CCM: Contemporary Catholic Music?

My wife is a big fan of contemporary Christian music (CCM), and has listened to it as long as I’ve known her—about 22 years. I’m a fan, too, I suppose, although at a much more “socially acceptable” level than she is. (I just had to say that.) Basically, she introduces me to new songs, albums, and musicians—some of which I wind up enjoying, others not so much.

Our transition from evangelical to Catholic has shed light on the role of music in one’s faith tradition. (It’s also gratefully revealed little that’s distinctively Protestant about most CCM.) For many evangelicals, CCM is a hallmark of their cultural consumption patterns. Sure, there are different tastes and preferences, from the cheesy to the edgy, from the very to the barely (Christian). But one fact seems pretty clear: most performing artists in the CCM world run with evangelicals, so far as I can tell. Very few are Catholic. Why is that?

My best guess at an answer is three-fold. First, CCM’s origins are evangelical, and thus—speaking sociologically—there probably weren’t many “cross-cutting social circles” in its development. That is, when a brand new—or in CCM’s case, a hybrid—cultural form emerges among one group of people, it won’t likely emerge similarly among a different group if social ties between members of the two groups either don’t exist or aren’t strong. So the first part of the answer is rooted in older patterns of sociality; that is, historically evangelicals and Catholics haven’t socially interacted all that much, curbing the likelihood of diffusing cultural forms between them.

This is similar to the reason why country music is a largely Protestant thing as well. If you look at a map of religious affiliation distinctions across the US, Nashville—the CCM and country music capital of the world—is smack in the middle of a very Protestant state (and region). This is probably the primary reason behind the lack of diffusion of CCM.

A second (more interesting) part of my answer/guess is rooted in CCM’s close identification with organized evangelical worship (and hence, paid staff positions). In other words, evangelical performing artists can make a living in evangelical churches—as worship leaders—in a manner that has no parallel (or should I say, no chance) in the Catholic Mass. Just like artists were sponsored by the Church in the Renaissance era, so too are many evangelical singer/songwriters “sponsored” by local congregations. It may not be a great living for most of them—the music industry is not known for lavishing its largesse widely—but it’s a living. In other words, there’s (some) money to be made in the evangelical contemporary music scene, but not so much in the Catholic Church.

When you add to this that there is perhaps 30+ minutes of CCM in some evangelical worship services, and you can plainly see that there’s an economic market for it, both for songs to sing and singers to sing them.

In the Catholic world, it doesn’t appear to work this way. It’s not that contemporary Catholic songwriters don’t exist, or couldn’t be popular. A few enjoy a wide audience, including people like Matt Maher, whose lyrics can be so subtly Catholic that most evangelicals wouldn’t detect the references. (Ironically, he penned “Your Grace is Enough,” a tune popularized by Chris Tomlin). But I’d bet if it wasn’t for crossover appeal (into evangelicalism), homegrown interest might not be sufficient.

Mass, simply put, is scripted far more closely than Protestant worship services, whose worship scripts range quite widely (thus generating far more criteria for church-shopping than in the RC world). There are typically several songs during our Sunday Mass—some of which you could find in mainline Protestant and evangelical churches, but some are unique, too. (I’d be pretty surprised to see “Hail, Holy Queen” in a Baptist church bulletin.) However, I have yet to witness a Mass featuring musicians whose preferred decibel level invites earplugs.

The third reason that contemporary Catholic music is almost an oxymoron, I think, is the more suspicious approach to the meaning of “contemporary” among more-conservative Catholics. While evangelicalism has long been characterized by a strong pragmatic sensibility—one that encourages it to keep in step with contemporary culture in order to evangelize that culture without (it is hoped) being consumed by it—conservative forms of Catholicism are much less pragmatically oriented.

My first lesson in this came at a Sunday Mass I attended years ago with a friend when we were together out of town at an academic conference in Atlanta. (I’ve had the good fortune of attending midweek morning Masses with him in a variety of locations; some of those Mass experiences were impressive, others not so much, but I have learned that my subjective experience of it was not the point. Anyways, I digress.) As we sat in the pew in Atlanta, a modest praise-and-worship band kicked in, and I leaned over to my friend and said something like, “Hey, would you look at that!” He, to my surprise, was unimpressed. After Mass ended, my pal clued me in about how praise-and-worship bands tend to signal something quite different in Catholicism than they do in evangelicalism. They are, to put it simply, more apt than not to be an indicator (but not a cause) of modernist tendencies within the parish. Developing the habit of imitating contemporary culture, in this line of thought, won’t likely stop with just the music. (This is also a criticism I’ve heard some Catholics level against evangelicalism, which they claim is a product of modernity and thus destined—over the long run—to be consumed by it.)

Simple question, long answer. But that’s my best guess at why CCM is and will likely remain a distinctively evangelical thing. Being a newbie, it’s somewhat arrogant of me to claim I understand why Catholics do this or that. So this is only one person’s observation—I’ve probably missed some other reasons. Have I?

  • http://www.margaritamooney.com/ Margarita Mooney

    Mark,

    Another reason is quite simply that many Catholics who are interested in music are drawn to the traditions of sacred music, such as Gregorian chant or classical music (Handel, Bach, etc.) In other words, many Catholic musicians in the U.S. simply prefer forms of music other than contemporary. To read a bit about sacred music in the Catholic tradition, see

    http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_instr_19670305_musicam-sacram_en.html

    That said, contemporary music is not always an indicator of just one theological tendency. Franciscan University of Stuebenville is arguably a hotbed of orthodox Catholicism among faculty (like Scott Hahn) and their daily Masses are full of young people playing and singing Charismatic praise and worship music.

    Margarita

  • TAH

    I will say that CCM does often have a place within Catholic groups aimed at youth. LifeTeen masses may utilize such music, and I know that some Newman centers have a weekly praise-and-worship time (in addition to daily Mass) that also uses CCM. To me, when I hear a Catholic parish using CCM instead of contemporary Catholic music, my assumption is that that mass is being aimed at young people: in my own parish, the mass that uses praise and worship music is also the one that includes a children’s liturgy during the Liturgy of the Word. Personally, I prefer the other masses at that parish, which may feature a mixture of older hymns and more recent (70s – 2000s) Catholic music, but I don’t take the use of CCM as a sign of modernism.

  • http://uneasyhomeschooler.wordpress.com/ Sherri K. Edman

    My guess is that the difference parallels education. As a Protestant (reared Baptist, currently Anglican) who went to a Baptist college and a Catholic graduate school, I can tell you that in my experience, Protestants spend a LOT of time and energy reflecting on how to do excellent education as Christians. Catholics just do it, and generally far surpass their Protestant counterparts in terms of the quality of education offered at their schools.

    I speculate that the roots are theological: Catholics have a grasp on an incarnational life that we Protestants have only begun to recover. Protestants view themselves as other than the world, and struggle with how to understand and engage it. Catholics have a much more robust understanding of the fact that God’s kingdom and plan for redemption includes the whole of creation. So when Protestants make music, they feel they have to Christianize it somehow, whereas from a Catholic perspective, any good music is *good.*

  • LM

    Boy, do I get this. As a musician and cradle Catholic who left the faith who then found the faith through Evengelicals who then went back to the faith because of the Eucharist (whew!) this speaks volumes. And so do the comments above, thank you very much.

    So many years I have felt “I must be nuts for trying to make cross-over Christian music and be Catholic”. The two have NOT been an easy synchronization for me at all. You feel like an oddball on every level–the Catholics who don’t know what you’re doing trying to mix faith and “regular music”, to the former Protestant friends who think you’re strange for ever going back to the Catholic Church, to the radio DJs who don’t know where to put your music, to the CCM DJs who want nothing to do with you because you’re Catholic (aka, “sign this statement saying you believe in scripture only”).

    After all this, I can only say one thing: purification. The songs (hopefully) get more true and the artistic journey gets more interesting. No one said it would ever be easy, and we may NEVER see the fruit of our work here on earth, but only in Heaven. Tell that to the average self-centered it’s-all-about-me-and-my-gift musician, and they’ll go running to the more fruitful hills of any style other than CCM. I know, I’ve thought all these things, and strayed to more culturally acceptable forms of folk–but it didn’t work. It just didn’t sit right in my soul, and THAT is what it’s all about, ultimately, if you are a true artist.

    So the journey continues and what an interesting ride it has been…thanks for sharing your observations!

  • Sparki

    I must agree that when I’m in a Catholic church, a CCM-style praise and worship band is usually the harbinger of bad theology and liturgical abuses. I always prefer a choir, chant or no music at all to modern worship at Mass.

    Here’s one more dirty little secret. The CCM folks just don’t like Catholics. When my husband and I were still evangelicals, he wrote a song titled, “Absolution.” This was emphatically rejected by a CCM label as being “too Catholic.” A couple years later, after we finally swam the Tiber, most of our CCM friends looked upon us with horror. A lot of them haven’t spoken to us since. In the 8 years that have past, only one of the producers he worked with as an evangelical has asked him to do session work or engineering on any album, and only a handful of artists have asked him to either play, engineer or produce — one of which took their project away midstream when they found out we had coverted, and another group that seemed to have hired my husband specifically to evangelize him and get him back in the “right” kind of Christianity.

    Between CCM drying up his studio and basically nothing available in Catholic circles, my husband has changed careers. He’s now teaching 7th and 8th grade at a Catholic school. Ironically, they didn’t have anybody to play the organ for the daily school Masses, so he leads the songs…on guitar, CCM style.

    • Mark Regnerus

      I worry that this is the case, yes. Frankly, I love debate, and feel there’s far too little of it among evangelicals and Catholics. Is important stuff we’re wrestling over.

      Glad to hear he landed on his feet.

  • Daniel Clark

    Mark,

    It may be interesting to compare with Brazil where Contemporary Catholic Music is very popular and one priest, Marcelo Rossi, is one of the top selling artists in the country.

    • http://www.measpatiumsacrum.com Geoff

      I am a cradle Catholic and left as well, for more fertile grounds but have found myself back as a Catholic. Daniel has mentioned Fr. Marcello Rossi from Brazil, and his music is contemporary but I feel that Fr. Rossi’s tunes are just a step above the traditional; very upbeat and almost pop-like. When I listened I didn’t feel that emotional component so prevalent in CCM. Be that as it may, there is a place for CCM in the Catholic Church. While it may not be during the Mass, there could be an adjunct service,i.e. a Catholic praise and worship service. I’ve always gotten on the Catholic Church, especially the parishioners for being a bit too gloomy; serious is OK but gloomy, no. At 53, I still want to rock the CCM and with this New Evangelization, I think its a great tool to reach the “masses” so to speak. Just my thoughts. Thanks!

  • http://www.bobmetivier.com Bob Metivier

    Wow, great article, and great comments. I hope that this brings an entire open conversation to bear upon this subject. I’m one of the few contemporary Catholic musicians who does get to be full-time. How I do it is a little different. I’m the Director of Music at what most would say is a “conservative” parish, and I cantor and direct traditional hymns and some chant. With my other hat, as music teacher in the school, we do a para-liturgical event called EXALT and use all CCM music for that. I also compose and record in these various genres, from chant to CCM. So, it’s an interesting mix. I firmly believe that we need both in the Catholic Church if we are going to reach everyone. It’s not one size fits all, even if it would be convenient. I also think that Steubenville shows us one orthodox way to bring in CCM from a charismatic tradition. The comment about incarnational spirituality is really something to explore, as well as respect for our differences, caused by gender, age, sentiment, or life conditioning and history.

  • Mark Regnerus

    Thanks for the all the fine thoughts, folks. Just as I had hoped–to hear from people with a variety of experiences.

  • Rob

    Mark,

    You hit the nail on the head. Being a music minister for years and trying sort out why its so difficult for Catholic artists and Catholic music to be accepted by more mainstream outlets (KLOVE for example) or even just the Church, I had come to many of the same conclusions you stated, but you stated them far more concisely than I ever could have.

    I think its the points you mentioned about geography, paid positions, and caution around modernism – all three equally – that make the journey of a Catholic musician very difficult. That being said, one thing I came to terms with years ago was that music ministry in the Catholic church – because it is most often strictly volunteer does keep it fully a ministry. Its not generally part of a staff position, its not extra money, or something you can do so you can tour in the summer – it is fully a ministry that you devote time and energy without reward – all to lead people closer to God. To me, it is the true definition of ministry.

    I have often thought that maybe another me, a few years younger and raised another denomination, probably would have pursued a CCM career full-time. Being Catholic didn’t prevent it from happening, in fact it forced me to evaluate which was more important – my Catholic faith or CCM (and churches and denominations that supported musicians). I chose my faith with no regrets but it was not always an easy process. I think that’s my one concern – since its SO difficult for Catholic musicians to go a full-time musician route, that we might lose good Catholic musicians to Protestant denominations who cater to young, strong, Christian musicians instead of embracing those musicians and helping them to understand their place in music ministry and the church.

    Great post.

  • Alan K

    Hi Mark,

    Hope all is well for you guys in Austin. Theology has a lot to do with CCM being largely an evangelical phenomenon. It does not take long to notice that the forms and styles that are offered up in CCM worship are largely borrowed from the world around it. In short, evangelicalism has significant liberal underpinnings–but with more fervor and commitment. Like liberalism, evangelicalism wants to receive endorsement from the culture at large. Hence, an offering of music that is cool and hip.

    • Mark Regnerus

      Hi Alan–always good to hear from you. That makes sense. A pragmatic sensibility has some marketing advantages, but can ultimately cost in other ways.

  • Cynthia

    I write from the view of a Christian, professional chorister, and music scholar. I’ve worked for (as a paid musician) most denominations except Baptist, including Catholic and Anglican. I have been paid to sing solemn sung masses, as well as hired to design a weekly contemporary service. As a member at “Bible” churches, I’ve participated in worship teams and led worship in small-group settings.

    Fascinating discussion!

    Another point of difference between protestant and Catholic congregations I’ve encountered over the years is that protestants are more willing to sing. (I cantored for my Methodist cousin’s wedding mass to a Catholic. The Methodists would have sung if they’d known what to sing; the Catholics knew what to sing, but wouldn’t!)

    Does this ring true to anyone else?

    I think musical choice is related to tradition: what is a congregation’s tradition? With what style(s) of music are members most familiar?

    In protestant churches, the “grandparent generation” tends to know hymns, the baby boomers hymns and 70s-80s CCM, and the GenXers more recent CCM.
    I’m over generalizing, to be sure, but this has been my experience.
    When my parents were asked in their 60′s to help plant a new church, they did so enthusiastically. After a year, they returned to their “traditional” downtown church and familiar music, not comfortable with the contemporary worship style. As a member of an evangelical congregation in SC 10-15 years ago, I learned the recent CCM repertoire: the pastor and worship leaders were all in their late 20s.

    As for the divide between Catholic and evangelical musicians … sadly, I sense that evangelicals do not believe Catholics are Christians. I’ve heard that voiced by evangelical laypersons interviewed on NPR, as well as by skeptical evangelical pastors. How this must break God’s heart.

  • Mike Liversidge

    I am a cantor/music director/worship leader or whatever you want to call me in a small Catholic parish. As a child I knew the Mass with contemporary music: Ray Repp’s “I Am The Resurrection” , Andre Crouch’s “Jesus Is The Answer”, music from GODSPELL, the Catholic publishers, North American Liturgy Resources contemporary hymnal GLORY AND PRAISE, southern Gospel classics like “I Saw The Light”. This was the music my mother gravitated toward after Vatican 2 and she thought it was a breath of fresh air. I understand why; people who engaged in this style of worship recognized that without love, you were just a clanging symbol. Not that traditionalists are without love, but it can be a lot less obvious when people are stoic, serious and, well kinda stuffy. This experience has shaped what I do at Mass. I’ve learned to appreciate and incorporate some of the traditional material like Panis Angelicus and Ave Maria, and I have found arrangements of Tantum Ergo and O Salutaris Hostia by the aforementioned Matt Maher and Tom Booth that combine the old and new effectively. But the Holy Spirit knows no limit on time or denomination and I will continue to use songs that underscore the readings of the day, celebrate the miracle of the Eucharist and honor our Lord and Savior, regardless of when or by whom they were written; that will include songs by Chris Tomlin and Amy Grant. Hey, people at my parish do sing along. I do make part of my living from the Church and I am still hopeful that I will succeed at some point in getting some songs published like Matt and Tom, Sarah Hart(Better Than A Hallelujah), Curtis Stephan and other names of professional Catholic artists I find in my Breaking Bread Catholic hymnal. I find all the discord in the Catholic Church over which music is the right music to be a waste of everyone’s time and takes people further away from the love of God and the real Presence in the bread and the cup, not closer to it.

  • coloradosprings

    I agree with what you have said but would add that the Catholic “Folk Mass,” with guitars, harmonious upbeat singing, other instruments, and even percussion, was discouraged by the Vatican, and a dreary organ and cantor format was encouraged. You seldom see real choirs anymore either. The liturgical and charimatic renewal encouraged great Catholic music. Alas, it is over. A new renewal is needed. There is no shortage of great Catholic music written. The available recordings of it tend to be poorly done and expensive, and live and lively singing during the Mass is almost discouraged.


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