I’ve got a confession: I can’t stand contemporary Christian music.
To me, it seems like we, as Christians, often let any song that says the name of Jesus pass as quality music. Yes, I’m sure many of the Christian artists I hear have honest intentions to praise the Lord. But usually, the Christian music genre seems stamped by a mash-up of hymns, psalms and other Scripture verses, all with a similar melody and fade out.
The vast majority of contemporary Christian music sounds shockingly similar — lyrics riddled with cliches and superficial shout-outs to the Lord. You can tell a song is “Christian” in seconds.
These “Christian” songs often sound a lot like the secular ones, but with words about Jesus thrown in to make it “Christian.” It’s like these bands are making carbon copies of secular music but removing any explicit content with a “hallelujah.” It’s unoriginal and cliche.
Now, I don’t think all Christian music is terrible, and there are some modern Christian songs I really enjoy. But I think our standards for Christian music often lack substance.
My Christian music taste is unique.
Growing up I had a church experience unlike most white people I know. My great-grandpa built one of the first racially integrated churches in Pittsburgh. And this was in the 1950s — a time known for racism and segregation. My church, to this day, is predominantly African American. The only white people are pretty much my own family.
At my church we sung, and continue to sing, gospel-style hymns. For years the only Christian music I ever knew were songs like, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “I’ll Fly Away.” Michael W. Smith and Hillsong United weren’t exactly on my church’s playlist.
In my church, the hymns we sing originated out of pain and oppression — these songs were often sung by slaves on plantations. The sorrow and sincerity of their lyrics show first-hand what it’s like to daily rely on the Lord’s provision.
Honestly, I have no idea what that’s like. I don’t know what it’s like to experience oppression or persecution. But I can feel the hope the Holy Spirit brings to those of us who lack much. These hymns beautifully articulate where sorrow and hope meet. The psalms are the same way. King David wrote many of the psalms while he was persecuted. He praised the Lord, begged the Lord and questioned the Lord in the psalms. These sentiments echo what it means to be human and love the Lord. I like old-school Christian music.
I prefer “non-Christian,” spirit-filled music.
My church’s worship style has influenced my personal, everyday music taste. I’m not saying I listen to Mahalia Jackson’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” everyday. But similar sentiments of desperation, frustration, hope and questioning often pop up in my playlists.
Often, I feel a unique connection to lyrics that show first-hand what it feels like to hold on to faith and hope in One greater. I hear songs begging for answers, songs that are searching. I feel like those people have a unique insight to the suffering of Christ and hope in the unseen. There are songs like this which I frequently listen to who are by artists who either aren’t labeled a “Christian” band or aren’t even of the Christian faith.
Take my favorite band, Thrice, for example. The lead singer is a believer, but the other three members are not. It’s not a “Christian” band, but their songs explicitly parallel scripture. The song “Moving Mountains” is essentially verbatim the first half of 1 Corinthians 13 — aka The Love Chapter. Another song of theirs called “All the World Is Mad,” talks about the sinfulness of the world:
The blind lead the blind into bottomless pits,
Still we smile and deny that we’re cursed.
But of all our iniquities,
Ignorance may be the worst.
These lyrics aren’t explicitly scriptural like some of their other songs, but it’s clearly talking about the importance of cultivating creation, being mindful to what’s going on around us and acknowledging original sin.
This vulnerability seems missing in contemporary Christian music.
And perhaps, just because a song is labeled “Christian,” it isn’t automatically more spiritual, more inspired or more pleasing to the Lord.
Let’s talk about hip hop and rap.
Several rap artists depict experiences that I think are important to understand as believers and as human beings.
Too often I hear Christians shake their heads to rap without giving certain artists a chance. If you look at the history of hip hop and rap, it started as a response to social injustice. African American people used their voice and creativity to propel change. As years have gone by, hip hop and rap have lost their original intent, with lots of artists singing profanities and obscenities. But not all rappers do that. Plenty of rappers are true poets who have experienced oppression.
Look at Lecrae for example. Lecrae is technically a “Christian” rapper, but his music is also played on secular hip hop stations. Why? Because his lyrics have depth. His lyrics address issues in the black community that apply to believers and non-believers. For instance, in his song “Facts,” Lecrae talks about being criticized by the white church for talking about issues of race in his music. The lyrics of “Facts” include a popular quote from Malcolm X:
I will only tell the truth
I am for truth no matter who tells it.
I will only tell the truth
I’m for justice no matter who it is for or against.
Not to mention, Lecrae’s beats sound as good as secular rappers. Chance the Rapper is the same way. Chance used to struggle with addiction. Now, he’s a proclaimed believer with most of his songs praising God. For example his song “Blessings” offers an old-school gospel flavor that still has a great beat. Chance is real. He’s not perfect, but he’s honest. I appreciate that.
It’s OK to like contemporary Christian music.
I don’t love every song by Lecrae or Thrice or Chance the Rapper. And I actually do like some songs by Christian bands like Matt Maher and Switchfoot and Kings Kaleidoscope.
There’s nothing wrong with listening to contemporary Christian music and loving it. Like another Boundless blogger who talked about why he likes contemporary Christian music, I agree there are words, phrases and sentiments in some of the lyrics that stick with you. There’s a reason there’s so many Christian bands out there — people appreciate their music.
But songs that aren’t explicitly labeled “Christian” have significance and can still do kingdom work — without sounding like a cliched replica of a secular song.
Psalm 22:3 says that the Lord is enthroned on the praises of the people. Including the old-school hymns. Including the form of contemporary Christian music that makes me cringe at times.
So please, continue jamming out to Matt Maher, Tenth Avenue North and others. But maybe also give some old-school hymns a chance. And maybe listen to artists like Thrice or Chance the Rapper who might not be labeled “Christian” but are tangled with images that either parallel Scripture or offer insight in a different way.