What Makes A Song “Christian”?

I had a conversation not long ago with someone about what makes a song “Christian” . . . or not.

You know how I have concluded many people answer that question, consciously or not?

If it is released by a Christian music label and gets played on Christian music stations.

That’s really what it comes down to in many people’s thinking.  And . . . that’s what makes it appropriate to sing in church.

So: if you hear it on K-Love 91.9  (and can we acknowledge that the relative lack of banter make that a better station than its predecessor, New Life?) and if it was released by Hillsong, Maranatha, or Sparrow, you’re good.  It’s a Christian song and you’re OK to use it on Sunday either as a “congregational” or “special.”

On the other hand, if a song is released by a mainstream artist on a popular label, it’s not appropriate . . . even if the lyrics reflect Gospel themes or Gospel hope.

That kind of distinction — rarely articulated in such stark terms, but lived out nonetheless — brings up a real conundrum.

I call it The Michael English Effect.   Who is he?  In the days of Contemporary Christian Music explosive growth in the early 1990s, he was the man.  In fact, he won four Dove Awards — CCM’s version of the Grammys — in 1994.

And one week later — literally — it came out that he and a woman in a supporting band were pregnant.  And both were married to other people at the time.

So: were Michael English’s Dove Award winning songs Christian?  Any more or any less than U2’s Where The Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, or Magnificent?  Did English’s place on the 91.9 rotation make his songs worthy of church attention and U2’s play on 95.7 The Ride disqualify it?

Or even closer to home:  so many of us had our faith strengthened by Ray Boltz’s Thank You, I Pledge Allegiance To The Lamb, and even Watch The Lamb.  Except many would be surprised to know that Boltz is no longer married to his wife of 30 years and has a male partner.  So are those songs still appropriate for church?

I cite all those examples as the foundation for a simple plea:  don’t be so quick to separate the spiritual from the secular, especially in music.

As Methodists, we believe in prevenient grace — that God is at work in people who aren’t necessarily looking for him.  That’s why I believe he can inspire Gospel-honoring art to come out of people who don’t yet believe the Gospel.  What song, for example, could move us toward the forgiving spirit at the heart of the Gospel more than Don Henley’s The Heart Of the Matter — and yet Henley would be loathe to call himself a Christian.


That might not be played on K-Love 91.9.  But it should be.