Since the onset of the Jesus People movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Christianity has developed into a subculture, fully equipped with our own media, language, and behaviors. Led by a group of youthful baby boomers disenfranchised with the dominant hippie culture of experimental drug use and free sex, the Jesus People traded acid trips for the Eucharist and began expressing their faith through music in the styles of their contemporaries. Before long, this music grew in popularity and began to commercialize, leading to the development of a new industry that is now marketed primarily to churches and Christian audiences.
What follows next is known as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM); a consumer-focused industry that has established itself in church liturgy. But why is this important? And how should Christians respond?
We cannot understand the industry of CCM without first understanding it’s roots. The Jesus People Movement was birthed out of the 1960s hippie movement, as musicians began to express their Christian beliefs in musical styles that young people could relate to. By the early 70s, the movement had grown from a humble group of hippies in southern California to the cover story of Time Magazine.
Part of the reason why this new style of religious music caught on so rapidly is because of the way it embodied the cultural value of individual, emotive experiences. “Evangelicalism appealed to hippies,” says Axel Schäfer, Professor of American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University, “because it condoned the expressive styles and anti-establishment message of the counterculture” (Schäfer, 98). Thanks to the emotive nature of Christian music, borrowed extensively from the anti-war sentiments of folk music, Evangelicalism was officially branded as “cool.”
“In their determination to deliver clear messages, [Christian] bands weren’t necessarily much different from the many secular bands that wrote protest songs…” says Kalefa Sanneh, contributor for The New Yorker. Even the famous Bob Dylan eventually jumped on board for the Jesus People movement after joining Vineyard Christian Fellowship in southern California.
Once the Jesus People had music to express themselves and were attending churches that were open to the shift toward new music, they needed to adopt the technology necessary for corporate expression. Perhaps the most seminal technological advancement in this time period is overhead projection. As the technology became more affordable and accessible, its usefulness in churches became more apparent.
“In developing what have since come to be called praise and worship services,” says Eileen Crowley, Associate Professor of Liturgy, Arts and Communications at Catholic Theological Union, “Pentecostal churches such as the Assemblies of God found that projected lyrics freed congregants from holding hymnals and gave them an option to express bodily their experience of the Spirit” (Crowley, 23).
Further, the new technology carried the benefit of allowing worship leaders to seamlessly introduce the newest congregational songs without having to wait for them to be musically notated and printed in paper publications. In a culture of “cool” which values authentic expression over tradition and conformity, ditching the hymnal for the latest Vineyard tune is now standard.
Before long, the movement was systematized into a model for church growth. Christian music was commercialized and used as an evangelism tool, which churches saw as an opportunity to attract the unchurched. According to Mark Geil, contributor for Christianity Today, “As the sound gained popularity and acceptance, radio stations sprang up in random markets, sometimes playing Christian music only part-time.” In the decades that followed, these radio stations steadily increased in size, growing from part-time regional stations into national, full-time, listener supported stations.
The power of Christian radio is in how it aids the cause of CCM, by providing feel-good music to the masses in exchange for revenue, while simultaneously providing a new mass-cultural imagination for what church music can sound like. The outcome is a feedback loop. Once a song becomes popular on the radio, worship ministers begin to play the song in churches in the hopes of appealing to the unchurched. Once the song becomes a means of expression in a local community, requests for the song to be played on the radio increase as a result. In this sense, CCM has unlocked the key to self-sustaining energy, ultimately blurring of the lines between product and liturgy.
At times, songwriters make conscious decisions to water down the music and lyrics in order to ensure more plays on the radio and in the church. As Aaron Shust, a singer/songwriter in the Christian music industry said in an interview with Christianity Today, “All of our songs are written with the intention of wanting a congregation to sing along.” And in this regard, simpler is better. Even instrumentation is structured around whether or not a church will be able to play it on Sunday morning. Poetic lyrics, mature subject matter, or complex instrumentation might not make the cut.
The genius behind this business model is knowing the target audience. Enter Becky, a 35-44 year old “soccer mom,” who likes women’s Bible studies and Lifetime movie network; she’s a mom that’s struggling to keep up with the daily demands of being a mom. The Christian music industry created Becky as a model persona—a representative of the mass market they are pursuing.
The implications, according to Geil, are significant. “Advertising dollars are turned away when the content or the company might be questionable, DJ dialogue is sensitive to the possibility that young ears might be listening, and song lyrics are chosen to match the adjectives in the slogans: safe, upbeat, encouraging, uplifting, positive.”
As a result, the concept of “Praise and Worship” now finds its primary identity as a genre of music instead of liturgy. Crowley defines liturgy as “ritual in which the participants ideally understand themselves as actors and not as audience members” (Crowley, 13). Music genres, on the other hand, seek to do the exact opposite: growing an ever-increasing fan base of audience members whose primary means of engagement is in the form of purchasing records and concert tickets.
This explains the explosion of popularity of worship bands like Jesus Culture, Passion, Hillsong United, and Elevation Worship embarking on stadium tours across the country and regularly selling out arenas with 20,000 seats. The term “worship” now has more association with drum swells, ambient guitars, synthesizers, and repetitive choruses than it does with the concept of living sacrifice.
The action of worship is now individualized: experienced in the isolated environment of a single person in front of her steering wheel. On occasions where we gather for worship, we favor strategies of dimming the house lights and encouraging a posture of singing with our eyes closed; we replace the corporate seating of the pew with rows of independent chairs—it’s as though we’re attempting to put out of our minds entirely that we’ve gathered for the purpose of worshiping together.
Meanwhile on the other side of the stage, in the age of reality TV singing competitions like The Voice and American Idol, things continue to take a turn for the superficial. Since the early 2000s, several finalists from these shows have been able to leverage their 15 minutes of fame as a career-launching platform and inevitably cross over into CCM. Artists like Colton Dixon, Mandisa, and Danny Gokey have only helped to solidify the ties between church and prime-time entertainment. As a result, the unspoken expectation when someone is singing on a stage is to listen and critique, rather than to engage and sing along.
Instead of a corporate worship experience, we’re now engaging in dozens—or hundreds, or thousands—of individual worship experiences side by side with virtual strangers. Strangers with whom our only point of contact is the dreaded 30 seconds of turn-and-greet; the only point of the service where we’re forced to look another person in the eye and exchange pleasantries.
The Way Forward
According to Tex Sample, Professor of Church and Society at Saint Paul School of Theology, “Our senses, our feelings, our bodies, and our ways of engaging life are culturally and historically structured” (Sample, 42). In other words, the reality that we lament is of our own making. We respond to ambient guitars and moody lights because we’ve been conditioned to respond. Then we adopt and employ the same techniques on others that have worked on us in the past. There is little shame in admitting this truth. The question we must ask in light of this truth is, what is the way forward?
Though it may seem intuitive, the way forward is not found while travelling backward. The idea that we can just “go back to singing hymns in church” is misguided. First, hymns often use antiquated language that has fallen out of expression, which leads to inaccessible corporate worship. It’s difficult to feel connected to a transcendent God while singing about an “ebenezer,” when all comes to mind is that old grump, Scrooge. The second reason that this line of thinking is misguided is that it falls prey to the same attitude of consumerism that it seeks to avoid. When we throw out the worship band and reintroduce the organ, we’re essentially just calling in to the radio station and asking them to play the oldies. We haven’t solved anything, we’ve just playing music that nobody listens to anymore.
Instead, we must allow the modern Church to express herself in a way that is congruent with the culture she is a part of. The culture that we inhabit is nothing to be ashamed of—if we prefer ambient lights and simple song structures, then it’s a good thing that our churches are embracing contemporary worship styles.
Yet, in the midst of this, we must seek to understand the media environment that we are immersed in. “Environments are invisible” says McLuhan. “Their groundrules, pervasive structure, and overall patterns elude easy perception” (McLuhan). We cannot ignore outright the influence of the Christian music industry in our church liturgies. We should observe, analyze, understand, and act—redeeming the participatory act of worship from passive observation. “In responsible worship,” says John E. Burkhart, “graced humans enact living testimonies to the reality of God’s work in the world” (Burkhart, 34). Our worship should be contagious.
Next, we must contextualize. We must seek to avoid all forms of cultural imperialism, and allow churches to express themselves in their local context. The mere fact that a song is popular on the radio does not mean that we ought to be playing it in our churches, much less that we ought to play it in our specific, localized community. Churches that are not native english speakers should sing in their mother tongue; in music styles that are appropriate to their culture. It is unhelpful for a small church in Honduras to exclusively sing a catalogue of translated Hillsong music. We ought to empower and enable local churches to speak their words on behalf of their context, their community, and their culture.
Once in my undergrad, I remember having a conversation with an international student from Honduras. She told me that in her home church of about 50 people, they mostly played the music of Hillsong and sang in Spanish. Occasionally they’d use unique instruments from their context to accompany the mass-market music.
This reality has attributes of imperialism. It is unhelpful for a small church in Honduras to exclusively sing a catalogue of translated Hillsong music. We ought to empower and enable local churches to speak their words on behalf of their context, their community, and their culture.
Third, we are called to cultivate. As shepherds of worship, we have the holy task of leading others further along in a theology of worship. We are tasked with helping our hyper-individualized culture become aware of the corporate element of worship—bringing attention to the voices that surround us and entering into the holy participation of worshipping our Savior as one Bride with one voice. In the words of Burkhart, “Christians are assembled to celebrate what God has done, is doing, and promises to do in the world… gathering, is a celebration of the social reality of God” (Burkhart, 49). When we worship together, we are participating in a reality that is greater than ourselves: a reality that rejects the individualism of our age and calls us to be members of one another.
May it be so.
Burkhart, John E. Worship: A Searching Examination of the Liturgical Experience. Westminster, 1992.
Crowley, Eileen D. Liturgical Art for a Media Culture. Liturgical Press, 2007.
McLuhan, Marshall, et al. The Medium Is the Massage: an Inventory of Effects. Gingko Press, 2005.
Sample, Tex. The Spectacle of Worship in a Wired World: Electronic Culture and the Gathered People of God. Abingdon Press, 1998.
Schäfer, Axel R. Countercultural Conservatives American Evangelicalism from the Postwar Revival to the New Christian Right. University of Wisconsin Press, 2014.