CCM and Christian Marketing

By Meghan O’Gieblyn for Guernica Magazine:

Meghan’s story is thorough, well-written and even more it unmasks some of the strategies and inner realities of the music industry. Was this your experience?

Lifehouse’s “Hanging by a Moment”—which topped the Billboard 100 for the year—is a more well-known example of this trend: “Desperate for changing / Starving for truth / Closer to where I started / Chasing after you.” Although singer/songwriter Jason Wade identified as a Christian and was embraced by the CCM market—his band met playing in a worship team at church—he claimed that Lifehouse was not a “Christian” band. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he said, “We don’t want to be labeled as a ‘Christian band,’ because all of a sudden people’s walls come up, and they won’t listen to your music and what you have to say.”

Basically, CCM caught on to the number one rule of coolness: don’t let your marketing show. The best bands—the successful ones, at least—learned to gloss over the gospel message the same way TV producers camouflaged corporate sponsorship. Explicitly Christian lyrics prevented DC Talk from crossing over to the secular market in the ’90s; today it’s difficult to imagine their unapologetic faith making it in the Christian circuit.

This trend spreads beyond CCM into many areas of evangelical culture. The church is becoming increasingly consumer-friendly. Jacob Hill, director of “worship arts” at New Walk Church, describes the Sunday service music as “exciting, loud, powerful, and relevant,” and boasts that “a lot of people say they feel like they’ve just been at a rock concert.” Over the past ten years, I’ve visited churches that have Starbucks kiosks in the foyer and youth wings decked out with air hockey tables. I’ve witnessed a preacher stop his sermon to play a five-minute clip from Billy Madison. I’ve walked into a sanctuary that was blasting the Black Eyed Peas’s “Let’s Get it Started” to get the congregation pumped for the morning’s message, which was on joy. I have heard a pastor say, from a pulpit, “Hey, I’m not here to preach at anyone.” And yet, in spite of these efforts, churches are retaining only 4 percent of the young people raised in their congregations.

Despite all the affected teenage rebellion, I continued to call myself a Christian into my early twenties. When I finally stopped, it wasn’t because being a believer made me uncool or outdated or freakish. It was because being a Christian no longer meant anything. It was a label to slap on my Facebook page, next to my music preferences. The gospel became just another product someone was trying to sell me, and a paltry one at that because the church isn’t Viacom: it doesn’t have a Department of Brand Strategy and Planning. Staying relevant in late consumer capitalism requires highly sophisticated resources and the willingness to tailor your values to whatever your audience wants. In trying to compete in this market, the church has forfeited the one advantage it had in the game to attract disillusioned youth: authenticity. When it comes to intransigent values, the profit-driven world has zilch to offer. If Christian leaders weren’t so ashamed of those unvarnished values, they might have something more attractive than anything on today’s bleak moral market. In the meantime, they’ve lost one more kid to the competition.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Robin

    I became a Christian at age 20 and I was always more attracted to authentic expressions of faith, regardless of whether or not they fit into a contemporary Christian mold. So, I was a fan of Jennifer Knapp and Derek Webb, because they presented real struggles, and not so much of DC Talk. I liked Bonhoeffer, and old Puritans, and Flannery O’Connor, but most of the stuff that sells out at Chrisitan bookstores (prayer of Jabez) was nauseating.

    I have always found the stuff that sells the hottest at Christian bookstores extremely untasteful. I’ve never owned a WWJD bracelet, or 10 t-shirts with scripture plastered on them, and there is no icthus bumper sticker on my car. I can see how kids that grow up surrounded by that consumerist, easily believism, inch-deep theological background would conclude that there is little purpose to remaining attached to the church. I think if churches encouraged their children to drink deeply in theological waters, whatever their theological tradition, they would find enough meat and meaning to keep them there, whatever the worship style.

  • http://www.fivedills.com/blog.html FiveDills

    Is the CCM market really any different than their secular counterparts? They started out different, but with many artists crossing over it’s hard to make a distinction. Sadly, the same is true with Christian books. Some authors are beginning to sound much like their secular counterparts. I just began reading a new Ted Dekker novel and was appalled by the content. I would have thought I was reading a rated-R Stephen King novel, complete with nudity and gore. Yet, many Christian bookstores refused to sell Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” because they didn’t agree with his theology. Legalism mixed with secularism. A dangerous combination.

  • rjs

    First – the church is not retaining only 4%, the percentage is higher. But if we move beyond this kind of rhetoric – there is an important point here. The church is not a pleasant environment, a music show, and some contemporary wisdom. It is people, and community, and the worship of a God who did something for us and demands something of us.

  • http://thinklaughweepworship.blogspot.com Emily

    I was drawn to Christianity through a “seeker sensitive” church, complete with rock music, coffee and donuts, relaxed dress, and “relevant” preaching. I fell in love with Jesus and the Gospel and was baptized. A few years later, during Bible college, I lost my taste for CCM, Christian bookstores, Christian radio, and “seeker sensitive” churches. When my life fell apart in various tragic ways, the consumer-friendly brand of Christianity that brought me in, failed me miserably. Thankfully, I have been nourished through a reconnection with the thinkers and mystics of the Great Tradition, as well as a rediscovery of the power of liturgy. Now, as a wife and mother, my husband and I find ourselves on the “Canterbury trail”–one result of our mutual experience that consumer-driven Christianity is (virtually) empty and unable to form us into the kinds of people who live the Way, who love God and love others.

  • Jason Lee

    “the church is not retaining only 4%” … that’s flat out incorrect.

    According to the best recent research (eg, “Soul Searching” and “Souls in Transition”) the young people that some churches are losing are mainly being lost because of parents who don’t live a compelling faith. …the main reason is not church service styles…it’s relationships with Christian adults and peers.

  • Susan N.

    Robin, if you are the same Robin that I have been seeing around on the Jesus Creed discussion forum over the past year — I just wanted to say that it was exciting to read your comments and find an area where we have so much in common! I like some of the contemporary Christian music (Mercy Me, Third Day, Sara Groves), but I agree that much of it is annoyingly theologically shallow. I love the theological depth of the old hymns. My teenage daughter says that the lyrics just repeat the same words so much so that they have lost much of their meaning. “Nauseating” and “easy believism” — in the literature and music. Yes! I’m reading just such a Christian fiction novel right now, to accommodate an elderly friend’s request to read and discuss. I’m on book 3 in a series of about 7, and I’m fading fast. Feeling that I will need to be honest with my elderly friend, and delicately request that we choose another book to discuss. Are there Cliff Notes for this stuff?

  • Susan N.

    Ha! “Now I raise my Ebenezer” — I love that line. Stone of help, deliverance. That hymn (Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing) is filled with rich meaning…when one begins to understand the significance of the words, like “Ebenezer.”

    The difficulty in distinguishing between God or girl in some of these contemporary lyrics – yes! Some of the lyrics sound to me like “Jesus is my boyfriend.” Which is just creepy to me.

    Worship music that is exciting, loud, powerful, relevant in a church service requires a lot of endurance and patience from me. My teenager is quiet, a deep thinker, and consequently prefers traditional hymns and sings in the youth choir. Thank God this is still an option in our church. More of the youth seem to prefer the loud, CCM worship style.

  • Mark

    Amy Grant had just as tight a sweater as the other singers and as fancy album cover art and that was when she hadn’t “crossed-over” yet.

    You aren’t making Christianity better, you’re just making rock and roll worse. I’d rather have a Lifehouse that is Christian in worldview, but doesn’t feel required to make “christian music” than the schlock and schmaltz of acts that slap on a fish to sell a few albums.

  • http://www.eric-michael.com EricMichaelSay

    My largest problem with the whole “Christian Music vs Secular Music” is that “Christian Music” was never really made ‘for’ Christians. It was always a shallow, 3-minute alter-call, and little more. The best groups delved a little deeper, but the fact that Derek Webb can sing a love song to his wife and not mention God, and have THAT be edgy, is sad.

    And that’s the point I think. If the subject matter of your songs is entirely defined by an Evangelistic motive and spreading the “Gospel” (and even THAT limited to ‘Jesus died for you’), it’s going to get boring really quick.

    So, the idea that Christians shouldn’t make music about anything other than the salvific work of Jesus on the cross, or you’re selling out and becoming like the world (who writes about the full-spectrum of human experience) is just dumb.

    Ironically, the writer is calling for Authenticity in the church (Yay!), but seems to think all music written and performed by Christians should be about the Gospel of ‘Jesus died for you’.

  • Matt Edwards

    I don’t usually like CCM music because it seems forced. “Christian” bands spend so much time making sure that everyone knows that their theology is solid and that they are safe for the whole family, that they fail to communicate real human problems. They focus so much on giving good answers that they stop asking good questions. I’d much rather listen to a band that asks the same questions as me, even if they don’t come up with the same answers.

    I think I’d listen to more Christian music if we gave Christian artists more freedom. Let them mess up. Let them experiment with bad theology. Let them say human things that all Christians think but few are bold enough to express out loud. When I read the psalms, I constantly come across passages that make me think, “Can you say that?!” When was the last time a contemporary Christian band made you think that? What was your response?

  • DanS

    I grew up on Larry Norman, Mark Heard, Bruce Cockburn (who took a hard leftward turn). Later I grew fond of some country artists like Paul Overstreet and Ricky Skaggs and later Allison Krauss. CCM never really appealed to me, except in the case of great musicianship (Phil Keaggy, Michael Omartian).

    The problem with Christian music has always been that its focus is too narrow. The great stuff addresses more than just salvation (saved my soul, made me whole) and offered a perspective on life itself from a Christian perspective. Not talking pat answers, but a willingness to apply faith in a broad sense to love songs, cultural critique, politics, and to simply enjoy life in a righteous joy – songs about fishing, food, friendship, etc. CS Lewis had it right – a Christian dentist who does his job well can have more impact than a preacher. A Christian artist with integrity can have the same effect.

    Christian artists need only keep in mind a couple of things – there is a God and there is a moral fabric to the universe. Faith has a way of becoming relevant in that context.

  • http://www.travismamone.net Travis Mamone

    This is why I prefer liturgical churches over megachurches. I hate to sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but I when I walk into a church I want to feel like I’m entering a sacred space.

    There are only a few CCM artists I like: Derek Webb, Sara Groves, Audry Assad, Jars of Clay, Rich Mullins, and the Robbie Seay Band.

  • Bill

    Great post. I have always liked musicians with spiritual depth, but most of CCM leaves me cold.

  • Russell

    I hate it when Scot posts something about Christian music because everyone piles on with the whole, “I hate Christian music. I want something with real spiritual depth.” It’s like a big group of hipsters who say “Meh” to everything. “Christian music sucks, except for what I listen to.”

    I’m not defending Christian music here. I tend to agree with alot of what has been said. (Though if you want to catch some good Christian music, check out radarradio.net. See, I’m do it too.)

    But the point of this excerpt isn’t that Christian music is terrible. It’s that too often 21st century Christianity has tried so hard to be relevant that there is no difference between the church and the world. And if there’s no difference, then what’s the use? The church has bought the consumerism garbage and is paying the price (no pun intended). The slick packages and the cool presentations just make it all look fake. As we all know, the worst thing in the world is to be fake.

  • Amos Paul

    Russell,

    I completely agree. I used to be in that place with a lot of the folks around here–”Christian music! Bah!”

    I grew up with it, found it cheesy, and started making fun of it. I still probably fall within ‘hipster Christian’ stereotyping in a lot of ways. But the problem is, after awhile… non-Christian music started to get to me. It’s not an evil category to not explicitly be Christian, but the copious amounts of garbage out there in all of that music began to get under my skin and expose itself in me so much that, if I have to flip through the radio stations just to have *some* background noise, I’ll end up on a cheesy Christian station with music styles I dislike over secular station whose content just bugs the crap out of me.

    I don’t even care if a lot of you out there are absolutely opposed to ‘contemporary’ worship music. Fine. But music is a big and dynamic part of our lives, and humans are inherently creative. We should expect Christians to be contributing to the arts positively, whether or not they want to label what they’re doing a ‘Christian’ effort.

    And moreover, a lot of these comments seem to overlook the massive sub-cultures that have developed over the last few decades in Christian music. There are some fantastic artists in nearly every arena these days with a unique following all of their own–and the problem with CCM is that it generally overlooks these things. A lot of these folks also claim to be making explicitly Christian music (Rock, Metal, Folk, Bluegrass, Rap, Jazz, Techno, etc.). Yet we decry ‘Christian Music’ as being forced and irrelevant. Do we do a disservice to our brothers and sisters in Christ?

    CCM’s biggest problem is not encouraging Christians to make explicitly Christian music for Christians to feel safe engaging with–knowing that we share a base of faith with the artists we’re listening to. No, CCMs biggest problem is focusing so vehemently on one or two types of music in the Christian setting.

  • Rick

    Emily #4-

    Isn’t what happened to you partially what they are hoping for? You were drawn to Christianity through all that, and then matured beyond it. But their initial goal, getting you at least interesting in the faith, appears to have worked. Would you have been initially interested in the faith otherwise?

    As long as their are stories like that, much of this will continue.

  • phil_style

    Mark, #8 “You aren’t making Christianity better, you’re just making rock and roll worse”

    Genius, and immensely quotable!

    Christian artists also need to realise that chasing main stream acceptability will also result in a loss of artistic integrity. Pop music success is almost exclusively determined by marketing (re: $$), and not the artistic strength of the music in question: http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2011/07/05/137530847/how-much-does-it-cost-to-make-a-hit-song?sc=fb&cc=fp

  • rjs

    Rick (#16),

    But we need churches that provide the depth for life – not just the attraction to enter. How many who start where Emily did find that community when the going gets tougher?

    How many tell the story in the original post – “When I finally stopped, it wasn’t because being a believer made me uncool or outdated or freakish. It was because being a Christian no longer meant anything.” Meghan’s article is powerful (beyond the short bit Scot quotes).

    I wrote last week about a search for acceptance – but none of this (our approach to faith and structuring of church) should be about a search for acceptance in the eyes of the world (music, science, anything) … it should be about being true and being genuine and being community.

  • Rick

    RJS #18-

    I don’t disagree with you, and I am not defending the emphasis on being relevant.

    What I am saying, and have heard before, that leaders of such approaches point to the attendance, and/or baptisms, to make their case. The issues of lack of community, or maturing faith, etc… just need some tweaking. The main goal, getting people engaged, “worked”.

    I have not read the whole thing, but wasn’t this part of thinking in Willow Creek’s Reveal study?

  • PSF

    Here is one of my favourite quotes from C. S. Lewis, on being a truly Christian emphasis in a way that honours the medium (art, music, literature) one is engaging in. Could this be applied to “Christian” music?

    “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent. You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way round. Our Faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defense of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian. The first step to the re-conversion of this country is a series, produced by Christians, which can beat Penguin and the Thinkers Library on their own ground. Its Christianity would have to be latent, not explicit: and of course its science perfectly honest. Science twisted in the interest of apologetics would be sin and folly.”

    C. S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics.

  • http://thinklaughweepworship.blogspot.com Emily

    Rick #16,

    I understand the point you’re making and you may be correct. But, I look at it a little differently. When I said I was drawn “through” a “seeker sensitive” church, that’s what I meant. Above all else, it was the students who befriended me that brought me into the church. The rock music made it “cool” to be there. (And, to be perfectly frank, the unmarried, handsome twenty-something youth minister provided some serious draw for the young women, too.) RJS articulated the problem that I ran into in just a couple years: the depth of the issues I began to face could not be matched by the “seeker sensitive” church (especially the “everybody smile!” worship and the lightweight teaching). I was left to fumble. Thankfully, I didn’t walk away from the faith, as I had other resources to turn to, including friends and professors in Bible college. But, I know many other students from the same youth group who left behind their faith when they left the church.

  • T

    A lot of musicians that I’ve known, who were Christians, didn’t want the “Christian Music” label either, not because they craved worldly acceptance and approval, but because they wanted to not be limited to playing in and for churches and Christian sub-culture. They absolutely did not hide God or Christ in their music in many songs, but they didn’t only sing about God, and they wanted to be who they were in the marketplace, in whatever “secular” venues or Christian ones would have them.

    I agree with all the above commenters that said this author’s leaving of the faith wasn’t about the music. It’s about the families and the churches who make Jesus into a side item, regardless of music style. Yes, some people do rock because they’re being authentic; others do it as marketing. (I think Paul said the same about preachers, no?) It’s not about style, or even music. It’s whether your church/family is more about style than substance, regardless if the style is organs or guitars.

  • Scott Gay

    I liked Rez and King’s X more than other bands.

    Rez certainly transitioned the 70′s Jesus movement. If rjs’s criteria of true, genuine, and community apply, they have it and more.
    I doubt that when member’s of King’s X stopped being called Christian it was because it no longer meant anything.
    They both epitomize strains of emerging.

  • Mark

    The question I’ve been thinking about is: since when is it important that the gospel be relevant? My guess is that this comes with a commitment to marketing. I have seen so many church advertisements with relevant the tag line. The “problem” with the gospel is not that it isn’t relevant but that it is too relevant. And just to put my comment into context – I work in Christian radio and understand CCM and all that goes with it.

  • http://brandontheguy.tumblr.com brandontheguy

    Well, there was a quote from King of the Hill about christian rock that went something like “Can’t you see you’re not making christianity any better, you’re just making rock ‘n roll worse”

  • Joe Canner

    Russel #14: “It’s that too often 21st century Christianity has tried so hard to be relevant that there is no difference between the church and the world. And if there’s no difference, then what’s the use?”

    I would disagree that there’s no difference. Much popular music has words and themes that are inappropriate for polite company. So what’s wrong with producing music in a style that people enjoy that doesn’t have those words and themes? To, me it’s not about being relevant (although I can’t speak for the motives of the producers) it’s about producing good music that we can listen to and dance to without being ashamed of the content.

    T #22: I agree with you; I don’t understand why some people think it is wrong for a Christian to produce music that doesn’t have overtly Christian themes. I don’t write overtly Christian computer programs, so why is the standard different for artists?

  • Amos Paul

    brandontheguy,

    And that’s exactly the thing that Christians should not be accusing their brothers and sisters of who are pursuing the arts in the context of Christ. Have you really looked into all the different examples of Christian rock out there to feel comfortable making fun of them like that?

    I’ve been a huge Disciple fan for the longest time. Jonah33′s first self-titled album and Pillar’s ‘Where Do We Go From Here’ are also great, IMO. That is, of course, merely examples of modern ‘rock’ genre (not classic rock, metal, etc.), assuming that’s the genre we’re talking about here.

  • phil_style

    Amos,

    My main issue with christian artists chasing the pop charts is not that it will bring the standard of the pop charts down, it’s that it will require that christians produce music that is sufficiently awful in order to get radio play. Pop is not where the groundbreaking, cutting edge music is happening. Mainstream pop radio is an artistic wasteland.One only has to spend 30 seconds listening to the Black Eyed Peas to see that.

  • Amos Paul

    Phil,

    Where in my comment did you get the idea that I was encouraging Christians to copy pop music? I’m saying Christians should be creative and explore all of the arts. That does, perhaps, include pop music styles. Some people’s opinion of those styles may be different than yours. But, indeed, I claimed that CCMs mainstream’s greatest problem is its bottleneck of generally advertised and accepted styles–despite the fact that Christians can be found all over the musical map both making music that explicitly and implicitly Christian.

  • phil_style

    “Where in my comment did you get the idea that I was encouraging Christians to copy pop music?2

    I didn’t. I’m just having a little fun with the topic. ;)

  • Rick

    Charlie Peacock (a creative artist) did an article for CCM in 2008 that hit on this topic. In the article, he wrote,
    “Christian music with “worldview” lyrics is dead in the church and reborn in the world where Christian indie and major label artists will carry the torch. The majority of Christian music fans and gatekeepers in the church proved too immature or disinterested to discern whether or not a lyric was speaking to a topic from a Christian worldview. The problem of immaturity and illiteracy will continue.”

    He goes on to write,
    “In the future, young musicians will think that all Christian music is dated and boring, and they will create something they think is current, relevant and exciting. They will say things like, “We just wanna show people that you can be a Christian and have fun, too.” Or, “We’re not gonna hit people over the head with the Bible. We’re not Christian musicians; we’re musicians who are Christians.” Or, “We are totally sold out to Jesus. We don’t write vague, sugar-coated lyrics.”
    It will be nothing but retread hubris though. I will roll my eyes and grumble that history is hell-bent on repeating itself.So take note, the real and trustworthy future of Christian music is Christ. Find out what He’s interested in, and let that be the music’s future.”

    http://www.ccmmagazine.com/article/charlie-peacock-predicts-the-future-of-christian-music/

  • phil_style

    The whole concept of christian music is bizarre, as thought “christian” was some kind of style.

    Can music be “christian” if it has no lyrics?

    Calling music “christian” or making an explicit point about not calling it “christian” is a marketing manoeuvre either way.

  • http://thesometimespreacher.blogspot.com Andy Holt

    #31 – Rick

    Charlie Peacock just produced The Civil Wars, one member of which is Joy Williams, who was a popular CCM artist earlier this decade.

    I read the whole article and could identify with so much of it! I, too, was a fan of dc talk–before Jesus Freak, though. But in college I found a wonderful niche of independent Christian music full of incredibly talented musicians who love Jesus, and who gave voice to my desires to follow Jesus honestly and authentically. There’s so much good music by deeply Christian artists out there. Unfortunately, very little of it ever gets discovered by the masses.


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