Earlier this week I picked up a book called Send Out Your Light (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2021), by Sandra McCracken, a songwriter and singer whose music I’ve been listening to a lot lately. We’ve been singing some of her songs in church recently, and a couple of weeks ago I shocked a friend by making my first social media post in months by sharing a song on Facebook. The book’s subtitle is The Illuminating Power of Scripture and Song, and even though I’ve just started it, it’s caused me to reflect a little bit on the role of music in my life, and how it relates to my discipleship to Jesus and relationship with God.

For as long as I can remember, music has played a significant role in my day-to-day life. In the early 1980s my brother and I danced around our aunt’s living room to Michael Jackson’s Thriller album after she finished giving us haircuts. (Dancing, for us, in those kindergarten days, meant sliding on the slippery hardwood floor of her Halifax apartment.) A couple of years later, I have a memory of listening to a record with an uncle as the two of us tried to figure out all the words to a song I enjoyed, copying down a line, lifting the needle and moving it back a couple of grooves as we made our way through the transcription. When I got my first Walkman headphones entered into my interactions with music, bringing the singers and their words closer and closer to my head and heart. The music wasn’t all of the highest or most lasting quality. On our family trip to Florida in 1987 the soundtrack to The Karate Kid Part II was in my ears when I wasn’t listening to my friend’s Miami Vice soundtrack the same way. It amuses me to remember that these were some of my earliest musical loves.

Junior high and high school in the 1990s brought into my headphones golden age rap music, together with a tiny sampling of my friends’ grunge and hard rock tastes. Some things about those selections might have been questionable, but it was then that I began to learn to listen intently and even discerningly. I started to hear other people’s hearts about their experiences and their sufferings, and if these things occasionally came in rougher language than I spoke, it also led me to think how all of this fit with my own developing Christian faith. I listened for signs of faith or unbelief in the songs I was hearing, noticed on occasion the way that the church had influenced or alienated some of them. I paid attention, I felt things, I made mental notes. And through it all I was experiencing the power of music to touch the heart in a way that not many other things did. As the thoughtful musician and worship leader Isaac Wardell says about Christian worship, music has two main modes: it expresses our hearts and it forms our hearts.

As I think back, one thing that was almost entirely absent was what people might call “Christian music.” Two of the rap groups I liked—Arrested Development, with their black Baptist roots, and Boogiemonsters, a group of four college-age Seventh Day Adventists who somehow managed to eke out a spot on playlists among much edgier rappers while quite often referring to God’s place in their lives—could at times have been described as quasi-“Christian music.” But despite those borderline cases, I was never very drawn to the “Christian music” scene. I can only suppose that my feelings about it then were something like they are now: that type of music struck me as lacking honesty. The words seemed too didactic to be real, and the music seemed like a bland imitation of pop music on the radio.

Some people who are very dear to me were formed in significant ways by Christian artists at that same time, and I wouldn’t want to dismiss or discount the way God used those words and songs in their lives. It simply wasn’t part of my own experience. In later years, however, I’ve found that there are plenty of Christians making music (even if it doesn’t fit into a particular “Christian music” mold) that is honest about life in this world and the reality of knowing and following Jesus in this world, and at the same time manages to be musically inviting and interesting. Some of this music (including McCracken’s) means a great deal to me, and I’m glad to have found it. But it remains true that most of my music listening is not explicitly “Christian” in the sense that it is gospel-centred or Christ-focused.

However, it would be foolish to think that music isn’t part of my relationship with God or that it doesn’t have a lot to offer in that respect for anyone who’s inclined to be moved by music, whatever kind it is. So here are a few brief thoughts on music in the Christian life:

Music doesn’t replace Scripture or fellowship with other believers or prayer as conversation with God. But it can help facilitate all three.

1) Music—especially the music of folks who spend a lot of time setting Scripture to song, like McCracken, our friend Mark Flowerdew, or (for kids) the Slugs and Bugs project of Randall Goodgame—can bring Scripture to our minds and hearts, sinking it into our memory and our emotions so that we can easily carry it with us wherever we go.

2) Music facilitates fellowship, in two different ways. First, it reminds us of our place in the human race by joining us to the lives and experiences of others as we listen to their music. Watching a Bruce Springsteen concert once really brought this home to me, as I watched a crowd of over 20,000 people sing along with song after song not just because they liked the tunes and knew the words but because Springsteen’s lyrics are so good at inviting audiences to enter into a life experience together. Second, singing as a fellowship of Christians can uniquely lead us to articulate and anticipate our shared life with God now and in eternity. When we sing to God in worship, we do one of the things we know we will do in the new creation: sing as part of a redeemed human community to the God who has joined us to himself and also to one another.

3) Music can help us recognize the truths of our praying hearts, connecting our experience with our emotions and helping us to process those two together in God’s presence. Here again it isn’t only explicitly gospel-centred or Christ-focused music that can do this, because a lot of human experiences are shared alike by believer and non-believer. The reason Taylor Swift’s Folklore album meant so much to me in 2020 was the way it gathered up so much of our common human experience in a time of pandemic sadness, with a gentle openheartedness that often moved me to tears of joy and of recognition. Music can do special work in our hearts. As Christians we are able to then bring our sensitized and softened hearts to the Lord in prayer and in conversation with his word in Scripture. Along the way, we can offer a prayer of thanks for the musicians and singers who help us out, whether they have yet come to the Lord or not.

Whether in the intimacy of a pair of earbuds or the corporate setting of either the concert or the sanctuary, and whether explicitly filling us with the words of Scripture or not, music is a gift that Christians can offer to the Lord’s care and providence as a helpful part of our discipleship to him.