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What kind of music counts as Christian music?

“Is this a Christian band?”

You may have seen that comment left all over social media and streaming services. You may have even asked the question yourself. With bands releasing music at a faster pace than ever before, blurring genre lines and defying the old rules, it can be hard to sort out exactly how to understand a band’s values. The ongoing conversation of “what does it mean to BE a Christian band versus a Christian IN a band?” makes the problem that much more complicated.

One of the reasons why the question can be so confusing is that there are rarely black-and-white rules when it comes to art. God has gifted all humans with incredible creativity, which they can exercise regardless of what they believe about Him. Human beings are also constantly in some state of change. Even well into adulthood, the chance to learn new information and hear new stories will be continually reshaping how a person presents themselves and what they believe.

I say this to start with so that we know that the answer isn’t straightforward (unfortunately!). It's also important to note that "Christian" can really only refer to a person—not a thing—because it refers to someone who has chosen to accept and follow Christ (1 John 5:14-15). But determining what music might be FOR Christians (or beneficial to Christians) can be a helpful way to think about what songs could help and support your growth into becoming more like Christ. Rather than asking, "Is this Christian music?", let's ask some different questions...

What is this music for?

This question is one of the fastest ways to make distinctions. If music is being specifically made for the primary purpose of being used in churches and in other faith-centered or worshipful contexts, that immediately establishes it as music for Christians. This would include worship songs, specifically the kind you might sing in church on Sunday morning, written by church-based music ministries like Hillsong, Bethel Music, Elevation Worship, or Planetshakers. We often call this “congregational worship.”

But this could also include songs that are more geared toward giving voice to prayer and moments of personal contemplation. That type of song is likely to be centered wholly on the experience of relating to God, usually taking the form of a conversation with Him. (See the Psalms.)

Other songs that could clearly be called "for Christians" are songs written for the purpose of memorizing Bible verses or teaching Bible stories and core Gospel ideas in Sunday School, VBS, or Children’s Church settings. (See Veggie Tales!)

So if a song's usage is very specifically intended to be part of practicing the Christian faith, then it could be considered Christian music. But what about songs that don’t have a specific “use” in those settings, yet they still deal with strong faith themes? That brings us to the next question.

Who is making this music & why?

For musicians who are very vocal about their beliefs, it’s natural to focus on writing songs that share their life experiences through the lens of Christian faith. Those songs might be pop, dance, hip hop, or rock when it comes to sound, but the artist chooses to focus the lyrics on talking about what it’s like to be a Christian in this world. The lyrics might be more about telling a story, describing an experience, rather than worshipful phrasing about the character and nature of God. Those experiences can range from marriage to mental health to being bullied at school, but all of it is sung through a gospel-centered lens.

These songs can reasonably be called "music for Christians" too because they are coming from writers who identify as Christians and mostly write for an audience of Christians who would relate to the experience. Sometimes, artists in this group will write songs specifically intended to be evangelistic—to talk about Jesus in a way that invites listeners to get to know Him. This too could be called "Christian" music because the lyrics point toward the Christian faith.

But it should be noted that there are plenty of devout, steady, deeply faithful followers of Jesus who choose to make music that is not for any of the purposes listed above. Maybe the way they live out their faith is more about personal interactions than about writing specific kinds of lyrics. Maybe they want to write about other parts of life that may relate to a wider audience.

For many of these musicians, music is their job, which they try to execute with excellence “as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23). Just as there are cashiers and construction workers who seek to do their jobs with excellence and kindness even though the daily products or services they handle are in no way “Christian” in and of themselves, music can be handled the same way.

Remember, the entire concept of a "Christian" was intended to refer to people—not products. Jon Foreman, the lead singer of the band Switchfoot, famously said on this topic once, “Many songs are worthy of being written. Switchfoot will write some, Keith Green, Bach, and perhaps yourself have written others. Some of these songs are about redemption, others about the sunrise, others about nothing in particular: written for the simple joy of music. None of these songs has been born again, and to that end there is no such thing as Christian music. No. Christ didn’t come and die for my songs, He came for me.”

How is this music impacting me?

This is possibly the most important question about music. You’ll often find songs where you don’t know anything about who wrote it (or why). Maybe the song is purely instrumental and doesn’t even have lyrics. Maybe it's by an artist who lives an unhealthy lifestyle but somehow you connected with the lyrics anyway. Is it bad to like music that isn't "for Christians"?

Sometimes God can use songs like that to speak to us, to calm us when we’re afraid, to get us in touch with how we’re feeling, and help us process thoughts and emotions in a healthy way. Sometimes, songs can simply remind us of the infinite creativity of our Creator. One of the beautiful things about our limitless God is that He’s not waiting for anyone to offer Him the permission of classifying a song "correctly" before He’ll use it. Although the “Christian music” definition might be a helpful one when navigating what is healthy for us to listen to in our relationship with Him, God Himself isn’t bound by that label. You might be surprised by where you find Him.

When you're wondering if X song OK for you, ask yourself, “What is this song producing in my mind, my heart, and my life? Is the affect positive or negative for my faith?” If it’s producing any of the fruits of the Spirit (see Galatians 5), then it’s perfectly OK to embrace it as a part of your personal walk—regardless of the label. But if you find songs encouraging jealousy, anger, bitterness, judgment, or unkindness in your heart, then they’re not good songs for your personal walk with Jesus—even if they come from a self-designated Christian artist.

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TL;DR

While there are ways to determine if some music is "for Christians" or "by Christians," the most important distinction to make is whether that specific music is beneficial to you or not (1 Corinthians 10:23). Does this specific music strengthen your faith, weaken your faith, or is it truly neutral? Examining our music choices this closely may be extra work, but it's a part of developing and growing our faith as we seek to become more like Christ in all we do.

By: Mary Nikkel

Mary is a fan of stories about grace—whether they show up in writing, music, or photography form. She's been listening to and telling those stories as a professional writer for over 10 years. Mary is the founder and editor of Rock on Purpose, where she talks about rock music centered around truth and redemptive justice.


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