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Making the Secular Sacred

Should the church use secular songs in worship?

Q: Is it acceptable for the church to reinterpret secular songs for use in worship?

A: In the strictest sense, the only "Christian" or sacred songs are scriptural songs, either Psalms or lyrics directly quoting the Bible. There are no musical notes included in the Bible, because the music is not of eternal consequence. Truth is located in the lyrics not the notes.

With that in mind, there are many secular songs that do not have a message that can be put to use in the church environment. But there are songs that may be used to help direct the congregation's attention to God.

We shouldn't rule out a song based solely on the artist who wrote or recorded it. An otherwise secular song can be sacred if used for godly purposes in exactly the same way that nature can be used to point to God. For many people, a flower is just a pretty thing to put in a vase, a sunset is just the rotation of the earth, and the beach is just a place where the water meets the land. But God can touch our hearts with the beauty and fragrance of a flower, the intricacy of his creation exemplified by a sunset, or the immense power released in the sound of waves. In the same way, God can use non-church music to draw our hearts to him. Secular songs like Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes," Lou Graham's "I Want To Know What Love Is" or music from U2 and Sister Hazel are just a few examples of songs with profound spiritual messages that we've seen God use to touch people during our services.

The fact is that secular music speaks to people—seekers, unchurched, and churched alike. This music has such wide appeal because many secular songs articulate universal human needs. The reason so many songs are written about love is because it's a universal desire, and one that the Bible affirms when it tells us that God's very nature is love. A secular song in church is so attractive, then, because every attendee is likely to be familiar with it and comfortable listening to its truth explained by a gifted teacher.

Most people expect a teacher to use non-biblical stories to illustrate a biblical truth. They use these illustrations as bridges between the culture in which people live and the message God wants them to hear. Jesus, being a masterful teacher, did this regularly. He used illustrations from common life, such as fishing, farming, and family, to teach spiritual truth. At Saddleback, we have found it effective to use secular songs (sparingly) in our worship services, not to promote the story in the songs, but to use them as illustrations pointing people to a Biblical truth, just as Jesus' parables did.

Moses, one of the greatest leaders in the Bible, used an ordinary staff to guide his herds until the day when God decided to use it. From that day forward that staff became a sacred instrument; the Bible calls it "the rod of God" used for his divine purposes. Something ordinary (secular) became holy (sacred). In the same way, all things—including songs—can be sacred if used for God's purposes.

Rick Muchow is worship pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, and author of The Worship Answer Book.

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