Why Call It Christian? The Problem With Christian Music

by Bobby Gilles

in Exhortations And Musings,Music Business

Sojourn Music guitar closeup photo by Dan CanalesChurch music has always existed — it is music made with the purpose of praising God and instructing his people while gathered together in a public service. Today it’s often called worship music. This is the music that Kristen and I are called to, and the music we write about most often at My Song In The Night. But today let’s talk about another kind of music, one that is related in terms of lyrical content.

Proponents of Christian music promote it as music that sounds like the latest musical genres favored by a given culture, with lyrics that are edifying for Christians and “safe for the whole family.” It doesn’t have to be as “singable” as worship music, or bound to a certain liturgical function, but is meant to carry a Christian message. And yet many of the most diehard critics of this music are evangelical Christian pastors, scholars, musicians and music critics. What gives?

The discussion is laden with emotion on both sides, largely because one side interprets the other’s argument as “You make/enjoy music that stinks, and it actually hurts the cause of Christ rather than help” (and this is in fact what many on the other side are saying).

Big problems exist with labels like Christian Rock or CCM, and with the creation and marketing of music under these labels. At the same time, some of the arguments people make against them are unfair, simplistic and mean-spirited.

In my article about the potential name change for the Southern Baptist Convention, What’s In A Name, I told you some of my radio experience as a music director and DJ for Southern Gospel and, later, Christian Country music in the early 1990s:

Some suggested “Why not call ourselves “Christian Country, like the Christian Rock industry has done (as opposed to the older term “country gospel,” which carried old-time music connotations the younger artists wanted to avoid)?”

Brooks, Twain and others had caused an explosion in country music sales, concert tickets and radio ratings. So, as artists like Stryper and Petra had piggybacked on the popularity of rock music, maybe we could piggyback on country music.

Christian Country has never approached the popularity of Christian Rock and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) because many country music fans, DJs, recording executives and artists already think of themselves and the country genre as “Christian.”

Nevertheless, using the term “Christian” to define and promote any grouping of artists and songs is problematic. Many church goers do not support Christian music, and artists themselves often go to great lengths to avoid being labeled “CCM” or “Christian artist,” even if they are Christians, singing songs about Christ.

Others don’t understand why any Christian would be against it. They point to bands and singer-songwriters in the genre who sing well, play well and write well, who have blessed the Church and have played skillfully before unbelievers. So what’s the problem? Why do so many people want to avoid Christian labels? Why don’t more church goers listen to this music?

Regardless of the motives of individual bands, singer-songwriters and others in the music business, many people see the whole enterprise as an inorganic, market-driven approach.

Often, this is not true — sometimes if a Christian band sounds like a secular band, it’s because they love that band’s music and are influenced by them in the same way that any artist is influenced by others. But why are their lyrics different? Because they’ve been redeemed by Jesus and they want to sing about it. It’s the most exciting, lasting thing that ever has or will happen to them, and they want to share this through their art. It’s not a marketing plan. They love Jesus and want to sing about him.

However, the inorganic, market driven nature of Christian music is true enough in the industry’s core and its past. And again, I speak as a former insider, although I was only in my early 20s during my radio programming days. The “behind the scenes” people I was working with in the early 90s wanted to find Christians who could be produced to sound like the top country artists of that time and to market them as “the Christian alternative.” And they were doing so because many of these same people had already done this once, with Christian Rock or CCM in the 1970s and 80s. It’s just the way they thought:

“Find artists who sound like today’s hot secular artists, then guide them into producing an album that sounds like the hot secular albums of today. Then tell people ‘If you like ________, here is a clean alternative.”

What they couldn’t understand is how distasteful and contrived this seemed to many people, who didn’t want anything to do with music that aims to be the spoonful of sugar that helps the gospel medicine go down.

When You Copy Someone Else, You Will Almost Always Be Worse

You can’t out-U2 U2.

No artist creates in a vacuum. We are all (including U2) influenced by others. But great artists are able to meld their influences together, along with the things that make them unique. Somewhere along the way, they find their own voice. You may hear hints of influences in their work, but the influences are not overpowering.

If you merely copy someone else, people will think you’re worse even if there are some ways in which you are better. For instance, an Elvis impersonator may technically be a more skilled singer than Elvis Presley was — broader range, richer tone, better pitch and even capable of more subtle nuance. Yet the masses won’t forget about Elvis and buy this guy’s cover songs.

And When You Copy Someone Else, You Will Almost Always Be Behind The Times

It takes time to write, arrange, record, mix, master, market and distribute an album. If the album consists of sounds and stylings that were popular when you initially conceived it, then by the time people begin to hear the album it will sound dated.

This is less of a problem if you work in a timeless tradition or you copy artists with lasting influence than if you do what the CCM industry has often done in the past — copy secular artists who are the equivalent of cotton candy, tasty one minute but dissolved into nothingness the next.

So, many producers and record executives have done their artists a disservice by pushing them to sound too much like someone else. Along the way they’ve created an impression of Christian music in the public’s eyes. As I’ve written here before, a brand is not what you say it is — it’s what others say it is. If enough people say “CCM is a cheesy ripoff of Top 40 music” then that becomes the brand of CCM. And once you’re branded a certain way, it’s very difficult to change it.

When A Market Is Derivative Of A Larger Market, The Talent Pool Is Smaller

When we tried to launch Christian Country music, we operated from a big disadvantage from day one because there were so fewer artists who wanted to record contemporary “Nashville-sound” country music with overt Christian messages, compared to the number of “secular” country artists. If you find yourself in this position, you either have to work with a small song catalog and artist roster or you have to accept the work of bands and songwriters who are simply not as talented as professional secular bands and songwriters.

Evangelical Christian musicians and songwriters are not inherently less talented, but there are less of them. Statistically, a smaller pool will have fewer talented swimmers. And you have less money behind you. It takes a lot of money to record music, tour and distribute product to stores and radio.

So What Should Redeemed Musicians Do?

Make the best music you can make, be true to the calling God has placed upon your life, and work as hard as you can. Don’t worry too much about labels (including the worry of having to defend a certain label, fit into a certain label, or rebel against a certain label).

If your calling is to the Church, to sing overtly about the power and call of the gospel, do it. Don’t worry about winning the respect of Christians who will think less of your art because it is what they or anyone else calls “Christian.” Their criticism may have to do with idolatry and pride in their own hearts, and God may need to deal with them:

  • The indie artist who has not “made it,” and blames the music industry or everyone else’s poor taste.
  • The critic who feels his subjective opinion should be regarded as objective truth.

In other cases they may be right, in that you aren’t very good yet. Work to make yourself better, but don’t let criticism paralyse you from any action at all. Find your own voice, even as you assimilate your influences. Don’t settle with merely copying anyone else’s formula. You can do better than that. And I suspect that even today’s brightest Christian music industry insiders want you to do better than that.

If your calling is to simply tell stories or paint pictures through your music, with no overt message, then do it. Don’t worry if people criticize you for not being “Christian” enough. God may need to work on them. As for you, it may be that God primarily spurs you to spread the gospel in other ways besides your music. You may be regularly moved to speak to others about what Christ has done for you, but whenever you pick up a guitar you’re moved to sing about puppies, political unrest or your gal.

Finally, What You Should Not Do

If you want to write a song about the romantic feelings you have for a gal, do it. If you want to write about Jesus, do it. But if you try to write a song that might be about Jesus or might be about romance, then you’ll end up with a worse Jesus song than other Jesus songs, and a worse romantic song than other romantic songs.

But this is advice for artists. What about labels and radio programmers? Should there even be a Christian music industry? What about the criticism that this is a cultural “ghetto”? Instead of sticking all the Christian artists in one boat, should we blow up the boat and encourage them to swim in the deeper waters of mainstream pop culture? More on this next week …

Guitar photo above by Dan Canales



{ 1 comment }

Russ May 17, 2012 at 5:16 pm

Great article, Bobby!

I find myself bouncing back and forth between extremes at times, but most often I’m kind of squarely planted in the middle:

Make the music that is inside of you. Be true to who you are and what’s shaped and influenced you over the years, and above all, if we’re all truly artists pouring out the “art” of our hearts, then it really shouldn’t matter how critics perceive it, right?

That is, unless your critics are right about your “art” stinking and not being a good vehicle for corporate worship, which is ultimately a different conversation, haha.

I’m rambling now.

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