Originally published at DesiringGod.org
In many modern churches, it has become common practice to feature a secular song at the beginning or end of a worship service. Pop music — including Taylor Swift, U2, Coldplay, and countless others — now functions as an outreach tool in Sunday morning gatherings. Whether it’s singing the popular Frozen anthem “Let it Go” in a series on anger, or AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” before a gospel presentation, many churches are expressing complex biblical themes and ideas through content that is familiar and approachable, especially for unbelievers.
This practice is, more often than not, an attempt to soften the culture shock of entering a church for the first time. For many lost people, the presence of any music in church can be confusing, and a familiar song from the radio can establish familiarity and cohesion between two life experiences. This motivation represents sincere thoughtfulness on the part of church leaders who hope to welcome unbelievers into their congregations. But it comes with a cost.
As Scripture makes abundantly clear, certain qualities should define our worship, including our times of corporate singing.
The Bible calls us to worship with “reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28) and frequently reminds us that we should worship God alone (Exodus 20:4–5; 2 Kings 17:38; 1 Corinthians 10:14). The biblical authors describe worship as sacrificial and separate from the patterns of this world (Romans 12:1–2; Colossians 3:2–5). And they command us to sing his praises (Psalm 95:1–2; Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19).
Beyond these guidelines, the specifics of style and form can vary greatly; there is more than one right way to worship in church. Nevertheless, every choice we make — from style to production to lyrics — can drastically shape our faith.
Where’s the Glory?
Among the many purposes of corporate worship, two primary ones are to glorify God and form God’s people into Jesus’s image. When we plan our gatherings with this foundation in mind, we are able to more effectively shape the content of our church services. A responsible leader should always seek to minimize distractions and provide an atmosphere conducive to corporate worship’s core purposes. Singing Katy Perry songs, regardless of the intention, will almost always move our minds somewhere other than the glory of God.
In its proper context, secular music has a lot of merit: we’re created in the image of a creative God, and music can often express this creativity without being explicitly about God. But these songs rarely raise our affections for God. It is difficult to find merit in an element of Sunday-morning worship that neither moves us to glorify God nor molds us into his likeness.
But this is only one part of the problem.
Paradox of Participation
Let’s say, for example, that we include a Taylor Swift song at the beginning of our worship service. Would we ask the congregation to stand during this song? Would we put the lyrics on the screen? Would we encourage people to sing along? If we answer yes to any of these questions, we have gravely misunderstood one of the most important functions of worship: formation.
Declaring our beliefs in song has a unique and powerful effect on our hearts. How then are we forming our hearts as we sing “Shake It Off”? If we treat this song like a normal worship song (e.g., lyrics on screen, congregation standing and singing along), we allow something other than the glory of God to shape us. Can you see the dilemma? Whether we sing Taylor Swift on Sunday morning has very little to do with the quality of her music. It’s instead about recognizing that our worship shapes us, for better or for worse.
But what if we take special precautions to distinguish the secular music from the rest of our songs on Sunday morning? Calling this song “the special” and having the congregation sit and watch solves a lot of these problems, but it introduces another equally troubling dilemma. When we separate the secular song and worship set as distinct elements, we inevitably turn the former into a performance. The congregation becomes only an audience, and the musicians their entertainers; leadership gives way to theatricality and we exchange humility for showmanship.
So therein lies the paradox: no matter how we choose to treat this song, we end up violating the biblical concept of worship. We must conclude that, despite the genuine good these songs might do for lost people seeking to enter the church, the spiritual threat is far greater than the potential reward.
Though culture can often prove helpful in shaping the way we worship, we should never let conformity to culture compromise our witness. As we seek to refine our worship practices, may we gladly embrace our identity as God’s set-apart people (1 Peter 2:9–10), and in doing so proclaim his excellencies to a listening world.
Praise the Lord!
For it is good to sing praises to our God;
for it is pleasant, and a song of praise is fitting. (Psalm 147:1)