Music & Lyrics

There’s very little difference between secular rock and Christian rock, but viva la difference!

A couple of days ago, for no particular reason, I decided to listen to some worship music tracks that haven’t made it to the top of the playlist in a while. The exercise reminded me of one of the principal distinctions between worship music and its non-religious counterpart.

“Lift Him Up! Lift Him up! Raise your voices to the King!”

Plumbline vocalist Joseph King Barkley screams those words into the microphone at the end of a live recording of You Are Worthy of My Praise, in response to a resounding ovation of applause, whoops and cheers.

A secular rock star appreciates the adoration of the crowd, but usually does all he can to soak it up (Thank you! Thank you so much!) or, at best, deflect it back at the crowd (We love you! Never stop rockin’! or something equally inane).

But instead of pointing the ‘mirror’ back at the audience, Barkley effectively tilts it to a 45-degree angle, so the praise is reflected upward, toward God. He doesn’t even acknowledge that the applause and cheers might be directed at the band, he acts as if they’re aimed Heavenward, where they belong.

And to me, it makes the conventional, two-way relationship between musician and listener seem somewhat flat – like a circle compared with a sphere. Circles are nice, but adding that third dimension reveals the nature of the object so much more fully – and the same can be true where audiences, performers and their Creator are concerned.

* * *

Big Daddy Weave is another Christian band that shows signs of having its collective head on straight when it comes to applause.
At a concert here in Calgary last spring, the group played its last song, said ‘good night and God bless’ and brought the house lights up.

No encores.

Initially, I felt cheated. ‘What kind of rock band give a concert without encores? Too full of themselves to take an extra 10 minutes to give the audience their money’s worth?!? Boo-urns!

Then, I looked at my watch and noticed that the band’s set was about 90 minutes long – the same length as a typical headliner’s set – including encores. ‘Hmm,’ I thought. ‘Maybe I have this backwards.

Secular stars go through the pretense of ending a show after 80 minutes, knowing full well that the audience will scream itself hoarse just to get another 10 minutes of material – and feed the artist’s often already over-inflated ego in the process. But BDW opted to give the audience its money’s worth without demanding that frivolous exercise in idolatry. Instead of having an amplifier custom built to go up to 11, Big Daddy Weave made 10 louder. (Spinal Tap reference alert!)

Having now experienced the end of a rock show the way it ought to be (sez I), I don’t know if I’ll ever look at an encore the same way again.

* * *

On another, but related note, I’ve noticed that where secular songwrights use the word ‘baby,’ Christians use ‘Jesus.’ And what a difference!

‘Baby’ is a meaningless, nonsensical term of endearment inserted into music to essentially plug a lyrical hole in the melody. It means nothing. On the other hand, ‘Jesus’ works just as effectively as a lyrical device, but to both the songwriter and the listener, it means everything.

For an example of what I mean, listen to Chris Tomlin’s Amazing Love (, where he tosses in the word ‘Jesus’ between uses of the phrase ‘You Are My King.’ The word isn’t necessary from a narrative perspective, but it adds melodically and makes the bridge that much more meaningful in the process.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with secular music’s approach to these lyrical gaps, but really, doesn’t ‘baby’ seem a bit hollow in comparison with ‘Jesus’?

* * *

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Christian rock is generally superior to its secular cousin. If I had to list all of my favourite songs in order, I’m not sure any Christian material would crack the Top 10.

This is partly because Christian rock is largely an exercise in imitation. Christian rockers hear vital, exciting and innovative things happening in rock and we want to bring those things to our worship music. And since all good things come from God, we feel justified in repatriating the best parts of music that celebrates hedonism and depravity and bringing them to tunes designed to give God glory.

So we grab a drum beat, a distortion sound, a picking style or maybe even a chord progression from our favourite rock sub-genre and put it to use for Jesus. Often it works seamlessly, but sometimes the result can seem contrived or out of place – some of Lincoln Brewster’s technically impressive fretboard acrobatics (particularly on Salvation is Here), for instance, feel pretty tacked on.

Christian rock can be gimmicky and formulaic – sometimes even moreso than secular rock, because it has an agenda that goes beyond merely selling records. Christian performers sometimes sacrifice musical authenticity for the sake of bringing people to Christ. We’re not artists driven to share our own ‘genius’ with the rest of humanity, we’re ministers called to share a message through music. That means the music sometimes has to take a backseat to the message.

And whether I’d choose to rank any Christian rock tunes among my favourites or not, there’s something telling in the fact that my iTunes library’s Most-Played Tracks Lists have, for the past two years or so, been dominated by Christian rock tunes.

Maybe that’s because secular rock is music to my ears, but Christian rock is music to my heart.

Peace be with you.


About robpetkau

Communications professional by day, amateur musician by night, worship leader (at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Calgary) on weekends and aspiring Bible teacher in my dreams. Grateful husband to the woman who completes me. Doing-the-best-I-can dad to the son and daughter who keep me on my toes. Striving disciple of the GodMan who came, taught and died for me. Thanks for stopping by!
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