Contemporary Christian Music (CCM for short) may be the most misunderstood genre of music in the world. It’s an easy target for ridicule from those who aren’t familiar with it – especially in a world that is increasingly hostile to faith. Non-believers can easily view it with snobbery or disdain.
Within the church, CCM often faces opposition. Generations of church leaders have condemned Christian music – particularly rock – as co-opting “the devil’s music.” On the other side of the coin, Christians with discriminating tastes often view CCM as inferior art, a reputation that isn’t entirely unfair.
From the outside looking it, it seems like Christian music can’t win for losing, but legions of fans continue to buy it, and it has become a lucrative industry.
Two recent articles in the mainstream press have highlighted just how inescapable Christian music has become. Over at The New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh penned a surprisingly fair piece about the history of Christian rock and concludes that it’s everywhere. Sanneh writes:
What seemed irrevocable in 1972 may seem less so now—in fact, if Christian rock now seems less vibrant than it once did, that may say more about rock and roll than about Christianity. Mainstream rock is today a rather moribund genre. An ambitious pastor looking to minister to the nation’s youth would surely turn, instead, to hip-hop…
And yet, even now, Christian rock is all around us. On Billboard’s list of the twenty most popular rock songs of 2017, fully half of them were by bands whose members have espoused the Christian faith. This has something to do with a phenomenon that would have been hard to imagine in 1969: two of the country’s top rock acts, the Killers and Imagine Dragons, are led by Mormons. [Not to split hairs, but most Bible-believing Christians don’t count Mormons as believers –CQ] It also has something to do with the fact that faith no longer seems so alien to popular music—ours is an era when plenty of artists, not just religious ones, aim to send inspirational messages.
Sanneh’s article is worth checking out, even if I don’t necessarily agree with all of his observations.
This week, Amy X. Wang wrote over at Rolling Stone about the astounding debut of the new album by Lauren Daigle, a Christian singer with a powerful set of pipes. Daigle’s new record Look Up Child sold over 100,000 copies its first week — an impressive feat regardless of genre — and debuted at number 3 on the Billboard 200 album charts, ahead of albums by Drake, Ariana Grande, Mac Miller, Post Malone, Travis Scott and Nicki Minaj.
Wang takes the occasion to recognize that Christian music is a force to be reckoned with:
The album’s success highlights something broader, however: the deep persistence of Christian music in the U.S. audience — an aspect of music consumption that has been largely skipped over by headlines proclaiming rap as the sole driver of modern music in America. While rap and R&B have indeed risen to become the leading genre of music consumption, Christian music remains a sizable minority mass. Solid numbers are hard to come by, but at its annual conference in 2015, the Gospel Music Association reported that 68 percent of Americans had listened to Christian or gospel music within the last 30 days.
Christian radio stations — which sprung up soon after Christian rock’s inception in the late Sixties and have proliferated quietly but steadily ever since — dominate the broadcast landscape, matching country music stations and news stations in size.
The idea that Christian music is so pervasive may be a surprise to writers like Wang and Sanneh, but it shouldn’t be big news to a listening public who has experienced music with a Christian worldview on the radio for five decades.
Maybe Sanneh and Wang don’t remember:
- “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, which hit the top 5 in 1969.
- U2, who have been singing about faith and doubt since the ‘80s.
- Amy Grant, the first lady of Christian music, who first hit the pop charts in 1985.
- Jars of Clay and DC Talk, Christian groups who crossed over to mainstream radio in the ‘90s.
- Sixpence None the Richer, Lifehouse, and Switchfoot, who had big hits on the Hot 100 around the turn of the millennium.
Christian music has been a part of – and had an influence on – the secular music world for a long time. Yes, Lauren Daigle’s accomplishment is impressive, particularly for an artist on her second album. And yes, Christian rock still possesses a bit of a rebellious streak, both within the church and outside its walls. But the truth is, as long as faithful people continue to obey the scriptural command to “sing to the Lord a new song,” Christian music will continue both to reach other believers and sneak into the mainstream for years to come.
(For more about the history and influence of Christian music, check out my list post from last week: The 10 Most Influential Songs of the Early Years of Contemporary Christian Music.)