We run into problems when we try to define Christian music as either “music made by Christians” or “music with Christian subject matter.” Perhaps a third definition will give us better results.
Maybe Christian music is music directed at Christian audiences. This one sounds a bit more plausible. After all, we have a Christian music industry, complete with its own labels, bands, radio stations, and distributors. I’m sure if you asked industry leaders who their music is for they would keep their categories broad. But in reality, they’re marketing to Christians. So that’s it, right? Christian music is that which is produced by the Christian music industry for Christian audiences. Right?
I’m not convinced this is the best definition either. Consider the way Madeleine L’Engle responds to an aspiring writer asking how to best write for Christian women:
“I wrote back, somewhat hesitantly, that I could not tell her, because I do not write my books for either Christians or women. If I understand the Gospel, it tells us that we are to spread the Good News to all four corners of the world, not limiting the giving of light to people who already have seen the light. If my stories are incomprehensible to Jews or Muslims or Taoists, then I have failed as a Christian writer. We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it. If our lives are truly ‘hid with Christ in God,’ the astounding thing is that this hiddenness is revealed in all that we do and say and write. What we are is going to be visible in our art, no matter how secular (on the surface) the subject may be.”
She’s probably overstating things a bit. There is a good and proper place for messages and music aimed at a Christian audience. But this type of music should not be the sum total of what we will consider to be Christian music. Solid Christian people are writing about their faith, their God, and their experience with God’s world, and they are doing so for the benefit of the world at large, not just those who are already Christian. Should we not consider their music to be Christian as well?
Edward Knippers is a Christian painter. His paintings are largely narrative paintings of biblical events. But even though his paintings feature Christian subject matter, he does not see his primary audience as Christians:
“My calling is not necessarily to the Christian community. My paintings can and have benefited Christians and I hope that they will continue to do so. But Christians are not my target audience. Contrary to what many people think when they first see my paintings, I am not making Sacred Art, which I would define as art intended for worship and the sanctuary. My art is religious, but why should that exclude it from the public square? I see my job as an artist as making an art powerful and engaging enough that the society at large must deal with it.”
Inherent in the Christian calling is an obligation to take the Christian message to everyone on earth. So if Christian music is only that music which is targeted to other Christians, then “Christian music” must be a small sliver of the music that Christians produce. As I said, I think there is a helpful place for this type of music, but we should not assume that music that is intended for a broader audience is somehow unchristian.
With that, we have discounted what I would consider to be the most obvious candidates for a definition of Christian music. On Monday I will tie all of this together and give my own thoughts on what we should consider Christian music to be.
 Madeleine L’Engle, Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (New York: North Point Press, 1980) 122.
 Edward Knippers, “The Old, Old Story” in Ned Bustard, ed., It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God, 2nd edition (Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2006) 69.