I have a confession; my contemporary Christian music library is huge. Christian pop, rock and worship can all be found in abundance in our apartment. Why is it a confession for a pastor to admit that he listens to contemporary Christian music? I’m not sure.
Probably it has to do with the many times in university and currently that I have heard my contemporaries bashing what I know and love. I hear people saying contemporary Christian music is shallow, boring, and individualistic, and I hear people questioning its purpose.
Given my experience with a wide swath of the genre over the past twelve years I feel like I have something to say about this.
In this blog I would like to outline what has been my experience and struggle with Contemporary Christian music. In several follow up blogs I will highlight certain artists or albums that are worth checking out even for CCM’s harshest critics.
Before I get much further it might be appropriate to define what Contemporary Christian music is. Like most genres it is quite ambiguous, however, it usually is made up of artists in the pop, rock and worship genres of Christian music. Based out of Tennessee the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry is represented by such artists as Casting Crowns, Steven Curtis Chapman, David Crowder Band, Amy Grant, Jars of Clay, MercyMe, Newsboys, Michael W. Smith, Rebecca St. James, Third Day, TobyMac, and many more. To give any more of a definition would only make it more confusing.
My first response to those who have said that much of Christian music is shallow, boring, and individualistic is that they are in many ways quite correct. In terms of shallowness there are many artists with multiple albums who have done little to no exploring in terms of faith issues and life issues. Many are mired in the trap of producing worship albums with little substance. They are theologically shallow.
What about boring? I think a good deal of CCM is boring and that the artists lack talent, however, I also feel this way for mainstream music. Several years ago there used to be charts in Christian books stores such as Hulls or Blessings that compared Christian artists to secular artists of like sound. As you can imagine this chart was less than helpful. Not only did it not make sense (Toby Mac =Eminem???) but the comparison made it seem as if Christian music was just a poor Christian imitation of the secular. No wonder it is seen as boring, the two should not be compared. Yet despite these charts and comparisons, I have found many artists to be anything but boring. More on that later.
What about individualistic? One of the biggest faults of contemporary Christian music is its focus on the individual in worship. Yet not all groups have fallen prey. Jars of Clay, as one example, has consistently steered clear of this pitfall since their debut in the mid 1990’s.
In summary, most criticisms of contemporary Christian music have been made for a reason, but don’t just paint them all with the same brush yet.
Who is it for?
This is a great question to be asking of any music you are listening to. To be honest I believe that contemporary Christian music is for Christians and Christians only. I think we fool ourselves if we believe that it is acting as a ministry to non-Christians. Non-Christians are not likely to turn on the local Christian radio station and hear the music as life giving in a way that they are searching for. Often the language used and the style in which it is presented prevents it from reaching a non-Christian audience. One Christian group that has broken this barrier is California based Switchfoot. Switchfoot has the unique ability to reach both Christian and non-Christians with its lyrics and its style. How they do that is hard to explain – you will have to listen to find out.
What is its Purpose?
Another way of asking this would be “why listen?” I believe that the purpose of Contemporary Christian music is threefold.
1)Contemporary Christian music provides an avenue to worshipping God as a body of believers. Much like hymns create avenues to praising God for many mainline congregations so too can contemporary Christian music create spaces of communal praise. It should be noted that not everyone finds this contemporary music worshipful, yet the same could be said for hymns and for Christian hard-core music.
2)A second purpose is to inspire believers to ask questions of their own faith and life. Music is one of the paths in which hard, faith shaking questions can be asked. When artists show that they are wrestling with their faith it comes through clearly in their music. It also becomes extremely obvious when artists are no longer wrestling. Sadly this has been all to frequent in the contemporary Christian music world.
3)A third purpose is to uplift the individual. Full of affirming messages and scriptural reminders of God’s love, contemporary Christian music is particularly adept at comforting and encouraging. This is even more true when the music remains theologically challenging.
Why do I listen?
Many of the amazing worshipful moments I have had in my life have come when I am surrounded by a group of people who are all worshipping together to a contemporary worship song that we all know. I love and will always love hymns, but where hymns often wrench at my mind, contemporary Christian music wrenches my soul.
I also listen to worship on my own. This type of music can help facilitate my prayer time at home or help me make use of my time while waiting in traffic.
Finally, I listen because I like what I am hearing. The artists that most speak to me are gifted vocally, musically and lyrically and they challenge me in places where I would not otherwise be challenged.
If you have been a critic of contemporary Christian music or have been largely ambivalent I would encourage you to go out and try to find an artist who challenges you, inspires you and musically excites you (Or wait for my next post). If you still can’t find a reason to listen then that is okay too. To each their own.
On the other hand if you are a fan of contemporary Christian rock, pop, worship, gospel, hardcore or whatever, I encourage you to look, or listen rather, to what you are being told. Does it challenge you in your faith? Does it make you ask questions? What about theologically –does the message match what we read in scripture?
I look forward to reviewing several different albums. I would be interested in hearing your responses, no matter where you stand.
Until next time,