Be Ye Glad: Christian Music in the 1980s

Be Ye Glad: Christian Music in the 1980s July 18, 2012

Last week while I was in Ocean City, New Jersey, my family and I attended a concert by the Christian group GLAD.  Evangelicals of a certain age will remember GLAD.  They began in the 1970s as a progressive Christian rock band based in the Philadelphia area and sometime during the late 1980s reinvented themselves as an A cappella group.  The members of the band are getting older (and so are their fans), but they can still harmonize with the best of them.

The GLAD concert sent me on a trip down memory lane.  I was first exposed to Christian contemporary music in the 1980s.  Since I was a young Catholic for much of the 1970s, I was not familiar with Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, or the Resurrection Band.  As a new evangelical I remember being baffled  when people in the youth group I was attending were crying over the death of Keith Green.  Who the heck was Keith Green? And why did people think his stuff was better than Springsteen, Kansas, Chicago, Led Zeppelin, and Yes—the stuff I had always listened to on New York City FM radio.

When I got home from Ocean City last week I started looking up songs by bands that I had listened to regularly after my conversion.  I recalled my fascination with the Sweet Comfort Band and their song, “You Led Me to Believe,” about a beloved spiritual mentor who had abandoned the faith.  I remember the hype when Amy Grant “went secular.”  I have vivid memories of looking across the chapel on the last day of college and seeing people sobbing as “Friends Are Friends Forever” was sung—cassette background tape and all—by one of my fellow graduating classmates.  I recall listening to Stryper on my Sony Walkman to get myself “pumped up” for a big basketball game, and arguing with my roommates as to whether or not U2 was a “Christian band.”  It was very big news for me when Kerry Livgren, the leader of Kansas, converted to Christianity and formed the Christian group A.D. (I played “Lead Me to Reason” over and over again). For some of my friends it was even bigger news when Greg X. Volz left Petra.  And who could forget “The Cause”—the Christian rip-off of “We Are the World.”

Yes, it was a wonderful trip.  I sat at my computer for a few hours listening to Petra (“More Power to Ya”), DeGarmo and Key (“Destined to Win”), Steve Camp (“He Covers Me”), Wayne Watson (“Friend of a Wounded Heart”), White Heart (“We Are His Hands”), Benny Hester (“When God Ran”) and Russ Taff (“We Will Stand”).  (I was apparently a real sucker for electric pianos and ballads in those days).

I must admit that I listened to most of these songs the other day not for spiritual encouragement, but as a form of nostalgia.  They brought back many memories from my formative years as a student at a Christian college in the 1980s. The words of these songs contain a lot of bad theology, but I always thought that the hearts of the artists were in the right place.

Today, as a historian, I wonder what explains the success of this kind of music among evangelical young people during the Reagan Era.  As Philip Jenkins and John Turner have noted recently, and David Stowe has argued, Christian rock and roll music began with the Jesus People in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  But by the 1980s, so called Christian contemporary music really took off, led by many of the groups I mentioned above.  This music was first charted in 1978.  (Some of those early lists included songs such as “Praise the Lord” by the Imperials and “What a Difference You’ve Made in My Life” by B.J. Thomas).

What triggered this proliferation of Christian music in the 1980s?  Was it the rise of Christian radio stations?  Was it a regional phenomenon? (The CCM world of the 1980s was based in Nashville, but I listened to this stuff in Philadelphia and New Jersey). Was it an attempt to bring the music of the Jesus People into mainstream evangelicalism at a time when evangelicals were taking center stage in the political culture?  Did it have something to do with the Jesus people growing up, or a general turn within American evangelicalism to a sort of middle-class conservatism? (Compare, for example, the image and music of Larry Norman or Randy Stonehill to that of Michael W. Smith and Wayne Watson–the music of the 1980s certainly lost a lot of the counter-cultural edge of the Jesus music of the 1970s).  And in what sense were these musicians in the 1980s just reflecting–or copying– changes taking place in the larger music world?

I am not entirely sure how to answer these questions. I am not a historian of Christian contemporary music.  But I am curious about how to interpret what was an important part of my life back then.  Your thoughts on these questions, or any other that might come to mind, would be greatly appreciated as I try to make sense of this rush of nostalgia that has recently come over me.

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