Music and Evangelism
Gary D. Erickson
The church, though part of the totality of culture, transcends culture. The church should not be a passive receiver. . . . Rather, it should mold and “salt” culture, impacting it in depth with the full gospel. —Calvin M. Johansson1
There is great emphasis today to use music as a means of evangelizing the lost. There is a push to use the “language of the people” in the “song of testimony” in order to break down the walls of separation between the church and the world.
Christian musicians certainly should be involved in a continual search for fresh modes of expression, new styles, new sounds, and new songs. The church should evangelize the world using every means possible. But are there limits to musical evangelism?
Although we do not discredit music evangelism, the biblical example of such activity in the first church is very sketchy. In fact, the Bible does not have anything specific to say concerning music being used in evangelism. Neverthe¬less, I feel it safe to assume that music made some contribu-tion to their evangelism effort. The only New Testament reference to non-Christians giving attention to Christian singing is found in Acts 16:25. Paul and Silas “sang praises to God” while imprisoned in a Philippian jail, and “the pris¬oners heard them.” This scene experienced an earthquake and the conversion of the jailer and his family. These two beaten prisoners singing an a capella duet at midnight was far removed from some of the so-called music evangelism performances of today.
Christian music groups who are the most outspoken for music evangelism posture as worldly look-alikes, singing styles and staging show-biz antics to lure the sinner. Chris¬tian rock has exploded with many new groups using these excessive methods of music evangelism. Some have adorned themselves with spandex pants, studded leather, chains, earrings, long hair, and make-up. On some Christian music CD covers, groups look clownish, while others ap¬pear forlorn and depressed. Some adorn their album covers with symbols and graphics that send confusing messages concerning the sacred and the profane. Their music style is a deliberate mimicking of secular groups.
The game plan seems to be that the sinner who sees the album covers and hears the music will think the group is just like they and perhaps, through listening to their subtle gospel message, will be converted. The sad truth is a large number of church kids are attending the concerts and buying the CDs, since their parents will not let them attend secular concerts. This only weakens the young Christian rocker s stand against the evils of the worldly music. It appears to be only a quasi-concern for the sinner but one by which the worldly at heart can look like the world and still be a Chris¬tian. Carman, a popular Christian musician, stated it well:
Over the years, people like Andrae Crouch, Evie, Sandi Patti, the Bill Gaither Trio—they simply took what they learned in church and brought it out to the world. Now days we’re learning something in the world and trying to bring it into the church and it’s falling flat . . . but what I’ve seen over the years is that when we try to use music as a tool for evangelism, we want to become as much like the people we’re evangelizing as we can so we can relate to them. But it’s almost like we’re using some¬thing that wasn’t designed for that. It’s almost like running 10 miles with flip-flops on. You can do it but flip-flops are not designed for running 10 miles. So we’re using something that God did not design for evangelism.’
Steve Miller believes it is unfair to judge by the out¬ward appearance. He explains it in these words:
In some aspects of their appearance [Christian musicians], there are similarities to ungodly performers. But this is not reason enough for condemnation for, as we have seen, there are also similarities between preachers and evil barons of Wall Street.3
This is a poor argument. Suits have been formal dress for men for decades. Men of various functions and avoca¬tions wear suits. Dress by some performers is arcane and peculiar to a specific subculture.
There is a great dichotomy in Christian music today between the spiritual, edifying, scriptural “church music” and the commercialized, marketable “entertainment music.” This simplistic division perhaps doesn t seem fair, consid¬ering the diversity and ambiguities of modern Christian music. Yet, in a general way, this division will assist in communicating the points to be made in this chapter. Tech¬nology has produced a vast marketplace for the contempo¬rary Christian musician, creating a whole new area of Christian music we are calling “entertainment music.” Rec¬ords, tapes, CDs, mp3s, religious television programming, Christian music concerts, and music DVDs have opened the marketplace, with resulting lucrative contracts and vast fan potential. Many music groups have cashed in on this new market not only with music recording but also through mar¬keting T-shirts, pictures, posters, and other paraphernalia that advertise their groups names.
Problems evolve out of the entertainment industry. An effort is made to secularize Christian music style to identify with modern culture. The Christian recording artist today is tempted with a dual lure: first of all, to evangelize the sinner with the “song of testimony” in the music that is popular and, secondly, to take advantage of the lucrative market¬place of the non-Christian world. The issue of music evan¬gelism has contributed more to the pop music genre being brought into the church than by any other factor. Christian music groups have overtly attempted to emulate the pop music industry. Songwriters even have taken old gospel hymns and adapted them to popular tunes.
Some point out that the church through the years has adapted Christian music to the secular trends of the times to reach the common man. Almost all the spiritual awakenings throughout history have had their own special outpourings of inspired Christian song (leaders in this being Augustine, Savonarola, Luther, Calvin, the Wesleys, Moody, and Billy Sunday). Many musicians have referred to Martin Luther s adaptation of secular songs to Christian music to justify the modem indulgence in pop music. The difference between the sacred and the secular genre throughout history has been nominal. If Luther were on the scene today, says Harold Best,
He would have to reckon with new factors. He would have to examine the practice of borrow¬ing in the light of a distance between the church and secular culture unlike anything he had to face. He would have to confront an unprece¬dented proliferation of music styles from both within and without Western culture, and he would have to face the church with its prefer¬ence for provincial witness. He would undoubt¬edly recognize that a large part of our musical experience is depersonalized, issuing electron¬ically from walls, ceilings and earphones as a background for everything from shopping to worshiping.’
The comparative relationship between secular and sa¬cred style in Luther s day and in today s music jungle is as different as daylight and dark. “There was a stylistic unity in the sixteenth-century musical world between the various genres of music, which no longer exists in today s music.’ “There was little difference between the features of a mel¬ody originally associated with a secular text and one written particularly for a sacred text.”6 “A difference in style be¬tween sacred and secular music hardly existed.”‘
Most biblical and historical writing on Christian music deals with worship, since this is the church s primary and foremost obligation. Considerably less is written about the role of music as an instructional or teaching ministry to the church and sinner. This is, nevertheless, a bona fide part of music ministry. Scriptural basis is given in Colossians 3:16, in which Paul exhorted Christians to be “teaching and ad¬monishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”
I will admit Christian music has been a great tool of evangelism in the contemporary church. Anointed and tal¬ented singing has attracted sinners to the church service and as a result their hearts were touched through the ministry of song. It is hard to contemplate an altar appeal without the soft swells of organ music. Music of the church has been taken to the world with great results, but taking the music of these outer trappings have subtle meaning to many secular musicians.
Studded leather, whips, and chains symbolize maso¬chistic and sadomasochistic behavior; long hair and make¬up on men portray the unisex, androgynous spirit of our age; tight spandex pants and topless performers, with peep holes showing naked flesh, make a sensuous statement; even a guitar can symbolize the phallus by certain posturing (rock performer, Prince, licks the neck of his guitar and uses it to simulate a male orgasm). Christian musicians can make a mockery of the gospel message by adopting these hedonistic vestments.
Keeping a Buffer Zone
As we move through our life span we encounter many cultural changes. We of this century have seen more change than any society in history. Change is so rapid and consis¬tent we have grown to accept change as a normal part of life. All this change is not bad; however, it takes time for people to assimilate and to conform to some changes. Chris¬tian conservatism has helped many to avoid the pitfalls of societal evolution by allowing Christians time to evaluate new trends, allowing intellectual assessment in view of the historical elements, and permitting time to measure change by God s Word.
Keeping a buffer zone between the church and contem¬porary change is a healthy practice. The church has adopted many changes as they have been demonstrated to be ad¬vantageous by time and evaluation. Conservatism in music styles should be no exception. Riding the razor s edge of contemporary musical change cannot be a healthy trend for the church. Some music styles simply will not accommo¬date the evangelism of the lost or the edification of the church. The nature of the arcane sound and its dubious ori¬gin will not be conducive to the message of hope for the sinner and separation for the Christian.
Being too contemporary with Christian music cannot be helpful to the cause of the gospel message. The following reasons are offered to confirm this point:
1. It sends a confusing signal. A sheep dressed in wolf s clothing is a strange way to approach the sinner or the saint. The whole scenario is confusing to the world and to the church. Associating too closely with the world will send a confusing message contrary to our commission (Mat¬thew 28:19). Our objective is to present the gospel message clearly and simply. Paul taught the Corinthian church concerning the importance of communicating clearly and directly.
Even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak in the air (I Corinthians 14:7-9).
2. It compromises the church’s stand for separation. The apostle Paul said, “Have no fellowship with the unfruit¬ful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Ephesians 5:11). God s people have always been separated from the world by their godly values and moral behavior. The church is to be the “children of light,” exposing the “deeds of dark¬ness.” Conforming too closely to the world shades the light, leaving many confused as to the potency of God s saving power to bring the old nature into a brand-new life.
3. Some contemporary sounds do not enhance the communicability of the gospel message. For example, lyrics about the crucifixion of Jesus sung to rap music are inappropriate, since this style of music is about macho posturing, male dominance, and street bravado. Its chant-like sound is crude, novel, and garish. It would take some¬thing wonderful and precious and which invokes solemnity, awe, and respect and drag it down through a raw and dis¬respectful contemporary art form.
4. A close familiarity with secular music is required. Those who stay abreast of the latest in contemporary music must spend hours listening to worldly music in order to learn its style. Much of secular music is the product of a very wicked society. Drawing inspiration and direction from this musical cesspool presents a difficult cleanup job for the Christian musician. This negative influence cannot be healthy even for the strongest Christian. We cannot sip from Satan s cup of intoxicating musical potions without its ef¬fects distorting our spiritual perception.
5. It contributes have always enjoyed music that separates them from their parents. This proclivity, although natural to the carnal man, is not to be condoned or promoted by the church. This “in your face” indifference and nonconformance of young people is still the same old human rebellion! The repulsion of adults to their music can be considered the litmus test for being cool. Coddling young people too aggressively with “their” music can send a message that separation within the church is appropriate. We may be saying to the world that the church has a generation gap, too. This is a contradiction to the scriptural teaching that we are one body (I Corinthi¬ans 12).
It is not asking too much of our young people to wait until certain sounds become more acceptable before bring¬ing them into the church. We should not follow the world like mindless children after a pied piper. A more conserva¬tive stance will pay off with many dividends if we have the patience to wait.
1 Calvin Johansson, Music and Ministry: A Biblical Counterpoint (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Pub¬lishers, 1988), 47.
2 John W. Styli, “Carman: The CCM Interview,” Contemporary Christian Music, March 1988, 22.
3 Ibid., “The Contemporary Christian Music De¬bate,” 62.
4Harold Best, The Climate of Creativity, 4, quoted by Donald Ellsworth, Christian Music in Contempo¬rary Witness (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), 50-51.
5 Johansson, 50.
6 Edwin Lichmohn, The Chorale (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1953), 12. Eric Blom, ed., Grove’s Dictionary ofMusic and Musicians, 5’ ed., Vol. 1 (New York: St. Martin s Press, Inc., 1966), 848.
The above article, “Music and Evangelism” was written by Gary D. Erickson. The article was excerpted from chapter 7 in Erickson’s book, Christian Music in Transition.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.