A Brief History of Contemporary Christian Music
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One universal axiom of missions work is that people prefer to hear the Gospel, come to Christ, serve Christ, and read their Bibles in their own language. Strange as it may seem to some folks, music itself is a language. In fact, to Baby Boomers and subsequent generations, music became "The language," the lingua franca through which they communicated all of the concepts, attitudes, dreams, and visions that they held most dear. Though this seems clear to many growing evangelical churches today, it wasn't always so - in my lifetime, the "established" church has often squandered opportunities to reach out to "under-thirties" (not just teenagers) by insisting that they leave their "language" at the church doors.
This is an overview of the way this all changed, the reasons it changed, and some of the people and moments that helped it to change. As a disclaimer, I lived through the key events being described, as a young Christian musician trying to find (and in some cases write) music that would communicate my faith with people my age. As a result of this background, some (maybe most) of this "history" is admittedly subjective. But it might help:
- Anyone who did NOT grow up with "Jesus music" and "Contemporary Christian Music" to learn from the folks who did and the music they loved.
- Anyone considering a "music ministry" today to consider the price that their predecessors paid, and to count their own costs in realistic terms.
- Remind all believers that the musicians and songwriters we draw on for spiritual encouragement are facing their own spiritual battles and in the need of our prayers.
That said, we'll launch into the history part, which goes back, not decades, but centuries.
"Traditional" versus "Contemporary," a Centuries-Old Conflict
Objections to religious music that sounded too "contemporary" are hardly new. When Englishman Isaac Watts composed "Joy to the World," even the professional musicians in his own family thought that the non-traditional melodic line was offensive. In France, another carol - "Oh, Holy Night" was banned from the church for years because the tune was written by a music hall composer, and the lyrics were written by a wine merchant. Of course it's hard to imagine today that either song was ever controversial.
In America, in the mid-1900s, Gospel composer John Peterson was criticized for writing songs like "Coming Again" and "Heaven Came Down" because they were musically similar to the "music hall" songs of the late 1800s. Think of the irony - those songs were 70 years behind the times, and Peterson was censured for not being 100 years behind the times.)
Locally, a friend whose traditional Gospel trio sang in the 1960s and 1970s was excommunicated from his home church because the group occasionally used Major 7th chords in their harmonies, and some influential members thought it sounded "worldly."
The short version is that, for centuries, church leaders who dislike certain kinds of music have confused their musical tastes with God's will and made broad, sometimes brutal, pronouncements on musical styles that they didn't understand or want to understand. Unfortunately this tendency to demonize folks who liked different music than the church leaders was aggravated by the 1960s' "Generation Gap."
Welcome to the Sixties
With the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s, mainstream churches eventually realized that they were losing young people by the millions. Ironically, one of the earliest groups to realize this was the North American Roman Catholic Church, which adopted "guitar masses" after Vatican Two. Songs like "We Are One in the Spirit" (1966) quickly caught on along young people of other denominations. On church campgrounds, the new choruses easily took their place alongside Folk Revival songs like "Kum Bayah," “Do, Lord,” and "Michael Row the Boat Ashore." "We Are One in the Spirit," especially, became a popular way to close campfire gatherings.
The later "Catholic Charismatic" movement also emphasized guitar-based worship, producing other choruses and worship styles that were eventually adopted in Protestant Charismatic fellowships, as well as in youth outreach programs of virtually all denominations. And the church camps continued to attract (what were at the time) contemporary worship songs. By the late 1960s, many Protestant-supported church campgrounds had become collection points for guitar-based Christian "choruses" that teenagers could enjoy singing, even though (back in the church buildings), some of their own church leaders were complaining that any music played on guitar was inherently evil.
Even more important, the late 1960s saw the birth of a widespread movement - young people who had come to faith in Jesus and wanted to express that faith in a way that was more relevant to themselves and to their peers. By 1970 the term "Jesus Movement" was being fielded by its members. The term "Jesus Revolution" was being fielded by journalists who had grown tired of reporting on the "Hippie Movement" and were looking for some new generational subject to exploit. Even the most responsible journalistic resources like Time magazine, tended to popularize the most flamboyant (and in some cases, flaky) examples. But across the country - even across all cultural lines - the desire of teens and twenty-somethings to find a musical vocabulary to express their faith was growing exponentially.
The Gospel Music Industry Struggles to Adapt
Eventually, mainstream Gospel music companies tried (albeit weakly) to make their music appeal to the Christian baby boomers who represented the fastest-growing consumer market, but who were rejecting their traditional product lines. This reaction allowed songwriter Ralph Carmichael to publish a few pop-style (not rock) songs that were accepted even in some conservative circles. "He's Everything to Me" was probably Ralph's best-known song of this era, popularized in one of the first Billy Graham movies. If you listen to it, remember that Ralph wasn’t trying to keep up with the Beatles - the best he could do and stay signed to the label was to keep up with groups like The Lettermen (compare this song to their “Today”).
Following in Ralph's "not-quite-rock-and-roll" footsteps, singer Evie Tornquist brought a very light "pop" approach to music with Christian themes. One of her best examples is “Give Them All.” That said, she also “covered” some of the more mellow songs by artists like Larry Norman and André Crouch (described below) who, at the time couldn’t get any of their own work on Christian radio. I was not a huge fan of Evie when I was young, and her music does not exactly sound groundbreaking today, but now I realize that her label wasn’t trying to position her against, say the Rolling Stones, but against female pop singers like Dionne Warwick and Petula Clark, who were also huge on the charts in those days.
In 1969, Mylon LeFevre, formerly of a Gospel singing family, produced a Gospel-inspired album with a rock beat ("Gospel Ship" was the hit single). Mylon did his best to compete with contemporary rock bands. In fact his “Sunday School Blues” borrows riffs and guitar sounds from Joe Walsh, who was then playing in “The James Gang,” Unfortunately neither the church nor Mylon were really ready for the transition, and it was another eleven years before Mylon started ministering effectively with rock-based Christian music.
About 1970, Southern Gospel group (and former Elvis backup singers) The Imperials began incorporating sounds that they hoped would reach younger listeners. Today songs like "Jesus Made Me Higher than I've Ever Been Before" sound hopelessly dated and far more "Southern" than "contemporary.” But the same album included songs by Paul Simon, George Harrison, and Graham Nash. About 1972, the Imperials hired former Disciples member, black singer Sherman Andrus, with the hope of crossing cultural boundaries. Most important to Contemporary Christian Music, the Imperials launched the careers of several artists who had a more contemporary sound.
Honorable mention also goes to Dallas Holm, whose country leanings allowed his music to sneak into Southern evangelical circles, but who nevertheless later found himself blacklisted from many churches in because he used the word "ain't" in his best-known song “I’ll Rise Again” (1977).
As the "Jesus Movement" bore fruit, especially on the West Coast, the new followers of the New Testament, stopped doing drugs and sleeping around. But in the Bible, they could find no verses about hair length, blue jeans, or musical styles.
It wasn't long before these young somewhat-counter-culture believers started writing songs about what Jesus meant to them, and - just as important - how Jesus could change the lives of their peers. Very few of those songs found their way into conventional churches, but new, youth-oriented fellowships like Chuck Smith's Calvary Chapel and innumerable "Christian coffeehouses" provided venues.
In 1968, a one-hit rock band called "People!" lost its lead singer, Larry Norman, to the Jesus Movement. After his break with the band, Norman released a studio-produced Capitol album with a clear Christian message, (Upon This Rock, 1970). The most popular songs from the album were "Sweet, Sweet Song of Salvation" and "Wish We'd All Been Ready," which became the single most influential song of the Jesus movement. In addition to working with major record labels, Norman also started his own independent label, using a two-channel tape recorder to produce low-budget records for himself and fellow Jesus musician Randy Stonehill.
Later health and memory problems took their toll on Norman, and even on his credibility in some circles. But this much is certainly true - at a time when "Jesus Music" was so new that most people didn't even know it existed, Norman took huge financial and career risks to nurture a more contemporary form of Christian music than anyone else was willing to risk at the time.
After two MGM "record label" albums (including "Only Visiting This Planet," my favorite Norman album), Larry found himself back as an independent producer, albeit with bigger budgets and better distribution than he started out with.
During the most active part of his ministry, Norman also influenced bands like Petra and nurtured other young Jesus musicians like Steve Camp. For years he continued to write songs like "I Am A Servant" that found their way into the youth outreach programs of every Protestant denomination.
Although Norman did benefit from the "jump start" of "secular" record label support, he shared one role with almost every other Jesus musician - he spent most of his career with virtually NO support from the traditional "Gospel" music industry.
Another supporter of early "Jesus Music" was Andrae Crouche (and the Disciples). Andrae had come up through traditional African-American Gospel, but his first record producer, Ralph Carmichael, helped him to work toward a more contemporary (if somewhat Motown inspired) sound. Even more important, Crouch knew how to write songs like "My Tribute" (A.K.A. "To God Be the Glory," 1971) that crossed cultural boundaries and touched people of all ages, colors, and cultures.
Having music from folks like Norman, Stonehill, and Crouch wasn't the same as having a "Christian" version of CCR, CS&N, GFR, CTA, BS&T, or any of the other great contemporary rock bands, but it was at least stuff that you could enjoy and draw spiritual encouragement from.
Living on the Edge
Though Norman had a few years of "major label support," most of his contemporaries struggled constantly with poor finances, shoe-string tours, and virtually nonexistent distribution (getting lps into record stores and getting money from the sales).
At that time, the cost of recording and printing 1000 vinyl LPs with one-color cover art was six months' income for the average young person with a full time job. Still, if you could get something on vinyl that people would want to hear, and throw together enough equipment to tour with, you might be able to start selling records to strangers in distant places for $5 or $6 each. With any luck, you might make enough money in record sales and "love offerings" to get to the next gig. If you were really lucky, you might be able to afford pizza too. On many circuits, you could be considered a "successful" Jesus Music artist or group if you didn't come home from each tour more broke - and thirty pounds lighter - than you left.
Major secular labels would not pick you up, because they thought your gospel message would offend their core customers. "Christian" labels would not pick you up, because your popular music sounds (and maybe your hair style) would offend THEIR core customers. Countless "Jesus musicians" self-produced their own albums and started touring the few "Christian coffeehouses," festivals, and any other venues that would accept them. They drove long miles between gigs and often found themselves trying to make $35 in record sales and $24 in "love offerings" last a week and a thousand miles.
Record distribution was nonexistent for most self-publishers. You could get your records into stores yourself if you would place them in the store "on consignment." This meant giving the store your product and getting them to sign an agreement to pay you "wholesale" (say 50%) for any products they sold. As often as not, though, sales were not recorded. So you'd could go back into the store a month or six months later, see that all of your records were gone, but still not get paid. The owner would simply say that he could not remember specifically selling your albums, so they must have been stolen or misfiled, and the store didn't owe you anything. Still, you couldn't risk NOT having your product available, because potential customers would think your career was over. So you'd give the store several more albums and leave with empty pockets. Mail order might bring in a few sales, but sales at concerts was the only real income stream you had. In many parts of the country, especially the "American heartland" where I lived, this meant lots of widely separated, underpublicized gigs and sleeping in the van as often as not.
Would you sign up for that lifestyle today? Not many people would. Why did they? Well, there were some egotists, I admit, and some folks who just liked playing in bands (it is fun, when things are going right). But the vast majority of traveling Jesus musicians I met during this time not only genuinely loved music, but genuinely loved telling other people about Jesus. And I'll admit it - sharing Christ through music can be very rewarding, almost addicting when you see lives changed and hearts reborn before your eyes. Once Jesus told His disciples "I have food to eat that you know not of." And lots of Jesus Musicians found their way to their next gig solely on the strength of that food.
Yet even Jesus needed to take nourishment eventually. And there were disappointments. Starting with the normal personality conflicts on any creative team, and the hassles of being on the road for any reasons. Such as showing up a gig you were counting on to get you to the next stage of your tour only to find a nearly empty house because the "promoter" hadn't even announced your concert to his own church. Or the constant stress on families that were separated, including wives who had bills coming in and nothing from the road but promises that the next gig should provide enough money to send some back home.
Then there were hassles that seemed to happen especially to Jesus Music groups. Such as churches that moved your concert to the basement or bus garage when they realized you had drums. Or venue operators who raised lots of cash "for the ministry," then sent the band on its way with empty pockets. Or - my personal favorite - the folks who surreptitiously recorded your concert through the PA system and sold tapes once you were out of town.
As if that weren't enough, it seemed as though many artists' families came under unusual spiritual attack every time they left town to minister.
The few acts that had the emotional (and sometimes logistical and financial) support of their home churches were only slightly better off once they got in the van with a pile of second-hand gear and a stack of albums. Love Song, affiliated with Calvary Chapel in California, survived several tours. Resurrection Band, an outreach of a large "Jesus Movement" church in the Midwest, seemed to do a little better, possibly because at least one of the members was often on the staff of his home church.
"Christian music festivals" also began to appear, although many of them, like Ichthus in Wilmore Kentucky, refused to allow electric guitars on stage for the first few years of operation. Glass Harp, a group that had some "secular label" support began touring in the larger Christian venues along with Norman and Stonehill. (In fact my first exposure to Glass Harp, Larry Norman, and Randy Stonehill was all at a single Jesus Music festival in Cincinnati several months before I gave my own heart to Christ in 1972. I was "blown away" by Glass Harp and their guitarist Phil Keaggy, but I was also impressed by Norman's ability to "own the stage" with just a piano and a stream of deceptively simple stories, especially after what had seemed to be an endless stream of acoustic guitar players.)
Sadly, the lack of label (and usually church) support eventually culminated in many of the groups and artists' careers collapsing due to brutal pressures on their health, finances, relationships, and even, sadly, their faith. A number of the former artists did find their way to other “Christian” careers, such as Christian radio broadcasting, recording engineering, youth pastoring, or worship leading. Some fraction kept their faith and found totally different lines of work. Some, removed from the support of their families and home fellowships, fell back into destructive habits and addictions. But at least a few who thought they were doing everything "right" had experiences that made them renounce anything to do with "Christian music," the church, and, in some cases, even Christ.
I spell this out, not just to show my appreciation for the Christian "Road Warriors" who were able to keep the faith in spite of all those hardships, but also to remind every reader that, even with support, anyone who ministers for Christ in any way today faces hardships and needs our prayers.
Back to the history, some of the less radical artists like Ernie Rettino, Debbie Kerner, and, later on, Nancy "Honeytree" Hennigbaum made some inroads into evangelical churches, occasionally getting a "church gig love offering" that would pay more than their way to the next gig. They also helped pave the way for more successful later artists. But, like their more radical brethren, their music was still far more likely to be used in youth outreach than in Sunday morning church services.
Back to the Fringes
Worse, just as Christian music that would have sounded out of place on the Lawrence Welk show began filtering its way into mainstream churches, an anti-"Jesus Music" book rekindled old controversies. The author, Bob Larson, was a self-proclaimed ex-rocker who would not hesitate to cite urban legends as facts or to call anything "satanic" that fell outside of his (very tiny) comfort zone. Unfortunately, Larson's book Rock and the Church (1971) gave many conservative church leaders an arsenal of (spurious) arguments they could use whenever they wanted to pass judgment on music outside of their comfort zone.
Sadly, many churches and several entire denominations took Larson's claims to heart and began outlawing guitar players in their churches. Some outlawed any music that sounded like it could have been written by guitar players. So in many parts of the country young people (sadly) rejected the church all over again, and "Jesus Music" went back underground.
On a Personal Note - In 1972, as a lapsed Catholic and former rock wannabee, I made a decision to serve Christ at a youth outreach after a contemporary Christian concert by a regional group (Lawrence Chewning’s "Fishermen"). I began fellowshipping at the same outreach and studying my bible like a maniac. Consequently, I made the "mistake" of reading the Bible through multiple times and getting a grip on the meaning of salvation by grace through faith before I joined a "traditional" fundamental Protestant church. So I never learned to equate legalism with grace or cultural conservativism with theological orthodoxy. In spite of my pastors' frequently- expressed disapproval, I spent the next several years writing and singing songs about Jesus, and ministering at regional venues where all the current "big names" in Jesus Music had played or would later play. I didn't meet many of them except in passing, but I met lots of other folks at the next tier, living from gig to gig, and - as Paul said - "in fastings often." My "music ministry," such as it was, floundered eventually (I blame equal parts lack of support, a so-so singing voice, and the foolish decision to squander my savings on college instead of recording studio time). But my love for, interest in, and desire to write music that would reach non-churched teens and twenty-somethings never faltered.
The aspect of this time in my Christian life (and the "Jesus Movement" as a whole) that is hardest for today's youth to grasp is how desperate we were for Christian music that encouraged us, built our faith, and reached outsiders, without making our skin crawl. Today when I recall my favorite recordings from those days, a number of them hold up remarkably well. And quite a few of the songs would still be effective today, if they could be recorded properly. But if you're a young person today, listening to many of the bands we followed or performed in, with low-budget albums, shoestring tours, and brutally short careers, you might wonder what we were thinking. But there was literally nothing else.
On the other hand, what we can never really recapture, is the concerts. Many of the artists and bands were every bit as good live as the top-earning secular groups. Back in 1970 there was no way to fake a good sound onstage - you either had it or you didn’t, and lots of the Jesus Musicians “had it.” You could fake it in the studio though, if you had enough money. Of course, very few Jesus Musicians ever had enough money to have all the “comping,” overdubs, studio musicians, and effects that made the top secular artists (even the “gritty-sounding” bands) sound so “commercial.” So comparing a $2000 album by, say, Love Song to a $50,000 album by “Guess Who” doesn’t always give you an idea of how those bands would compare in concert.
Today's Christian music fans and Christian musicians alike have a fantastic array of choices compared to where "Christian music" started out. They, frankly, owe a huge debt to countless unsung "heroes" of the Jesus Movement. But that said, if you personally feel called to minister in music as more than a hobby, you will still need to work hard and be prepared to make painful sacrifices.
Traditional Publishers Jump Onboard
Eventually, the more traditional publishers realized that they were ignoring an important demographic, though their attempts to reach young Christians came in fits and starts. In 1971, Word publishing tried to get into the Contemporary Christian Music field by signing Randy Matthews and eventually starting Myrrh Records, with Matthews as the first signee (1972). The Zondervan bookstore chain, whose “Contemporary “ label Milk and Honey tended to feature very tame groups, signed an Ohio-based group called Selah (one of several “Selah’s” that have formed over the years. Selah and Zondervan got along fine as long as the electric guitar was quiet. When the electric guitar started getting too loud, and the boys let their hair grow out, the label terminated their contract.
About the same time, a few secular artists who had come from folk backgrounds (and who considered Gospel sounds and Biblical themes an excellent source of material) released songs with content that could imply Christian beliefs. Young Christians still starved for "Christian" music that wasn't painfully outdated would get excited when James Taylor included a "prayer" to Jesus in the second verse of "Fire and Rain" (1970), when Judi Collins sang "Amazing Grace" (1970), when Leon Russell wrote about "the Prince of Peace Returning" (1970), or the Doobie Brothers revived the old Byrds' chestnut "Jesus is Just Alright With Me" (1972). More cynical (or mercenary) record business pros released such silly entres such as "Spirit in the Sky" (1969) and "Put Your Hand in the Hand" (1971).
In other venues, the musicals Godspell (1969) and Jesus Christ, Superstar (1970) made it temporarily "cool" to take Christ seriously, even among folks who hadn't been part of the Jesus Movement before. The "Jesus as Hippie Guru" fad didn't last long, but some Godspell songs like "Day by Day" gained traction in a few churches.
Eventually young Christians realized that most of such secular imitations of faith were driven more by artistic or financial considerations than religious considerations. And when Jesus went "out of style" again, the division between secular music with religious themes and Christian music written by Christians to honor Christ became more obvious.
On the other side of the culture wars from Bob Larson, Jesus Musician Larry Norman was also concerned about young Christians being drawn in by apparently "Christian" music produced by unbelievers. He wrote a long article about the dangers of this, then tried for several years to get it published, with no success. So Norman and Stonehill produced one of the strangest LPs of all time, just so Norman could publish his article as "liner notes." On the LP Streams of White Light from Darkened Corners (1977), Norman and Stonehill deliberately butcher faux-Christian songs like "Spirit in the Sky," and "My Sweet Lord" although some of the other songs receive more respectful treatment. The liner notes warn believers about being "sucked in" when non-Christian artists include religious themes or vocabulary. Don't buy this album if you're looking for inspirational or background music. But if you want to hear "Spirit in the Sky" get the treatment it deserves, track down a copy.
Contemporary Christian Music Arrives
After years of underfunded and generally unappreciated efforts on the part of music industry outsiders, an unusual series of "coincidences" led to a breakthrough that began to bring "Jesus music" from the fringes of the Gospel music industry to the core.
It started when Barry McGuire, a folk-rock artist whose career had peaked years ago, "hit bottom" in his life and turned to Christ. When he became functional again and started checking into what it would take to record a "Jesus Music" album, he got in touch with studio engineer Buck Herring. Herring threw everything he could into the project, including - oddly enough - his family. Buck was married to a Christian woman who played the piano and sang beautiful harmonies with her brother and sister, who lived with them. Herring suggested having his wife Annie and her siblings Nellie, and Matthew Ward sing harmony on McGuire's record. At first, McGuire was skeptical. Then he heard them sing together and became their biggest fans.
Not long after, the Ward siblings were touring with McGuire and selling albums under the name "The Second Chapter of Acts." Annie's self-taught folk/gospel piano-playing, and the siblings' tight harmonies and songwriting skills produced a truly unique sound which could be appreciated by church-goers and "Jesus people" alike. Even more significant (to some people), the albums were commercially successful.
Acts' 1974 breakthrough album marked the beginning of a new era, in which Christian music with rock elements started getting real support from "Christian" record labels, as well as breaking permanently into the worship services of many large evangelical churches. Not long afterwards, CCM magazine (standing for "Contemporary Christian Music") started, giving a name to this new direction.
Of course, Acts didn't bring Contemporary Christian Music to the foreground by themselves. Contemporary singer-songwriters like Keith Green and Phil Keaggy (formerly of Glass Harp) soon beginning to get national notice as well, and some commercial success.
Longtime record producer Michael Omartian produced an Christian progressive rock album (White Horse, 1974) that is still one of my favorite Christian albums today. Norman was recording studio albums again, too, and helping other artists. In fact, he helped produce Steve Camp's first album (and still my favorite) Sayin' it with Love (1978).
Contemporary Christian Music Turns a Financial Corner
Thanks to Buck Herring's studio experience and access, the Acts didn't have to make do with third-rate production values, as had virtually all of their predecessors. Before long other "Christian" record labels were experimenting with many other artists, some of whom became "one-hit wonders," and some who held it together for several releases and tours.
A more radical band, Petra, broke up and reformed several times, but tried to keep a relatively hard "edge" on their music. Several other, even "harder," bands came and went within a few years.
It's worth noting that, by 1983, even conservative preacher and self-professed rock-and-roll hater David Wilkerson was forced to admit that many of the Christian songs he liked actually had a rock beat.
"The Big Time" Comes
The early 1980s saw Contemporary Christian Music make an impression, not only on the Christian community, but on the music industry as a whole.
After a hand full of moderately successful albums in the late 1970s, Amy Grant's sixth album Age to Age in 1982 was a runaway success, in part because of two Michael Card songs that Card was legally supposed to have recorded first - "I Have Decided," and "El Shaddai." Amy went on to write many great songs herself.
One of Amy's piano players, Michael W. Smith, eventually broke off as a separate act and has been a force in Christian music for decades. “Great is the Lord” and “Friends” were huge hits from Smith’s first album, but he has written many great songs since.
Both Grant and Michael had "crossover" hits that played on secular radio, which made some folks uncomfortable, but brought even more media attention (and investors) to the Christian music field.
In the meantime, Michael Card took a deep breath, recorded his own versions of his songs, and proceeded to have a career that never equalled Grant’s for airplay, but included decades of great songwriting, acoustic-guitar based concerts, and Bible teaching. “Joy in the Journey” is one of my favorite Card songs.
Other artists like Wayne Watson and Twila Paris started with folk-rock sounds like Watson's "Touch of the Master's Hand" (1980) and Paris' "The Warrior is a Child" (1984). But they eventually morphed toward rock and pop sounds over a several year period. Incidentally, Paris wrote many popular praise choruses like "He Is Exalted" (1986) that helped boost the contemporary praise movement. Both artists’ careers had longevity due to a continual stream of very good songs. Watson eventually had the dubious distinction of having songs performed by other people on national television, including “For Such a Time as This” on Touched by an Angel, and “Man in the Mirror” performed on Glee.
On a more traditional path, big-voiced "inspirational" singer Sandi Patti was conservative enough to share the stage with the Gaithers and talented enough to get onto platforms with more contemporary groups. Though Sandi and similar performers like Steve Green and Larnell Harris did not promote "Contemporary Christian Music" per se, they attracted popular attention - and money - to the "Christian music industry" as a whole. And they helped relatively contemporary artists like Wayne Watson and Twila Paris cross into mainstream churches as well.
By the late 1980s, many of the Contemporary Christian albums were coming out on new Christian labels, and others were being distributed by "secular" companies like Atlantic (former home to the Carpenters and Aretha Franklin). Successful artists could spend more time concentrating on their music and whatever ministry they had to offer, and less time hawking records.
New blockbuster groups kept coming. Singer-songwriter, Steven Curtis Chapman rose from a folk-rock sound that bordered on country to mainstream CCM records and tours. (See "My Turn Now," 1988, for a representative example.) Rich Mullins, a singer-songwriter recorded many great songs (such as "If I Stand," my favorite, 1988), but became best known for "God is an Awesome God" (also 1988).
D.C. Talk's rap-influenced 1989 debut broke all kinds of records, and they stayed at or near "the top" for some time. After several not-so popular albums, the Australian group Newsboys teamed with former Christian recording artist Steve Taylor to produce blockbuster hits like 1994's "Shine."
And many of the "old-timers," like Wayne Watson, Michael Card, Twila Paris, and Petra were still "hanging in there."
To list every artist or group that had one good studio album and tour during this period would be prohibitive. Quite a few had several or more studio albums and careers that approached a decade. If you are one of those artists or were in one of those bands that I've passed over in this overview, I apologize, but there's not enough room to list my own favorites.
By the early 1990s, GMA, the "Gospel Music Association," was forced to realize that ignoring the fastest-growing segment of the Christian music market was self-defeating, and brought "Contemporary Christian Music" into the "Gospel" umbrella. Secular companies like Sony were even starting their own "Christian" sub-labels" to take advantage of what seemed to be a steadily growing market share.
I attended the annual GMA conferences in Nashville a few times in the mid-to-late 1990s, and those were heady times. Christian music was packing out Nashville's largest venues, attracting stars from other industries (and even other art forms), and consistently breaking through the recording and touring budget barriers that had once kept "our" albums and concerts from sounding as good as everyone else's. The sky seemed to be the limit.
Exploitation of Existing Secular Talent
Once a few breakthrough artists established that there was a real market for well-written, well-performed Christian music in popular musical styles, another, somewhat disturbing, phenomenon occurred: the secular-artist-turned-"Christian-artist." Any number of other secular artists made some sort of religious commitment, often as a result of a life crisis that anyone with their welfare at heart would have given them time to get through. But instead of counsel and support, they were given contracts with "Christian" labels and rushed right back to the touring lifestyle that had nearly destroyed them. This is one section where I won't list names - there are too many, and some of these folks are still struggling with what happened to them.
A few of these "repurposed rock stars" actually managed to maintain some sort of Christian life on the road, for a time at least. As one example, Richie Furay, former member of Buffalo Springfield, and founder of Poco, managed to maintain a Christian testimony on the road for a few years and is now serving in full-time ministry. Several, like America's Dan Peek, realized that they had too many bad habits on the road in the "old days" to risk going back on the road again now.
But sadly, for many of the "converts" who were exploited this way, the transition proved fatal to whatever spiritual impulses had moved them, and it wasn't long before they were an embarrasment to their labels and to themselves.
In spite of the appearance of continued growth, a Christian record producer told me in the mid-nineties that the market for Contemporary Christian music seemed to be stabilizing at about ten percent the size of the Country and Western music market, which in turn was about ten percent the size of the overall "pop and rock" market. C&W has made inroads since then, but I doubt that Contemporary Christian music has grown much beyond this niche.
Eventually the big secular labels like Sony realized that the market for Contemporary Christian music was plateauing. Starting in the late 1990s, several labels started excusing themselves, some more gracefully than others. Several "Christian" labels had to retrench until things stabilized, and a number of artists had to find other lines of work. And the 2000-2001 recession was the "last straw" for more than one ministry or business that was barely surviving.
What about Scandals?
One of the questions that inevitably comes up is “If all of this is of God,” why have there been so many scandals?” And, yes, there have been infidelities, betrayals, adulteries, and relapses into various addictions, all of which are wrong and show our genre and Christians as a whole in a less than flattering light. Unfortunately, that effect is exaggerated by a few writers and editors who apparently like dragging every individual Christian musician who has ever done anything immoral (or just plain stupid) through the mud as often as possible. Without attempting to justify adultery, relapse into addictions, or any of the other things that have occurred, I think it’s worth pointing out that:
- What we call “scandals” in a “Christian” industry don’t even raise people’s eyebrows in the music industry as a whole. Again, Christian musicians should hold themselves to a higher standard, and most of the ones I’ve known do. But one moral failure in “Christian” circles can have apparently infinite repercussions, while the same thing in pop music circles would get about the same amount of public attention as a sore foot on a centipede.
- Considering the number of artists involved, the number of outright scandals is relatively low. The real scandal - which goes unreported because it doesn’t sell magazines - is the number of artists who’ve wound up with little or no faith in God at the end of their “career.” That’s the “scandal” that we need to remember. As “fans,” we should pray for the spiritual and physical well-being of the artists we appreciate. As people who minister in any capacity - music, teaching, preaching, whatever - we should fear what the apostle Paul feared - ministering effectively to others yet failing to stay in God’s grace ourselves.
- Speaking as a musician, I admit that many musicians are victims of ADHD, flakes, egocentrics, jerks, and worse (I won’t tell you where I fall on that scale). Giving your life to Christ doesn’t necessarily give you a personality transplant or change a lifetime of behavioral habits overnight - although I surely wish it would. During certain stages of the “Jesus Movement” and the rise of “CCM,” it was common to permit or even send young believers with no track record of self-discipline out to “minister for Jesus” because they had exceptional musical skills. You wouldn’t send a missionary out under such circumstances. And it’s hardly surprising that, once they were out of their “support group” and away from day-to-day accountability, immature Christian musicians have gotten into trouble. I don’t specifically blame Jesus Music or Contemporary Christian Music - the same thing happens in all genres, even - sadly - other “Christian” genres.
- As mentioned above, the road is hard - and it is especially hard for independent artists, which almost all of the original Jesus Musicians were. Furthermore, if you think the powers of darkness are willing to give a “pass” to people who are away from home for weeks or months at a time while ministering for Christ, then you have obviously never done that yourself.
Finally, as I have been preparing a list of links to artists’ songs and web sites, I have been reminded that life is short. At least three of Contemporary Christian Music’s most noteworthy songwriters - Mark Heard, Keith Green, and Rich Mullins - have died untimely deaths. Dan Peek, a former America member who got off the road soon after become a Christian, also died young. Other artists, some listed on this page, are struggling with health issues or financial problems, but keeping the best face on it they can. Just because God has gifted these men and women with talent, and they used those talents to glorify Him and encourage us doesn’t mean that they don’t need our prayers. They’re not just plastic disks, mp3 files, or faces in newspaper columns - they’re brothers and sisters in Christ. In fact, we’d all be better off if Christians would spend half the time praying for those who have shared Gods love through music as they do talking about them.
The Beat Goes On
Every day I am reminded of several more artists who “deserve” to be listed here, including many personal favorites. As time permits - and reader feedback demands - I will be adding some of those to the list of artist links, but space constraints on this page demand that I list only the most influential or the ones that represent major trends in the genre.
In spite of occasional (and occasionally deserved) bad press, and the economic downturn of the new millenium, a plethora of great Christian artists bands have done their best to carry the flame. Some, like New Song, survived on constant touring, with almost no record distribution. Others, like PFR, recorded and toured when they could afford it, and took breaks when they couldn't. Still others have become "revolving" doors, shuffling members in and out as the needs of individuals changed. I have to confess, I didn't buy many Christian music albums in the nineties, but I didn't have to. Through my kids leaving CDs in my car stereo, as well as taking them to concerts and music festivals, I got to know great "ska" bands like O.C. Supertones and Five Iron Frenzy, as well as more conventional Christian rock bands such as Bleach, Superchic[k], Switchfoot, Caedmon's Call, and Reliant K, some of which are still recording and touring in some format or another.
The 2000's have seen many great artists as well, including MercyMe, Casting Crowns, 3rd Day, and the David Crowder Band. On the other hand, two national recessions have hurt the Christian music industry along with all other industries to speak of.
I'm no fool - I know that many aspects of the "Christian music business" are a lot more "business" than "Christian," that dedicated, talented, devout artists are frequently overlooked in favor of some "product" (artist) that looks trendy now but has the spiritual and musical depth of a sheet of paper, and will likely be a "flash in the pan." I know phonies have arisen and fooled their fans, in some cases for years. Worse yet, I know that any position of even apparent ministry brings a wealth of temptations (and sometimes hardships) that can break down even the sincere of heart.
If you're a "struggling young Christian musician" battling frustration, it's up to you, God, and hopefully supportive, mature counselors to work out God's calling on your life. (I would, however, recommend that you read the late Keith Green’s article “Music or Missions,” now called “So You Wanna be a Rock Star.”) Like any other art-related industry, professional recognition doesn't always go where it is deserved. Yet in spite of some notable fumbles, Christian music, as a whole, has survived and matured, and is still showing great potential for good.
In some ways, today's artists are facing new challenges. For example, having more and more songs released online means that fans are "cherry-picking" their favorites instead of buying the whole "album," which, frankly, cuts into a major source of revenue. And having friends send mp3s to their friends or even post the songs on You-tube means that the songs are "changing hands" with NO money at all going back to the band.
That said, most Christian artists seem to think that building a wider fan base - and reaching more people for Christ - are reasonable tradeoffs. The only people really getting bent out of shape about MP3s are the recording companies that like to pretend you owe them money every time you copy a CD you bought to your own MP3 player. (Hey, record companies - it's not MP3s that are killing you - it's continually pushing schlock product at the national level while thousands of independent artists keep breaking ground with fresh, clever stuff.)
On the positive side, technology is helping to level the playing field for beginning, independent Christian bands. Digital recording tools are helping many artists record part or all of their albums outside of expensive recording studios. Artists who become web- and social-networking- savvy can promote their work just as effectively online as any of the major "Christian" labels seem to do. But, in case you wondered, the hard work of songwriting, arranging, practicing, networking, and touring is still there.
Return to Worship
The one area of Christian music that is still holding its own and potentially growing is worship - ironically, the same area through which contemporary music (for its time) infiltrated Evangelical youth outreach ministries and camps in the late 1960s.
Contemporary worship never went away, of course. It stayed strong in churches that grew out of the Jesus Movement (like Calvary Chapel) and in Charismatic groups like The Vineyard, which introduced hundreds of choruses that are still in use today. Songwriters like Twila Paris and Rich Mullins gave it a boost in mainstream in the late 1980s through mid 1990s. And superchurches (plus soon-to-be-superchurches) realized early that contemporary worship made nonchurched people feel far more "at home" than a strict diet of hymns.
As far back as 1993, James Emery White, then a worship consultant for the Southern Baptist Convention, admitted that churches who use predominantly contemporary Christian music appeared to being growing faster, in some cases much faster, than churches that stick to traditional worship.
Starting about 1993, gospel artist Kirk Franklin released a series of praise-oriented albums that broke records for any black gospel artist. Kirk (sometimes with "The Family") also brought his worship programs to many predominantly white audiences.
A number of conventional "Jesus Music" and "Contemporary Christian Music" bands have extended their careers by focusing on praise. As examples, Petra Praise (1989) and Petra Praise 2 (1999) were two of Petra's most popular albums. Praise song "He Reigns" (2004) is one of the Newsboy's most popular songs (and one of my favorites).
True, most contemporary worship choruses today are very tame compared to today's secular music market, but musically, they nearly all contain folk, rock, and/or pop influences that would have gotten them banned from many of the same churches just a generation or so ago.
Here's an interesting aside: When praise choruses first entered the mainstream, overhead projectors became fixtures in many churches, though, technically, it was illegal to make and project copies of the song lyric. Certain music publishers seemed to imagine that the churches should be paying for sheet music for every member of the congregation, and therefore they were "losing money." Sure, that was an unrealistic way of looking at it, as silly as the record companies that want you to pay them a dollar every time you copy a song off of one of your own CDs to your own MP3 player. But many churches thought it would be fair to have some way to recompense the people whose songs they were using. In 1998, the Christian Copyright Licensing International group was formed to allow congregations to track which choruses they used and pay a reasonable amount of support. Using surveys and mathematical formulas, they try to make certain that writers and publishers of the most popular choruses get "their share." But the big "win" for churches is that now, virtually every Christian song they are ever likely to use is included in the license, so the songleader is free to choose whatever praise choruses he or she likes. Nowadays, when you see a CCLI # in the corner of your projection screen, don't panic - it's a good thing that has helped your songleader bring the best choruses he or she could to your congregation.
Back to our list of artists who have come to depend on worship music - even more telling is the number of artists whose music careers exist largely because of their praise choruses. Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin, and Jeremy Camp come to mind.
Recently, Hillsong United, a church that became popular for cranking out praise choruses is now such a force in the "industry" that whenever a new chorus becomes popular, many churches adopt, not the original artist's version, but the arrangement that Hillside eventually releases. Unfortunately for horn and piano players, many of Hillside's demo recordings are in the key of B. So the guitarists slide on a capo, the bassist slides up the neck a few frets, and the other instrumentalists struggle with 5 sharps (piano and flute), 7 sharps (trumpet and clarinet), or 8 sharps (alto sax). We love you guys, but you're giving a lot of worship bands fits. :-)
Will praise and worship continue to grow indefinitely? Surely, it will hit a saturation point somewhere and stop growing quite as fast. But for now, I am glad for the variety, quality, and spiritual encouragement these songs bring (as long as you let me slip in a traditional hymn, say once a service).
Where We Stand Now
Although most Christians I meet today can't imagine that anyone ever took the "so-called controversies" about Jesus Music or Contemporary Christian Music seriously, I still meet folks much younger than I who are still afraid of any music that sounds like it was written after 1940. If you have been living in a cave for the past forty years, it's time to face the fact that Contemporary Christian Music is, for all intents and purposes, forty years old, and in many growing churches it has been mainstream for the last 20. To review three milestones:
- "We Are One in the Spirit," the song that helped start the trend of contemporary music for youth outreach was written 46 years ago.
- Larry Norman's "Upon this Rock," which helped jump-start "Jesus Music" came out 42 years ago.
- The first "Second Chapter of Acts" album, arguably the beginning of the "Contemporary Christian Music" industry, came out 37 years ago.
If you count contemporary worship in with Contemporary Christian Music, there is no question that contemporary music styles dominate Christian bookstore shelves, concert venues, church worship services, and airwaves. Even the relatively conservative Christian radio stations and bookstores around me feature more Contemporary Christian music than any other style. So why am I bothering to write all this out? Because I think the generation who grew up with a functioning Christian music industry needs to have some idea of what it took to get us to this point. And anyone considering a "music ministry" today really will benefit from a perspective. If you have time to look up the albums and especially the sample songs I listed for each artist, you may be blessed or appalled, but you will have a better foundation for your own decisions.
One More Personal Note: One thing that putting this brief history together has done is make me realize just how old I am - nearly four decades have passed since I wrote and performed my first Christian song. I also realize that the musical "language" we tried to speak in my youth is not the language in which young people speak today. But it reminds me of how important appropriate music is to believers, and how much prayer and - if possible - other support we owe to those who bless us through Christ-centered music today.
God bless each of you and please contact me if you have any corrections or other comments about this article. - Paul
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A former touring “Jesus Musician” whose label cut the band loose mid-album (in the mid-70s) because the electric guitar was getting too prominent writes:
Really interesting article, Paul . . . . Sure brought back some memories. I can still remember exactly where I was when I first hear 2nd Chapter's album. Blew me away. How much I loved Norman's Upon This Rock.
I knew John W. Peterson. He was . . . one of the sweetest, wisest men I've ever met. I pitched one of my songs to him, and I got a rejection letter directly from him. Don't know whatever happened to that letter, but I wish I still had it.
The Bob Larson bit brought back some unpleasant memories. Like the time he came to [my Christian college]. Brought hellfire down on the heads of everyone who loves "the beat."
. . . despite the fringe types exploiting the [Jesus] movement, there were plenty of those (the majority, I'm convinced) who were very genuine in their ministries.
A 50-something praise team member who also grew up in conservative circles during the “Jesus Movement” writes:
GREAT ARTICLE!!!!! Wow - exactly right. I've tried to explain to the kids the insults and accusations that I experienced as a teenager in church because I played "the Devil's instrument". At [our church], if it had not been for [one of the parents], it would have been another 5 years before the guitar was heard on a regular basis in the church. But because of [her son], she insisted that it be allowed.
It all sounds so incredibly ridiculous and silly now, but there was so much animosity toward anything that had any form of beat, or looked like a "hippy thing."
I would also add that there was a long period of marvelous hypocrisy in the church, where a singer could have a taped background with drums, guitar and bass, but not live. We made fun of this in a skit at [our Christian college], and were almost expelled . . . .
Anyway - -wonderful and very accurate history of our past.
And Now For Something Completely Different:
Here’s another interesting item: Since I wrote this article, an amateur writer who wrote one article about Christian music on a prominent web site has been broadcasting his opinion that I’m not qualified to write on the subject and threatening to get me blacklisted permanently from any of the pages he frequents if even so much as a link to this page shows up on the site he frequents - in spite of the fact that I obviously have four times his education, a thousand times his research and writing experience, and a thousand times his experience with the subject matter.
A first I made the mistake of trying to reason with the fellow. For example, I couldn’t help noticing that his list of “reasons” for my disqualification actually disqualified almost all of the contributors he did consider acceptable, and - more to the point - disqualified him several times over. But for some reason the standards he applied to me didn’t seem to apply to him or to people who were already in his “club.” Eventually it became apparent that he was not really - as he claimed - concerned about accuracy or balance or anything related to quality. Rather he wanted to be “THE Spokesman for Christian Music,” at least as far as certain sites and pages were concerned, and he wanted to promote a specific, not terribly balanced, agenda.
Fine. After a lifetime of placating petting tyrants (see below), I’ve finally learned how to kick the dust off my heels. At first I tried to back out of the situation with humor and grace. After all, why burn bridges with a brother whom I expect to meet in Heaven if not sooner, and who might even “come around” in this lifetime? But he kept assuming that the only reason I would disagree with him at all was that I was too stupid to understand his point. So he kept posting message after message, expressing my “underqualification” in stronger and stronger language, until all I could do was delete all of his messages and stop responding to him.
I am somewhat concerned that people who do Google searches are going to keep finding the articles he wrote or influenced and thinking that they present a balanced, reasonably comprehensive account (they don’t). And he has given readers no worthwhile places to go for more detailed or balanced information. But both of those problems fall on him, not me.
Even stranger, this experience brought back memories of a long list of “gatekeepers” that I’ve faced over the years - folks like the Pharisees who lived to exercise power over others, especially in the name of God (Matt. 23:13). As a young Christian I was programmed to believe that my elders watched over every aspect of my spiritual life with constant, Godly concern for my welfare. So I jumped through a lot of hoops trying to win approval and convince one gatekeeper or another that I deserved to be in his little club, whatever it was. I was finally cured of that affliction by a sociopathic pastor whose control mechanisms were so brutal that there was no way to pretend that God was behind them.
As painful as that experience was, it forced me to recognize that most, if not all, of those self-appointed “gatekeepers,” who had put all those hoops in our paths were not as interested in our spiritual growth as they were in controlling the behavior of people they needed to work their programs.
But the epiphany that comes from that is that we don’t have to stand in line, hat in hand, begging for the right to serve Christ from anybody. Yes, I believe in spiritual counsel and submission to Godly authority. But I’ve also experienced more than enough spiritual bondage to folks whose only vision for my ministry was that I would stay under their thumb and keep making them look good. (There are about a dozen ways this relates to the core topic of this article, but I’ll let you connect the dots.)
You’ve all heard the cliche “When God closes the door, He opens a window.” But sometimes people close the door, and not always for the best reasons. Then what do you do? If you really feel called to a particular ministry, you pray about it, then you find another door. Or get out a sledgehammer and make one.
At the end of days, you aren’t going to get any awards for ignoring God’s direction for your life because people you trusted told you to. Trust me, as a fifty-nine-year old who spent thirty years of his Christian life sacrificially supporting other people’s often-misdirected programs, this is something I pray about and repent anew for every day. Get the “coin” of your potential for Christian service back out of that hole in the ground and invest it for the Kingdom.
To bring it back to the present, the fellow so assiduously protecting “his” articles from contamination by (or comparison with) ours, may even have good intentions at some level. But in trying to shut me down, he’s just making sure I’m never in a position to help him or his readers again. How exactly does that hurt me? It doesn’t. How does it keep me from posting, sharing, writing, teaching, and singing for Jesus? It doesn’t. And if my experience creating and supporting other forums proves anything, within a few years, this will be the first resource people come to for this sort of information.
Stay tuned, we have a lot more teaching and sharing and posting to do.
God bless you and guide you and prosper your own service for Him.
Paul Race, Feb. 9, 2012
P.S. We’re also working on a list of links and references for most of the people mentioned on this page. We have a whole lot more work to do, but if you don’t mind seeing it in it’s unfinished state, click here.