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“You Can’t Worship To That!” The Global Gospel and Musical Preferences

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“You Can’t Worship To That!”

The Global Gospel and Musical Preferences

Are there certain types of music that cannot be used to worship God? Does the Bible prescribe specific kinds of music that will please God and certain kinds that displease Him? Specifically, let’s talk about rap and hip-hop music. Is there anything intrinsically wrong with rap and hip-hop music that would categorically preclude its use as a means to worship God, either corporately or individually? While the Bible does not speak to rap music in particular, it does provide examples of musical worship in general. Here are just a few:

Psalm 150:1-6
Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!

Psalm 71:73
My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed.

Psalm 33:1-4 
Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous! Praise befits the upright. Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp of ten strings! Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts. For the word of the Lord is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness.

Ephesians 5:19
Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.

Colossians 3:16
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

We can see that God wants us to sing, to shout, to dance, to use instruments, to make melody in our hearts, to play skillfully, to be loud and joyful and thankful, to sing hymns, spiritual songs, and psalms. Psalm 7 even begins with the inscription “A Shiggaion of David...” Commentators (particularly the editors of the NASB) believe this is a Hebrew musical term that means, “A wild, dythrambic rhythm.”

What we don't see in the Bible, however, is a requirement to only use 4/4 meter in our songs, or to only employ a verse-chorus-verse-chorus format, or to play fast songs exclusively or slow songs regularly. And this makes sense because God is the God of all creation, every culture throughout time, every race, language, tribe, and nation (Rev. 7:9). God will not be demeaned by limiting His praise to a small list of acceptable musical styles created or endorsed by the dominant culture.

The gospel reaches everywhere, into every culture, every tribe, every nation, every city, every neighborhood, and every home. From Africa to Asia, from the jungles of Peru to the heights of the Himalayas, from the Inuit in Alaska to the high school dropout on the streets of Los Angeles. When we became Christians, we did not enter into a racial/ethnic culture, rather we came from around the world and across time to become the Bride and the Body of Christ. May our music reflect that.

But what about the origins of rap and hip-hop? Aren’t its origins replete with references to guns, gangs, drugs, and violence? To this I look to Ephesians 2:1-3 which says,

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

As descendants of Adam, our origins are nothing but sin, but God redeemed us (Eph. 2:4). Our outward appearance stays the same; our voices, eye color, hair color all remain the same. The difference is what is inside us, our hearts, our motivations, our desires, our words and actions (Ezek. 11:19). Rap and hip-hop as a style or category of music can be redeemed. Christian artists have redeemed the medium, the conveyance of the message by changing the message itself from one of sin and death to one of grace and salvation. That’s what the gospel is all about.

When talking about any song no matter the musical style, one of the most important questions to ask is, “Is Christ being honored by this song?” Contemplate these lyrics. Is Christ honored?

You're trying to figure what to do with your life

If you make a lot of money hope you're doing it right

Because the money is God's you better steward it right

And stay focused, you ain't got no ride

Your life ain't wrapped up in what you drive

The clothes you wear, the job you work

The color your skin, naw you're a Christian first

People get to living for a job

Make a little money start living for a car

Get 'em a wife a house kids and a dog

Then they retire they're living high on the hog

But guess what they didn't ever really live at all

To live is Christ and that's Paul I recall

To die is gain so for Christ we give it all

He's the treasure you'll never find in a mall

Your money your singleness marriage talent your time

They were loaned to you to show the world that Christ is Divine

That's why it's Christ in my rhymes

That's why it's Christ all the time

See my whole world is built around Him He's the life in my lines

I refused to waste my life

He's too true to chase that ice

Here's my gifts and time 'cause I'm constantly trying to be used to praise the Christ

If he's truly raised to life

Then this news should change your life

And by his grace you can put your faith in place that rules your days and nights

In the end, it all comes down to preference. I do not prefer chanting by Gregorian monks as a means of musical worship, others would not appreciate the Chinese erhu, while still others would balk at the idea of the organ. Having musical preferences is fine, for that is what it means to be a human being living in a culture. As a Bible-believing, Christ-loving Christian, it’s okay to not like rap or hip-hop music as a means to worship, just as it is okay to dislike country or classical or jazz or choral or rock or metal or music from any other culture. But let us remember our preferences do not make anything more or less godly or holy.

Should we employ rap or hip-hop music exclusively or frequently in our corporate or individual worship times? Not necessarily, but neither should we condemn it   The danger I fear though is when we take our preferences (about anything) and turn them into biblical commands. Therein lies the path of legalism, self-righteousness, and damnation. May it never be said of us. May we not “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders.” (Matt 23:4). So may we be hesitant to ever tell anyone "You can't worship to that!"

I close with this challenge to myself and I humbly commend it to you. Let our church be one that is wide open to believers from different races, ethnicities, languages, and cultures. May we be discerning yet welcome different styles and categories of music so long as they are overflowing with lyrics that are Bible-saturated, Christ-exalting, and joy-filled.

May we listen to, contemplate, and discover new musical expressions of worship that honor the King of kings  May we be loath to spread a westernized, white evangelicalism masquerading as the Good News. Let us all be willing to lay aside our personal preferences – including our musical preferences – for the sake of the global gospel, true unity in the church, and the glory of Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Here is the entirety of the song I quoted above:

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