Monday, November 9, 2009

Contemporary Christian Music Revolutionizing Religion

Kate Sundberg

WWJD? What Would Jesus Do? This question has adorned bumper stickers, t-shirts, doormats, coffee mugs and bracelets since the 1990s (Collins 2005). However, perhaps the more important question companies are asking themselves is, “What Would Jesus Buy?” To some, Jesus has become nothing more than a commodity—a “homeboy” helping to sell products around the world. While companies are using Jesus to endorse clothing, decorations and even candy, some may say that musicians are using Jesus to sell their music. The Christian music industry has exploded since the 1980s, with Christian artists selling out shows and records to people hungry for unconventional religion. From hip-hop to rock to heavy metal, Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) has become a billion dollar marketing industry catering to popular culture that is changing the way people view religion—with mixed results. “I just find it hard to believe that Christ wants to be in a market. Didn’t He turn over those tables?” (Powell 2002).

Contemporary Christian Music evolved from a desire to make religion “hip.” The Jesus Movement began sweeping the United States in the early 1970s and had a strong influence on the development of early Contemporary Christian Music. The Jesus People (participants in the Jesus Movement) were predominantly young adults who “suddenly returned to values against which they had earlier rebelled” (Gordon 159). They upheld biblical, pure morals and demonstrated both passion and enthusiasm for God. However, the Jesus People were not typical worshippers; they participated in “revivals, rallies, Bible studies, street witnessing, speaking engagements, marches, and the use of mass media,” all while maintaining their “contemporary youth culture” (Gordon 160). Suddenly it was acceptable to praise Jesus and wear their hair long, to study the Bible and buy trendy clothing, and to witness in the streets while listening to rock music. A small group of Jesus People were renamed Jesus Freaks: “a bunch of young, radical kids turned on for Jesus” (Gordon 161). They participated in revivals, where Christian rock music was introduced as a way of praising Jesus. This revolutionary notion—that rock could correlate with celebrating God—started small and quickly turned into a massive commercial industry churning out music videos and hit singles (Horton 2).
Today, Contemporary Christian Music’s popularity is continuously growing, especially amongst young adults and people in their 40s and 50s. In 2003, Arbitron, an international media and marketing research firm, conducted a study that showed that 71% of the Contemporary Christian Music consumers were between the ages of 21-54 (Kelly 2003). As early as 1985, Contemporary Christian Music accounted for more than 25% of sales in bookstores (Howard & Streck 40). In 2001, sales of music classified as Contemporary Christian Music reached over $1 billion (Powell 2002). Due to Contemporary Christian Music covering a multiplicity of genres-rock, hip-hop, rap, pop-the industry has continued to thrive. The genre does not matter in the classification of Contemporary Christian Music. Instead, focus is placed on the lyrics, artists and record label (Moberg 2007). Typically, songs aim to go beyond sheer entertainment and instead, evangelize and “save” lost souls (Howard 124). The songs seek to give honor to Jesus and demonstrate pure morals. The sounds of Christian artists are frequently compared to that of mainstream artists: Third Day to Hootie and the Blowfish, Rebecca St. James to Alanis Morissette, Steven Curtis Chapman to Billy Joel or Paul Simon (Powell 2002). Some artists have even managed cross over success, with inexplicitly Christian songs finding their way onto top 40 charts. These songs are usually still accepted and enjoyed by Christian music fans who simply “find a Christian viewpoint presented in their lyrics” (Howard & Streck 49).

Advances in technology have helped to make Contemporary Christian Music accessible to individuals around the world and have led to a growth in the industry. Technology has shifted from print-based to audiovisual, leading to a greater sense of being connected, despite space and time boundaries. The ability of communication to transcend geographical boundaries has led to a greater connection between a “sense of God, spirit, [and] a sense of meaning that is larger than ourselves” (Teusner 1998). Religion is no longer a private ritual. Celebrities can now Twitter about Jesus while college students join faith-based Facebook groups. Political figures state “God Bless America,” celebrities and athletes consistently thank God for success, and secular musicians occasionally weave religiously themed lyrics into their work (Hulsether 127). File sharing programs and music downloading sites allow people throughout the world to put Hillsong albums and gospel tunes on their MP3 players. People are also able to stream Christian radio stations on their computers. The Internet, chat-rooms, online worship, email lists and television expose the public to the newest spiritual practices, Contemporary Christian artists, and upcoming “cool” churches they can attend (York 361). Worshippers no longer have a need or desire to sit on a hard wooden pew to get a traditional fix of religion.

Some may find it surprising that religion can turn up in everything from rock to rap to heavy metal—most would find these genres at odds with the values and morals religion tends to convey. However, even before Contemporary Christian Music became a legitimate industry, religiously themed rock songs occasionally found success on mainstream pop charts (Howard 123). Mainstream rap artist Tupac Shakur has had his lyrics described as “creative and rather clear[ly] theologizing” (Pinn 100). Religious rap music, or rap music with underlying religious tones, is particularly enticing to African American religion. It “rescue[s] [African American religion] from what appears to be a crisis of relevance” (Pinn 99). Although hip hop usually condones violence, drugs and promiscuous behavior, artists like Nas, Mase and Kanye West have found tremendous success in songs with explicit references to spirituality and Jesus (Marchant 15). Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” was nominated for 2004’s Song of the Year (Marchant 22). Christian metal music has been one of the most controversial genres within Contemporary Christian Music. Because heavy metal is loud and aggressive, many churches and conservatives have been unaccepting of Christian metal. Johannes Jonsson, a project coordinator for the Metal Bible explains that Christian metal actually brings worshippers closer to Jesus. “Christian metal is a complement to other ways of spreading the Christian message. Through this music it is possible to reach out to many who would never take the message to themselves served in a more traditional way” (Moberg 2007). Despite skeptics criticizing these unconventionally Christian genres, consumers are continuing to purchase music and worship alongside bands of all kinds.

Churches around the world are recognizing the mass appeal Contemporary Christian Music has on congregations and are integrating it into services as a means of drawing in more members. The use of upbeat, non-traditional music is enticing intrigued youth into worship. At Christ Tabernacle Church in Queens, New York, the church holds weekly rap church services (Marchant 27). In fact, a booking agent for Christian rap groups estimated that there are 150 churches integrating hip-hop into services in New York City alone (Marchant 27). Churches are very deliberately using Contemporary Christian Music to influence emotions and actions within church walls. At Breakfree Church in Perth, Australia, “music is one of the best ways to create atmosphere” (Jennings 164). This atmosphere is hip, inviting and intentionally directed towards facilitating detachment from the outside world. Churches recognize the need to “sell” themselves to the public and to package them in a manner that is commercial and entertaining (Hulsether 128, 133).

The epitome of Contemporary Christian Music being used as a marketable commodity can be found at Hillsong, a Sydney-based megachurch. Hillsong has been extremely successful in selling themselves to a predominantly youthful but immense congregation. The original massive church sits on a 21-acre property and already had 200 employees by 2004 (Connell 319, 320). The church scarcely resembles a traditional church—over $25 million AUD were spent to insure that this was the case. The auditorium can hold 3500 members, while the youth meeting hall alone can hold 800. There is a daycare center, play areas, and a state of the art sound and lighting system (Connell 320). Within Hillsong, there are 40 television screens and a $40 million sound system (Connell 321). The church rakes in revenue through a Gloria Jeans coffee shop on campus, a hot dog, soda and popcorn stand, and most importantly, a Hillsong store selling books, CDs and DVDs (Connell 325). One of Hillsong’s most valuable assets can be found within their own music industry. The worship band has recorded albums that have enjoyed worldwide success, with more than 6 million CDs sold. Recordings of Hillsong can even be purchased for cell phone ring tones. It has been estimated that Hillsong’s Contemporary Christian Music recordings brought in $8 million for the church in 2002. One of the pastors at the church, Darlene Zschech, has sold 5 million Contemporary Christian albums throughout the world (Connell 326). This “McChurch” has been fashioned to entice, to persuade, and to sell. It has gained worldwide recognition as a successful megachurch, due in large part to its commoditization of the Christian religion.

This secularization and mainstreaming of Contemporary Christian Music has led to questioning as to whether the industry contradicts the message. Ironically, while Christian artists are singing about leaving behind worldly possessions, they are also enjoying monetary success due to record sales. Many “have noticed that the more separate from the world the CCM industry seeks to be, the more worldly it seems to become” (Powell 2002). John Fischer, a columnist for Contemporary Christian Music magazine, dramatically stated that “Christianity has so identified with mainstream culture that it has ‘rolled over and died’ with respect to the radical, confronting nature of faith and the cross” (Howard & Streck 40).

Max Horkheimer expressed the belief that religion has redemptive possibilities and qualities in society, while Theodor Adorno believed that the artistic realm also provided society with these qualities (Howard 124). Theoretically, the unification of Christianity and music would redeem and improve society. However, the fact that the music has become so secular, so mainstream, so generic may lead to the argument that Contemporary Christian Music is in fact doing the exact opposite. Adorno and Horkheimer argue that hit music no longer invokes meaning or creativity, due to the mass produced nature of popular culture (3). Popular music has become clich√© and generic, while the entertainment industry as a whole has become monotonous and predictable; “Every detail is so firmly stamped with sameness that nothing can appear which is not marked at birth, or does not meet approval at first sight” (Adorno & Horkheimer 5). Adorno and Horkheimer deem the culture industry as having clumsily turned legitimate art into nothing more than a naive commodity and something to be consumed by the market (8). Culture within mainstream entertainment has ceased to exist, as the two seem to defy one another. People are more concerned with trends and consumption than being cultured and refined. The arts have turned business into their ideology (Adorno & Horkheimer 9). As many Contemporary Christian artists sound immensely similar to mainstream artists, these viewpoints are entirely justifiable. They seem to follow a formula for successful singles or music videos; the only difference is within the meaning of the lyrics. It is difficult at times to distinguish between Contemporary Christian and secular rock, hip-hop and heavy metal.

It cannot be denied that Contemporary Christian Music has altered and shaped religion over the past 40 years. From its use in contemporary, untraditional worship services, to its marketability in megachurches, to its streaming live on the internet, Contemporary Christian Music has molded a new generation of Christians. No longer content with organs and hymnals, young adults are recognizing that top 40 hits and Christianity are not mutually exclusive. While the joining of heavy metal and Jesus may make some uncomfortable, Contemporary Christian Music is successfully drawing in individuals who might not feel comfortable worshipping in other, more traditional, ways. This contribution to the Christian religion cannot be overlooked. Contemporary Christian Music may not be as cultured as classical music or the theater, but it is enticing, exciting and easily sold to millions around the world.

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