I have this really vivid memory from my 1990s youth group days. It goes like this: I felt guilty about listening to “secular” music, so I got rid of most of my CDs, keeping only the “Christian” ones—meaning that they were recorded by artists who were explicitly Christian and produced by Christian record companies. Goodbye, Metallica’s Black Album. Goodbye, Gin Blossoms. Goodbye, Shaquille O’Neal’s debut rap album “SHAQ Diesel”—don’t judge. Some of the CDs I had left were actually really great! I still have some of them, and I go back and listen to them every now and then. There were some great Christian bands in the 90s: Satellite Soul, Grammatrain, “Jesus Freak” era DC Talk, Audio Adrenaline, etc. But when 34-year-old me looks back, I realize that I might have been selling some artists short on their spirituality, and maybe even getting in the way of the Holy Spirit potentially speaking into my life through one of those “secular” songs.
My faith journey since those days has been marked by deep change and transformation as I have matured in my faith in Christ. Nowadays, I cherish every chance I get to see God present and at work not just in the Church, but in the “secular” world around me—I no longer need those scare quotes around the word secular, by the way. After all, it’s this world that God loves so much, as we read in John 3.16. It’s in this world in which I live everyday that I get the joy and privilege of seeing people awaken to the presence and grace of God. Sometimes, that happens through one of those secular songs.
In what follows, I list out songs that have deeply affected my faith journey, songs through which God has worked in powerful ways in my life. Now, these are songs from my journey, and the list bears my bias. I’m sure there are many more out there that would fit. But here’s my top 5:
5. U2, “Yahweh” and “40”
I know what you’re saying: “Those are two different songs.” Yes, they are. But they fit nicely on my list as one entry, so just roll with it. “Yahweh” isn’t much of a surprise on this list—the title of the song is one of God’s names from the Hebrew scriptures. Even though the surprise factor is pretty low, there’s no way I can make this list without it. And if you’ve never listened to “40,” crack your Bible open to Psalm 40 while you listen. It’s not just a clever numeric title.
4. Matchbox 20, “Bent"
Besides inspiring my favorite haircut ever, Rob Thomas has also voiced what has been one of the most powerful prayers I have prayed in my life. During a period of depression in 2006, a close friend shared this song with me and suggested I pray the lyrics. I had heard it a thousand times on the radio, but the thought of this song being a prayer had not crossed my mind—I mean, it’s a dude singing to a girl, right? Well, for me, it turned out to be exactly what I needed to say to God in a time when I had no idea how to voice what I was feeling. As a prayer, it was raw, it was honest, and it came from the deepest place of my heart. In many ways, it still does.
3. Death Cab For Cutie, “Transatlanticism"
While listening to this song, my mind always goes to two places: (1) God’s creative act of making all that has been, is, and will be; and (2) my need to be close to God, even though I can’t get there by myself.
2. Coldplay, “Fix You"
By rule, this one has to be on the list because it rocks the church organ pretty hard through most of the song. Besides that, it also always strikes my heart in a very deep, profound way.
1. Leon Bridges, “River"
All of the other songs on this list come from my past. The truth is that I have little children these days, and I don’t listen to as much music as I did in the early 2000s. This one, however, is really recent. Every time this song rolls through my shuffle, I cannot help but think of the love, grace, and care God has shown me through my baptism.
Don’t see a song on this list that has made a deep impression on your spiritual journey? Let me know what it is in the comments! I’d love to share in that experience with you.