Should Christians Rock?

Should Christians Rock?
An Open Letter to Christian Rock Critics

Media Update - July/October 1986

By Al Menconi

Over the past few years, a handful of prominent evangelists in this country have been teaching biblically unsound ideas regarding Christian music. I know. I used to teach them too. These teachings have been widely circulated and accepted. But they have also become extremely divisive in the Christian community.

Christian parents and pastors are tempted to follow this reasoning: "These men are of God, and they say Christian rock is evil. I don't like it either, so they must know what they are talking about. Therefore, the Bible backs me up when I condemn it."

This is simply not true! The Bible does not support the condemnation of contemporary Christian music. These evangelists may be men of God and dynamic speakers when they address topics with which they are familiar and well schooled. But when it comes to music, they are way off base.

I don't know if they are purposely stretching Scripture to match their opinions or if they got their information from irresponsible sources. Whatever the case, they are being quoted by parents and pastors to justify their prejudices against a type of Christian music that is not to their personal liking. And that is what led me to publish this article.

You wouldn't believe how long it has taken me to write this article. I have wrestled and struggled with it, putting it off for more than a year. It has caused me to work through many feelings. I have been angry. I have been caustic. I have been depressed. I have been able to overcome each emotion except for a grieved spirit, which still lingers. I ache for the damaged relationships in families and churches because of so many irresponsible statements that have little or no basis in God's Truth.

To be quite honest, one of the reasons I put this article off for so long is that I know this will disturb many of our readers, possibly even offend some. I was concerned about the effect it would have on our ministry. However, after much counsel and prayer, I decided I had to speak out on this issue, no matter what the cost. I have to be true to my convictions without being influenced by what might happen if I take a stand on this controversial subject.

I will not be naming these Christian teachers specifically, because I do not want this article to be a personal attack on any individual. Nor will you hear me say that these men are "all wet'' or unspiritual. I am merely trying to show that on the subject of Christian music, they are making statements that are wrong and unfounded. Each of their arguments must be dealt with one by one in the light of God's Word and with a sound mind (2 Tim. 1:7), instead of perpetuating rumors and rash judgments.

What follows is an open letter from me to these Christian leaders. Each section is a response to direct quotes from public statements they have made concerning contemporary Christian music.

Please pray that this article will touch hearts and lives. Please pray that these leaders and those who follow them will reconsider their position on contemporary Christian music. And most of all, pray that families and churches will come together on this subject in the light of God's Word.

"Any music that does not encourage worship and praise or does not elicit a sense of joy is not truly Christian music."

I understand this principle, because I used to teach the same thing.

However, a few years ago, I had to reconsider my position. I began to see how much I was dividing, rather than educating, the people I spoke to. I have always used Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 as the scriptural basis for defining Christian music. These scriptures encourage Christians to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and they provide an excellent foundation for a definition of godly music.

Where I went wrong was assuming that these three terms defined the style or mood of Christian music, when in fact, they actually speak of the purpose and content of Christian music. In a nutshell, we are to sing songs that will help us focus our thoughts on God's truth (Scripture and scriptural principles).

Since the basis of Christian music is Scripture and scriptural principles set to music (an idea upon which we can all agree), then Christian music should have the same purposes as Scripture. 2 Timothy 3:16 clearly teaches that Scripture is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness. Therefore, Christian music should also teach, reprove, correct, and encourage the believer in righteousness.

There are plenty of great songs and hymns that deal with doctrine and instruction. However, when we correct and reprove one another in the Body of Christ, there is some tension between the sender and the receiver. This also holds true in music. When the music corrects and reproves, there will also be some tension. That tension is often expressed in music as a 'rock' sound.

I can think of a number of Christian rock songs that teach doctrine ("Death Is Ended" by James Ward on his album, Good Advice), to reprove ("Cut It Away" by Rob Frazier from Cut It Away), to correct ("Don't Shoot The Wounded" by Chuck Girard from Name Above All Names), and to instruct in righteousness ("God Pleaser" by Petra from Not Of This World). These are not isolated songs on obscure albums. They are among hundreds that could be mentioned in each category. [Editor Note: This list was up-to-date at the time of publishing (1986). For an updated list of Al's recommendations, go to the Christian music section.]

Along with the idea that all Christian music must be quiet and reverent is the idea that all Christian music must be appropriate for a church service. Again we must go back to the idea of Scripture and music. The Word cannot be spoken or lived only in the confines of the church walls.

Nor is Christian music intended only for Christians. I fully agree that most contemporary music is not appropriate for church services, because many church-goers would not be ministered to by that style of music. But that does not mean it has no use at all. There is a difference between evangelism, discipleship, and worship and there are different types of music best suited for each.

The point is that Scripture is not limited to bringing believers to a sense of reverence or joy. Nor is Christian music. Contemporary Christian music often hurts as we are challenged to cut away our sin by the two-edged sword of God's Word set to music. It is tempting to simply use Christian music to encourage hand clapping and hallelujahs, but we must be careful not to confuse spiritual commitment with emotional goose bumps.

"Romans 12:1-2 commands us not to conform to this world. It is quite obvious by the appearance and sound of these Christian rock stars that they are conforming to this world."

These verses in Romans say two important things. First, we should not allow the world to make our decisions about how we conduct our lives. Second, we are to allow God's Holy Spirit to transform our hearts and minds to the likeness of Christ's nature. Scripture is very clear that this is a matter of the heart, not of outward appearances (1 Sam. 16:7).

It's true that some types of clothing are inappropriate by biblical standards. The Bible speaks specifically about sensual and lewd clothing and behavior. I wholeheartedly agree that it is improper for a Christian to dress in this manner. But the Christian musicians who actually dress this way are few and far between. In fact, I only know of one or two groups who fall into this category. We cannot indict a whole generation of sincere Christian musicians because of one or two offending bands.

God abhors the mentality of judging people because of their appearance (James 2:1-8; Galatians 2:6). So, why do we continue to judge in this way? I thought we outgrew this prejudice in the '60's. It is so limiting and unspiritual.

Remember when hippies looked weird? They questioned the establishment about issues that needed to be answered-questions about war, drugs, morality, religion, etc. Instead of answering these questions in the light of God's Word, the majority of Christian churches said, "Cut your hair and change your clothes so you can fit into our church. Then we will give you the answers you are looking for."

In so many words these Christians were saying, "Go to Hell!" We had the answer-Jesus-but we didn't share it because we didn't approve of the appearance of that generation. Please don't make that mistake again today. We must remember Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 9:22: "I have become all things to all men, so that by all possible means, I might save some." Paul went so far as to shave his head (like a punker?) so he would be acceptable to those he wanted to reach (see Acts 21:17-26).

Given the choice, I would rather speak to hippies and punkers than yuppies. The hippies wanted to change the world, and punkers want to change it too. The average yuppie wants to get rich and be comfortable. In case you've forgotten, Christians are called to be revolutionaries, to change the world for Jesus. We should be giving the answer of Christ to those who seek to change the world, instead of spending our energy trying to get rich and fit in.

The truth is, we cannot say that one style of clothing is more spiritual than another. In fact, many Christians don't see a coat and tie or three-piece suit as particularly spiritual. To them this conservative outfit portrays an ungodly corporate/establishment image, which in their view, represents materialism. James 4:14 (and numerous other references) warns us that materialism is the enemy of God, not His friend. It could be said that conservative dressers are just as guilty of conforming to this world as the rock stars!

The argument that contemporary Christian music 'sounds' like the world contends that certain music styles are worldly because they appeal to the flesh. But we must be more specific when we use the term 'flesh'. The Bible uses that term in several different ways. Do we mean 'flesh' in the sense of sexuality? If you do, then you should identify which groups are sexual, I don't want to be guilty of recommending a Christian group that encourages lust! After all my years of study, I don't know of any Christian group that encourages a lust through their beat of their lyrics!

What most critics mean when they refer to 'the flesh' is the non-spiritual, human side of us. If that's the case, let me point out that all music, Christian or otherwise, appeals to the flesh the human element in us.

What makes Dave Boyer or Steve Green's sound (which is based on the 'worldly' style of Frank Sinatra) more spiritual than that of Petra (which is based in the 'worldly' style of rock and roll)? If you eliminate every Christian artist who has any kind of 'fleshly' appeal, the only Christian music left might be Gregorian chant!

"All rock music is of Satan. Therefore, God can never honor Christian rock music."

Despite many vigorous attempts, it is difficult to verify this from the Bible. There is no support in Scripture for the idea that certain music is only suitable for Satan, while other types are only suitable for God. Nor can this be verified in the world of the occult. Neither witches nor Satanists as a group, prefer one type of music over another to make their ceremonies or spells work better.

There is a way to see the whole issue much more clearly. We need to understand that the basis for Christian music is simply Scripture and/or scriptural principles set to a tune. The Word is the bread and meat that feeds our spirits. So we should see Christian music as spiritual food. I like to think of it as steak, full of spiritual protein, which promotes spiritual growth. The sound (melody, harmony, rhythm) can be thought of as the spice that is put on that steak.

Now the issue is not whether we can have spice on our steak at all. The issue is to determine what the proper seasoning is for a Christian's taste. Can you imagine what would happen if someone who had never eaten spicy Mexican food tried to eat a pepper steak covered with salsa? They would say that it was too spicy, perhaps even going so far as to spit out the first bite. They would most likely never try it again.

This actually happened when my mother-in-law came from Minnesota to visit us in San Diego. We took her to a Mexican restaurant where she burned her tongue on some good 'south-of-the-border' hot sauce. To this day, she won't try anything with hot sauce again, because she doesn't want to get burned again (no pun intended). On the other hand, I was raised eating hot sauce on my food, and I eat the same hot sauce by the spoonful that blistered my mother-in-law's tongue.

The same principle applies to music. Someone who is not used to spicy music is often turned off by the hot sauce (rock) before they have a chance to evaluate the ministry value of the music. If you want to be fair, do what the kids do. Read the lyrics as you listen to it. You might be surprised at the quality and depth of ministry you've been condemning or ignoring. You'll also notice how clear the words are when you read them as the music plays.

As you do this, you'll come to realize that different spices are appropriate for different tastes and different occasions. Some Christians will never want anything spicier than salt on their steak. Others will start out using hot sauce and try different spices as they try more and more steak. Some spices are appropriate for a quiet worship service. Others are more appropriate for a street-corner revival meeting.

As we reach out to the world for Christ, we will find out that there's a whole world of different tastes hungry for the Gospel in a flavor they can appreciate. Our God is a God of variety and creativity. Scripture teaches that He loves to work in unique ways that we never would have thought of ourselves. He truly delights in using all of our gifts, our tastes, and our abilities to communicate to the world He loves.

"There is proof that the rock beat is demonic."

In my many years researching music, I have studied witchcraft, rituals, Satanism, symbolism, and demonism. I have read the Satanic Bible and every other book I could get my hands on that relates to the world of the occult. And I have never seen it mentioned anywhere that a certain beat or volume is demonic. If it is, it isn't mentioned in the world of the occult. The only time that I have ever heard of a demonic beat being mentioned is from uninformed Christian evangelists who base their statements on a rumor taught by a well-known Christian seminar leader.

In this story, a missionary's child is allegedly playing a Christian rock album when a recently converted native runs up on the porch to fearfully exclaim to the missionary that the music is calling up demons. I have heard this same story reported as from nearly every country on the globe. The only fact that doesn't change with each re-telling is that the native ran onto a porch to proclaim the music was demonic even in countries that don't have porches!

This story is very difficult to take seriously. The important facts are missing. The story never identifies the offending album or group, or even the style of music involved. Christian rock was not widely recorded, much less popular with teens, in l971 when this story supposedly took place.

But the real problem with this is that Christians are encouraging the wholesale condemnation of all Christian rock music, based on an urban legend.

At what point does an enjoyable beat or sound become demonic? Everyone divides the line in different places. Even I used to tell people what kind of Christian music they should listen to, based on my own personal tastes. My taste in music drew the line at a pop-rock sound. I used to teach that music as spicy as Keith Green was okay, but anything heavier had too much beat or volume for God to use. I thought my limits were God's limits.

The fallacy of that argument was dramatically illustrated to me at one of my seminars. The pastor of the church I was speaking to told me I couldn't recommend Keith Green's music to his congregation. He insisted the ministry value was too shallow because the music style was too spicy. I did what the pastor asked of me, since I was a guest in his church. But my first thought was, "Who appointed you judge and jury over my music? You can't climb into my soul and judge what God is using to strengthen my spiritual life!"

I knew this pastor was mistaken, because I knew how much Keith Green's music meant to my spiritual growth and to that of thousands of others. That's when I realized that I had been doing the same thing by insisting that any type of music I didn't like couldn't possibly be pleasing to God. I thought I had a lock on God's taste in music. All I actually had was a proud spirit! I am still amazed at how stubbornly I tried to limit God!

Since I don't want to be guilty of presenting a false gospel, I would invite the critics to help us draw the correct line between appropriate and inappropriate Christian music. Please identify which Christian artists can be demonstrated to be playing demonic music. If these critics have clear evidence that any of these artists have violated Scripture in a way that would hold up in a court of law, let them bring the evidence forward. If not, according to Scripture, the critics are simply guilty of back biting and gossip.

The following is a short list of some of the many groups that play Christian pop or rock music, which minister to me and thousands of other Christians. I have gone on record as recommending their music as being an excellent means of spiritual encouragement: Larry Bryant. Steve Camp. Michael Card, Carmen, Chris Christian, Daniel Band, Darrell Mansfield Band, DeGarmo & Key, Farrell & Farrell, Chuck Girard, Glad, Amy Grant, Keith Green, Pam Mark Hall, Benny Hester, Mylon Lefevre, Petra, Leslie Phillips, Rez Band, Second Chapter of Acts, Servant, Michael W. Smith, Randy Stonehill, Russ Taft, Steve Taylor, Undercover, Sheila Walsh, James Ward, Wayne Watson, and Youth Choir.

[Editor's Note: This list was up-to-date at the time of publishing (1986). Here is an update list (as of 1999) from Al:
Carolyn Arends, Audio Adrenaline, Avalon, Margaret Becker, Steven Curtis Chapman, Ashley Cleveland, Considering Lily, Clay Cross, dc Talk, Delirious, Five Iron Frenzy, Keith Green, Steve Green, Kim Hill, The Ketinas, Jennifer Knapp, Knowdaverbs, Wes King, The Kry, Sarah Masen, Geoff Moore, Rich Mullins, Newsboys, Out Of Eden, Out of the Grey, Twila Paris, Charlie Peacock, Petra, Phillips, Craig & Dean, Rebecca St. James, Smalltown Poets, Michael W. Smith, Sonic Flood, Supertones, Switchfoot, Temple Yard, The W's, The Waiting
And for more of Al's recommendations, go to the Christian music section.]

The demonic beat is a weak argument against contemporary Christian music. It is based on an unfounded rumor, not on Scripture. When we add to this the confusion of trying to define rock music versus pop versus gospel versus country, we are left with very shallow answers to give young people as they struggle with this very important issue. If they are to grow in Christ, we must give them concrete, Biblical answers. Anything less is spiritual irresponsibility.

"How can you say there Christian rock is good or valuable, when you can't even understand the words?"

In general, I agree with this argument. Since the purpose of Christian music is to minister to the listener (the exceptions of jazz and instrumental music will not be addressed at this time), it's important for the listener to hear what is being sung. Romans 10:14 says, "How will they know, if they cannot hear?" 1 Corinthians 14:8-9 is even more to the point: "If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying?"

But do most adults ever really try listening to the lyrics? They're so often turned off by the music style, they don't give the lyrics a chance. I explained earlier how important it is to listen to the words while reading the lyric sheet. That simple exercise changed my life.

I've been speaking on the issue of rock music for 14 years, but it wasn't until four years ago that I finally sat down and listened to the Christian rock I'd been criticizing. I found myself exposed to strong, challenging Christian teaching. It has practically been the only thing I've listened to since then. (Although I admit I still listen to a Palermo Brothers record every once in awhile.) It has been one of the primary factors in encouraging a deeper and stronger focus on my relationship with Jesus Christ.

How should you deal with your kids or youth group or congregation when it comes to contemporary Christian music? I have found it most beneficial to live out your role as their guide. If you believe someone you are responsible for is listening to meaningless Christian music, don't judge the person! You're not called to be a judge. Be a teacher.

Ask two questions instead. "Does the music you listen to help you to focus on life from a godly perspective?'' If they can say it does, ask the second question, "How?" If their answer shows that they're truly being ministered to by the music, don't try to tell them they're mistaken. If their answer shows a lack of spiritual depth or insight, be ready to suggest some music that will minister to them. Asking questions and making suggestions are part of your responsibility as a parent or Christian leader. Nowhere are we commanded to judge one another. In fact, as we have already discussed, we are commanded not to judge one another.

If the individual you are responsible for is listening to music you would deem pabulum instead of steak, try not to criticize. First make sure you have properly evaluated its content, before you label it pabulum. Pabulum is simply Christian music that is not adding to this person's spiritual growth. Somebody who is listening to Christian pabulum is simply identifying where their spiritual level is. Who eats pabulum? Babies do. We don't ridicule a baby for drinking milk or eating pabulum. It's to be expected. A smart parent will encourage their child toward solid food, while accepting the fact that pabulum is giving them a staple for the present.

We can treat Christian music in the same manner. We can gently encourage steak while tolerating pabulum through the growing stage. And remember, pabulum comes in many styles of Christian music. Be careful to evaluate the depth of the music by looking at the lyrics, not by judging the style. If you still don't like it, don't listen to it! But don't say there can't be any ministry value in music you don't like. You don't know what value it will have for someone else's spiritual growth.

As a leader and parent, you have every right to say what kind of music you will allow in your church or home. You can say you don't like the music and it doesn't minister to you. Be careful, however, about saying God doesn't like it, so it could never minister to any believer. How would you know? You aren't able to climb into anyone's soul and tell them what ministers to their heart. And much of the Christian music being criticized today has a valuable ministry to me and thousands of other strong, conservative, evangelical Christians.

"Christian rock music can never be as uplifting and inspiring as the songs we sing at our church meetings. The heavier the beat, the more shallow the message."

When you say the only good Christian music is comprised of the songs that you enjoy, you are in essence saying that God can't use music that you don't like. Old favorites presented as more valuable than today's contemporary Christian music include "Near The Cross," "When We All Get To Heaven, " "I'll Never Cross Jordan Alone,'' ''I'll Fly Away," and ''I've Got A Mansion.''

I recently read through three evangelical church hymnals and found, to my dismay, very few songs that deal with the issues of today. One- and two-hundred-year-old songs obviously don't deal with contemporary concerns, Many of the songs offered timeless doctrinal statements such as, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," but others were of questionable value and vague meaning. Many of these songs are difficult to understand or relate to today. Personally, I grew up thinking there was a bomb in Gilead. And, with all the terrorists in the Middle East, who would want to cross a dirty river in Israel? The archaic language makes it hard for many Christians to get the point!

What about hymns like "When We All Get To Heaven," "I'll Fly Away," "I've Got A Mansion"? Why do so many easy-listening songs deal with escaping the cares of this world to a place of personal comfort? Are we really only living for Jesus because we'll get a mansion when we die? How materialistic can you get? Where are the songs that teach Christians how to get through their troubles, rather than running away from them? Where are the songs that help Christians identify the sin in their life? Where are the songs that encourage us to live for others? Where is the challenge to sacrifice for others' needs? Isn't the illustration of the Good Samaritan Christ's example of true Christianity? If so, where are the songs that teach that type of commitment?

Ken Medema says it so clearly in his song, "Those Love Songs":
I'm sick of those 'I-am-His-and-He-is-mine,
and-doesn't-it-make-me-feel-good' love songs,
I've read the Book, and it doesn't turn out that way,
We need a few more 'We-are-His-and-He-is-Lord,
He-calls-us-to-His-service work songs,
He calls us together to give our lives away.

I believe many Christians are confusing emotional goose humps with true Christian teaching. They label those goose-bump songs as steak, when they're actually only milk. As I see it, most easy-listening Christian music teaches about a personal relationship with Jesus and biblical doctrine. Obviously, it is good to be encouraged to develop these qualities, but seldom does it offer insight as to how to use that faith in living today. On the other hand, the majority of contemporary Christian music teaches that real faith works as taught in the book of James. The emphasis is to live for Jesus in the here and now. Don't wait until you are "Somewhere Over The Hilltop."

I'm not saying our timeless hymns should be changed. They supply us with tremendous truths. But don't tell me that a Christian song is better simply because it is old or mellow. We can't measure the value of Christian music by style. In fact, since the older, mellower songs emphasize doctrine and a personal relationship with Jesus, and the spicier styles encourage an active use of that faith in Christ, why not permit both styles to become a part of your listening habits?


The bottom line in all this is to encourage you to give a fair evaluation of contemporary Christian music. I'm not saying you have to listen to music that is offensive to your ears. But please try to understand its place in today's Body of Christ. Thousands upon thousands of Christians (and they're not all liberals!) are being ministered to, challenged, and prepared to live out their faith in the real world.

Saying that Christian rock is not good simply because it's not mellow is unfair. Maybe it's not supposed to be mellow and calm. Since the message of so many contemporary Christian artists is urgent, then it is appropriate for the musical style to match the urgency of the lyrics. Good Christian rock will envelope the listener and urge him to respond to the message. Most of today's contemporary Christian music is not going to be mellow and relaxing, which means it is not going to make for good background music.

My suggestion is that if you want background music, listen to mellow Christian music like praise albums or something similar. If you want the challenge of living out what you know to be true, listen to contemporary Christian music. If you don't like the contemporary Christian sound, don't listen to it! Just so you understand, its purpose is going to be different from the purpose of easy listening Christian music.

Our main concern here is that the critics are encouraging so many parents and pastors to make judgments based on false assumptions, inadequate information, and insubstantial support from the Bible. What they have been doing is giving these people a religious hammer to take out their frustrations, anger, and bitterness on young Christians. But the hammer consists of vague and general accusations, so those being hammered have no way of defending themselves. We must simply allow some room for the variety of tastes found in the variety of the Body of Christ.

There are so many other issues that need to be addressed, but I will save them for other articles. In the meantime, when selecting Christian music, I'd like to offer these suggestions:

1. Generally speaking, mellow Christian music may have more doctrine, but it is often lacking when it comes to dealing with the issues of the day;

2. Generally speaking, upbeat Christian music encourages Christians to live in the here and now, but may lack deep teaching on Christian doctrine.

3. Look for music that ministers to your spiritual needs.

4. Encourage others to listen to Christian music that ministers to their spiritual needs.

5. Understand that your taste in music is not the only taste God can use to minister to others.

6. Try not to judge others who do not have your particular taste in music.

Christian music's main purpose is to minister to the believer, not to merely to entertain. Whether it be light spice or heavy spice, just because you enjoy the sound of the music, doesn't mean it is good to listen to. To find out if it is worthy of your time, evaluate the message of the lyrics and see if it is meeting your spiritual needs.