This depends on several factors:
a) The maturity of the Christian who is listening.
b) The morality of the lyrics, and how comfortable the Christian is before God to listen to it, and
c) whether or not the song has past connotations that bring up memories and temptations of a past life the Christian should not revisit.
The Christian should also be careful about listening to secular music in public that may negatively influence the people he is with, or negatively impact his Christian reputation and witness.
Can a Christian use secular music for worship? The answer comes as a definitive yes, from William Booth himself, who said,
"Secular music, do you say, belongs to the devil? Does it? Well, if it did I would plunder him for it, for he has no right to a single note of the whole seven... Every note, and every strain, and every harmony is divine, and belongs to us." (quote from an 1880 War Cry article)
In fact, 105 of our Tune Book melodies were originally secular songs, many of them bar tunes. (Click here for a complete list)
One of the advantages of using Christian lyrics to secular tunes is that non-Christians can easily join in the singing. I remember introducing the hymn "Amazing Grace" to our congregation, using the tune "The Lion Sleeps Tonight". A week later some parents were commenting to me that their teenager had been singing it all week, to their delight. I knew of an officer years ago who had a talent for writing Christian lyrics to fit secular tunes, and some of my Sunday School students (most of whom came from low-income housing and whose parents did not attend church) spent time teaching me these new 'songs': Boy George's "Karma Chamelion" became "Come-a-come-a-come-a to Jesus now, He loves you so, He loves you so...", and Michael Jackson's "Beat it" was now being sung by them to the devil.
Secular tunes that I've used with great success are "Seek Ye First" sung to Pachebel's Canon in D, "He Giveth More Grace" sung to John Denver's "Annie's Song", and "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" sung to "The Rose". The latter song has been a big hit when I've introduced it in places such as The Homestead, the SA's home for women who are recovering from drug addictions. Len Ballantine used "Shenandoah" as the basis for "Mid all the Traffic", and recently I've come across Christian lyrics to fit "Scarborough Fair". I’ve also sung “Take my life and let it be” to the tune of “Castle on a Cloud” from the musical “Les Mis”. My own congregation loved it when I used the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" one Sunday, simply changing the chorus to say "Then I saw His face, now I'm a believer...". We have also used “Bridge over Troubled Water” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” successfully in worship.
Many contemporary Christian bands have recorded secular hits, re-branding the lyrics to imply positive Christian messages: Audio Adrenaline recorded "Free Ride" and "Your love keeps lifting me higher". Nichole Nordeman recorded Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes". Sheila Walsh recorded "Love is the answer". Krystal Meyers has recorded Annie Lennox's "Sweet Dreams". Seven Day Jesus performed Lenny Kravitz's "Are you gonna go My way?" Raze recorded "Celebration". Rebecca St. James recorded "You're the Voice". Reba Rambo recorded "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", and First Call recorded Bob Dylan’s “Ring them Bells” as well as Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry About a Thing”. Jump5 has recorded several secular hits, including “We are Family” and “I’ve Got the Music in Me”, as has Amy Grant, both with her own secular hits and with remakes of pieces such as “Big Yellow Taxi”. More recently, Kirk Franklin recently incorporated Kenny Loggins' song "This is it" into his song "Declaration" on his latest CD. If the secular songs themselves don't speak as a witness to non-believers, then non-believers who purchase the artists' CDs will hopefully be impacted by the message of the gospel through the other songs on the same CD. For Christians listening to the Christian recordings of secular songs, it will forever re-brand the lyrics in a positive spiritual slant.
On another note, there are many secular artists with Christian roots, who are not afraid to record Christian songs onto their secular CDs. Look at Carrie Underwood's "Jesus Take the Wheel" or Faith Hill's "There will come a Day" or Kansas' "Dust in the Wind" as examples. Dolly Parton and Neil Diamond brazenly performed Christian songs on the 2008 season of American Idol: "Travelin' Thru', "Smoky Mountain Memories", "Coat of Many Colors", and “Jesus and Gravity" are just a few of Dolly's songs that were performed in one week of American Idol. Neil Diamond performed "Pretty Amazing Grace" on the Idol stage, which hints at his conversion to Christianity. And of course, there is the ever popular U2, whose lyrics often point to Biblical roots in songs such as "Pride".
There are many Christian bands whose pieces regularly get secular airplay. Jars of Clay had hits out of "Five Candles" and "Flood". MercyMe's "I Can Only Imagine" is still hugely popular. There was DC Talk's "Between you and me", Switchfoot’s “Dare You to Move”, and Leigh Nash of Sixpence None the Richer who got a lot of radio time with "Kiss me" and "There she goes". These are just a few examples, as I could go back thirty years to find Christian songs being played on radio (e.g. Michael W. Smith’s “Place in this World”; Bob Carlisle’s hits “Butterfly Kisses” and “Father’s Love”). Then there were Christian artists who were popular in the secular marketplace (remember Debby Boone and "You Light up my Life"?). Behind the scenes, there was Michael Omartian, a well-known born again Christian and record producer who was the genius behind Christopher Cross’s “Sailing”, Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young”, and Manhattan Transfer’s “Birdland”. He also happened to produce Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money”, the whole LP of which contained subtle Christian lyrics found in songs such as “He’s a Rebel”.
Finally, there is the Christian group Apologetix, who make a living by taking famous secular songs and re-writing lyrics to teach Christian values and Bible stories. (Check out their music here)
Personally, God has used many secular songs to speak to me in worship: songs such as Cyndi Lauper's "Time after time" or Hayley Westenra's "I Say Grace" and "You are Water", or Evanescence' "Wake Me Up Inside", or Billy Porter's "Time", or Emmy Rossum's "Slow me down" and "Inside out". And there are so many 'peace on earth' songs that speak of Christian values such as John Mayer's "Waiting on the world to change" and Nickelback's "If Everyone cared".
Music is such a universal language, and so important to the younger generations, that we as Christians should take every opportunity we can to use it to our advantage in witness.
It comes down to this "being in the world but not of the world". I find for some new Christians God may ask them to abstain from listening to any secular music, until they become stronger in their faith. The secular music may still reek for them of their old lifestyle and so may not be healthy for them to listen to, no matter how innocent the lyrics.
But as a Christian matures, God wants to position them in places where they can be a strong witness for their faith, and not be so cocooned that all their life is spent in the church and with other Christians. For me that was the case, and it came to a point in my walk that God wanted me to become involved with secular music, and be aware of what issues people are dealing with on a daily basis, in lives without God. Now I am at a place where everything is sacred, in the sense that, even if I listen to something that is not reflective of the Christian mindset, it is always something I can discuss with God, to help me understand other people's point of view, where their pain comes from, and how best to minister to them. God uses all things to speak truth to me. But to get to this place, one needs a very strong scriptural backing and maturity, so that they are not influenced negatively by what they are listening to.
This is why there are many Christians whose primary ministry is in secular music. They do not feel that their calling is to minister solely to Christians, but rather to be a light in dark places. Every Christian needs to search their soul and discuss with God where He is leading them, and where they can best be used in ministry.
Is there secular music I do not, or would not listen to? Yes, definitely. There are lyrics out there that are in such dark demonic places, that even those would harm me if I listened to them on an ongoing basis. But in working with young adults, I find it very helpful to be aware of them, because I have found that it is often the music being listened to by those who are suicidal, disturbed, and depressed. There is certainly a correlation between the music around us, and our own emotional mindset. Philippians 4:8-9 rings very true: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable --- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things… and the God of peace will be with you.” The opposite is also true. If your mind is constantly dwelling on all that is dark and demonic, you will not have peace in your spirit, and may develop psychological disturbances over time. There are dangerous lyrics out there that do not have any redeeming or edifying value. It is one thing to write music that brings awareness to important issues (e.g. the Christian recording artist Plumb has highlighted issues of incest, mental illness, and cutting through her music), it is another to offer listeners prejudice, death, mutilation, sexual experimentation and demonic activity as viable lifestyles to be explored.
Again, it is important for the Christian to be able to stand before God without guilt of conscience, to be able to say, “I listened to this, and I am not ashamed.” If the Christian feels in their spirit that God is displeased, they need to heed this important Holy Spirit prompting, for God is trying to protect them from harmful influences.
You will note that I have made a differentiation between the lyrics of secular songs, and the musical style itself. In my years of experience, musical style has no intrinsic “goodness” or “evil” attached to it, even if it was written without a prayer of blessing on it. For instance, simply listening to Berlioz’s “Symphony Fantastique” (about a man high on opium) or Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” (about a pagan ritual which includes human sacrifice) will probably not on its own sway anyone’s faith beliefs, especially if the listener has no idea the subject matter the music is supposed to depict. In contemporary music, Christian writers have used musical styles to full advantage, whether it be metal or grunge or rap or dance or the cultural heritage styles from India, China or Africa, in order to reach people who gravitate to that particular musical genre. (For example, check out Aradhna, who use classical Indian music to reach Hindus with the gospel, or POD, who combine grunge, metal and rap for hardcore music enthusiasts).
Growing up listening to all sorts of genres, people still are quite shocked to find out that I (who has the look of a conservative middle-aged matron) have been ministered and moved by the music of Skillet, Manic Drive, Plumb, Group1Crew and others, and am a former Stryper and Rez Band subscriber. As long as the lyrics are sound doctrinely, it’s easy for me to point out that the hardness of the musical style has nothing to do with how “spiritual” or “unspiritual” the songs may be. (For instance, how many people realize that the sublime LP of the Eagles’ “Hotel California” originally featured Anton LeVey on the back cover, the then head of the Satanic Church of America?). Musical style alone cannot reveal the intent of the composer, only lyrics can. When people are offended by a certain style of music, it is because they have a pre-conceived association with that style, based on past personal experience and teaching. (As an example, it is difficult for me to listen to the classical piece ‘Bolero’, without remembering the love scene from the movie ‘10’).
Even going back in time, we now think it quite laughable that the Church once declared diminished chords as ‘the devil’s interval’, and banned Haydn’s orchestral masterpiece “The Creation” from the church, simply because it used brass in its orchestration. Even in the early days of the Army, there were so many Salvationists who objected to the growing use of brass in the church that Staff Captain Richard Slater (the Army’s first Music Secretary) wrote a whole article defending it (click here to read).
Scripture itself supports the fact that music is God-breathed, God-invented, and a gift He created for us to explore. If there was just one colour in the world, how boring a place it would be! If all we ate was spaghetti every day, how bland would our taste palette become? I thank God for all the multi-facets of sound: All of it, from birds to whales to the trickle of water streams, from oboes to jambas to guitars and sitars, from throat singing to bell ringing and everything in between. I am grateful that music is one of the few things we can take with us into heaven when we die, and that we will all be singing for all of eternity, with the angels and all of creation. Hallelujah!