Today, I received an invitation on Facebook to a friend’s “Holy Hip-Hop” concert. I noticed one of the comments on the event page echoing a line of thought I’ve heard before, essentially arguing that there is no place in the Christian community for hip-hop music, that these “worldly hip-hop beats” (the commenter’s words) are incompatible with a Christian message.
As a former worship pastor, I’ve heard many an argument made for a biblically preferential worship style. I’ve been told that “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) cannot take place when drums are present (it’s important to note that the context of this verse has nothing to do with worship). I’ve been told that being “in the world and not of the world” means listening to and singing music that is stylistically different from music on the radio. I’ve heard that certain types of music are “hypnotic” and can “put you in a trance.” I was once even told (when working at a bookstore in high school) that the Switchfoot CD we were playing contained the “devil’s beat.” I’ve heard it all. And I’m here to tell you it’s all nonsense.
The truth is, instruments are neither sacred nor secular. There’s no such thing as a “sacred instrument” or a “secular instrument.” A pipe organ is no more holy than a kick drum. By the same token, instrumental music is neither sacred nor secular. Music without lyrics gives glory to nothing and no one, regardless of whether it’s a string quartet or techno CD. While we may recognize certain tunes and associate them with certain sacred or secular lyrics, it is the text of a song that determines its meaning.
What is interesting about this whole argument is that many of those who believe God somehow prefers some styles of music to others actually personally prefer tunes that were originally secular. Several hymn tunes began as secular songs and were later adapted as sacred songs. Luther was especially known for doing this; some tunes he used were pub songs. One theory is that he used them because of their familiarity; he knew worshippers would be more easily able to learn songs they already knew. Those tunes are now the very songs to which many “musical purists” now cling. It all goes to show that whether a song “sounds sacred” or not is simply an opinion and often subject to culture.
The same argument made against using pop, rock, hip-hop, or other current music styles in worship (or as Christian music in general) could have been applied against many hymns. However, as previously mentioned, the familiarity of the tunes made them good selections for worship. Even though these tunes may have first been secular, they were still able to be made sacred. Some have made the argument that certain musical styles or beats have pagan roots to them. However, as Christians, we believe in a God who is Redeemer. Every day, God makes beauty from ashes. He turns “hearts of stone” to flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). If God can redeem any person, no matter how broken, why believe a song or even a musical style is beyond God’s redemptive power?
The reality is, for many, that it’s just a weak argument in favor of a preference. Oftentimes someone who prefers hymns played on an organ to rock music played on a guitar or rap music performed to a beat will try to find biblical support for such preferences. The only problem is it’s just not there. What the Bible does tell us is that we should worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). We can worship with trumpet, harp, lyre, or cymbals (Psalm 150:3,5). It is not the style that matters but the authenticity. And some percussion doesn’t hurt either!