trend be halted and turned around? Should our churches eliminate special music and limit congregational singing to a few old standards? No, to suppress singing is not a Scriptural solution. Again and again, the Bible commands us to sing (James 5:13; Psa. 92:1-4; 147:1, 7; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Why is singing so important? Because, unlike the many human activities that will cease when this world comes to an end, singing will go on forever. One of the few things we know about heaven is that the saints will sing (Rev. 5:9; 14:3; 15:3). Their singing will be an eternal delight to God, because it will render praise and love through a mode of expression that is at once thoughtful, creative, and harmoniously beautiful. A singing congregation or choir is an exquisite picture of relations within the body of Christ. Each voice submits to a large plan for the smooth functioning of the whole. Yet the whole derives its perfection from individual voices differing in strength and quality.

Good Standards

Since God Himself likes to hear us sing, we must keep on singing. Just because the devil offers us bad music is no reason to renounce good music. We must simply be careful to distinguish between the two kinds. In the present crisis, Christian people must exercise critical judgment rather than bow to musical fashions dictated by profiteers. They must set down reasonable and defensible standards for Christian music as a line against further inroads by the devil.

A good standard passes three tests.

  1. It is Biblical.
  2. It uses well-defined terms so that anyone with musical training can apply it with fair consistency.
  3. It requires music to be completely free of morally undesirable features. Any standard that allows a mixture of good and bad will finally collapse. Consider, for example, the plight of a church which has decided that Christian music can be jazzy but not too jazzy. What does "too jazzy" mean? The standard adopted by this church calls for a subjective judgment that few will find persuasive. In the long run, the standard will be doubly counterproductive. a) By allowing a subdued jazz rhythm, the standard tells the young in particular that jazz rhythm is not in itself wrong. So, they will not readily accept adult objections to slight increases in the regularity, volume, or obtrusiveness of the rhythm. Any claim that such increases are dreadfully sinful will seem arbitrary. b) The standard fosters the constant playing of somewhat jazzy music. When people become familiar with such music, its distinctive features no longer make them uncomfortable, and they are less inclined to regard anything as too jazzy. The line between acceptable and unacceptable moves in a permissive direction.

Many resist setting standards for Christian music because they believe that music is amoral—in other words, that music in any style whatever is inherently neither good nor bad. They argue that since music is amoral, a man is entitled to entertain himself with whatever music he likes. This line of thought is merely a variety of modern relativism, however. We live in an age when people have disowned absolutes. They deny that good and bad fall on a scale of values with an existence of its own, apart from every man's opinion.

Relativistic thinking assumes either that God does not exist or that He has not given us criteria for objective moral judgment. But God does exist, and He has given us such criteria—in the Bible. With the help of all the Biblical principles relating to music, we can develop musical standards that transcend personal taste. In a sea of uncertainty, these principles are an absolute and reliable anchorage for our own judgments concerning music.

Some years ago, when I was singing in a church choir, the director gave us a piece written by a well-known champion of contemporary Christian music (a performer I will call X). Since this radical break with previous policy was not open to discussion, I sent the following letter of resignation (slightly edited):

I know something about X because when I was serving as the music director of a church, I was asked to evaluate one of his tapes. The style of the music was mainstream rock. I concluded that he is just another wolf in sheep's clothing who is enriching himself through the commercial exploitation of Christian youth and young adults—that is, to speak more plainly, who is feeding the immature with carnal gratification for the purpose of making a buck. . . .

There are four reasons I will not sing the music of X. First, if I sang his music, I would be publicly testifying that contemporary Christian music is all right (or at least, not so bad), and I would be encouraging the naive to take a greater interest in it. Second, the Scripture clearly teaches that we are not to conduct Christian ministry in cooperation with the unruly. Third, I should not confirm the unruly in his sin by making it more profitable. Fourth, if we can sing the music of X, whose music can we not sing?

The arrangement you gave the choir is not especially objectionable. But two observations are pertinent here. First, if the music was written to fulfill an ungodly motive or to please an ungodly taste, God cannot like the music even under a heavy coat of cosmetic changes. Second, people never get to bad music in one leap. They always get there by going across the most convenient bridge. I feel that I should not go on the bridge at all.