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Christian Music

Christians have always used music to express their feelings, ideals and dreams with the world. Contemporary Christian music, abbreviated CCM, modern music used to show what Jesus means to the artist, is a booming 750 million dollar business (USA Today). CCM encompasses techno, rock, rap, alternative, death metal, country, dance, pop, punk, hip-hop, jazz and grunge (Lawson). How did Contemporary Christian music begin and how has it progressed? Before the 1970s Christian music could fit into three genres: Traditional Hymns, Black Gospel and Southern Gospel.

In the 50s Rock and Roll became very popular with the youth of America and England. Larry Norman combined rock and roll with Christian lyrics in 1956 and is now known as "the father of Christian rock." Elvis Presley arrived on the music scene and preachers "raged from the pulpit that rock music was from the Devil and could never be used by God" (Larry Norman (Part 1-2)). Norman knew that rock and roll evolved from the black gospel of American slaves and that God could use anything. He continued to make music for the 60s generation. He signed with the "secular" Capitol Records in 1966 and released three albums.

The Peace Movement of the 60s spawned the Jesus Movement, a Christian revival of American young people. Many of these "Jesus People" found the traditional styles too "restrictive and out-dated." They created music that would appeal to their generation but kept the Christian theme. These new styles would soon be called Contemporary Christian music to distinguish it from the traditional styles. CCM artists began to appear (Lawson). Phil Keaggy, a guitarist and singer, started his Christian rock career in 1970 with the album Glass Harp. His unique style has helped him stay popular since then. He writes many of his songs and has performed with many other artists on their albums.

Chuck Girard and four friends formed the band Love Song. They became the first group to play rock with a Christian context. After three years, Love Song broke up and Girard has made many solo albums since then. His first album was self titled and had his most popular song, "Sometimes Alleluia", on it. (Girard) A trio named 2nd Chapter of Acts began recording in 1973. Their first two songs started a 15 year blossoming career. They made their first complete album in 1974. Entitled ...with footnotes , it had a few songs that became hits.

In the early 70s, Bob Carlisle, Randy Thomas and Sam Scott performed in a small band called Psalm 150. Thomas joined the Sweet Comfort Band with Bryan Duncan. Carlisle worked with another small band, Good News, during that time.

Bob Hartman played with several small bands in the 70s before founding Petra, Greek for "rock". They put out a self-titled album in 1974. It explored an "interesting" variety of styles and was heavily influenced by country music. In 1977 their sophomore release, Come and Join Us, came out containing songs that have become classics (Christian Music Online). Greg X. Volz joined the group on that album and his lead vocals helped to make the group famous (Jaakkimainen).

Larry Norman's third record, Upon This Rock, was rejected by most Christian retailers for two years and Only Visiting This Planet could not be found in them for six. In Another Land , released in 1975, was successful in the Christian market so Norman created The Compleate Trilogy which contained Only Visiting This Planet , So Long Ago The Garden, In Another Land and a book that told of his career. MGM Records told him that "the gospel community wasn't ready for his previous two albums." When he left MGM Records, Norman started his own record label with which he produced albums for several artists that were quite successful (Larry Norman (Part 1-2)).

Amy Grant began her career in 1977 with a self-titled album. She was only 16 when it was recorded and she would soon be on her way to innumerable awards (Christian Music Online).

Carman Domenic Licciardello, a.k.a. Carman, started performing Christian music in the late 70s after performing in clubs for years. He had learned many styles of music while playing clubs till he went to an Andrae Crouch and the Disciples concert. He became a Christian that night. Carman decided to use his immense musical knowledge for Jesus. "Each song starts off with a message. I have to figure out what the Lord wants me to say with this song, and then I have to figure outwhat the best style is that would be most effective. Except for speed metal. I just can't play that fast!" (Release)

In 1982, White Heart, a hard rock band, was formed by Mark Gersmehl and Billy Smiley. Steve Green was the lead vocalist till 1985 when he started a solo career. White Heart's classic rock sound was published on three albums by Word Records before they joined the Star Song Communications Group (Christian Music Online).

The 77's, one of the first Christian bands to be labeled alternative, began recording in the early eighties. They have continued to be trend setters "without being trendy" because their deep, dark lyrics are hard to place in any category other than "underground." Because of this, very few people have heard them (Christian Music Online).

Sandi Patty has sung Christian pop since the early eighties. Since that Fourth of July night in 1986 when Sandi Patty's rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner" caused the phone lines to jam at ABC News, Sandi has become one of the nation's best loved performers. During her career she has recieved "33 Dove awards and five Grammy awards, [and] three platinum and five gold albums" (Christian Music Online).

Sparrow Records took Steve Taylor under its wing in 1982 and his first album, I Want to be a Clone, was released the next year. His songs feature lyrics that are easily misunderstood. For example, in "I Blew up the Clinic Real Good" listeners didn't hear "the flashing neon lyric in the middle of the song that says, 'The end don't justify the means anytime.' What better example to use than a clinic bomber?" Taylor meant for the song to be a satire that would convince people that being so rash is wrong (Taylor).

Amy Grant's keyboardist, Michael W.Smith recorded the Michael W. Smith Project in 1983. His pop sound is as unique as Grant's. He first recorded "Friends" early in his career and it has reappeared several times because his audiences love it (The Difinitive Michael W. Smith Pages). Bob Carlisle, Randy Thomas and Sam Scott founded the Allies in 1985 succeeding the Sweet Comfort Band. They signed with Light Records and put out a self-titled album (Jaakkimainen).

Hard rock group Guardian started recording in 1985 with Enigma/Capitol Records. After the first album they decided to sign with a small Christian company, Pakaderm, and created the popular Fire and Love. Four months later, Enigma filed bankruptcy (Christian Music Online).

Petra changed lead singers in 1986 and this new sound from John Schlitt caused the band to increase in popularity. Schlitt's stage performance has brought many return concert goers). Soldiers for Christ, or S.F.C., was one of the first Christian rap groups. It was founded by Chris Cooper in 1987. In the beginning, the Dynamic Twins worked with Cooper until they decided to seperate from S.F.C.

D.O.C., Disciples of Christ, started performing in 1987 and when they became Christians they decided to continue their music. Their music style is called funk, a mixture of rap, hip-hop, and rhythm and blues. They first appeared in the CCM market on a sampler of rap artists put out by Star Song. That sampler "dropped" the proverbial "bomb" and has led to three albums so far. On the second one they performed a song with heavy metal band Bride (Christian Music Online).

Another rock band showed up in 1988. This one though had something special, Australian members and the accent to go with it. The Newsboys came to the top of the charts in 1992 with Not Ashamed. It's gotten to be old news over the past few years; the Newsboys release a new project, it wins awards, sells a ton of records, they tour before a couple million people, they appear on the covers of magazines and on national TV. Ho hum. Of course, if it's a formula, most bands in America want the recipe.

Christian comedian Mark Lowry got a big career boost in 1988 when he met Bill Gaither. Gaither let him join the southern gospel Gaither Vocal Band which allowed him to get started in the music business. Soon afterward he began combining his comedy with his music. He has made parodys of very popular Christian songs like Michael W. Smith's "Place in this World". His parody, "Face in this World", discusses getting plastic surgery. In the video, Lowry ends up getting Smith's face. He combines these parodies with other comical songs and skits on each album (Christian Music Online).

Toby McKeehan and Michael Tait formed DC Talk in 1989 and Kevin Smith joined them soon afterwards. They founded the group in Washington D.C. and the name was a reference to the city but Forefront Communications suggested that they say the DC stands for "decent Christian" Talk. Thus was born the foremost Christian rap group by mixing rap (McKeehan), rock (Smith) and soul (Tait). (USA Today)


Also in 1989, Mark Mohr founded a Christian reggae band called Christafari . Gotee Recods recently grabbed them up. Their first album, Soul Fire, has "climbed to the upper reaches of the charts." Their special brand of reggae has grabbed the attention of many radio listeners with singles from that album (NetCentral).

Amy Grant's "crossover" album, Heart in Motion, was a major success in Christian and "secular" music stores. It was nominated for album of the year. The hit video, "Baby Baby" was nominated for at the MTV Awards. She has won 17 Dove awards, four of which were "Artist of the Year" awards (Christian Music Online).

Generally, Contempoary Christian music has kept up with the popular music styles. Today, there are artists for every genre. Punk rock by Magnified Plaid, techno by the World Wide Message Tribe, gangsta rap by the Gospel Gangstas, alternative by Jars of Clay and country by Midsouth are being played in Christians' houses and cars. CCM now has its own section in record stores, magazines specific to it and is a presence on the Internet.

Instrumentation is a critical issue for many of our churches today. For instance, the Digest of Regulations and Rubrics of Catholic Church Music written in 1961 states that, "The use of the piano is forbidden in church as also that of all more or less noisy instruments, such as drums of any kind, cymbals, bells, and so on." While many churches today accept the piano as a suitable instrument, percussive instruments are often excluded from worship. Similarly electric guitars and saxophones bear the stigma of popular culture and they are seldom found except in the most "progressive" denominations.

The success of Christian artists with both religious and crossover hits in the recording industry highlights issues of musical style and lyrics. Pastors and priests, families and churches struggle to discern the hazy demarcation between unsuitable secular music and music that is appropriate for private listening or for church services. Some churches have purged all traces of popular music, while others, however, appear to embrace it by singing secular tunes recast with Christian lyrics. The reuse of secular melodies bears a similarity to the contrafacta of Luther's time. Some may view a style of rock music or heavy metal appropriate so long as the lyrics are Christian in nature, yet others would consider this music a mockery of Christianity.

Last of all the "good fruit" criteria is commonly employed by some Christians to determine appropriate music. The good fruit criteria is based upon biblical passages such as Matthew 7:17-20 and James 3:9-13 that state that only good fruit can come from good trees and fresh water from a good spring. Proponents of this criteria assert that the product of the music, such as conversions to Christ or a more fervent religious life in a listening believer, provide evidence of the music’s suitability. Since the result of the music is good, the music itself must be good. They may also assert that only Christians are able to produce Christian music.

Our overview of Christian musical history and our brief assessment of music in American churches today clearly does not reach consensus on all four criteria of instrumentation, style, text, or good fruit. Acceptable instrumentation differs from church to church and styles of music greatly vary. The good fruit criteria is problematic, for some music may benefit one Christian yet harm another. Thus, the music could be said to bear both good and bad fruit. For the most part Christians have agreed only on the criteria of text: words should be biblically based or in accord with Christian doctrine and theology.

Upon examining the musical choices of Christian churches today and in the past, a skeptic might convincingly assert that apart from text there is no element or elements that make certain music distinctly "Christian." The criteria by which Christians have chosen music is ambiguous at best and sometimes even contradictory. Yet I and perhaps others are not comfortable with the conclusion that the only "Christian" element in music is the text. Surely we experience other Christian elements in music.

Our difficulty with determining which music is or isn’t Christian results from the assumption that Christian music (apart from text) contains musical-spiritual encryption that is absent in non-Christian music. This is similar to asserting that Christian food contains dietary or spiritual supplements different from non-Christian food. The essence of the Christian experience resides not with the musical object (a song, a recording, a rhythmic pattern, an instrument, etc.) or cuisine, but rather with our interaction with and our attitudes towards music.

Christian Music News
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