One of my favorite bands is a crossover group, NEEDTOBREATHE. Some of their songs are worshipful. Some are straight-up party songs. As a worship singer, I would love the opportunity to perform “Be Multiplied” or “Who am I?”
What fun, though, to belt out “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” or “State I’m In”? Oh yes, those would get people dancing at a party (one day, when we get to have parties again and to sing and dance in groups).
I’m a little bit conflicted about whether or not it’s okay to want to sing secular music for secular purposes like parties, or even listening to music that isn’t “Christian.” After all, Paul wrote, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Can God be glorified by a good time on the dance floor? What is okay with the Lord when it comes to the music I choose to play?
What Is Glorifying God?
How do we glorify the Lord? Firstly, we point to him by our faith, according to David VanDrunen (The Gospel Coalition). This seems fairly straightforward — we believe in God’s promises which receive their “yes” in Christ, says VanDrunen.
Secondly, we worship. “Nothing we do delights God more than calling on his name with sincere hearts and declaring that all glory belongs to him.” When I enjoy the sound of a guitar or the song of a bird, it’s all from God.
I worship him by saying “thank you,” by acknowledging that he gave that gift of music to us, and by recognizing it’s all his — the birds, the songs, the sounds — everything made by him and for his own enjoyment.
We can almost stumble upon worship in this way, but to VanDrunen’s way of thinking, “worship is a distinct activity in which we set aside other tasks and set our minds and hearts fully on the Lord, in order to receive his Word and to respond back to him with prayer and song — in private, in families, and especially in corporate worship.”
In other words, we glorify God by making time to worship him, which is why going to church on Sunday is important. Hiking in the woods while arguing to myself at least I’m admiring God’s handiwork is not the same thing.
VanDrunen argues that God knows we aren’t putting him first when we shirk church regularly in order to do our own thing, making him secondary a side note or treating the Lord like he’s a hiking buddy.
But VanDrunen’s third point is that everything we do is worship. We glorify God by praising him when we work. He quotes 1 Peter 4:10-11:
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Peter is talking about worshiping the Lord while using our gifts. So, if someone’s job is to perform music, he can do this to the glory of God by boasting only in him (Galatians 6). He can glorify the Lord by praising him in his heart, which I won’t know, but which our Father knows.
And if he gives his best for an audience to enjoy, a musician has served his audience; has treated them with respect. A successful musician giving his all to an audience is showing integrity, and he stands out because of that.
When people ask, “Why do you work so hard?” He can say “because music is a gift from God.” Behavior leads to a conversation, which ultimately gives glory to God.
Where Does Secular Music Fit in Here?
Notice that a lot of activities are spiritually neutral until we attach a spiritual value to them. If I sing mindlessly, then I’m not doing it in order to praise God, but I’m not necessarily doing something bad either.
I might be glorifying God if singing represents joy in my work and demonstrates a kind of peace and joy, which co-workers don’t understand but want to find out about.
When I purposely choose to sing or listen to worship songs, which lead me into praise and thanksgiving, I am worshiping and glorifying him whether or not someone hears.
If I put on some tunes just to relax and, while listening, I praise the Lord for the rich, wild voice of Bear Rinehart, I have stumbled upon worship. Unexpected worship is still okay, but it mustn’t take the place of purposeful worship.
When it Isn’t Worship
I can think of at least two scenarios where I might be listening to any music, secular or gospel-centered, where I’m not glorifying the Lord. In fact, I might be downright sinning.
1. When I listen to Gospel music but I’m faking worship. That is, I pretend that I’m praising, that I’m singing for him.
I’m doing all the right things (closing my eyes, lifting my hands, smiling) but I’m actually thinking about my laundry, the shopping list, or how to organize a day packed with work and appointments. I’m more interested in appearances than in my posture before the Lord.
2. When I’m listening to secular music and my mind is on stuff I know is sinful. Even if the playlist is all praise songs, the music in my earbuds doesn’t make up for icky thoughts in my head.
An example would be if a song makes me feel depressed and I allow it to take me into a dark place. I know songs like that. I usually avoid them, but sometimes I sidle up to them thinking “I won’t be tempted to think depressing thoughts this time.” Right. Like that works.
Since I know these things to be true, I have to be on my guard. Music is perhaps my biggest hurdle in this way because it takes me places unexpectedly. Music makes me laugh, smile, cry, or remember.
Songs can either inspire or infect my imagination. The Lord looks into my head and knows whether I’m thinking “man, I’d really hit the right notes on that one if I could sing it on the worship team one weekend,” or “I want to sing this to praise my Father.”
He knows if I’m thinking “so and so would like me if they heard me sing that song” or “I want to make a pleasing sound to the Lord.” No matter how it comes out of my mouth, it’s my heart the Lord is listening to.
He can use my voice and any songs I sing to start a conversation with someone or prompt a person to think about themes, which lead that person to Jesus. In other words, God might still use me, but he might rebuke me along the way.
Meanwhile, I experience the sadness of knowing I displeased my Father in Heaven. I didn’t take my thoughts captive for Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).
So, Can I Listen to Secular Music?
I’m careful about what I listen to. If it’s violent, sexual, or disrespectful to the Lord, I don’t like it. There’s so much music I simply turn off as soon as I hear the lyrics, no matter how impressive the musicians are.
God can use it all for his good, for his glory, and his power is not affected by the words of songs that degrade people or claim he doesn’t exist.
His omnipotence is not undermined by anyone. But the Spirit in me recoils from anything which devalues people or the Lord. We were all made in God’s image.
It’s a shame when good music is poisoned by nasty words, especially when the best we give always comes from God himself — it should be our pleasure to give it straight back to him in worship. But I really have to check my own heart when I put my headphones on too.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.