Three of the greatest artists of all time in popular music have professed belief in Jesus Christ:
*Johnny Cash, considered by many to be the greatest artist in the history of country music … and who wanted to quit music and become an evangelist until Billy Graham talked him out of it.
*Bob Dylan, almost universally lauded as the greatest songwriter of the past half-century – if not the entire twentieth century – whose conversion to Christ in the late 70s shocked the music establishment who viewed him as their prophet and poet.
*Bono and The Edge from U2 – members of one of the greatest bands of all-time – who are known for turning the last portion of their concerts almost into a worship service.
Each of the above artists regularly incorporates Scripture and Christian ideas into their music.
Keep that in mind as we look at 5 more secular songs you can sing … or hear someone else sing … in church:
Number 5: “Magnificent” by U2
U2 writes their songs almost like parables … and they have admitted as much. If you’re a believer, you get what they’re singing about … if you’re an unbeliever, you can just enjoy a song on its own merits. Since Jesus taught this way, it’s a perfectly legitimate way to present truth … but there are always Christians who demand that a truly “spiritual” song include explicit references … and even praises … to Jesus Christ.
But should that be the rule when you’re trying to create art?
How about “Magnificent?”
The second verse goes like this (and Bono raises his hands heavenward at this point):
I was born, I was born
To sing to you
I didn’t have a choice
To lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice
From the womb
My first cry
It was a joyful noise
Sounds like a psalm to me … and Bono loves the Psalms so much (he wrote an introduction to a collection of Psalms in England in the late 90s) that U2 even did a song in 1983 called “40” which is based on Psalm 40.
But in “Magnificent,” Bono gets both romantic and theological:
Til we die
You and I
The video of the song is itself magnificent:
When U2 were launching their last album, No Line on the Horizon, they played some songs on the balcony of the BBC building in downtown London … with continual views of All Souls Church across a little street … the church where John Stott was rector for years:
Number 4: “Viva la Vida” (Long Live Life in Spanish) by Coldplay
Coldplay’s lead singer, Chris Martin, grew up in a strict Christian home in England, but there is no indication that he has chosen to follow Christ into adulthood.
And yet Martin and his band hit gold with this 2008 song, which captured the Grammy award for Song of the Year in 2009. Lyrics aside, it’s my favorite tune out of all ten “secular” songs. On a recent trip, after hearing the song once, my wife asked if we could play it again. It’s a song I’ve never tired of hearing.
The song is a mini morality tale. The narrator was once a king … someone in authority … but has since been deposed and sings:
I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own
With an infectious string background, the narrator continues:
One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand
Remind anyone of Jesus’ words about the rich man at the end of the Sermon on the Mount?
The song refers to “Jerusalem bells” and “my missionaries in a foreign field” … the latter phrase being one that someone raised in a Christian church would know.
Then at the end of the song:
For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string
Oh who would ever want to be king?
For a Christian, the saddest phrase of all occurs when Martin sings:
For some reason I can’t explain
I know Saint Peter won’t call my name …
What did the king do to merit banishment? The song doesn’t say, but it’s obvious he fell from grace … an illustration of the biblical idea that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).
Our church in Arizona not only played this song during their pre-service music, they also did it as a performance song in their services one weekend.
There are two videos for the song: one that’s a bit edgy, another that’s more conventional. Here’s the conventional video:
Number 3: “When He Returns” by Bob Dylan
When I went online to try and find a performance of Dylan singing this song, I discovered dozens of cover versions, many of them by Christian artists. This song obviously resonates with many people.
Dylan’s classic album Slow Train Coming ends with this song … with Bob singing and playing the piano alone. It makes the song that much more powerful.
After Slow Train came out, I preached on the second coming of Christ at my church, and after the message, I wanted someone to sing the song live … but I didn’t know who could do it justice. Next best option: to play Dylan doing the song while projecting the words, but Christians weren’t used to that kind of thing back then.
So I read the words to the song to the congregation … and they still hold up to this day. For example:
Surrender your crown, on this blood-stained ground
Take off your mask
He sees your deeds, He knows your needs
Even before you ask
How long can you falsify and deny what is real?
How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal?
Not exactly hand-clapping, toe-tapping lyrics … but they make you think. The song ends this way:
Of every earthly plan
That be known to man
He is unconcerned
He’s got plans of His own
To set up His throne
When He returns
The lyrics are powerful on their own, but when you consider who’s singing them …. wow!
Since nobody does Bob like Bob, check out this video … has to be from around 1980:
Number 2: “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables
When I was a kid, I heard scattered warnings that Christians shouldn’t attend plays in the theatre. Before movies, I suppose decadent ideas were first introduced to the public through plays.
I’ve seen maybe 15 shows in my lifetime, but most of them have made me a better person (although considerably poorer financially).
But the best one of all is Les Miserables.
If you haven’t seen it, the musical is at once inspiring … and sad … and bawdy … and intensely spiritual.
And the most spiritual song in the musical is “Bring Him Home.”
Jean Valjean … a former criminal who seeks redemption while being chased by a relentless policeman (The Fugitive TV series and film were both based on Les Miserables) … sings this song about a young man named Marius toward the end of the show.
God on high
Hear my prayer
In my need
You have always been there
I can’t hear this song without thinking of both my children … my son Ryan because the song expresses how I feel about him … and my daughter Sarah because she knows every word of Les Miserables by heart.
And every time I hear this song … I am moved to tears … primarily because of Jean Valjean’s last 12 words:
If I die
Let me die
Let him live
Bring him home
The song is a prayer … a prayer for safety for a young man who has been standing for what’s right … and a prayer for an old man who is willing to sacrifice his life so the young man can live.
See if you can hold back tears while watching this video of Alfie Boe singing “Bring Him Home”:
And if you’d like to see a sterling performance, watch the Valjean Quartet … 4 vocalists who have played the part of Jean Valjean on the stage … sing this song together (Sarah loves Colm Wilkinson the most … the first vocalist) at the 25th anniversary of the musical:
Number 1: “Yahweh” by U2
U2 is one of the greatest rock bands of all time … certainly in the Top 10, and arguably in the Top 5.
But would John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey, or Robert Plant ever sing these lyrics?
Take these hands
Teach them what to carry
Take these hands
Don’t make a fist
Take this mouth
So quick to criticize
Take this mouth
Give it a kiss
And then the chorus:
Always pain before a child is born
Still I’m waiting for the dawn
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is, in my opinion, U2’s most spiritually-oriented album … so much so that I used to give copies of it away. “Yahweh” ends the album with a heartfelt prayer … the modern-day equivalent of the hymn “Take My Life, and Let it Be.”
The song ends this way:
Take this city
A city should be shining on a hill
Take this city
If it be Your will
What no man can own
No man can take
Take this heart, take this heart
Take this heart
And make it break
“Yahweh” isn’t necessarily my favorite song from this list … I’m partial to “Walk On” and “Viva La Vida” … but I believe it’s the song that could most easily be done in a church service.
Here’s a moving video of Bono and the Boys ending a concert with a slowed-down (hymnlike) version of the song:
So that’s my list. What’s yours?
Check out our website at www.restoringkingdombuilders.org You’ll find Jim’s story, recommended resources on conflict, and a forum where you can ask questions about conflict situations in your church.