It’s a question a lot of us have attempted to answer, but are we looking at it the right way?
CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) is, unfortunately, a polarizing genre. One side loves it (though the number of its adoring fans has decreased over the past decade), the other can’t stand it. I’ve been on both sides. In my earlier years, CCM was all I listened to. I grew up with the Newsboys (who’s early music still means a lot to me) before moving onto Third Day, Casting Crowns, Delirious?, and Mercy Me. Some of those artists are still producing strong material, others have since retired or have fallen into mediocrity. The last time I tuned into a Christian radio station was 2012, until a couple of weeks back where, out of curiosity, I tuned to one of my favourite Christian radio shows. I used to listen to the two-hour show all the way through every Saturday, but when I went to turn it on, I could only get through twenty minutes.
Christian music has always been behind, often being blamed for plagiarizing its secular counterparts. But back in the nineties, even in the mid-2000s, Christian music had some amazing talent even secular audiences took notice of. DC Talk’s Jesus Freak, the album that broke Christian rock into the mainstream, Jars of Clay’s self-titled debut, Newsboys’ Take Me to Your Leader, these records were, and still are, classics both audiences appreciated. However, there hasn’t been an album like these since David Crowder’s eclectic 2005 release, A Collision, and even that didn’t reach the worldwide popularity those albums reached. Another I wish I could include is House of Heroes’ The End is Not the End but it’s quite underrated even amongst CCM fans. There have been good, even great albums released in the CCM market since, but I doubt we’ll be getting another Jesus Freak anytime soon.
It’s made me wonder, where have we gone wrong? What has changed in the industry? Was it just luck, or was it something more? The problem, from how I see it, is that CCM is has become more about overcoming life’s problems than about the God who carries us through those problems. Everything to the music and lyrics is meant to encourage and inspire. Inspiration isn’t a bad thing, I’m not saying that at all. Even the albums mentioned above are inspirational. It’s how we’re executing the message that is the problem.
Here’s an example. The Christian rock band Audio Adrenaline were in the same boat as Newsboys and Jars of Clay during their early years. However, they disbanded in 2006 due to Mark’s vocals deteriorating. They later reunited in 2012 with DC Talk’s Kevin Max as the new lead vocalist. Their album, Kings and Queens, was a strong effort, but Kevin stepped down shortly after, unhappy with the direction the band wanted to take. This led to a bunch of member changes until they finally began anew with an entirely new lineup. A group of people who had no association with the band in the past at all. This is one of their new songs:
It’s pretty much a copy and paste of everything on Christian radio today. Now here is one of their older songs:
While both songs are inspirational, it’s “Ocean Floor” that is, in my eyes, most effective in carrying its message. Why is this?
What the albums I mentioned before have is relatability. “Ocean Floor” is full of lyrics every Christian and non-Christian can relate to. It’s what made these songs mainstream. The mistakes I’ve made that caused pain I could have done without, all my selfish thoughts, all my pride, the things I hide. These are honest lyrics we can all relate to. “Miracles,” on the other hand, has a good concept, but it fails to be relatable. ‘Cause I believe in miracles, you can do the impossible, every single heartbeat means there’s a God who’s in control, are inspirational, but there’s nothing to grab onto. There is no point where I say, “Yeah, that’s me.” It’s simply pointing to something anyone who’s been a Christian for any amount of time already knows.
But not being able to relate isn’t the only problem I’ve found with modern CCM. A major problem that should never have to be a problem are the themes themselves. When I tuned into that radio show, out of the seven singles I sat through, five, at least, focused on roughly the same idea. We can overcome, God will carry us through the storms, and His love is stronger than any trial we face. These themes are repeated so often throughout many modern CCM songs, it makes me wonder: have we forgotten the Gospel?
CCM has become an exclusive market. It caters to Christians and Christians only. Many have tried to break out of this by stepping out of the Christian market almost altogether and claiming their music is meant to be enjoyed by everyone, but that has caused a problem. Most step so far out the CCM market also leaves them behind; so while they may have Christian themes, they are essentially a secular artist. Switchfoot and NEEDTOBREATHE (coincidently my two favourite artists of all time) are the only ones to step out of CCM and still retain a massive following in that market. But others such as The Classic Crime, Reliant K, and Anberlin get little to no coverage on Christian radio. This is great in theory because they can reach unbelievers, right? Well, even though these artists are amazing (I’m a huge fan of each one), they rarely sing about the Gospel. Their songs are immensely relatable, but they’ve neglected the chorus that says, “Your sins are forgotten, they’re on the bottom of the ocean floor.”
Then on the other side, it’s disturbing to see how Christian radio has twisted the Gospel. CCM has boiled God’s love down to the here and now, neglecting to leave out the eternal aspect of that same love. God’s love is viewed as an encouragement, a tool to overcome rather than the objective truth that God came in the flesh, died, and rose again to save sinners. Again, encouragement is great, but this is all we’re getting. This is the Gospel according to CCM, that God is simply a friend who can help us.
God’s love isn’t a feel good remedy, it can hurt sometimes. We sing about overcoming trials, yet we never address the reason for those trials. Most times it’s because of God’s love that we go through these storms. They help shape us into better people.
The sad thing is, CCM has made God’s love so much about positive emotion, when we don’t feel it, we believe we’ve done something wrong. I used to be like this myself. When I had come off the high of being in a worship service (you know the ones where they shout, “God’s presence is so tangible in this place!”) I always thought God had left me. When I no longer felt His love and presence when I got home, I believed He was finished with me for the night! I can see now this couldn’t be further from the truth, but in presenting God’s love and presence as a conditional feeling, and the Gospel as a cure for all, when the feeling leaves and the Gospel doesn’t appear to be helping, we feel as though we’ve done something wrong. Maybe we’ve sinned, maybe we don’t have enough faith, maybe we’ve disobeyed and God’s love can’t reach us?
This is not what the Gospel is. It is in the midst of pain that the truth of God’s love becomes real. If we’re to get another Jesus Freak out of CCM, we need to come away from this self-help Gospel. We need to preach truth the same way Audio Adrenaline did back in 2001. Maybe then Christian music and art will surpass being simply an encouragement, to being something that can change lives and will get even the world wondering.