If you remember, in my intro post, I mentioned that I am a youth pastor. I am in my 8th month of youth pastoring now, and I would like to discuss with YAR an issue that am dealing with as a pastor: Music.

Nine months ago (before I was a YP) music was not an issue at all in my life. I listened to whatever I wanted to, and on occasion I would censor some “bad stuff” from myself. For instance, if the song blatantly objectified women (i.e. anything on MTV), promoted violence, sex, drugs etc. I would try to avoid it. That being said, my personal “censoring filter” was pretty generous. By and large, if I liked the way it sounded I listened to it.

That was nine months ago. When I became a YP, it hit me like a ton of bricks that I was looked to as an example, and, among other things, I needed to reconsider what I was listening too. So, for a while I decided to cut myself off from all secular music, thinking, “whatever is right, whatever is pure……[listen] to such things.” (Phil. 4:8)

That didn’t work for two reasons. One, I could not find much Christian music that I really liked, and I wanted to be listening to something. I found myself longing for the foo fighters, coldplay, lynard skynard, CCR, and the list could go on….and don’t judge me for my taste in music. That’s the stuff I like. The other reason, I found that I don’t completely agree with everything that Christian artists are playing either, and Christian radio just isn’t that good.

There a still a number of questions that I deal with. Is it alright for me to listen to the music that I like, yet advice my youth group otherwise? I don’t feel real good about suggesting they listen to Christian music, because I don’t want anyone telling me that. On the other hand, I would not be very comfortable with my youth group listening to whatever they want….like I used to. Maybe what it comes down to is music is something that I need to give up. Christ never split any hairs about what it would cost to follow him, yet I am dragging my feet on giving up a form of entertainment for myself. If I can’t give up music, then I’m not sure how I can give up my life. This would be a perfect example of making a mountain out of an ant hill, but as JUnrau says here, this is what YAR is for. I think I agree with him, so I would like to hear your opinions.

Another thing to think about with all this is money and legal stuff. As a Christian, can I justify spending x amount of dollars on music for my own entertainment when we have been charged to look after the poor, orphans, widows, marginalized etc. On the other hand, can we justify getting our music by illegal means? How many of you have music on your computer/ipod/cds that you copied from somewhere or someone and have not paid for it? By definition that is illegal, and I hardly doubt you can call it civil disobedience.

Comments (12)

  1. lukelm

    I think there’s an unhealthy pattern in the church of selling kids/teenagers short on capacity for moral reasoning. If it’s all right – as in, non-damaging, healthy, fun, etc. – for you to listen to music you like, if it wasn’t an issue for you until you started as a youth pastor, then that implies that it wasn’t having a negative impact on your life, right? If that’s the case, then what exactly is the negative impact that such music is having on kids’ lives?

    I’ll take a step back here, because I’m not trying to argue that it isn’t possible for the messages in music to have a negative/harmful impact on someone. My point is that as a (young) adult you’re perfectly capable of navigating through such influences, enjoying the music you are drawn to, sensing what seems wrong (like overly misogynistic lyrics) and not tuning in to it. Why can’t your focus be on helping the teens in your charge to develop these same moral reasoning skills/instincts that you operate with?

    It’s disturbing to me, actually (thinking back on my teenage years especially) the kind of false, simplistic moral absolutes that get set up for teenagers. They’re doomed to fail – like when a teen discovers he/she can actually listen to the music they find appealing, that it’s actually an important part of who they are, and it’s doesn’t damage them. This to me seems just like a part of growing up – but they’re supposed to feel bad/evil/guilty about this? If they really got the (anti-secular-music) message super-strongly, and if it was presented as central to the faith, then that calls the whole faith into question.

    The life of faith can’t be imposed from the outside. To me the most important lesson a teen can learn would be to stop thinking of morality as an external set of rules and starts to embrace/claim an internal, real, LIVING faith and personal connection to God. That’s when moral reasoning becomes real, and faith becomes real.

    Working with teens is quite the calling, and it’s admirable that you’re willing to make changes in your life for their sake. But why can’t you just be a model for them of a real living faith? Why not set aside a night of discussion about music, and instead of presenting a set of rules, have a real give-and-take discussion about the place of music in their lives, their thoughts about what is good/bad about music? You could give examples of your own relation to music, the kind of moral reasoning you use in sensing music that might not be beneficial, and see what thoughts they have on standards they could set for themselves. You could offer yourself to talk to any one of them privately who might have concerns or doubts about the place of music in their lives.

    If I really got going on this, I could probably write a lot about how disturbing the church’s attitude towards teens can be. There seemed to be so much of an implicit assumption in the youth group culture that I grew up in that the desires and drives of our teenage selves would lead us only to evil and sin, and that the life of holiness was a fight (violence really) against those selves. It was damaging, thinking back, and a pretty screwed-up way of approaching God. It was only later when I rejected all that approach that I could discover a connection with the divine as something that drew from the highest and best in me, that integrated all of my being – oh yeah, and that God actually did love me. “God loves you (wink) but he really hates you” – I’m afraid that’s the churches implied message to teens.

    Okay, that got beyond what you were bringing up Tom. Personally, I love music a lot, pretty much all of it (I guess stuff that’s overly violent would be the one exception.) It’s such an important expression and experience of being human. It comes from something deep and uninhibited in ourselves, something that is more “real” than we often allow ourselves to be. I think that’s what I (and maybe you) get turned off about by (bad) Christian music – it’s doesn’t come from that authentic place, but from some other space of what “should” be good, what “should” be said, something imposed from the outside. Bad Christian music just seems very unauthentic because it’s not music for the sake of joy/expression but music for the sake of ideology. Blech.

  2. joe

    walt mueller at has some interesting stuff to say. he challenges young people to be aware of their culture and to listen and watch through a christian worldview. now, that is not why i listen to secular music tom.

    i agree, christian music can be rough and its funny how christian radio will play a weaker remake of a great song, but not the original.

    secular music has its obvious faults as well. beauty and truth are owned by God. i listen to hear the words of truth that i can get from christian and secular bands. i dont know if we are allowed to use those labels anymore. their songs give me so much insight into a culture that i am not far removed from numerically, but worlds away from in my understanding.

    papa roach, foo fighters, metallica *the best*, anything edgy, i love. i connect with music very easy. your right, we cant lump all as bad and all others as good. we need to find a way to teach our young people how to discern where truth and beauty lie. we need to teach ourselves as well. not much help, but i thought i would vent along with you.

    ps – green day was still one of the best concerts i have ever seen.

  3. lukelm

    “beauty and truth are owned by God”

    Amen. I’d develop this even further, and say that where one finds beauty and one finds truth, there one finds God. That’s why it seems spiritually essential to me to not create walls that block out sources of beauty and truth, even if those things come from seemingly dangerous or even just plain unexpected places. We can probably learn much more from finding God where we don’t expect to than to find him in the places we always thought we should.

  4. folknotions


    good questions. your heart is in a good place with trying to be a good example. I agree with luke, that there is much capacity for moral discernment among teenagers, though I would amend it by saying that without good role models it becomes more difficult to discern.

    I would say that there is much music outside of the “Christian” genre that is really great and isn’t necessarily a negative influence. Particularly for youth, Sufjan Stevens is fantastic. I think Mos Def’s first album “Black on Both Sides” has very positive messages, though has some foul language.

    A side note about foul language: I understand the decision to avoid “foul language” as spiritually helpful, but I don’t think we should be offended by it. Racism should offend us. War should offend us. Sexism should offend us. Homophobia should offend us. Foul language, in that context, I think becomes mostly irrelevant. But that’s one person’s opinion.

    The Band has some very spiritually uplifting songs. Lightning Bolt is a band that is doing some amazing things with sound that most people think sound likes noise, but I think is spiritually sublime.

    Page France is another good example of indie music with a Christian feel. KRS-One/Boogie Down Productions is some really positive hip-hop. So is Talib Kweli.

    If you like old music like I do, Bob Dylan has some great Christian records in the late 70’s.

    I know this doesn’t get to the heart of what you’re saying, but you said you didn’t like “Christian music”, and I think I know what you mean when you say that. I would say explore some of the stuff above if it’s helpful.

  5. JUnrau

    When I was a youth sponsor, I felt my job was to be a good example of alternative Mennoniting. Almost all the teens in our church go to the same Mennonite high school I went to, and I didn’t want them to shut themselves down to a blinkered adolescence of being “good” kids. People need to decide for themselves what being good requires of them.

    I remember playing Rage Against the Machine’s song Killing in the Name on the way to a youth retreat in the dead of winter. That’s the song with the “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” chorus. And we talked about why I thought it was important. And I tried to get them to think about why they liked what they liked.

    Back when I was a youth I stopped going to events because our leader only had one idea of what being a good kid was and that was exactly the kid I wasn’t. I would hate to have someone else’s morality thrown at me for unquestioning acceptance, so I wouldn’t do it to them.

    I guess that applies to more than just music, but whatever.

  6. TimN

    This week I wrote a blog post for The Mennonite entitled Where have all the Mennonite Youth Pastors gone?. I have to admit that I don’t know much about the current state of Mennonite or non-Mennonite youth ministry and I mainly picked up on the issue because my church was advertising for a youth pastor.

    Its very interesting to read the opinions expressed above about the place of youth ministry. I really resonate what Luke said:

    most important lesson a teen can learn would be to stop thinking of morality as an external set of rules and starts to embrace/claim an internal, real, LIVING faith and personal connection to God.

    and this from JUnrau:

    I didn’t want them to shut themselves down to a blinkered adolescence of being “good” kids.

    This was something I appreciated about the Mennonite youth group I grew up in. I felt like it was a place to ask questions rather than be dictated to. Is this a Mennonite distinctive? I really don’t have any non-Mennonite experiences to compare it to.

    I’m particularly interested in knowing what proportion of Mennonite churches have youth sponsors vs. youth pastors. Does anyone have any guesses? Does a churches decision to have youth sponsors instead of a youth pastor indicate a different approach to working with youth? Or just a more limited budget?

  7. Skylark

    Great questions, Tom. It’s good to be willing to give up whatever might get in the way of our primary callings. Still… I don’t think the music issue is all-or-nothing.

    My initial response to reading your post sounded very much like Luke’s comment: If you can listen to Band X’s latest CD and not be negatively affected by it, why would teenagers be different? I know we’re always hearing that teens are “impressionable” and “easily led astray,” but is it that simple? Listen to enough “toxic” stuff and a kid can’t help but “obey”?

    I was fed the same music philosophy as you were when I was a teen in my church, my family and the homeschooling subculture. And, I bought into it. My entire music collection was “Christian music,” with a couple of exceptions for soundtracks to movies like “The Sound of Music” and “Mary Poppins.” (Never very hard music, at that, because my dad said he had to hear hard rock at work and didn’t want to put up with it at home.) Then, when I got to college and actually listened to something other than the parent-and-church sanctioned tunes, I started realizing it doesn’t come down to “Christian music=Good, Non-Christian music=Bad.”

    Like Bill Romanowski points out in the book “Eyes Wide Open: Finding God in Popular Culture,” Christian music is centered around praise, prayer, specific moral issues, essentially the “confessional” life. If it doesn’t scream “Christian!”, then you can’t sing about it in Christian music. Artists who ask hard questions without immediately providing pat answers tend to go away. I loved Nichole Nordeman’s probing songs, but when she wondered if she would have treated Jesus like an insane person shouting from a streetcorner, my youth pastor said this was not what a good Christian says, and not to listen to it. (I guess I didn’t completely buy into the mantra because I still have that Nordeman CD.) Many a youth retreat and Sunday School was spent critiquing various artists and their lyrics. Never did we learn how to critique something as art.

    If “all truth is God’s truth,” then truth can be found plenty of places other than “Christian” sources. I like the idea others here had about creating a dialog with the youth group kids about what they like and why. When I was a teen, I wanted to know my opinions mattered to someone. I wanted to know that I counted. Unfortunately, over-emphasis on a particular moral code doesn’t communicate “You matter” well.

    My guess is if you do this, the kids will love it. It’s the senior pastors and the parents who are a much harder sell.

    Appendix: Please never give anyone the “Pat Boone is a better musician than Elvis Presley because Elvis sold out to ‘the world’ and Pat stayed a good Christian” speech. Art and lifestyle are not the same thing, and someone’s art does not become worthless when their lifestyle is not worth emulating. That argument is even more ridiculous now that I know Pat Boone didn’t record just “Christian music.” A person shouldn’t be made to feel badly for liking classic rock. It just boggles my mind when parents flip out that their kid is listening to The Beatles. Must be what their parents said when they were caught hot-handed with the Abbey Road LP. :-P

  8. lukelm

    Hi Tom,
    Rereading my post I realize that it sounds a lot more strident and accusatory than it should. Those thoughts are directed mostly at the kind of church culture that was around me when I grew up as it related to teens. I hope you didn’t feel too much of that directed at you personally, and if so, I apologize. I appreciate you sharing this honest question from your life.

  9. tomdunn (Post author)

    Thanks everybody for your remarks. Luke, I was not offended in the least by your comments. I enjoyed reading through what you all had to say, and I think I can stand to be more trusting in the moral discernment of high schoolers.

    I still have some hesitancy about this. When is the “coming of age” when a young person is able to decide what they can subject themselves to, and when should someone step in and help them discern? I see a problem when middle schoolers and younger are listening to and watching anything and everything that is popular.

    Luke, and others, I see where you are coming from, but i see a fine line that needs to be walked here. A line where some things need to be affirmed, and some things need to be advised against. That is a line I am trying to learn about, and not step over too far on either side.

    Also, I see that no one commented on the last paragraph in my post. I realize that is somewhat of an add-on to the main point of the post, but I would like to hear some discussion on it nonetheless.

  10. Skylark

    You aren’t their parents. You’re the youth pastor. I don’t know if you’ve ever talked with the parents about their stances on this, but it might be helpful to find out how they view your role in their kids lives. I’ve known some parents to pull their kids out of youth group activities if they thought the pastors were trying to replace the parents.

    What do the middle and elementary schoolers talk about listening to and watching? I know I wasn’t not the “normal situation” because I was homeschooled, but I listened pretty much to whatever my parents had around the house until I was 13 or 14. Then I started having some money saved up from babysitting to buy what I preferred. Still, I was dependent on my parents to get me places. They reviewed all my selections before I bought them. (Not that I could go too far wrong by them when buying music at a “Christian bookstore.”)

    “Helping them discern” sounds nice, but what I see more often is adults deciding for the kids what they can and can’t hear/see. Yes, it will vary from kid to kid. You have to know the kids involved. Some, you can pull out your best philo/theological reasoning, and they’re going to do whatever they want to do anyway. Others will hang on every word you say.

    In response to your final paragraph, no, I don’t get music illegally, and usually I just listen to the radio. I haven’t bought many CDs lately. When I do, I try to find them used before buying new. With music that’s not brand-spanking-new, I check the library first. Make sure I like it.

    There will always be someone poorer, someone who doesn’t have an advantage I do. I’m not going to scorn every blessing I have because someone else doesn’t have it. Each person has to examine his/her own life and think about what is “extra” vs. what is really adding to quality of life. It’s not for me to look at someone who lives in a bigger house and condemn them for their “waste.” I don’t know what they’re doing with that house. Someone in a one-room efficiency could condemn me, and I wouldn’t appreciate that.

    Back to entertainment. People in Third World countries get together in the town square and have a rock-out dance party to live music. (When they aren’t running for their lives from guerillas with AKs, of course.) I don’t think it’s wrong to spend some money on my own entertainment. If I find it’s becoming more important to me than contributing to the poor, there’s a problem. But they’re not mutually exclusive.

  11. Lora

    Tom, I don’t know what your experience was in a Mennonite university, but I saw way too many kids in my school who had learned very well what was right and wrong in their parents’ minds and in the church, but had never learned any self-control. I’m thinking more of alcohol use here rather than music, but the metaphor stands: I don’t see your job so much as to tell anyone what to do, but rather to provide the teenagers in your youth group with the tools to figure it out for themselves. It may make you uncomfortable to realize what all they’ve been exposed to (as it does me) but it’s already a part of their lives and I think starting by acknowledging that reality and then figuring out where to go from there is much more helpful than in essence denying its existence or that it might even be able to teach us something.

  12. eric

    Amen, Lora. That was my experience as well.

    Kids who had always been told right and wrong by their church or parents were much more likely to ‘rebel’ in dangerous ways than those who had been made aware of the issues and taught to decide for themselves.

    I think the best would be to tell your students about your struggles and you concerns and get their advice. Don’t moralize to them, relate to them. They’re dealing with some of the same issues, I’m sure. There is no age where kids begin to think for themselves – they are always thinking for themselves, and often have great ideas.

    All my best mentors treated me as an equal who could handle the conversation. Youth in my experience won’t stand for less, and will brush aside anyone who tries to condescend to them.

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