Church Worship

Pop Music: A Tool for Discernment & Witnessing

  • Tony Rufo ASSIST News Service
  • Updated Oct 22, 2009
Pop Music: A Tool for Discernment & Witnessing
WHEATON, IL -- Many of us have used small talk to establish rapport in social situations where we've shared the Gospel. An art in itself, small talk is widely used in job interviews, on dates, while shopping, and in business meetings. Acts 17:17& 28 records where the apostle Paul used his cultural knowledge as a springboard to the Gospel, speaking daily in the synagogues and Public Square, and by quoting poets of the day.

…I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings. [1 Corinthians 9:22-23 NLT]

Two chief areas of seeking common ground are music and sports…cultural aspects so prevalent in today's culture that they often provide open doors to sharing the truth of God. Music is especially notable in that it is so pervasive.

As a youngster, I became interested in many types of music once I began listening to the radio. As a teen, I began buying and collecting records, and following my favorite songs on the charts. In college, I pursued a career in the media, eventually working in radio and television, and for a time in the music industry.

Not surprisingly, music played a part in my becoming a Christian. Unaware that I was a nominal Christian, I thought, perhaps, that if I attended church and "lived a good life," my ticket to heaven was assured. I was unaware that my good works and intentions were insufficient. I learned that salvation came only by grace and that I could have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That relationship began after an invitation to a seeker service at Calvary Chapel, San Diego, featuring former secular rocker, Richie Furay. Before becoming a Christian, he had been a member of three prominent secular rock bands, Buffalo Springfield, the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, and Poco.

From then on, my listening habits changed. As I experienced the joy of growing as a new Christian, I avoided listening to secular music, wanting to drink in as many praise songs and hymns as I could. When I returned to some of the older tunes, I found that prolonged listening tended to drain my spirit. Nevertheless, I wanted to discern the content. Some of what I heard was disturbing and some contained nuggets of truth. Many tunes seemed innocent and neutral, like cotton candy…a little couldn't hurt, but a daily diet of it would lead to malnutrition. I found that many songs painted excellent pictures of Biblical truths.

I have grown to realize that God's Word is so pervasive, and His truth so potent, that it has value, even when it is embedded in a secular setting. Soon, the germ of the idea for the book began to grow.

Among the many references to music in the Bible, there are songs of praise, worship, woe, victory and defeat. God once used what I like to call an instant oldie as a promise, a prophecy, and an indictment of Israel's rebellion [see Deuteronomy 31:19-21]. God warned Moses that once Israel entered the Promised Land, they would eventually begin to worship foreign gods and turn from Him. To emphasize His words, God instructed Moses to teach the song to Joshua and have it read throughout generations as a witness against them.

Since World War II, thousands of songs have entered the public consciousness. Although much mainstream music is measured by sales and popularity, that doesn't mean those songs must soar up the charts to have value.

Popular songs are short slices of life and, because they may contain a bit of truth, are often useful for spiritual illustrations. Even tunes that contain untruths can help point us to the truth. So, instead of ignoring the subject and huddling out of the mainstream, we, like the apostle Paul, can discern it and make it a useful spiritual tool.

I began to compile a listing of songs from recent years and, when Tyndale House published my book, The Complete Book of Pop Music Wit & Wisdom, 200 songs from pop, rock ‘n roll, rhythm & blues, jazz and country were highlighted for devotional applications. Due to space limitations, two abbreviated examples follow here. The book goes into more detail on each song, covering lyrics, artist history and spiritual applications.

"Baby You're a Rich Man"-The Beatles

This Beatles tune gives a powerful illustration of money. A hit single from the summer of 1967, the song was included in the Magical Mystery Tour album. The fame of the Fab Four brought fabulous wealth to them and their manager, Brian Epstein. He took them on in 1961, when they were still playing dank Liverpool clubs and seedy Hamburg nightspots, and leveraged their local following into worldwide success.

Epstein suffered from bouts of deep depression, so the Beatles wrote a song to cheer him up. Using parts of two songs that Paul and John had created, "Baby You're A Rich Man" was born. The song opens with John's portion, originally titled "One of the Beautiful People," and then moves up a notch to Paul's "rich man" chorus. The song, unfortunately, did not cheer Epstein. Two months after the song was released, he was dead of a drug overdose.

The song asked how it felt to be one of the beautiful people. Epstein could have just about anything he wanted; except happiness. Fabulously wealthy and just as unhappy--it seems ironic. But Epstein is just one of many with the same story. Money really can't buy happiness, though we keep expecting it to. In fact, it's rather sad that the Beatles' attempt to cheer up their despondent friend took the form of this song, which merely reminded him how rich he was.

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Jesus asked, "How do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul in the process?" [Mark 8:36]. Worldly wealth is not the measure of true success. In fact, money often distracts people from their true purpose, a relationship with God. Jesus often talked about money, not really condemning it but warning against its power to control us. Money is a fine servant, but a bad master. "No one can serve two masters," Jesus said. ". . . You cannot serve both God and money" [Matthew 6:24]. Some Christians keep trying to prove him wrong, and usually their faith suffers damage.

At one point, Jesus' disciples heard him say, "God blesses you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is given to you" [Luke 6:20]. This sets up an interesting comparison. Let's see . . . you can gain the whole world but lose your soul to get it. Or you could be poor and humble in this world but gain God's kingdom in the process. Which do you want?

"Do it Again"-Steely Dan

From their debut album, Can't Buy a Thrill, this hit tune vividly outlines the problem of sin. Steely Dan's jazz-rock fusion sound was characterized by crisp tasty guitar work and sophisticated lyrics. Their style, and the fact that they never "paid their dues" playing in their garages and seedy clubs, drew the criticism that they were arrogant, sophomoric, self-appointed intellectuals who were trying to put something over on the public.

The tune tells of two men--a murderer and a gambler--who cannot stop their vicious life cycles. The song's chorus indicates that they go back, Jack, and do it again. We humans are captivated by sin--you might say we are "sin addicts." Though they sing about a murderer and a gambler, but it could very well be a liar or cheater or boaster or money-lover--our sins. We might know we are doing wrong. We might even know it's destructive, a bad idea that we'll pay for dearly in the long run. But we go back, Jack, and do it again, and again, and again.

The apostle Paul wrote graphically about that same situation. "No matter which way I turn, I can't make myself do right. I want to, but I can't. When I want to do good, I don't. And when I try not to do wrong, I do it anyway" [Romans 7:18-19]. He goes on for a dozen verses like that--and the amazing thing about this passage is that it's the apostle Paul! If anyone had mastered the ability to be Christ-like, you'd think it would be this guy. But apparently he had the same struggles that we all have.

As Christians, we have two forces battling within us. The Holy Spirit within us provides the prompting and the power to do what's right. But we still have our birth-nature, a desire for sin. As we grow in our faith, we learn to let the Spirit take control more and more, but the struggle goes on throughout our lives.

And so we go back to a familiar sin and do it again. Fortunately, Jesus keeps forgiving us, and the Spirit offers power to do better next time.

The challenge to discern should compel us always, and in all things, to be aware of what's being said, and in many cases, why. Then we can use the culture to show God's love to the world we live in.

© Tony Rufo

Tony Rufo, is a communications/ministry executive, marketing consultant, writer, and broadcaster who has over 20 years of experience working in the Christian and general markets. Tyndale House has just released his newest book, The Complete Book of Pop Music Wit & Wisdom. His other published works include media and music articles, book reviews, radio and television commercials and scripts, and evangelistic essays. True Tunes News featured his article, "The Gospel According to John, Paul, George, and Ringo--Good Time Rock 'n Roll or Religion for the Undiscerning?" In addition, he is developing radio, TV and film projects designed for evangelism and pre-evangelism in the general and Christian marketplaces. Several of these involve applications to bring new revenue streams to ministries. He has spoken in churches, schools and business meetings, and groups. He can be reached at

© 2007 ASSIST News Service, used with permission