During our “snack break” in a preaching class last night, an Asian gentleman said, “You’re a worship leader. Can you tell me, what is the difference between Christian music and secular music?”
Now that woke me up!
Seriously. I really had to think about that one. Throughout history, each generation has held a certain collection of songs to be “more holy” or “more spiritual” than others. During the Middle Ages the Church condoned only the use of Latin Chant; during the Reformation church-goers would sing Lutheran Chorales; a few decades ago Christian people would swear up and down that their Modern Hymnals were sacred writings; and today we have split congregations right down the middle – half of the church firmly believes that hymns are still the “most holy” music, while the other half believes just as firmly that the hymns are “dead” and that more recent praise music is more personal, more meaningful, and more full of spiritual life.
So what gives? Is there a difference between Christian music (composed by Christians for the purpose of worship) and secular compositions, or is all music a mere collection of notes which we assign our own meaning to?
The Holy Spirit Makes the Difference
After thinking for a moment, I decided that there is a distinct difference between Christian musical performances and secular ones – and that this distinguishing factor is the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Some worshippers can sing an old hymn with such passion that those listening are left with chills and a distinct sense of God’s presence, while others can sing them so terribly that they truly are as dead as a doornail. And the same is true for any style of music.
I am convinced that music itself (the notes, the tempo, the style) is simply a tool, and nothing more. When someone performs music with the right heart and for the right reasons, however, the Spirit will bless that performance, and those musical tools can become vehicles for the Spirit to proclaim God’s truth and touch the listeners’ hearts.
Can Secular Tunes Be Redeemed?
Okay, I myself am guilty of this. I had heard from a music professor that Martin Luther borrowed popular tavern songs from the local bars of his day and wrote new words to them in order to appeal to the audience of his time, and that this is how A Mighty Fortress Is Our God was composed. It was a wonderful story of how God can take any musical composition and redeem it for His purposes.
Unfortunately, this story is completely false. Historical records show that Luther composed both the text and the tune for this popular hymn in 1529. However, according to Paul Jones, “Luther did use preexisting musical material for some of his chorales…he borrowed and adapted from Gregorian chant, as well as from folk music.” 
What? A secular folk song could have been transformed into a sacred hymn? Absolutely. As Luther took these musical “tools” and made them vehicles for proclaiming the truth of God’s Word (A Mighty Fortress comes directly from Psalm 46), I believe the Lord blessed these new songs in a mighty way and begin to move through them.
So can the same thing happen with the secular tunes of today? I don’t see why not. If a composer is truly seeking to glorify the Lord and proclaim His Word through music, I really don’t think the particular arrangement of notes matters. It is the heart and message of the music (not to mention the spirit of the performer) that makes all the difference.
A Tangible Difference
While working on my undergraduate degree I went on a mission trip to Mainland China. During the six-week trip I began to feel both homesick and discouraged, and would find a private room with a piano and just pray and play worship music from memory as a way to allow God to encourage my heart. As I did this one afternoon, I didn’t realize that a Chinese cleaning lady had come down the hall and heard the piece I was playing. I wasn’t singing a single word out loud, and the piece was entirely instrumental, but the lady still interrupted me to say, “I have never heard music like this. Can you tell me what it is about?”
This helped me realize that even instrumental and classical music can be a worshipful experience if performed in a prayerful manner and if the musician’s sole motivation is to glorify the Lord with their talents. I began to understand that it isn’t so much the music itself (or some inherent “holiness” in a particular melodic line) that draws people’s heart toward God, but the Holy Spirit working through music.
Above All, Sing Spiritually
Many of the great hymns were composed by John and Charles Wesley. In 1761, John Wesley wrote “Seven Directions for Singing,” and advised Christians “above all, to sing spiritually with an eye to pleasing God more than ourselves or anyone else. We are to direct our singing to the Lord.”
Modern praise singers would call this “singing for an audience of One.”
No matter how you phrase it, the truth is the same. Forget searching for the “most sacred music,” since this is just as elusive as the Holy Grail.
Sing the music that you have, and sing it for the Lord, and for the Lord alone. Only then will He speak through your song, and only then will that particular combination of notes and rests truly become sacred.
 Paul Jones, ”Luther and Bar Song: The Truth, Please!” Singing and Making Music, 171-72.
 Ruth Shaw, ”Come Into God’s Presence With Singing,” (September 8, 2012).