As I write, I’ve just returned from a delightful evening with Emily at a local concert. Granting that I am not what you call a “concert goer,” I had an excellent time. It was an outdoor show at a park here in Louisville, and the weather was pinpoint perfect-75 degrees and clear with a gentle breeze. I guess between a night out with my future wife in a beautiful late spring evening, the whole thing was set up to be a success. It was.
There were four bands performing. The first was the warm-up act, a young, shaggy-haired rock band out of Nashville. The lead singer is, I’m told, the son of a very well-known contemporary Christian music artist. The boys in this band were talented and had good stage presence, and the audience approved warmly. From what I could tell, most of their songs were either about relationships or general existential angst (think Foster the People), but with a remarkably noticeable spiritual flavor. That make sense given the band’s DNA, I suppose. But I’m sure many people at the packed show had no idea who the young singer’s father was or even cared. The audience bought the band’s energy and musicianship.
The rest of the artists constituted the three co-headliners. There was a alt-folk singer who sang about wanting to live forever and sang about that like it was more than a fantasy. Then there was the heartthrob, lanky piano man, whose most powerful song is about depression and sadness; the audience sang loudly with him as he crooned, “You don’t need Jesus…until you’re here.” The final group, a Southern arena-rock gang you have heard before, exploded amplifiers and eardrums with anthems about being “washed in the water” and “singing hallelujah.” The man sitting five feet in front of me held his third or fourth beer in his right hand and made something like a fist pump with the other as the band shredded guitar solos to a dizzying and impressive light show.
The point being, this was not a youth group event or a worship concert. It was a rock show. But it was, so obviously to anyone not inebriated, a Christian rock show.
There were no times of “testimonies,” no clear Gospel presentations, and no theological meanderings from the artists between songs. This wasn’t a “worship” time, it was rock and roll time, the caveat being that this rock and roll was clearly occupied with more heavenly thoughts. The only visible Christianity came from the audience; I saw more than one head-bobbing attendee wearing a t-shirt with a New Testament verse on it. More than once during the evening dozens of hands were lifted as someone who was clearly not a “worship leader” sang a song about needing forgiveness and healing.
All of this made an impression on me not because I am an “outsider” to Christian music or was totally blown away by the spiritual overtones of the artists performing. Neither was the case. Rather, it made an impression on me because I realized, probably for the first time in a long time, that Christian music–authentically Christian, not Christian in the “Jesus Walks” sense–can be, and often is, quite good. When I got home, I felt a new awareness come over me that it is indeed possible for artistic merit and Christian fervor to intersect with one another, and even sometimes in a way that brings the believer and the unbeliever in close contact to celebrate the same thing. There need not be a choice between “spiritual” and “entertaining.”
I cherish this feeling because it has not been commonplace for Christian music fans over the last several years. Far too many shelves in Christian bookstores have been stocked over the last decade-plus with music that was awarded distribution and promotion merely because it managed to “hit” a particular target demographic that was elsewhere busy listening to the secular alternative (which, in almost every case, is superior to its Christian spinoff).
The simple fact is that contemporary Christian music has not been good for some time. Christian record labels have inundated the industry with so many copies of both successful secular acts and successful Christian ones (how many new Christian radio singles sound just like that Casting Crowns song you’ve heard 1,000 times?) that the question of what even constitutes a Christian song or a Christian band is a hopelessly self-referential discussion. Many of the same Christian retailers who created the industry are now fighting for their own existence, and I would not hesitate to claim that part of that struggle stems from the evaporation of interest in the contemporary Christian music industry.
But, as in the Gospel itself, there is hope. The artists that I heard were not pseudo “worship leaders,” selling merchandise and making a profit under the pretense of a “ministry.” They came to their audience as entertainers, as song writers and storytellers first. Their Christian identity was not located in what label they signed a contract with or what retail chain sold their LP, it was in their music and lyrics themselves. Completely absent from this concert were the trappings of the tragic “modern worship movement,” a fad that I must say I believe is as much to blame as anything else for the stagnation of the Christian music industry. No one came to the show for a sermon, they came for songs and for stories. They left with a little bit of all three.
I’m absolutely convinced that if there is any hope for a Christian music industry–by which I mean an viable marketplace for Christians to make art and entertain while keeping convictions intact–this is where it all has to go. In all my years of listening to Christian radio, I have never heard any of tonight’s artists on it (the final band excepted). Why not? Because the industry is so tied up into its airtight categories, buffered by retail strategies that don’t even work now. That simply will not keep Christian music alive.
The future of Christian music is what I saw tonight: Real artists playing real songs, written to tell stories and delight all kinds of people from all walks of life. What I didn’t see were half-talented guitarists strumming 4-chord “worship” choruses that could have been plagiarized from any middle-rate pop love ballad, with only references to females changed to ambiguous pronouns. One of those sights has a future in an increasingly marginalized Christian culture. The other does not.