The Christian Music Industry: Should We Love It Or Leave It?

by Bobby Gilles

in Exhortations And Musings,Music Business

photo of highwayLast week in Why Call It Christian? The Problem With Christian Music, I listed a few reasons that many Christians dislike the terms “Christian Rock” and “CCM,” and why many feel that contemporary Christian music is lower quality than it should be. And earlier this year Kristen wrote about some dangerous theological implications behind the lyrics of many CCM songs.

But are we just talking about symptoms? If none of these reasons and problems existed, would it still be dangerous to have “Christian” radio stations, record companies, publishing houses and individual bands and singer-songwriters? Must these things always constitute what some have called a cultural ghetto, or a “circle the wagons” mentality in which Christian artists are absent from the larger stream of culture? Should the marching order for all artists who are Christians be:

  • Become the best you can be
  • Reject any kind of “Christian” label or support from Christian industries, and make your mark on the larger culture

Let’s Imagine For A Moment …

A music artist gives her life to Jesus. Aware of the depth of her sin, she is overwhelmed by the gracious gift of life and sacrifice of Christ. And for the rest of her life, Jesus is the theme of her song.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of people out there who have experienced the same life-changing gift of salvation. They don’t make music, but they enjoy listening to music. They hear this singer’s music and they love it because it speaks their language — the story of the gospel. They might still enjoy Hank Williams, the Beatles, Coldplay or Adele, but there are times when they want to listen and sing along to songs about salvation through the cross, and God’s special grace. Every time they hear the words of scripture set to music, every time they hear the name “Jesus,” ever time they hear the story of Calvary, it moves them in a way that no other story does.

Would it be reasonable to expect that these people would want to listen to that singer’s music, and that they’d look for more music by more artists that also overtly told the gospel story? Would it be reasonable to think they’d listen to radio stations or internet playlists that featured these songs? Would they possibly download those songs in iTunes or look for hard copies in physical stores?

If those are reasonable expectations, then you’ve got a music industry based on songs about the gospel of Jesus Christ. You can call it Christian, Gospel, Worship, Church, Sacred or Jesus Music, but whatever you label it (and people will label it, because people label things) you’ve got an industry that propagates songs about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Why “Industry”? That Seems Unspiritual

People need to pay for food, clothes, housing, transportation and medical services with money. And it even costs money to record songs, make sure people know the songs exist, and distribute the songs to people who want them.

There may be problems with what we currently call the Christian Music industry, as there are problems with all industries, because of the presence of sin. We need prophets who call out sin when they see it, and we need repentant hearts who will confess and turn from sin. But the destruction of industry isn’t the solution. In fact, God encourages industry throughout scripture (including the pre-fall Garden and in the vision of the post-apocalyptic New Earth).

So That’s It Then? Christians Should Just Make & Listen To Music About Jesus

We don’t all have the same calling. In the free audio lecture below, author and former dean of Wheaton College Harold Best notes three distinctive kinds of art:

  • Art for the Church
  • Art from the Church (to the world)
  • Art facing the Church (from the world)

Harold Best says, when discussing art made for the church:

“Art must serve the liturgy. This is a special calling in which art humbles itself and washes the feet of the savior and congregants to the extent that it becomes lost and the Word triumphs. This kind of art has to be simple, accessible. I used to cower at those words. I thought ‘Art can’t function that way — it’s crass; it’s commercialism.’ But I’ve learned to burn those idols.”

Note that Best is primarily talking about what most of us today call worship music — songs created primarily for gathered groups of Christians to sing together as part of a church liturgy (which means “service,” or “work of the people”). But worship music is often recorded today because audio recordings have become the new hymnals. Most people can’t read sheet music, but they can sing along with recordings. And many people who sing worship songs on Sundays want to own recordings of those songs, for the edification of themselves and their families during the week. Along the way, they discover worship songs that speak to them, even if their own worship pastor doesn’t insert them into the local church liturgy.

But art from the church is a valid calling, and it is here that “Christian music” has most often fallen short. Christians (whether intentionally or not) make artists feel like their music is not valid if it does not sound like Art for the Church and contain the same lyrical content as Art for the Church. In short, they don’t believe in Art from the Church, except for the purpose of active evangelism. That’s a shame, and it’s that belief that causes a rebellion against the concept of “Christian music” among Christians who don’t want to be relegated to only one form of art or music.

The first problem with seeing Art from the Church as primarily a tool for evangelism is that it isn’t a very good tool for evangelism. God in his sovereignty can and has used the lyrics of songs to save people, just as he can and has used many other means. But typically, Christian artists who view music as primarily an evangelistic tool “sing to the choir.” That is, the top market for Christian music is Christians, not unbelievers.

And unless God is working on an unbeliever’s heart (most often by using a Christian in close community with that unbeliever) then the unbeliever will turn his dial away from any music he perceives as “Christian,” no matter how well the band plays or how well the song was written. He will do so because he is an unregenerate enemy of God — a rebel who opposes the rule and reign of Christ.

The Art For The Church, From The Church & Facing The Church Harold Best audio above, recorded at our church Sojourn in 2009, talks more about the purpose and expectations for Art from the Church. Other Christian thinkers who often write about this include our Worship Pastor Mike Cosper — see his Create Culture, Not Subculture article.

As artists who are called to create Art for the Church, Kristen and I don’t write about Art from the Church as much here at My Song In The Night. But familiarizing yourself with distinctive callings for Christian artists will keep you from saying either “We shouldn’t even have music for Christians” or “How can that artist be a Christian? Their songs aren’t even about Jesus.”

Now, is “Christian” or “Contemporary Christian” a good term for music for the Church? That will have to be the subject of another post … or of your comments.

 Highway photo by James Thompson, used via Creative Commons license



Rich Tuttle May 24, 2012 at 11:45 pm

Great discussion. I think you are right that the problem isn’t necessarily that an industry exists. I think the problem might be how much (or what kind of) influence the industry has. (and if this is the case then two parties must be looked at as a part of the problem: the producers and the consumers) There are many angles we could look at this from, but a big one in particular would be the influence on Christian worship.

I think Best’s distinctions are really helpful here. (though I haven’t listened to the seminar yet) Art for and from the Church. I think many who rage against the Christian Music Industry machine (myself included) get upset because what is pumped out (particularly through radio) claims to be one thing (art for the church or art from the church) when in reality it is another (art facing the church) or it is a blurring of the distictions across the board. And actually, that’s really just a symptom of the deeper problem I think most have with the Christian Music Industry, and that is that it has replaced or sidestepped the Church as the path to making art for the church or art from the church. And consumers (christians) are at fault as much as the ‘industry’.

The reason this is such a problem is because of the priorities of Industry vs Church. No matter how you cut it the industry exists to make money. (that’s not a bad thing in and of itself…that’s what any good industry does) This is why things are labled, this is why subcultures are created, this is why there is no artistic variety on Christian radio, etc. To be quite honest, this is why the industry looks exactly like the world. This isn’t an argument saying that artists shouldn’t be paid or make a living through their vocation of making art, but it is an observation that the Church and an Industry (even one run by Christians) aren’t the same thing and their goals are different.

I don’t have the solution but I greatly enjoy the discussion. These are good things to think on and talk about. 😉

Bobby Gilles May 25, 2012 at 3:04 pm

Yeah, I think it’s crucial that music for worship comes from local churches. Good thoughts Rich!

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