Many years ago, I took a youth group to an enormous denominational youth convention. The highlights of the week were the massive worship services, with thousands of teens joining together singing songs of faith both new and old. One night, the worship leader told us that we were going to sing a new take on a classic hymn. Then he had us hold up our arms in an “O” shape, and the band launched into the opening “Whoah’s” of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up.” The whole experience was a funny wink to those of us in the know, but also a good reminder that there doesn’t need to be such a stark sacred-secular divide in music.
I am a full believer that one of the worst things to happen to Christian art in any form was to start labeling it as “Christian.” Some of the most beautiful works of art and compositions were created as a response to the faith of the artist or the faith of the person commissioning the piece. But it seems like once the faith aspect became a sellable commodity, it cheapened the integrity of the art. On the flip side, we stopped appreciating the way that God could be seen in so-called “secular” art and music. And because of this dichotomy, the Christian world has lost out on a great deal of great music that reflects more genuine faith and life experience than most of what gets played on Christian radio.
Unfortunately for the sound techs and planners of church events, the only acceptable music that can be played has to be explicitly Christian. It’s as if we all forgot God’s message to Peter in Acts 10:15 “Do not say anything is not pure that God has made ‘clean.” But fear not, the following are 5 songs from non-religious artists that could be played in church, and none would be the wiser.
The Mountain Goats-“Golden Boy”
The year is 1996. The Contemporary Christian Music Industry is 15 years away from becoming a generic worship-song churning machine. And Newsboys, who would someday become one of those bands who reinvented themselves through worship music, released their sixth album Take Me To Your Leader. One standout single, “Breakfast” painted a picture of a quickly decaying breakfast spread with the tagline “They don’t serve breakfast in Hell.” The song which became incredibly popular in youth group settings (and would prove to be very cringy to those same former youth grouper) has little-to-no-substance, much like the Captain Crunch who is waving farewell. It’s kind of trite, and maybe supposed to be a hell-avoiding scare tactic. Although I imagine not getting properly cooked toast isn’t much of a deterrent to eternal damnation. The album would later go on to win a Dove award and be nominated for a Grammy in the Rock Gospel category.
Two years later, a completely different kind of band would release a song with a very similar message. The Mountain Goats, the John Darnielle fronted lo-fi project, are not a religious band, but they have dabbled in religious themes throughout their history. The most transparent example is the 2009 masterpiece The Life of the World To Come which contains 12 tracks inspired by and named after passages from the Bible. But in 1998, TMG would release an inconspicuous track on a compilation album called Object Lessons: Songs About Products. That song is “Golden Boy,” and it’s a morality tale about the Asian grocery product “Golden Boy Peanuts” only existing in heaven. The chorus isn’t too dissimilar from “Breakfast.”
But here’s where the messages differ. “Golden Boy” not only discourages hell but encourages the listener to do good deeds such as giving to the march of dimes so that you can go to heaven and eat these delicious peanuts for eternity. The theology may be a little suspect, but certainly encouraging people to be kind and “be on guard against wickedness at all times” would be very accepted in most churches. And it’s certainly not the worst messaging.
Interesting note, “Golden Boy” is included in 2020’s live albums The Jordan Lake Sessions Volume 1 and 2. And Darnielle shares that these peanuts are no longer being made or distributed. When that track dropped in 2020 we were in the throes of the pandemic, and it was totally plausible that we were collectively in The Bad Place.
Neutral Milk Hotel-“King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3”
The first part of “King of Carrot Flowers 2 & 3” sounds like it could be a worship song sung by an anarcho-Christian folk-punk group such as The Psalters. Until the psychedelic freak-out at 1:06, you would be forgiven for not realizing this is indie-rock royalty Neutral Milk Hotel. This song has the perfect chord structure and number of words to be a 90’s style 7/11 praise chorus. If anyone decides to put this in their next worship set, please, please record it and send it me.
Norman Greenbaum-“Spirit in the Sky”
This is the OG “song that could definitely be played at church.” Singer-songwriter and certifiable hippie Norman Greenbaum did the unthinkable in 1969 and dropped a pseudo-religious track that appealed both to the peaceniks and the uptight church folks. Unfortunately for him, it was his only hit single, and he retired soon after to a life of dairy-farming. But the world owes a debt to this Jewish beatnik who managed to crank out a pop-rock masterpiece that still resonates today. “Spirit in the Sky” has over 405 million streams on Spotify and counting. You won’t trick any church folks with this one; they’ll know it. But they won’t complain either.
Okay, here me out. You might consider this choice to be too obvious or on the nose. Bono has always been vocal about his faith. And Christianity’s subsequent influence on their music is not subtle. Two of their most popular songs are very, very Christian-“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Where the Streets Have No Name.” So picking U2 for this list might feel akin to picking Hillsong. But I would submit to you “40.” “40” is a lesser-known track whose lyrics draw directly from Psalm 40. What’s more worshipful than the original hymn book? Aside from that, the simple yet hypnotic song structure plus groovy new-wave bass line makes this an underappreciated gem. The live version from 1983’s Under A Blood Red Sky improves on the original with a fade out with the crowd sing along that is especially powerful.
Chance The Rapper-“Blessings”
In 2016, Chance the Rapper dropped Coloring Book, his follow-up mixtape to 2013’s acclaimed Acid Rap. At this point, he had not properly released an album, only mixtapes, which as far as I understand is mostly about artistic freedom. But despite this being a free release, there was a great deal of fanfare leading up to and following the release. And people were not disappointed. Coloring Book brought the underground mainstream. And Chance the Rapper became an overnight sensation.
Chance took a chance (ha) and created a project that was half club rap and half gospel hip-hop. 3 years before Kanye merged his music with Gospel, Chance did it better and with more authenticity. Consequently, Kanye is featured on the first track and Chance raps about someday getting signed by Kanye. He’s probably glad now that he dodged that bullet.
Any of the gospel tracks could get played in a church based on content matter. But I’m specifically picking “Blessings” because I did use it one time in a church as the background track of a video from a recent church retreat. Unfortunately, I was chastised by the pastor for using the song. But not because it was by a so-called ‘secular artist’ but because it was hip-hop, and we were a mostly white, rural church. There was some definite not-so-subtle racism at play. The pastor would later go on to another position where he participated in anti-racism training. I’m hopeful he remembers the incident with regret. In any case, I think this song is absolutely appropriate for churches, and I want other people to use it. The chorus goes:
“I’m gon’ praise Him, praise Him ’til I’m gone
When the praises go up, the blessings come down
It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap”
Seriously, who would question the faith aspect of this song (except a pastor who at the time still used the phrase “colored people”)?