Christian Music…Why Does It Suck? What Can Be Done?

What does it mean to make music with purpose or inspiration in this day in age? On one hand, it can be argued that everyone who makes music is inspired toward some sort of purpose. But specifically, what does it mean for Christians to make music in today’s culture? And what on earth is “Christian music” anyway? And how does it differ from any other kind of music that tries to tell an honest story? And is saying you only listen to Christian music the same thing as saying you only use Christian toilet paper?

How can today’s world listen to music that encourages them to get to know the counter-cultural person of Jesus when all they hear from Christian-based media are cheesy, regurgitated catch phrases? When it comes to music as an encouraging, sympathizing, and teaching tool, singer/songwriter, Derek Webb says, “A lot of what I see coming out of the church in terms of Christian music unfortunately deals in probably the most spiritual 2 percent of life and culture. And yet, the Bible gives us a framework and a language to deal with all 100 percent of stuff that we come up against in life. So it’s no wonder when people look at the art that comes out of the church in Christian music on the whole, that they see Christianity as this one-dimensional, irrelevant worldview to modern life that only deals with transcendent moments of worship and the afterlife.”

Despite much of Christian music’s apparent lack of depth, the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry is continuing to thrive financially. Can it really be considered a coincidence that most CCM artists tend to churn out the same soft, fluffy messages? This, of course begs the question of whether or not the monetary motives of the CCM are no different than those of the standard mainstream record industry. If American Christians are eating up what the CCM is putting out, why would it fix what isn’t broken?

In a 2003 episode of South Park entitled “Christian Rock Hard,” eight-year-old Eric Cartman, upon realizing the potential for financial gain, and the ease in which Christian music can be crafted, decides to start a Christian rock band with two other kids from school. Cartman explains that “it’s the easiest, crappiest music in the world…all we have to do to make Christian songs is take regular old songs and add Jesus stuff to them…cross out words like ‘baby’ and ‘darling’ and replace them with ‘Jesus’.” (Spoiler alert!) Cartman’s band, Faith+1, goes on to sell a million copies of its first album, thereby achieving the fictitious “myrrh” status. Some may say that South Park shouldn’t be taken seriously as an indicator of social relevancy, but when most of today’s popular Christian songs make Jesus sound like our boyfriend, TV shows like this make a strong statement.

Christian rock music today includes little mention of loving and serving the poor, reconciling with enemies, being a presence in rough neighborhoods, sexuality, dealing with really difficult temptations, or even funny life situations (exception: Reliant K did a pretty sick version of “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything”). When these bands play live, their sets usually include tons of catchy songs full of clichéd lyrics followed by mushy, emotionally-charged “altar calls.” I’m not saying altar calls haven’t changed the lives of a certain contingent of the population. But all that these bands usually end up accomplishing is convincing a bunch of 12-16 year-olds to stand up at their seats, or at the very least, raise their hands when presented with the (often times vaguely-explained) challenge to “accept Jesus.” As these kids grow up and face real-life problems, it’s unlikely they’re going to turn to songs that simply tell them to ask Jesus to “wrap me in your arms.” If music truly is the universal language of the world, then this sort of production just isn’t going to cut it.

Music plays a huge part in shaping our culture, and vice versa. There is much that can be gained by listening, enjoying, and taking note of what today’s mainstream and indie musicians are saying in their lyrics and then responding accordingly in ways that build up Christ’s kingdom on earth. What would it look like if more people started being “musicians who are Christians rather than cookie-cutter “Christian musicians?” What would it look like if Christians ripped down the sacred/secular divide and took notice of what so many artists around us are screaming about regarding the messed up state of our culture? We’ve fallen a long way from the days of Larry Norman, one of Christian music’s pioneers, who wasn’t afraid to perform songs that dealt with social issues, politics, spiritual warfare, and hypocrisy. Thankfully, a handful of scattered independent artists are beginning to take up Norman’s mantle and continue this radical, cross-cultural movement. But until the CCM decides that it loves money less than producing positive spiritual change in the world, we’ve still got a long way to go.

Alan Atchison is the Co-Editor of Geek Goes Rogue. He is an Online Editor at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is also pursuing a Masters of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing. He is currently writing a novel titled Hitting for the Cycle, a baseball-infused story about a couple’s journey toward parenthood amidst infertility. He lives with his wife and daughter in Philadelphia, PA.

About Alan Atchison

Alan Atchison is Co-Editor of The Rogue. He is the author of the forthcoming novel, Hitting for the Cycle, and is represented by Jo Schaffer of Gateway Literary. He is an Online Editor at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is also pursuing a Masters of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing. He lives with his wife and daughter in Philadelphia, PA.

  • Robert Blake

    I’d say you have a lot to learn about Christian music. And why is this genre critiqued when modern pop uses formulas as well and has done so for a long time without the same criticism. How I view it is, not all Christian music seems to fit what I enjoy listening to, but there is a lot of it that is true work of inspiration and art. That is the same with the secular world, a lot of bad music made with formulas to earn money and some really great stuff.
    Additionally, you are seeing in the modern music scene less dependance on large record labels to get sales. A lot of music is produced in house or in smaller studios. That allows for more creativity and freedom to make music outside of formulas and high sales expectations. I know of many excellent artists who are Christian and not making music in formulas. I could list them, but then it is just about who I enjoy.
    Finally, some people need different types of music. Who are we to judge? If someone is encouraged and inspired by music I am not, who am I to put a wet blanket on it? I look at my listening habits and sometimes the stuff that seems the least inspired musically has a lot to say to my heart. I am not one that is able to stop the Spirit in how or where it works.
    I also think you probably need to expand who you listen to. Just yesterday morning at the gym I listened to a Hip Hop artist talk about some pretty serious issues of sexual sin. It was actually encouraging to hear, it was very upfront.
    I think if you look around a little more, the stereotype no longer fits as much as you think. Christian Music has come a long way from where it began. And Larry Norman for all his progress, had a lot of faults and used formula’s to sell as well. He had an image he portrayed and stuck with, sometimes acted to keep people buying his stuff.

    • Alan Atchison

      Thank you for your response and I appreciate your perspective. I think you may be jumping to some unfair conclusions about me personally with regards to your belief that I need to learn about what Christian music is and expand who I listen to. I spoke nothing of Christian hardcore or hip hop, both of which I respect and enjoy. In fact, one of my close friends is in a Christian hardcore band and I love the passion, energy, and lyrical content presented in that genre of music: the kind that tends to cut to the core of human brokenness. Hip Hop does a lot of the same. The reality though is, the Christian rock scene leaves much to be desired, as I described. And there has been, for some time, a very unfortunate cookie-cutter formula for rock bands who choose to sign with various Christian labels. Play four-chord melodies, alternate lyrics about “seeking his face” and being his “hands and feet” and you’ve got yourself an album. Maybe even an arena full of screaming teens. Sometimes it works; Casting Crowns has a few powerful songs in its vast catalog, so does, say, Michael W. Smith. But there’s a lot more bathwater than baby over all. Sure, anyone can listen to whatever they want, and of course, the Spirit can more through whatever means he chooses, but that doesn’t mean recycling garbage is a good idea…except in the event one is literally recycling garbage, then yes, very good idea. Thanks again for commenting!

  • Guest

    First of all, I really do like listening to Christian music sometimes. (Usually when I’m driving with the kids in the car.) It usually does provide the intended effect of putting a positive and uplifting spin on my day. That said, when I’m really LISTENING to music – I very very rarely play traditional Christian artists. I like listening to music that stirs my soul rather than just cheer me up.

    Even though I may not be listening to Christian music, most of the music I enjoy the most still carries Christian themes, even though it would most likely not be covered by a praise and worship band. I really wish good artists didn’t have to fear being labeled as Christian. I believe more of these themes would come through. I am not a huge Creed fan, but I read his book Sinners Creed wherein he struggles with being labeled as such. I think there is a place for both, and I believe that the world of music is changing fast. My kids (they are 18) love Mumford and Sons and it is riddled with Christian themes.

    Anyway, I’m no expert, but I know what I like. In my opinion the best Christian song in ten years is not from the realm of Christian music. Joe Pug Hymn 101

    • Alan Atchison

      Good points all around. And I’m right there with you on Mumford & Sons. Thanks for commenting!

  • connorwood

    Hi Jonathan, I normally don’t promote my blog on others’ comments sections, but I wrote about pretty much this exact problem from a more cross-religious perspective a couple of weeks ago. It seems to me that there may be some elements to religion in general – not just Christianity – that enhance stability and well-being, but tamps down creativity. You definitely don’t have to agree, but you might enjoy comparing our responses.

    • Author Jonathan Ryan

      Connor, you’re a fellow Pathos person. Share away..

      • connorwood

        Be careful what you ask for! :)

  • Thomas P

    I listen to a lot of Christian hip hop music. I know it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but they are at least one group of Christian musicians that deal with some of the serious things of life. How to live in a fallen world, reaching out to people, the foolishness of our culture, Holy living, etc.

    • Levedi

      Good point. In a lot of ways the problem isn’t a lack of good Christian music, but the that the mediocre music is getting all the attention while the better stuff remains on the fringe.

  • Izzy Mansour

    You are right for the mainstream, no contention there, but there are bands out there that do raise the issues you look for and are very relevant and sometimes downright confronting. Listen to Extol, Demon Hunter, Norma Jean and you’ll hear Christians in the footsteps of Larry Norman and Glen Kaiser going where the pain is greatest. I know that there others as well. People keep sending me clips daily in languages I didn’t know had churches.
    Problem is Nashville or better said the cushy mindset of producers that know what sells. As long as the US, the biggest identified market, keep kowtowing to the likes of Michael W Smith you will be fed spun sugar.

  • Annie Weatherly-Barton

    Couldn’t agree more. So right. I remember reading a book by a non-Christian who went around churches listening to the music and asking questions about the “worship!” It was like a “love-in” all lovely words about Jesus and just “love songs” but nothing that talked about community and what it means to be a Jesus person to the lost and lonely. Actually a lot of hymns from earlier times have more about the real mission in which we should be engaged. I have been so impressed by Robin Mark whose song: “Revival” puts the focus on the community. “Come heal this land.” Blue Tree: “God of this City!” Dear Jim Punton wrote the lyrics to known hymns which were all focused outwards into the community. Some of the songs over the past 30 years have been predominantly focused on ourselves and what we want: Come and bless us etc etc. When one really looks at the words of Christ I wonder whether we have ever understood his call to us for mission, love of community, the lonely, lost, forgotten, neglected, homeless, sick, disabled, the suicidal. We are in an age where we seem and leaders of society appear to ‘know the price of all things but the value of nothing at all!’ Time to wake up and look and see what is going on and how we might reach out in our community without looking for rewards, without judgement, without dismissive actions?

  • Annie Weatherly-Barton

    My husband and I were given the chance to present a 2 hour show on a community radio show. A great deal of the library were worship songs and a lot of it was really not good at all. Being a pair of old codgers, we started bringing back the old timers stuff: Larry Norman, Bryn Haworth, Chuck Girard, Kelly Willard, Randy Stonehill, Talbot Brothers, and not forgetting the amazing Michael Omartian. Brilliantly produced and definitely not in the “naff” department and do really have something to say. There are of course songs by contemporary artists that have something important to say about us and our world: “Beggar on beach of gold” by Mike and Mechanics, “Money” by Pink Floyd, ‘Don’t be afraid” by the Carpenters, “Yah Mo be There” by Mike McDonald & James Ingrams – much put down by Christians as “non-evangelical, but James Ingrams said it was the very first gospel song he had ever written! “Richard Cory” by Simon and Garfunkel, “For what it’s worth” by Stephen Stills, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ by the Byrds, ‘Fix You’ by Coldplay, “Harvest for the World” by the Isley Brothers, “What going on” and “Save the children” both by Marvin Gaye. We are not afraid to mix the songs to bring an outward message. When you look at some of these songs there is more in the Contemporary field about the world and what is going on than in contemporary Christian music. A favourite hymn: “When will thou save the people Lord’ and ‘Judge eternal enthroned in Splendour.’

    Basically, we seem to have lost our outward looking missional eyes. When we do it can be of the type that attempts to push round pegs into square holes. If you don’t listen and do what I say then you are doomed? We do not want walk beside people for the long term; Go through people’s hell with them; be alongside and give our coats away to those who are cold and food for the hungry. Is it a passion to do these things or just a “duty” we feel? Our missional response to the needs in our community and even in our own fellowships and Jesus’ great commission to us all should be reflected in our church services? Well that’s how I feel about it.

  • Dan Roth

    Some random thoughts that I’m too tired to pull together into a cohesive statement at this time:

    * Yes, mainstream Christian rock is lame. However, that is true of nearly everything “mainstream”. I’m appalled by much of what tops the Billboard charts, and I mean musically/artistically. Ditto for mainstream television, mainstream movies, mainstream novels, etc. Yeah, there’s some stuff I love, but it’s in the minority.

    * The CCM industry is aimed at a target audience of suburban soccer moms who want to feel good about the life choices they’ve made and the situation they’re in. Notice how many “Christian” radio stations market themselves as “positive” and as “safe for the little ears in the back seat”. Not exactly branding themselves as agents of personal sacrifice, radical justice, or sincere piety. The fact that a somewhat diluted version of the romantic ecstasies experienced by the saints of the Middle Ages appeals to this demographic is not surprising – just like it’s not surprising that teenage boys like movies with shoot-em-ups and crude humor.

    * Many of the best-loved hymns reflected a similar “romantic” slant – “In the Garden” for example. Yes, there are hymns like my favorite “And Can It Be”, but they didn’t gain the popularity of these other hymns.

    * People were making the same complaints about Christian music being lame in the early 80s (my prime listening time) – while ignoring the great stuff coming from Larry Norman, Daniel Amos, REZ, the 77s, Tonio K, Leslie Phillips, and a ton of other artists I could name.

    * I really haven’t listened to much new music in the last couple of decades, but when I have sampled it the rule seems to be the same – there are jewels, but you have to search for them.

    * I feel somewhat wary dissing music just because I don’t like it or it doesn’t meet my standards of what I call “good” music. If I don’t want people judging me for my taste in clothing, television, food, etc. then I kind of owe them the same courtesy.

    * You’re right about a big part of the problem being that much of CCM chases money rather than God. That’s true of so much of the church.

    * If you haven’t, you need to listen to “Those Love Songs” by Ken Medema – and note that it was written over 30 years ago.

  • Hana’di Hoblos

    CHRISTIAN MUSIC DOES NOT SUCK. Take a listen to ‘The Ember Days – Brothers’
    -Teenage Muslim

  • Levedi

    This is probably not the most important point to be made on the topic, but one reason a lot (not all) contemporary worship music sounds terrible, especially as performed in churches is that:

    1) it’s imitating a style of music that is actually hard to sing well. Some pop music that hasn’t been autotuned to death involves irregular rhythms, dissonant key changes, falsetto singing, and spoken word integration that looks like anybody could do it and actually can’t be done well by most of us even with a music education.

    2) Music education is sadly lacking in this country. [Insert rant about defunding of arts education.] My point is that most of the kids and youth pastors I see doing their best on stage on Sunday morning are very poorly trained, if they were trained at all. They are mostly enthusiastic amateurs who may be seriously overestimating their talent. Singing is hard. Singing well in public and in such a way as to LEAD a group of other singers is another level of hard.

    3) Many of the older hymns, on the other hand, were written in a period when choral singing was a more common pass time and were therefore written in 4/4 with musical ranges most of us can reach with just a little practice. The pop Christian music is designed to highlight soulful soloists. It just doesn’t work for groups except on the extremely repetitive choruses.

    Thus, we have a bunch of enthusiastic but ill trained amateurs imitating a style of music that is hard to sing anyway and doesn’t lend itself to choral or group singing. On top of that, they are trying to lead a congregation that’s at least half made up of people who don’t like or know this music and has no basic singing training either. So Sunday worship sounds awful. Really awful.

    Now God can ordain praise from babes and rocks, but for me, having to consciously tune out the ugly music makes it hard to concentrate my mind and soul on the worship. I feel bad for the people singing their hearts out at the front and I respect their willingness to get up there and try, but we’ve gotten into a situation where an effort to be “relevant” has veered into ignoring or forgetting basic principles of effective group singing. We don’t have to have Bach fugues and Mozart’s Requiem every Sunday, but we can do better than this.

    • D Lowrey

      You are oh so right in your observations on Christian music. From having been in the commercial radio business for about 20 years where I have worked from talk to country…including Christian music…the one thing you did not mention and the article barely mentioned was the audience. I grew up with Larry Norman and such…even attempted to play their music on the air. Notice the word I used was “attempted”. When I would do so…I would get phone calls from listeners who would complain loudly (with profanity)…then at my station manager how “their” Christian station was not being Christian by playing their “safe” music.

      Don’t even mention live performances. Those who are the most vocal on the Christian walk are the ones who will loudly scream at the artist and say they aren’t Christian if these persons don’t hear their homogenized songs. No wonder you have artists like The Oak Ridge Boys, BJ Thomas, and others who have nothing to do with Christian music anymore. These so-called “Christians” have done their best to destroy what great music we could have. The current climate was a long time coming and this is what we have…especially if you want to sell to this demographic.

  • mikehorn

    As a musician, I have to agree with the assessment that Contemporary Christian Music is just so much noisy schlock. Perhaps a psuedo-cheeselike substance that doesn’t even compete with normal cheese. Here is a good test: take out any and all meaning from the words and see if you still have any interest in listening to it as music. If the answer is no, you have a piece of junk. If the only redeeming quality is the meaning some of the lyrics have to a small segment of the people, it really isn’t music.

    On the other side, there is much rock, pop, country, and rap out there that has musical qualities aside from any meaning of the lyrics. Tap your toes, catchy beats, composers who really know how to write not only a great hook but also how to develop it and wrap it in a song that really works. CCM lacks that sort of writing. Go to older Christian music: does anyone need to care what the words to Brahms German Requiem are saying? The music is sublime without them. Similar for the Mozart Requiem (though that is a standard Mass, if you are familiar). Bach and Palestrina need no words to be sublime nourishment for the soul. Nothing in modern CCM comes close to that. The words I think of to describe CCM are things like saccharine (so sweet it leaves a bitter aftertaste and has no nutritional value, not even as good as sugar).

    Rant complete.

    • Alan Atchison

      Nail on the head, mikehorn. I echo your rant. My favorite line…that the CCM is “Perhaps a psuedo-cheeselike substance that doesn’t even compete with normal cheese.” Good one! :)

    • EmpirefallingSomeday

      Spot on sir- and that’s why I don’t listen to ‘christian’ music anymore and why I love Bach and Mozart et al…

  • G-Money

    This seems a little biased without truly delving deep into the genre. I can think of three bands off the top of my head that are far better than most non-christian bands. (I’m not a religious person either) Close your eyes, Thrice, and As I Lay Dying.

    Close your eyes known as a punk band has some of the most profound lyrics giving people hope against odds.

    Thrice – Dustin Kensrue being one of the greatest lyricists of my generation. Check out So Strange I Remember You if you don’t believe.

    As I lay Dying (which is grammatical incorrect) may not be the best example, but they they have some pretty good music. ( I think the lead singer tried to have his wife murdered, not sure if that negates the Christianity thing)

    The main reason I disagree with this article – Some people think country music sucks, because all they hear is the radio played nonsense. If I hadn’t heard Metallica before, I would only know Enter Sandman and whatever else was released after. Doesn’t really seem fair to base an opinion off of such a general knowledge.

    I can name at least ten other bands if interested. But alas, I will let it be.

    • Alan Atchison

      G-Money, I’m not sure exactly what you’re disagreeing with. I’m with you that there are certainly some great punk and hardcore bands out there that promote themselves as Christian groups. I’m encouraged that we’re slowly starting to see more and more thoughtful artists discuss their faith, struggles, and lives in non-cheesy, ways that don’t simply try to sound like other popular groups. But the genre itself is still loaded with a lot of crap piled up on top of crap. Check out the Billy Corgan video I posted this morning on this site. I think he hit the nail on the head. Thanks again for commenting here!

    • BOnezone

      Hey dude. All those bands suck.

  • jomarhilario

    How to fix CCM? Really? Erase the genre and make all the bands who want to talk about God mix it up in the secular labels. The bad ones will go away (like in the secular world) and the good ones, the deep lyric’d OR the really talented or the X factor artists will rise to the top.

    Option 2:
    Get those baby Christians some really deep education in their faith so the lyrics aren’t repetitious on a singular topic that gets sung everywhere. We need more variety , really.

    Option 3:
    Say meh, it’s like politics, we can talk about it or just do our personal best to make GREAT CHRIST-INSPIRED MUSIC in our OWN way.

  • David Preis

    Listening to CCM is like a sacrifice to God, like fasting. Think of it as penance for something horrible you did in you past.

  • Darick Alexander

    Brandon Heath said the best: “it’s Your love, Your love, Your love. it’s Your Love, Your love, Your love. it’s Your love, Your love, Your love. It’s Your love, Your love,

  • Andrea

    I do agree with the points you’ve made in this article. But there are
    other reasons why Christian music isn’t so… appealing (and I speak for
    myself of course).

    As I grow in the faith, I find myself wanting to listen to Christian music. However, I’m left with a dilemma. How do I find Christian music that is appealing to my ears? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t listen to mainstream music. But the thing is that I’m picky with music in general – not just Christian music. So this… journey to find Christian-type music is a very difficult one. What if I don’t like the stereotypical Christian music feel? It’s usually pop or country. Maybe some type of alternative/rock, or maybe rap/hip hop (with an attempt at sounding like the stuff you hear on the radio). I realize there are also hardcore rock bands too, such as August Burn Red. However, I tend to prefer old school or underground rap/hip hop, or at least some hip hop with jazzy/ chill beats. There is no Christian music that I’ve ever heard with that kind of sound style.

    I realize that the purpose of Christian music is to worship God and acknowledge his character – not to please the audience and give them what they want. With this in mind, I understand that this “cookie-cutter Christian music” is what often results from the desire to make music that worships God. And that’s no problem. It’s not bad music. It’s just not the type of music I want to listen to.

    It’s problematic to listen to music with good beats/rhythms, but terrible lyrical content. On the other hand, it’s just as (or even more) problematic to listen to music with great lyrical content, but annoying/unappealing beats, sound, or musical feel.

    I guess I have one question: how do you find good “underground” Christian music, since we’ve already established that the mainstream music isn’t to our liking? Is there any? Or do they all sound the same? It’s hard enough to find underground secular music; I know this search will be even more challenging. It would be nice if there was more variation in terms of genres available.

  • nathan moore

    Contemporary Christian music is garbage. It is like cotton candy. Other adjectives that come to mind are: “corny”, “sappy”, “cheesy”. Why do people continue to make a mockery of Jesus like this? John the Baptist ate locusts and wild honey, not Lucky Charms and Froot Loops. He walked around in the desert, not on a slick dance floor. If you want to make Christian music then humble yourself. It should not be a glamour show or a pop-rock concert. Christian music like any good music should be unpredictable and challenging. Please, save God the headache of having to listen to your cream puff music!

    • Lucky Bell

      Congratulations, I would like to give you the “I didn’t do
      my research” award!

      If you spent a little time
      studying the etymological origin of the word locust, instead of accosting
      others for their musical taste, you would find that locust is both a bean from
      the carob plant and an insect. The Greek word for cakes or bread made from the
      flour of the carob bean is ‘egkrides’. Bread and honey: that sounds eerily similar to the “cream
      puffs” you were talking about.

      Also, the “christian hippie” lifestyle is okay for John the Baptist, and to berate a genre of music, but not good enough for you? You seem to operating the internet pretty well. Are you currently in the desert, or on a “slick” wood floor in your suburban home?