They used to call it gospel. But what began as the worship music of the faithful has, over the last 20 years, been transformed. In 2002, faith-based music is filling concert arenas and is beaming from both Christian and secular radio stations. Contemporary Christian music is on the rise. Overall, it still accounts for a small piece of the popular music pie -- but that piece is steadily growing. Last year, sales of Christian music were up while secular music sales slipped. What's going on here?
"Without getting too preachy, I think people are getting a clue," responds Dick Acker of People for Christ Ministry, a local organization that books and promotes Christian concerts and festivals all over the Northwest. "After 9/11, people realized that they're not totally in control of what's happening and are getting back to the basics."
Since 1993, the group has put on more than 200 concerts throughout Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
"When we started out, our motto was, 'Reaching people for Christ through Christian music.' It was initially geared to reaching the youth and since then, we've kind of broadened what we do. We are trying to evangelize and reach out to the unsaved with the music at the concerts but also lift up those that are already Christians."
Acker books everything from small worship events in churches to massive arena shows and festivals, such as last summer's Festival Con Dios at the Spokane Valley Mall, last month's Plus One show at the Opera House and the Jars of Clay show at the Opera House this Sunday.
"We do everything from mild to wild," he says.
Everything means just that. Today's contemporary Christian music manifests itself in a multitude of guises. In fact, much of it is stylistically indistinguishable from mainstream rock and pop. That's no coincidence. After fumbling for decades with music that was hopelessly lagging behind mainstream trends, Christian record labels (and their artists) have undergone a dramatic makeover. In addition, many are now owned by and distributed through mainstream major record companies, giving them access to the major's well-oiled marketing machinery. They are closing the gap by skillfully imitating current secular music styles, production and marketing techniques.
"I'd like to say it's all hard work, but it's marketing and networking within the Christian structure," admits Acker. "That all started happening about 10 to 12 years ago, and it's just been slowly emerging so that now whatever you have in the mainstream you'll have in the Christian market. Every kind of group as far as style is there -- pop, alternative, grunge, rap -- anything. You wouldn't even know it was Christian music."
Critics take issue with contemporary Christian music in at least two areas. Many see it as merely a medium used to spread an ideology (in this case Christianity) with little if any inherent artistic validity. While it's absurd to throw all faith-based artists into one basket, most do seem to share a common goal (whether implied or explicit): the conversion of non-believers through witnessing. It may be hard or soft, but it's a sales pitch nevertheless, and one designed for maximum impact.
Says Acker: "You've got solid Christian groups that play Christian concerts like Jars of Clay or Third Day, and then you've got bands like Lifehouse or P.O.D. who are Christian but don't necessarily proclaim it quite as obviously. The reason they don't is because they feel they can get into markets they normally wouldn't by kind of taking a back seat to it."
Along those lines, some also perceive the Christian tag as a marketing tool, something readily manipulated in the quest for crossover success. Increased Christian record sales translate into big bucks for the record labels and their stable of artists. Not surprisingly, for every successful pop entity, there is a faith-based doppelganger. N'Sync has its Plus One. And what is ZOEgirl but a Spice Girls/Dixie Chicks/Britney distillation? You don't have to look very hard to uncover the marketing strategy at work there. It prompts the question: is it all about the Lord, or is it about money? In its bid for mainstream success has Christian music sold out?
"For awhile there, for a lot of the Christian artists, crossover was their goal," says Acker, who booked secular rock acts into Spokane for 20 years before specializing in Christian artists. "They would say it was so that they could go and minister to the unsaved, but in actuality it was obviously a lot more about success and money. The Christian artists out there today have kind of backed off from that and have adopted the attitude that if it happens, it happens. But secular companies own all the Christian labels now, and they realize there's a market there and the money's there. Even in our industry, the money still directs what happens."
Acker, for his part, is very open about his group's intentions and the function of contemporary Christian music within their ministry.
"The Franklin Graham thing is a perfect example of how times have changed," he says. "Billy Graham would go out in a suit and preach and it would be very formal. Franklin, his son, goes out there in a Hawaiian shirt and puts it across in a modernized way, trying to be relevant and current. We're not trying to ram this down anybody's throat. I just think it's easier to bring people in with the concerts, [for] people who would probably never cross the doorstep of a church. We know that seeds are planted. Things happen. If we can reach even one person, it's worth it."