People sometimes ask me why we sometimes use ‘secular’ tunes in our music when we worship in song at Mavuno. Are we so desperate to be cool and acceptable that we are selling out on the gospel? Are we contaminating the gospel by not drawing a fine line between gospel and secular?
I have no doubt that many who raise such questions do so out of genuine love and concern, and not simply to be controversial and find fault. They want to know, ‘have you thought through what you are doing and is there theological justification for it?’ I would like to share a correspondence I had several years back with one of our Life Group leaders (referred to as D). The idea is not to advance an argument but to clarify our reasoning. I realize that not all who read will agree with this stance! But I hope having read it, we can agree on where to disagree… And that we can each focus on our common calling to impact all nations for the kingdom, allowing God the final word on the integrity of our hearts and methods. God bless you as you read!
The following is an email conversation between Pastor M and a Life Group leader at Mavuno Church (referred to as D). [Square brackets indicate later editorial edits.]
To: Pastor M
Subject: help clarify
Dear Pastor M.
We would just like to give you and the pastoral team in Mavuno some feedback on some things we are not quite sure on what the plan is. We appreciate a lot of work goes into the service and into making it a wonderful and exciting experience for our intended target audience and are truly thankful for this. When we joined Mavuno, we were not sure how to feel about the worship and singing style.
We understand that the whole purpose of Mavuno is to reach our generation using their language/modes of expression. That said, I find using secular music and lyrics during worship hard to understand. My reasoning is as follows:
1.When our target audience come to church, they are looking for something different and comforting. If they find the same song they were dancing to last night at the club is the one that has been turned into a worship song, I think it sends the wrong message.
2.Mavuno is supposed to be a trend setter in many areas and music and arts is one of them. With all the talent that we have, has it become difficult to produce our own songs and market them to make them famous? We already have an album that displays our great talent.
3.We feel worship time is for everyone in church. Many believers come to church looking forward to a refreshing time of worship. When I come to church and find the songs I have been trying to tune out are the ones I am supposed to sing and dance to in worship , it leaves me confused, and my heart and brain just don’t seem to agree on this one.
4.As Life group leaders, how are we to respond when those in our life group who are not yet born again begin to inquire about secular music during worship and those who are born again get confused as in 3 above?
We are glad that we can articulate our concerns openly to the head Pastor. Mavuno is a great place to be. We just want to contribute our ideas and insights and we believe open communication with the leadership is important so we can be part of growing the church and bringing more to Christ.
D & Spouse
Subject: RE: help clarify
Thanks for your email. I appreciate both of you and the role you play at Mavuno, especially in our Life Group leadership. I also appreciate your raising the issue as you have. I’ll attempt to share not a comprehensive answer but a response from the heart; speaking as the words come to mind rather than composing a tidy response.
The issue of ‘using secular music and lyrics’ in worship has been a cause for much heated debate over the years across the Christian world. This is not the first or the last conversation about it! Which is a good thing as it means we’re under no pressure to come up with the final solution to the matter 🙂 You articulate several good reasons on the side that argues against the practice. Let me advance a few on the other side…
Christianity does not elevate one culture [unlike say Islam with Arabic culture] and import it as the one essential to understanding God. In every age and time, Christians have re-packaged the gospel to help people understand it. The gospel remained the same but the packaging changed with every different culture and generation. For instance, the church reformers, including people like Martin Luther and Charles Wesley were brought up at a time when sung worship was in the form of the presiding priest chanting tunes in Latin with response at appropriate intervals by the congregation. The Reformers did what must have been a shocking thing; they took common bar-tunes (by the secular artistes of the day!) and wrote worship songs that the common people could relate with (feel) and understand. Some of these include the most popular and enduring hymns (e.g. ‘A mighty fortress is our God’!)
In every culture, there are three types of practices and beliefs: the things that are righteous and reflect an element of God’s glory, the things that are sin, and the things that are neutral. The last group can be used for good or evil. Christians should embrace the first, shun the second and ‘domesticate’ the third! I believe music falls into this last category.
You’ve may have already noted that what we consider ‘safe’ worship was usually not seen as so in the preceding generation. In the early 90’s before I was a pastor, I was a worship leader in church. I remember being part of a team that led many musical innovations e.g. using an overhead projector instead of a songbook, singing ‘Hosanna Integrity’ music (a popular church music producer then) instead of hymns and older choruses and using an electronic worship band (instead of an organ or piano). Our agenda was not to look ‘cool’ but to reach our generation in a language that they understood. Needless to say, that church grew greatly then and one of the major factors was the music that connected with the people we were reaching. Even then, many thought we were going too far. I remember one distinguished doctor who wrote a letter and said that every time we allowed the bass guitar in church, he heard the deep dark tones of hell! The music criticized then is what many today would consider orthodox praise music in churches today. I think it was great for reaching the generation then, but as the culture shifts, the church needs to adjust the packaging again (and again!) to reach the next generation.
2. ‘ONE LIFE’
Scripture says ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’ (Psa.24:1) The whole ‘secular’ versus ‘spiritual’ separation is a creation of Greek ‘dualistic’ philosophy (carried forward through our Western education) that elevated mind over matter or spiritual over material. It’s neither biblical nor African. In the bible, you don’t see people categorizing certain things as spiritual and others as not. The biblical worldview saw economics, music, architecture, politics, medicine etc as all essential parts of life and worship (that’s why Leviticus is often so confusing for us; it discusses how to build houses, treat illnesses, prepare meals etc!). In African culture, the same was true; when a person was sick, you didn’t categorize the illness as medical and thus not spiritual.
The problem with dualism is that it can lead to categorizing some things as belonging to God and others as belonging to the ‘secular’ realm (the devil’s domain!?). Our biblical worldview teaches us however that the devil is not the Creator, God is! And yet Satan would dearly love for us to credit him with stuff that he stole from the Creator. I squirm when people say reggae/rap/rock etc is ‘the devil’s music’. It’s like saying certain architecture styles are more godly than others or that capitalism is more godly than socialism. Or that psychology is not in the bible so you shouldn’t preach about depression or temperaments in church. The result? There are certain things that people regularly say, wear, do, or think… but not in church! [e.g. I can listen to that tune in a matatu but not in church!]
I like this introduction to the book of Nehemiah in ‘The Message’; a popular bible paraphrase by Eugene Peterson…
Separating life into distinct categories of ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ damages, sometimes irreparably, any attempt to live a whole and satisfying life, a coherent life with meaning and purpose, a life lived to the glory of God. Nevertheless, the practice is widespread. But where did all these people come up with the habit of separating themselves and the world around them into these two camps? It surely wasn’t from the bible. The Holy Scriptures, from beginning to end, strenuously resist such a separation.
The danger of this ‘separation’ is that we give God control over the areas of our lives that we think are ‘sacred’ but leave Him out of the ‘secular’ areas that we believe He’s not interested in e.g. my business or my career. What I’m trying to say is simply this: God wants us to live ‘one life’… not split between our ‘church life’ and our ‘normal every-day life’.
Contrary to something you said, worship is actually not for ‘everyone’. Rather than we being the audience and the worship team the ‘performer’, we are the ‘performers’ and God is our ‘audience’. The worship team is simply the ‘facilitator’! This was quite a revelation for me! As a believer, I have been crucified with Christ (Gal.6:19). I no longer live. I live entirely for Christ. I worship not for me but for Him. In the words of a worship song popular a few years ago ‘Heart Of Worship’, ‘it’s all about You Jesus’. When we come to worship as a community, we who have known Christ put aside our preferences and like the Son of Man, we live for His priorities; especially the lost.
As I mentioned earlier, the whole idea of ‘worship’ as congregational singing in a service is a relatively recent one; one that’s only been around only for the last two centuries. In my Christian experience, I have had had the opportunity to worship God in a Christian rap concert, in an old church with a classical organ and hymns (which I attended for 2 years), in a Catholic monastery among nuns chanting prayers and in a several hour church service in Argentina where I couldn’t understand a single word of Spanish! All that was important in each instance was the presence of God’s Spirit and His people gathered with expectant hearts. And in each context, I learnt to worship God in a new way, and grew in my faith as a result. When my kids are in their teens, I pray that my wife & I will be able to fit into whatever church context their generation finds comfortable… as long as Christ is exalted there! Their growth and love for God will be more important than our comfort. Worshiping in ways that engage our generation today as opposed to catering to our own preference is practice for our kids tomorrow!
I don’t think the issue when we re-write a popular song is that we’ve run out of original ideas. We are simply looking for ‘anchor points’ in the culture that we can hang gospel ideas on, so that our generation can think about God all the time, not just in church. You know what? I want us to ‘ruin’ popular ‘secular’ hit songs in our culture so that when our target audience hear it in a bar or on radio or in a matatu, they find themselves involuntarily singing the gospel version! So that believers no longer have to spend the day trying to ‘avoid’ or ‘run away’ from these songs but can ‘take them back’ every time they hear them, and offer them to the Creator as worship. Maybe I’m just a militant person that way who prefers playing offensive to playing defensive! The bible tells us to flee from sin but also to resist the devil. And I said earlier, I don’t believe this is a sin issue. I want us to help people sanctify and cleanse even their bad memories from the past (as opposed to running away from them) and turn them into praise to Jesus. That doesn’t stop us from writing original worship songs though. It’s not an ‘either or’ issue.
This fourth point makes the issue mission critical, not just one of musical preference. Mavuno’s mission is ‘Turning Ordinary People Into Fearless Influencers Of Society’. Fearless influencers are the ones who’ll take over and ‘domesticate’ not just the ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ sectors but every sector of society. And it’s not just the arts/music that I’d like us to ‘ruin’. Its politics, business, education, family, health practice, environmental practices, perspective on church etc… Every sector of society!
Lastly (and most personally for me), I have quite a few close relatives and friends who’ve given their lives to Christ at Mavuno over the last couple of years. Many of them were attracted to church by the music when they heard it at one of our outreach ‘gigs’. They did come to church looking for ‘something different’ as you say, but certainly not something churchy. That they and many others keep coming and accepting Christ is an affirmation that something is working. We can easily take for granted the many attending Mavuno who’ve not been to church for years. It’s hard to do so when it’s people you love though. For instance, a little while back, I spoke to a friend about her husband who’s not a believer but has started coming to church. He was first attracted to Mavuno by our music! For her, this is not an academic issue. When I speak to my own relatives and to people like this guy, and encounter the countless others who are coming to Christ all the time among us, I’m reminded about why we do what we do.
Hope this is helpful and thanks for such great feedback. Let’s keep talking,
To: Pastor M
Subject: Re: help clarify
Hi Pastor M.
Thanks for the response. It’s really great and puts everything in perspective. As far as ruining secular songs goes, you have succeeded in ruining that P-Square song [a popular song we’d ‘redone’ a little while before by a famous Nigerian group]. It’s been playing in my head all week and I find myself adding God and Jesus at the appropriate parts. The part on church history is interesting and informative.
On a different note, out of curiosity and tongue in cheek, now that we are church aimed at reaching our generation today, I tend to feel those guys in our teens ministry do not fit the description of those reached by the main church. When they eventually fit the demographic, the worship style of that generation will be radically different from that of the main church. What pray will happen to the current demographic [or is] the plan is to take them through Mizizi, Life Group, etc [so they] will be mature Christians and can move to a mainline church (spouse’s idea by the way), or will they now understand “this ain’t their grandma’s church?”
From: Pastor M
Subject: RE: help clarify
Karibu sana! With your permission, I’d like to re-write our correspondence as a blog article to help clarify the issue for others asking the same questions.
Good question about the future… and you know, I’m not sure! Maybe we’ll all go over to the ‘mainline churches’! Or maybe Mavuno will be the mainline church by then :-)! Or maybe as fearless influencers, we’ll seek to impact the younger generation; staying forever young at heart! My own prayer is that in a little while, I’ll pass on the Lead Pastor position to a younger pastor and they’ll allow me to stay on as mission’s pastor. And that I’ll transition after that to a mentoring role, still on the frontline, but more in the role of equipping young leaders. You never retire from being a fearless influencer!
[Pastor M note added later: Our prayer is that every other church in our city will also gain a passion to reach the un-churched as a staggering 84% of Nairobi does not attend church on Sunday!]
To: Pastor M
Subject: Re: help clarify
That’s ok. We are already becoming a fearless influencers; yaani our thoughts will be on pasi’s blog, how can we say no?