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What is Christian Music?


As a professional guitarist, I believe there are “canons” of music: Hendrix, Clapton, Young, Petrucci… these are guys you need to know to become a proficient guitar player—guys not particularly known for their love and devotion to Jesus.

Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) doesn’t make this list.

I don’t mean any disrespect: CCM is deceptively simple – but its complexity lies in other places. It can seem like wanting to appreciate good music puts you at odds with living a genuinely Christian life. This might leave you with a moral dilemma. You might ask: Am I being a false Christian for listening to these bands? Am I compromising my faith? Am I a hypocrite?

I think not. This article explains why. Here’s the game plan: four things Christian music is not, and one thing Christian music is. Let’s go.

Christian Music is Not a Sound 

CCM sounds like Coldplay. Those are facts. Now, there’s really nothing wrong with that: musical “borrowing” is the way to push music forward. What can be wrong here is the reduction of Christian music to a mood.

Music has a unique power to engage our emotional life. This is a good thing. It’s part of God’s created order in the universe. It can, however, be abused. The mood of some songs tends to equate God’s presence with sentimentality: if you feel a certain way, then you know God is present.        

Don’t get me wrong: God’s (true) presence is indeed beautiful and liberating. But reducing God’s presence to sentimentality can harm your reflection and practice of the faith by limiting it to just one expression. This is a problem because it potentially reduces “worship” (which is what most people understand Christian music to be) to a feeling – that is, just this feeling, the one produced by this sound.

Of course, this sound is absent in most churches in the majority world. For example, I come from a small island in the Caribbean, we typically worship with fast and syncopated music styles (salsa, merengue, coritos de fuego, etc.). To say that Christian music is a single sound is to perpetrate a uniform way of worship that leaves no space for other cultures and styles.

Christian Music is Not a Genre

You live in a rare moment in church history. In recent years, “Christian music” has been marketed in such a way that “worship” has become a commodified genre of music. Think about that for a moment.

When you open Spotify (or any other music app), you might find a tab with the label “Christian” on it. What does this say about what Christianity is? At the very least, it says “Christianity” is just one more option among many. If this model dictates your approach to faith, your Christianity will be compartmentalized – separated from the rest of your life.

Instead, you want to have an approach to music that mirrors Christ’s call to exclusive discipleship and Christ’s redemptive lordship over all things.

Christian Music Is Not (Only) Christian-Themed

Take a poll asking what people think “Christian music” means, and I’m sure many would say it’s music with “explicit Christian themes.” So, music that mentions God, Christ, sin, forgiveness, or something similar.

But secular bands include religious references, too. Dream Theater’s song “In the Presence of Enemies” comments on Psalm 23. Paramore, in their song “Careful,” references John 8:32 in the bridge. You wouldn’t necessarily call these songs “Christian” just because they explore religious themes. Why isn’t it the same with so-called Christian music?

To think that Christian music is music that has explicit Christian themes is to limit Christian music to a religious subject matter (again, compartmentalization). Christ, however, is the lord of all things. And the Bible demonstrates that even when God is not explicitly mentioned, he can still be at work.

Christian Music Is Not (Only) for Worship

Perhaps in your poll, the answer that would dethrone “explicit Christian themes” is that Christian music is worship music, or music for worship. Of course, this is to be expected because the main use of music for Christians is worship. And rightly so! 

However, this definition makes several reductions. If Christian music is only music for worship, then,

  1. It assumes a division between the church and the world and then reduces God’s reign to the church.
  2. It reduces worship to music (worship is broader: confession, reading scripture, taking the Lord’s supper—these are all forms of worship).
  3. It reduces music to its uses (it is “Christian” as long as it helps me sing).
  4. It reduces its uses to my use (making me the center of the faith).

Although music can (and should) be used for your personal or corporate worship, it is also more than that.

What Christian Music Is

So what is Christian music?

Christian music (insofar as it makes sense to call it that) is music that participates, deliberately or by chance, in the Christian story.

And what is this Christian story?

It is simply that,

There is a God who, in his mission to redeem his whole creation, has sent his son Jesus to triumph against the powers of sin. And he has commissioned a people who, in the power of the Holy Spirit, are to participate in that mission by pushing against the effects of sin wherever they may be found.

This broader way of understanding what Christian music is will incorporate the four characteristics above without being reduced to just one.

Christian music is not one sound because there are multiple ways to express this story. It is not only a genre because this story cannot be compartmentalized—it touches on everything we, as Christians, do. It is not only music that explores religious themes because this story seeks the redemption of all things and all areas of life. It is not only for corporate worship because this is God’s universe, and God’s reign extends beyond the church to incorporate all of existence. Non-Christian artists, with their non-Christian art, and Christian artists (artists who are Christians) outside the church can harmonize with this story (whether they know it or not).

Musical excellence, virtuosity, and beauty ultimately belong to God’s order, not to sin’s distortion. They witness that God’s universe is a universe in which splendor, harmony, and abundance have meaning. In a world without God, these things do not make sense. The non-Christian musician becomes a witness to a picture of the world that fits better in the Christian story, though he might not be aware of it.

Ultimately, non-Christian artists participate in this story the same way Christian artists do: by God’s grace.

Music for Christians…

What is the call, then, for Christians who seek to make and enjoy music?

The call is for discernment and participation.

To be so infused with God’s story in scripture that we listen for and interpret God’s voice and action in the world. To not be taken from the world but guarded against evil (John 17:15). To discern what are the things being sung (1 Corinthians 14:15). To examine everything and retain what’s good (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

In creating a beautiful composition, musicians testify to the dignity and meaning of the world as created by God and thereby participate in God’s redemptive work by instilling in us the desire for a world free from sin’s distortion, a redeemed world, a world made right.


God created a universe in which music exists, and God saw that it was very good. Find out about music's power to help you experience God's wonder and glory.