The topic of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) has led to a lot of discussion and confusion in our circles.
What follows is an adapted version of a report which I wrote for the consistory with the deacons of the Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott, to give direction in how to judge CCM in particular and how to deal with music in general.
For the sake of readability, I keep this article short. Much more can be written. However, for those interested in reading more about this topic, here is some more relevant literature:
- Michael Horton, A Better Way, Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-Centered Worship; Baker Bookhouse Company, Grand Rapids, 2002. (Especially chapter 10: Is Style Neutral?).
- Terry L. Johnson e.a., The Worship of God, Reformed Concept of Biblical Worship; Christian Focus Publications 2005.
- Calvin M. Johansson, Music & Ministry, A Biblical Counterpoint; Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1984. (Especially Chapter Five: The Gospel and Contemporary Culture).
- Dan Lucarni, Why I left the Contemporary Christian Movement, Confessions of a former worship leader; Evangelical Press, Webster, NY, 2002.
What is Contemporary Christian Music?
What has led to a lot of confusion in the discussion about CCM in our churches, is the use of different definitions of CCM, or the use of no definition at all. We are talking about something, but we don’t understand each other because we don’t really know what we are talking about. For the one, CCM is something completely different than for the other. Therefore, the one will completely condemn every form of CCM and the other will believe that there are some good elements in CCM which can be used. Others distinguish between CCM with a backbeat and without a backbeat, of which the first is rejected categorically and of the second not necessarily all music is wrong.
About the back beat: we should not forget that the back beat in itself is something that is used in our Genevan tunes as well. Several psalm tunes make use of a back beat, psalm 47 for instance in every line. A back beat in music doesn’t make it wrong yet. What, according to some, makes CCM with a back beat wrong is the excessive use of it. However, who determines what is excessive and what not? This shows that also here, it is hard to come with a categorical rejections of music with a back beat.
Even if we read through the literature written about CCM we can see this confusion. It is not only in our circles that people don’t agree on CCM. If you check Wikipedia (a much used source for our information nowadays, however with questionable authority) at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contemporary_Christian_music, you will be led to believe that CCM started in the sixties and seventies as a response of Christians to the Rock ‘n Roll music of the fifties and is a result of the Jesus Movement revival. CCM was originally called ‘Jesus Music’. Wikipedia reports that “About that time, many young people from the sixties’ counterculture professed to believe in Jesus. Convinced of the bareness of a lifestyle based on drugs, free sex, and radical politics, ‘hippies’ became ‘Jesus people'”. However, there were people who felt that Jesus was another “trip”. It was during the 1970s Jesus movement that Christian music started to become an industry within itself. “Jesus Music” started by playing instruments and singing songs about love and peace, which then translated into love of God.
However, W. Robert Godfrey tells us something different. He sees it as a new stage in the evolution of revivalist hymnody. ‘Revivalist hymnody, that came to be more and more prevalent in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, was music that was more upbeat, more lively, and more enthusiastic. It also often had a declining level of theological content in the texts of the hymns’”
Later, Godfrey mentions, Pentecostalism became an important catalyzer in the development of revivalist music: “The Pentecostal movement in its drive for religious experience and religious energy and religious excitement did indeed think in new ways about music and sought to take the revivalist tradition of hymnody and make it even more exciting, even more engaging.”
Others will have other definitions and may see other origins of CCM. From discussions I had, I got the impression that for some CCM is more or less equivalent to all modern Christian music.
Generally, there are some characteristics of CCM. One of those is the repetitiveness of the words, combined with a low level of theological content. Just being repetitive doesn’t make a song yet part of CCM. If we look at the hymn ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’ (which is in our Book of Praise), it is also very repetitive especially in the refrain, even though the content is Biblical. An even more compelling example of repetitiveness and still being Biblical is Psalm 136: ‘For His mercy endures forever’ is being repeated there 25 times! Repetition can be very powerful if it supports a strong message. However, repetition combined with a low level of theological content is very much emotionally based and needs the music to make the song interesting. If emotion trumps contents, then we get into dangerous territory.
That brings us to another characteristic of CCM: the kind of music which is often used, and which is intended to create a strong emotion, rather than the emotion being carried by a combination of word and music. We cannot and should not deny that Christian songs can create strong emotions in Christians. However, CCM is more focused on those emotions being created by the music than by the words, while the psalms, for instance, can create those emotions by the strength of their contents, supported by the music as we have it in the Genevan tunes.
Often, CCM can be recognized by the loudness of the music, although that cannot be mentioned as a general characteristic of all CCM. Also here, the loudness of music is not necessarily wrong. Psalm 150 speaks about the loud cymbals. However, when the loudness of the music is no longer supportive of the words, or if a microphone is needed to make the words be heard over the music, then there is an imbalance.
Some reject CCM because it is connected with the sex culture of the Rock music. However, it is disputable whether the CCM movement finds its origin in the musical culture of the fifties and sixties, and therefore this argument is very weak. If certain elements of CCM make use of Rock music, we can reject those for that reason. However, saying that CCM uses Rock music and therefore all CCM is to be rejected, is a bridge too far and this argument will not convince many. Using the argument that some Rock musicians call the back beat ‘sexy’ doesn’t fly either. In the language of the world, the word ‘sexy’ often means just ‘interesting’, ‘attractive’, or ‘exciting’.
This diversity of description of CCM makes it difficult to come with a judgment about the usefulness of CCM within our Reformed circles. Therefore, I don’t believe we will ever be able to come with a unified point of view about whether CCM should be allowed or not. It is much better to judge the songs individually and not condemn something for the only reason that it is considered to be CCM.
What is Christian music, will be determined by what the Bible teaches us about music.
The Bible speaks positively about music. Many of the Psalms encourage God’s people to praise God with song and instruments. Psalm 150 is a very well-known psalm: the last one of the Psalms, in which the Book of Psalms concludes with a glorious exhortation to all that has breath to praise the LORD with every possible instrument. The loudness of music is being mentioned there as something positive. This must be seen in combination with the words. Psalm 150 is part of the Book of Psalms, in which we are exhorted to praise God in our songs, accompanied by the instruments mentioned.
We should also take to heart the words written by the apostle Paul: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.’ Here we are told that it should be the Word of Christ that dwells in us richly when we make music. The word ‘richly’ tells us something different than the repetitiveness of some ‘Christian’ music. It is not the music that should lead our emotions and our thoughts, but the Word of Christ. The music must play a supporting role when we make music for the LORD. If it does so, it can be very powerful. However, music can also be very powerful in its support for ideas that go against the Word of Christ.
The Bible gives us examples of both, in the Old Testament.
Exodus 15 tells us about the song of Moses, and then, v.20, Miriam the prophetess took the timbrel and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. This music is clearly connected with the words of the song of Miriam and also the song of Moses.
In Exodus 32:6, 18 we read however, that the people of Israel danced and made music before the golden calf. ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play’ (verse 6). The words translated with ‘rose up to play’ have a connotation of sexual immorality.
1 Samuel 30:16 tells us about David, pursuing the Amalekites after they raided Ziklag. And David found them there in the desert, eating and drinking and dancing. This dancing, undoubtedly accompanied and helped by the music, brought them in such a state of mind, that it was easy for David to catch them by surprise and destroy almost all of them.
From other parts of the Bible we learn that the feasting which was not to the honour of God was often accompanied by sexual immorality. From archeological literature we know that in the temple feasts for the heathen gods the temple prostitutes often played an important role as well. Heathen feasts and music were often connected with sexual immorality. Therefore, it is important that the Word of Christ dwells in us richly while we make music. If that is not the case, music can so easily lead us to immoral thoughts and deeds. Paul warns in Ephesians 5:3-4 and Romans 12:2 that that should not be the case with us.
Christian Music and Church Music
Should any good Christian music be used in the worship service as well? I have heard this argument being made in our circles, recently. This was used to argue that we should allow more music in the worship services. But it is also being used in a different direction: we should only use and listen to music which we use in the church as well.
Both ways of thinking have never been the norm in the Reformed churches.
In the Reformed tradition there has always been a clear distinction between these two. One of the Reformed principles about liturgy is, that the whole people of God is involved in the worship service and that therefore the singing of the congregation should not be replaced by choirs or orchestras. Calvin was even against the use of the organ in the worship service because it would have a negative influence on the singing of the congregation.
The tunes must be suitable for the singing of the congregation. Not every music can be sung by large groups of participants. Not every music is suitable to be sung by untrained participants. Music like ‘The Messiah’ or Bach’s cantatas and oratorios can certainly be considered good Christian music, but they are not suitable yet to be sung in the worship services by the congregation. Often choirs spend a lot of time on rehearsals before they can perform this music in a way that does justice to the music. This is not how it should be in the Sunday worship services. The songs the congregation sings must be of such a (musical) nature that it can easily be sung by the whole congregation. The Canadian Reformed Churches have adopted a number of guidelines, in their discussions with the United Reformed Churches about the development of a new hymn book. I quote a few of those guidelines, especially those pertaining to the music, as published in the ‘Book of Praise, Augment to Hymnary, 2007’:
8. The music of the song should suit the text.
10. The music of the Church should not be borrowed from music that suggests places and occasions other than the Church and the worship of God.
11. The melodies and harmonies of church music must be suitable for congregational singing, avoiding complicated rhythms, excessive syncopation, and a wide range of pitch.
It is for this reason that Calvin introduced the Genevan tunes for the worship service. The Genevan tunes have very much the character of what is called ‘folk music’. Folk music is music which develops over time, is such that it is easy for people to learn and is used as a vehicle to carry over stories of the past to a larger audience. It must by definition therefore, be music that is not complicated. This does not mean that the Genevan tunes come from folk music. However, the character of the Genevan tunes can be compared to folk music, because it has more or less the same goal: the great deeds of God as told to us in the Psalms have to be taught to and sung by the congregation.
This makes it clear that we should make a distinction between Church music and Christian music. Church Music is Christian music but not all Christian music is church music.
Christian music and worldly music
Throughout the course of history a lot of different music styles and genres have been developed, and also different areas and different cultures created each their own styles and genres. Even the genre ‘Rock Music’ has a huge variety of sub-genres. It is impossible to make a rule which styles and genres can be seen as suitable to be used by Christians and which not. Generally, we can say that certain styles of music used in times and areas where Christianity was/is influential in shaping society, are more likely to be suitable than others. We can say that music from certain composers (like J.S. Bach, G.F. Handel, F. Mendelssohn) can considered to be good Christian music. Generally, we can also say that loud music which damages our hearing cannot be pleasing to God. Rock music, for instance, is known to be loud: during a usual rock concert a level of 110 dB is quite normal and by times it goes up to 150 dB, while medical science warns that you are at risk of hearing loss when you are exposed to sounds at 85 dB or more. Rock music is on many lists as an example of a dangerous sound.
However, this does not mean that certain styles or genres are specifically ‘Christian’ and that there is no good Christian music in other genres, or that all music in the same style as the before mentioned Christian composers is good Christian music. Just like the Pharisees, we often have the inclination to make a set of rules which make it easy for us to determine what is good and what is wrong. This takes away or diminishes our own responsibility. There is no need to give an account, if we can say that we followed certain rules which we were taught as being good. However, this is not the way the Bible teaches us to live as Christians. God has given each of us a responsibility for all our actions and we will be held to account, according to the talents which we have received. The way we use our responsibility will show how much we love God and Christ.
As explained under 2 (Christian Music), the Bible teaches that music can be used in different ways. It can be used to support the words with which we praise and glorify God, and this can be pleasing to God. Music can also be used without words, to bring us into a certain mood. Also this music can be glorifying to God if it helps us to live a life of thankfulness and joy before the LORD.
However, music can also be used to bring us into a state of mind in which our ability to judge the words is being diminished, or to bring us into a kind of trance in which we have a decreased awareness of our own actions or in which we lose the ability to discern between good and evil, between what is pleasing to God and what offends Him.
Music is not neutral. Music does something with you. The way in which we make music or choose to listen to music, shows our love for God and for Christ. Music does not necessarily have to be explicitly ‘Christians’ music to be enjoyed by Christians. However, mindlessly listening to music or using it as background music without knowing what we are listening to, is something that we as Christians cannot do in this world in which we live. We know that our enemies never cease to attack us. Satan knows the power of music. Therefore, we should know it too and be on guard, so that we do not give him the opportunity to influence us through music.
The main word here, as well as in everything in this life, is: discernment. While determining whether music is good or not, we must look at both words and music.
It is hard to come with a general judgment about Christian Contemporary Music. It isn’t helpful either. Every piece of music must be judged based on the Biblical criteria. Not everything that is considered to be CCM is wrong either. As long as we are not able to define CCM as going against Biblical principles, we cannot use the mere fact of ‘being CCM’ as a reason to reject a song or a musical piece.
We must realise that music is never neutral. Music is powerful and does something with us. Even if the words can be biblical, the music can still be unchristian. In listening to music, whether it is CCM or worldly music, we must always be aware of the danger of music being used by the Enemy to lead us to sin. We need discernment in our use of any form of music.
An important lesson which we can learn from this is, that we should get into contact with each other, especially with those with whom we disagree, so that through searching we can discover what the will of the LORD is. While the Word of Christ dwells in us richly, we will be able and must teach and admonish one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in our hearts to the Lord. And whatever we do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.
Based on the above, I therefore come to some conclusions:
- that it is not possible to either reject or approve CCM as a genre of Christian Music, but that we must judge every song as well as musical performance on its own merits, based on the Biblical principles.
- that the singing of certain songs (either CCM or not) at events in our (or other) church buildings does not necessarily lead to introduction of new songs for the worship service. There are different criteria for the selection of songs for our Book of Praise than for what is suitable to be sung at all kinds of events in our circles.
- that it is important for our church leaders to educate the congregation, in preaching, teaching, home visits and other ways about the dangers of music in general as well as of some music that presents itself as Christian music but is not Biblical.
- that we must encourage each other to be discerning in our listening to and use of music, not only CCM but any kind of music. Let our words and our music be pleasing to God, so that we will teach and admonish one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in our hearts to the Lord.