Does It Matter What I Play In Church :: Testing Song Selections In Light Of Ungodly Associations

There is a new post today on the Lifeway Worship Project blog, gently critiquing Ed Stetzer’s article on putting song selections through what Stetzer calls “The Association Test.” Lifeway asks the question, “How much is the worship leader responsible for others’ associations?” Great question! Should I, as a music director in a local church, be held responsible for someone connecting a certain song, or style of music with ungodly behavior? If so, to what degree? Should I avoid all “rock” music because of its historical (i.e. mig-late 20th century) association with sex, drugs, and rebellion? Is there something to be said for discriminately testing the music I play each Sunday to make sure it serves the purpose of leading others in worship and praise of Jesus, and not distracting from that purpose? Can I, as a worship pastor ensure that no one will ever make any negative associations with the music I play?

Stetzer’s argument:

No music exists in a vacuum. The association test asks the question, “Does the song unnecessarily identify with things, actions, or people that are contrary to Christianity?” An otherwise good song may be rejected because of its associations with ungodly people, or worldliness, etc.

The Lifeway article asserts:

My experience has been that you can drive yourself crazy trying to figure out such things [i.e. all of the associations that may surround a particular song or genre]. I’ve known folks who associate ungodliness with all sorts of artistic expression (from dance to instrumentation to the color of one’s shirt in the pulpit). How much is the worship leader responsible for others’ associations? The church I’m currently a part of uses contemporary worship music, but comes out of an a capella tradition. I don’t know how we could have ever plucked a note if we were bound to these seven tests.

Now, I wouldn’t want to go head to head with Ed, but I take his words with a grain of salt. First, although he plays guitar, he is not tasked with the challenges of routinely choosing musical material for worshipers. Second, as my friend Dave Durham likes to point out, Jesus came to restore all things (Colossians 1:15-20). Surely this includes art, music, and even culture itself. Our artistic palette with which to worship Him is vast, my friends. He has come to restore all things.

The following is my reply to both:

I think Ed is mainly speaking of “obvious” associations a song or tune may have with something ungodly (e.g. setting the lyrics of Amazing Grace to the tune of House Of The Rising Sun). I would not do that in our culture either. I do agree, however, that throwing out an entire genre of music b/c of its negative associations would be going too far (as in the case of the Jamaicans refusing to use Reggae for worship music b/c of its association with drug culture). The Jamaican church should seek to redeem Reggae (and the people of the drug culture-to which end this practice may help!). I once spoke with a pastor who hated singing contemporary worship songs because the chord progressions reminded him of the Beetles! A little more digging and I soon discovered that his dislike was based on a preference for the sort of country/rockabilly chord progressions that focus on the 3 major chords in a key and exclude any minor chords.

Third Day is a great example of a music style (i.e. Southern Rock/Alternative) that could conjure up thoughts of ungodly culture due to its association (and identification) with honky tonks, drukeness, drugs, sex, etc. However, in the case of Third Day, the lyrics to the songs are so blatantly Christian that my mind rarely (if ever) goes there. And I have, in my younger years, had a great deal of experience in the Southern Rock, good ole boy culture! Third Day was the first Christian band to be allowed to play for the U.S. troops stationed overseas. That’s awesome! I hardly think that would have happened if Third Day sounded less like Southern Rock and more like Sacred Church Choir music!

I also think about the more recent “invasion” of Christian rappers, seeking to redeem the hip hop and rap genres for the glory of God (e.g. Flame, Lacrae, Cross Movement, etc.). There are obvious ungodly associations with the Rap music genre. I would never (and I don’t think these artists would either) set Christian lyrics to Snoop Dogg’s Gin And Juice (just dated myself, I know!), or use the tune of a popular 50-Cent song in the musical worship life of the church I lead. But I also would not disqualify those musical genres from said worship life because the those ungodly artists! The Christian artists mentioned above are blatantly Christian, and their musical genre helps spread the gospel to people that otherwise may not take it seriously, or even hear it at all.

I agree with Stetzer in principle. Put your song selections through “the association test.” But don’t disqualify an entire genre based on its use by the devil. The church is tasked with taking the gospel to culture, not conforming every culture to our own.

Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments section.

© 2009 Chris Gates. Vintage Worship.

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Filed under leading worship, Song Selection

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