Mainline Protestant Channel
The New Path of Christian Music
Given the rise of emergent Christianity and other progressive (or perhaps culture-savvy) forms of faith, we now live in a world inhabited by persons who might value some of the social platforms once championed by the Right, but remain attuned to the nuances of pluralism. As a result, popular musical expressions of traditional Christianity are now nestled within broader contexts—or at least encapsulated in metaphor. Many who previously led the culture war now view life as far more complex than simple dichotomies. One result was the rise of newer forms of Christian rock during the 1990s.
While CCM of the '90s remained overtly Christian, many expressions adopted ambiguity and hints of holism. These artists employed lyrical metaphor and sought cultural relevance and authenticity—a nod to the rise of postmodern evangelical culture. While some enjoyed crossover success, others questioned the new model, citing the Gospel Music Association's definition of Christian music: one that clearly connected lyrics to a biblical worldview.
Bands like Holy Soldier and Bloodgood were replaced by a new breed of culture-savvy evangelicals who highlighted brokenness and mercy over spiritual warfare. Groups such as Jars of Clay and Sixpence None the Richer, as well as worship songs emphasizing meekness, brought a new era of kinder, gentler culture warriors. This integrational model of CCM best typifies those who seek to transform culture with a sort of obvious ambiguity. Put another way, while groups such as Jars of Clay are far from the "Jesus is returning soon" approach of the 1970s and '80s CCM, they are, nevertheless, unabashedly evangelical in their message.
But there remain the separational artists who try to avoid sullying their ministries by using the tools of mainstream culture (although separational artists are largely distributed by record companies owned by corporate monoliths). These musicians remain entrenched in a cause, one that is (at times) sutured to the twin towers of Christian evangelism and Christian nationalism. But this genre is shrinking, according to evangelical author and producer Charlie Peacock. Its demographic remains church youth groups and middle-aged evangelical parents.
Many young Christian musicians now avoid being pigeonholed by the CCM category. As inheritors of the culture war, these are skeptical persons of faith (even if evangelical) who hope to offer their own voice in the midst of millions—though not confined by what is viewed as the trappings of an industry built on false dualism and money.
Transformational artists seek out very different venues, hoping to produce art that is drenched in what they view to be authentically human, reflecting all the complexities and uncertainties of postmodern culture. In so doing, any attempt to transform society is merely incidental to their individual muse.
Certainly there have been general-market musicians who have held and voiced religious belief since the music industry was born; there is no shortage of pop stars thanking God for their respective awards. But these differ greatly from musicians who take religious belief beyond their music, while also remaining distant from religious record labels, Christian or otherwise. Since Bono waged war on poverty (albeit in his own way), the band U2 has become emblematic of what the future may hold for artists hoping to engage society and belief, while also enjoying mainstream success. Even Jars of Clay's previous entrenchment within the CCM industry has not dulled their ability to embrace humanitarian causes, espouse Christian belief, and engage the cultural mainstream.
Shawn David Young is a socio-cultural historian. Having taught in the contemporary Christian music program at Greenville College, Illinois, he developed an interest in the connections between music, religious belief, politics, and the music industry and is now exploring how "postmodern" religion and pluralism have influenced popular faith-based music, the emergent church, and progressive spirituality. Young is a contributing news editor for Religion Compass Exchanges, an online journal from Wiley-Blackwell, and is working with David W. Stowe and Jim Jabara on a documentary film that explores the connections between early Christian rock music, the Religious Right, and the Evangelical Left.