Unfortunately, there is no universal definition of what specific qualities a song must have to be considered a “Christian” song. Here are some opinions:
- The song lyrics must reflect biblical truth.
- The song lyrics must directly praise God/Jesus.
- The song must mention God/Jesus.
- The song must be written for Christians and not as an evangelical tool.
- The lyrics must directly address God, not other people.
- The song must be completely new, not a cover of a secular song.
- The song is designed to be played in church, not outside of church.
- The melody must be paramount, and the rhythm subdued.
- The song must be written and performed by mature Christians only.
- The men who sing the song must have short hair, and the women must have long hair.
There are several aspects of a song that may influence its categorization as "Christian music," but these qualifiers suggest almost as many problems as solutions. And many of them focus on everything except the message of the song.
Christian Music - The Writers/Performers
Many consider a song to be "Christian" only if it is performed by an artist in the Christian music industry and played on Christian radio stations. However, if the lyrics of a song written and performed by Christians for a Christian audience misinterpret Scripture, can it still be considered "Christian music"? Can a slightly modified cover of a secular song by a Christian artist for a Christian audience be considered "Christian music"? Kansas’s "Carry on Wayward Son" performed by Rachel Rachel and Matt Brouwer’s cover of Sheryl Crow’s "I Shall Believe" come to mind. Or what about songs written and performed by someone once billed as a Christian artist who now lives an unbiblical lifestyle? If the lyrics speak spiritual truth, does the origin of the song matter?
Then there are songs that reflect spiritual truth but are not specifically written for the Christian community. Many of these songs are performed by individuals who have background knowledge of Christianity but are in a period of searching for what they believe. Some time ago, some confusion arose over the group Creed because their songs reflected some spiritual truths, but the band was not expressly Christian. In fact, only the lead singer, Scott Stapp, admitted any connection with Christianity. At the time of this writing, the group under the church microscope is Mumford & Sons. Like Scott Stapp, Marcus Mumford has a father in the ministry. Although the band’s music explores Christian themes, Marcus has publicly declared he does not identify with the label "Christian," and he has not made his beliefs about Jesus clear. Does that ambiguity negate the spiritual truths found in Mumford & Son’s "I Will Wait"?
There are also bands dedicated to a career in secular music that are comprised of members who claim to have a saving relationship with Jesus. These would include Lifehouse, U2, and Evanescence. While the band members claim they are not in a “Christian” band, their faith naturally and inexorably comes out in their words—much like J. R. R. Tolkien’s faith is evident in his writing. U2’s song "Forty" is part of Psalm 40, nearly verbatim; is it a "Christian" song?
And then there are bands in the middle—bands that have crossed over to the secular market without compromising their faith. Like Lifehouse, The Fray has music that can be heard on Christian and secular stations alike. All the members of The Fray are Christian, and they find the label "faith-based band" flattering. Likewise, Skillet doesn’t balk at the label "Christian band," but they are also heard regularly on secular stations and don’t try to express their faith in every song. Does Skillet’s success in the secular market taint the spiritual legitimacy of their music?
All to say that the walk and focus of the singers/songwriters can’t necessarily determine whether a song is "Christian."
Christian Music - The Beat
There is a line of teaching that says certain drum beats appeal to the flesh and can invite demonic activity. Adherents go so far as to say drum sets (with several drums and cymbals) should not be allowed in a church. Some examples of "evil" drum beats are:
- Syncopation: an unexpected emphasis in the beat, whether continuous or occasional. Syncopation has been used in European music since the Middle Ages (Bach, Handel, Haydn, etc.) and is very common in music styles ranging from ragtime to rock to ska. Whenever a beat appears to come a little too late or early, that’s syncopation.
- Pulsating: when a primary beat is in eighth notes or faster. Techno music often has a pulsating beat.
- Polyrhythmic: when the beat consistently includes two different timings (such as 2/4 and 6/8) at the same time. This timing is used in Beethoven’s Sixth String Quartet and Mozart’s Twelfth Piano Sonata. A variation of the polyrhythmic beat, cross-rhythm, is used extensively in sub-Saharan music. Polyrhythmic beats are also frequently found in jazz.
It is true that drum rhythms have been used in pagan religious ceremonies for millennia. But drums were used in Jewish ceremonies as well (the "timbrel" of Exodus 15:20, 1 Samuel 18:6, and Psalm 81:2 was similar to our tambourine). It is not the beat that draws demonic attention, but the intent of the participants. Ironically, it is the slower, steady drum beats that can cause a listener to drop his guard and fall into a trance-like state. While it is true that church sound technicians the world over have a particular challenge in attenuating the volume of drums, the Bible never cautions against drum beats.
Christian Music - The Instruments
There are a few church denominations that do not allow musical instruments to be used in services because, they claim, instruments are not mentioned in the New Testament. This is an argument from silence, which is a weak logical position. Considering the varied references to instruments in the context of Old Testament worship, it would seem that God enjoys music-making devices. In addition, "making melody" in Ephesians 5:19 refers literally to plucking the string of a musical instrument such as a harp. The Bible leaves Christians free to use instruments if they choose.
Christian Music - The Lyrics
If the Bible leaves the use of instruments and type of rhythm to personal preference, and if the writer/singer is not a decisive indicator of "Christian music," this leaves lyrics. Words can, and should, express spiritual truth. Colossians 4:6 says that all our conversations should be "full of grace, seasoned with salt." Ephesians 4:29 says our words should be edifying—they should build others up.
But can the lyrics be "Christian"? Not technically. Christian means "follower of Christ." This can only refer to a person—not a song, a book, or a business. Although the terms get clunky, it would be better to call a song’s lyrics "scripturally sound" or "biblically edifying."
Still, songs with Bible-based lyrics are a blessing. They help us meditate on God’s Law (Psalm 119:48b); dwell on what is true, honorable, and lovely (Philippians 4:8); and even pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). If the writer or singer is less than a perfect role model, it only matters if that knowledge distracts the listener from the message of the song. If the drum beat is distracting to one person, he or she is free to worship the Lord with drum-less music. And an a cappella praise song can be just as worshipful as one with instrumental accompaniment. It’s a matter of personal preference. God gave us music to enjoy and to build us up. As Psalm 40:3 says, "He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the LORD and put their trust in him."