In the beginning, there were the Jesus People.
They had long hair and short memories and they emerged from the 1960s with a unique fusion of evangelical faith and pop culture. They loved fellowship, but didn’t like frumpy churches. They trusted their feelings, not traditions. They loved the Bible, but not those old hymnals.
So they started writing, performing, recording and selling songs. The Contemporary Christian Music industry was born.
And, lo, the counterculture became a corporate culture, one that was increasingly competitive and relentlessly contemporary, constantly striving to photocopy cultural trends. Out in the mega-churches, the definition of “worship” changed and then kept changing — Sunday after Sunday.
Even though this industry “makes claims for musical diversity among its ranks, it is primarily a reflection of current folk, pop and rock styles,” noted veteran pop musician Charlie Peacock, speaking at a recent conference on “Music and the Church” at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “Even today’s successful modern worship music is composed of these and does not have a distinct style of its own.”
The “bandwidth” of worship music today is actually quite narrow, he said, even if black gospel and “urban” music is included. This reality is especially obvious if the industry’s products are contrasted with the dizzying array of church music found around the world and across two millennia of history.
Today, the bottom line is almost always the financial bottom line.
While believers lead the companies that dominate Christian music, secular corporations now own these smaller companies, noted Peacock. Clearly this is shaping the “Christian” music sold in religious bookstores and mainstream malls. But this corporate culture is also affecting worship and the heart of church life.
“The industry cannot be expected to always have the best interests of the church in mind,” Peacock told nearly 500 scholars, musicians, entrepreneurs and clergy. “Christians within the companies may. But the overriding ideology of the system is to serve the shareholder first.”
Serving the shareholders means an endless stream of new products, fads and artists — just like in the secular world. The new always vetoes the old and the saints don’t use credit cards or own stock. Thus, CCM is dominated by pop, rock, urban and new worship music. Classical Christian music is below 1 percent on the charts.Most worship leaders are trying to blend these radically different musical elements, reported pollster George Barna, describing a survey of Protestant worshippers, pastors and “worship leaders.” Sometimes the easiest solution is to have different services for different audiences — a strategy the Barna Research Group found in three out of four churches.
Thus, the GI Generation attends a different service than the upbeat Baby Boomers or the mysterious young faithful of generations X and Y. The result looks something like an FM radio dial.
“What we know about Americans is that we view ourselves first and foremost as consumers,” said Barna. “Even when we walk in the doors of our churches what we tend to do is to wonder how can I get a good transaction out of this experience. … So, what we know from our research is that Americans have made worship something that primarily that we do for ourselves. When is it successful? When we feel good.”
And sometimes people feel bad. According to the pastors, only 9 percent of the surveyed churches were experiencing conflict over music. But it’s possible to turn those statistics around and note that 90 percent of all church conflicts reported in this study centered on musical issues.
Is peace possible? Peacock concluded that it will be up to ministers and educators to argue that there is more to worship than the niches on a CCM sales charts.
The industry can play a valid role in shaping the content of Christian music, he said, even in “contributing to the congregational music of the church. Still, the industry is at the mercy of a consumer with narrow tastes. Until this changes, it can’t possibly function as a definitive caretaker and should not be asked to.
“This means that the stewardship of Christian music from the Psalms, to Ambrose, to Bach, to Wesley, to the Fisk Jubilee Singers and more, belongs to the church and the academy.”