I grew up on old school church music– we sang hymns, and nothing else for most of my childhood. I remember in high school some contemporary worship began to work itself in– not bands like we have today, but what we’d call “worship choruses” sung to a cassette tape (remember “Give Thanks?” that was pretty contemporary departure from “Notin’ But The Blood”, as I recall). These “contemporary” worship choruses that slowly worked their way in eventually led to a part of Sunday morning worship called “special music” which was usually someone signing Thank You For Giving To The Lord by Ray Boltz- a song I’d heard 800 times by the 8th grade and was commonly sung at the Fundamentalist “Bible School” I went to when I graduated high school. (If you’re watching, the jokes on you now, isn’t it?)
In the 25 or so years since then, worship music in church has changed, a lot. Today, it’s common place to have a live band performing (often, emphasis on performing), and the songs that are sung are ones that often have lyrics that would make my grandma cringe. I mean, really– there’s a popular worship song that compares the love of Jesus to a “sloppy wet kiss”, so I think it’s safe to say that anything goes for worship music these days. Personally, I love both old hymns (in part because of nostalgia, in other part because of theology in them) and I also love ever evolving contemporary worship.
To take it one step further however, I’ve never been a fan of the distinctions of “secular” or “sacred”. I think that all knowledge is God’s knowledge and all beauty is God’s beauty– which means, all beautiful songs would be God’s beautiful songs.
I think we should be open to signing “secular” songs in Church, if it’s a good fit for that time and that place– after all, the Bible does say that there’s a “time and place for everything”, right? I often connect to music in deeply spiritual ways, and the songs that do that for me are quite often songs that we’d call “secular”.
The best gift I got for Christmas this year was a pair of noise cancelling headphones. My evening tradition since, has been to dial up the volume in these beauties and sit by the fireplace in the calm of the night, and listen to music that moves my inner being. Some evenings I have profound, emotional moments when I feel closer to God through listening to “secular” music, and have realized that there are plenty of these songs that I’d love to sing in church.
Here are a few I’d love to sing– some are great the way they are, and some would make wonderful worship with a slight adjustment to a few lyrics. I hope you’ll throw on some headphones, dial up the volume, and listen to the songs as you consider the reasons why I’d love to sing these songs in church:
5. Red, Red, Wine by UB40
I’m a fan of celebrating the Eucharist every week, and what better song to sing as we consume the blood of the Lord than “Red, Red, Wine”?
In seminary I met a guy named Josh who left a hyper-charismatic tradition for one that was very liturgical. His reasoning, as he explained, was that his background was so charismatic he never knew when people were having a real connection with God, and when they were just being… well, weird. Joining a liturgical tradition that, among other things, celebrated the Eucharist each week was something he said gave him a predictable way to feel connected to God regardless of what he experienced by way of emotions.
For nearly 2000 years, Christians have realized that there’s something special about celebrating the Eucharist and that in some strange way, God is especially present as we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus- and I have grown to love it for the same reasons that Josh did.
In the song, some of the lyrics draw out spiritual emotions that I frequently have when I am feeling a connected presence to God:
“Red, red, wine,
It’s up to you.
All I can do, I’ve done.”
In this way, the song reminds me that I am in need of the presence of God, and in need of his mercy. “All I can do, I’ve done” as well as the lyrics “red, red wine, stay close to me” remind me that I’m not looking for a Jesus who can just save me in the afterlife, but a Jesus who can save me right here, and right now. The song also talks about how the red wine is the only thing that helps him forget painful memories of the past, something I connect with because I’ve got a lot of those too. But for some reason, when I consume the bread and the wine, for a brief moment in time I feel at peace… and feel the presence of God.
4. Don’t Stop Believing (Journey)
This song talks about a girl from a small town and a boy from the city, both on a journey of discovery and talks about the ups and downs of life that we all experience. Instead of a traditional worships song that makes us think we should feel happy, or that we should have it all together, this song affirms that life is full of both wonderful and suck-y moments:
“Some will win, some will lose
Some were born to sing the blues
Oh, the movie never ends
It goes on and on and on and on”
Jesus once said something almost identical to this– he said: “In this world you will have many problems– but don’t lose heart! I have overcome this world.”
Jesus essentially reminds us that “some will win, and some will lose” but that regardless of what we experience, the important thing is that we “don’t stop believing” that a better day is coming. I don’t know about you, but for me, life is hard. Mine has been full of discouragement and doubt, and sometimes there just aren’t good answers for those difficult chapters we experience. And, when I’m stuck in the middle of one of those dark valleys, sometimes the best advice is to hold on and “don’t stop believing”.
Plus, everyone already knows this song and the church walls would vibrate with participation and smiles across the room the moment you get to the “don’t stop believing” part.
The rendition of this song is not only beautiful, but perfectly combines a balanced theology that I think is often missed in much of the American Christian landscape. After the fundamentalist/modernist controversies in the previous century, we largely ended up with some groups of Christians hyper focused on the afterlife and getting out of this world, and a second group at an opposite extreme that becomes so focused on this world it misses the beauty of longing for what is to come.
The blend of these two songs, fixes that imbalance.
The first half of this song gives us permission to long for the next “world” whatever that looks like. In times of difficulty and grief, I have often received much comfort by longing for that new world to come where “every tear will be wiped from their eyes… there will be no more sorrow or death or crying or pain because the old things are gone”. Yet, if we become too focused on this, we miss out of the beauty found in this world, right here and right now. The latter half of the song reminds us that God created the world and everything in it, and when he looked down he said “what a wonderful world!” By combining these two, we find a healthy balance of longing, yet being present and participating in the beauty that can be found in this present reality.
2. One (U2)
There are perhaps a dozen U2 songs that would work well in church, but atop the list, is One. This song is incredibly spiritual and speaks to issues of being authentic, embracing community, healing, and the vastness of God’s love.
In the beginning, the song invites us to be real with ourselves regarding self awareness to what we’re actually searching for: “have you come here for forgiveness? Have you come to raise the dead? Have you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head?” I think we’d get a lot more out of church if we had self awareness to the type of healing we long to experience in a church context. He goes on to remind us of the diversity found in the Church, which makes us “one” but still “not the same”– differences that he notes cause us to hurt each other repeatedly and points us to the fact that loving, is the greatest commandment:
But we’re not the same
Hurt each other
Then we do it again
Love is a temple
Love a higher law
Love is a temple
Love the higher law”
Finally, he goes on to remind us that even though we’re different, we share “one love”, found in Jesus. As a result, we ought to embrace authentic life in community, where we “get to carry each other”:
You got to do what you should
With each other
But we’re not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other”
In short, I think there’s better theology in this song than 90% of the stuff we often sing in church.
1. Redemption Song (Bob Marley)
No list of great songs would be complete without Bob Marley. Since the first time I heard this song, it’s been a song of worship for me– and I’ve more than once hinted to our worship leader at church that I’d like to sing it. It is a powerful song of oppression and freedom from oppression– a theme I believe is central to the narrative found throughout the whole of scripture. The song says in part:
“But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the almighty
We forward in this generation
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
‘Cause all I ever have
I think if we’re honest, those of us who have decided to follow Jesus realize that we’re being redeemed from something. Singing about this redemption and that God has now equipped us to move forward, is an act of worship to the one who has done, and is doing, the redeeming.
My prayer for us today, is that we’d break out of the old box that says “this is Christian” and “this is secular” or “this is worship” compared to “this is entertainment” and realize that God’s beauty is something that can be found in the most unexpected places… even British Reggae.
Give it a shot– set aside the weirdness factor for a minute, turn up the volume, and allow some of these songs to become worship to you– because they are to me.
So, these are the “secular” songs that I wish we’d sing in church— which songs would be your choice? Let’s continue the discussion below!