Jesus Music

For the past 50 years, since sprouting roots in 1968, I’ve been reading and listening to critics of what has since been named Contemporary Christian Music. Smiling gratefully whenever reading my name in connection with its earliest history, I note that the stark contrasts between the music only a handful of us played and what has evolved from it are worthy of conversation.

A sub-category of Rock ‘n Roll, the earliest Jesus music was designed to reach into the streets as an evangelistic tool. There was no thought of it being used in “the Church” to replace the Hymns of Christendom, a tragedy that has occurred in the intervening decades.

Within a few years the raw, rock ‘n roll sound birthed by bands like Agape and the All Saved Freak Band ran into the early “Gate-keepers” of the newly forming CCM industry. In the early 1970’s, visionaries like Ralph Carmichael and Billie Ray Hearns, teaming up with artists like Andre Crouch, Keith Green and the Talbot brothers, fixed the trajectory of the emerging music. The evangelistic fervor with which it all began was no longer part of the equation.

Shaping the nascent genre to make it more palatable to Christian communities, the new standards emphasized risk aversion. Anything with a hard-rock edge blurred the line between sacred and secular and no longer passed muster. Anything with biting, controversial lyrics, thoughts that might “rock the boat,” no longer fit the formula. The hippie-looking musicians who first appeared no longer satisfied the slick, suburban profile the Gate-Keepers hammered out.

Comparing ourselves among ourselves, we were not wise. Instead of getting better musically, lyrically and spiritually, we created our own radio stations, then our own record labels, our own awards shows, our own empire, our own institutionalized undoing. The outside-the-box kind of thinking that launched the entire effort seems to have disappeared when calling became vocation. The music was meant as a means for promoting the Gospel, not our own, gilded machines.

Between 1967 and 1973 the airwaves were filled with creative music no matter where you turned on the FM dial. When “Jesus music” had to contend for airtime with everyone from the Allman Brothers to Frank Zappa, it had to have some serious chops and musical merit. Though the intent was good, the creation of its own musical category in the mid-1970’s became the undoing of the entire adventure. It wasn’t the radical Gospel message keeping secular stations from airing CCM, it was the musical pablum produced by the new, middle-of-the-road approach.

The original purpose and energizer of Jesus music, to draw “unsaved” crowds and touch lives for God in a personal and meaningful manner, seems to have become more slogan than consuming reality. The current focus of CCM seems content to endlessly remind believers of well-known truths, providing something to sing, “off the wall,” with Worship Leaders. There seems no “anguish” for the lost, those spiritually needy lives outside the reach of a $30 ticket, a $20 CD or a $15 T-shirt advertising the band that just overcharged them for mediocrity.

Identified as one of its earliest pioneers, I wonder if Contemporary Christian Music hasn’t, like a bad tattoo, outlived its original inspiration. Perhaps the only thing that should remain, after what appears to be the demise of CCM, is the music of those who’ve turned the benevolent whispers of God’s love into songs that can impact desperate souls.

Wonder what they’ll call that? If, regardless of personal, musical tastes, the future music of Believers moves us someplace good, somewhere nearer the heart of God and needy people, then we will have grown past our terrible case of elitism, class envy and star-shine toward the memorable choruses of a new, pure music. God in the moment, expressed in art; what could be wrong with that?

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