Are We Entering a New Era of Christian Music?

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As I’ve written before, I have a weird relationship with “Christian” music.

There were seasons in my life where that was all I listened to, and I absolutely loved it. I bought every Michael W. Smith album (literally), waited in line to meet Nicole C. Mullen and was usually wearing a Hawk Nelson tshirt.

I was that kid.

However, as I got older, I branched out a bit and discovered that I really enjoyed what my friends were listening to. As great as Bebo Norman and Jaci Velasquez and Third Day were, I realized I also really liked Coldplay and Fallout Boy and John Mayer.

All that to say, I’m surprisingly hopeful and excited about some trends I’ve noticed in the music industry lately—specifically as it relates to faith. To break down these changes, let’s rewind and do a quick recap of where we’ve come from through the various eras of CCM (Contemporary Christian music):

The Trailblazers.

Along with scrunchies, mullets and skateboards, the 80s also brought us the careers of Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and Steven Curtis Chapman. While there has always been music about God, these pioneers ushered in a new kind of Christian music. They were talented and young, and their music sounded similar to the pop hits on the radio. In fact, some of their songs even ended up “crossing over” on the charts, and they were forever immortalized as kings and queens of CCM. After we experienced “Lead Me On” and saddled up our horses, it seemed Christians had finally found their “place in this world” in popular music.

Good, Clean Fun. 

In the 90s and early 2000s, a wave of new artists hit the scene with a slightly different flavor of Christian music. After the early successes of the CCM trailblazers, Christian record companies jumped on the bandwagon and found ways to encourage “positive alternatives” to mainstream favorites. Many Christian artists in this era weren’t necessarily making bold statements about faith, but they were fun alternatives to mainstream pop. The Newsboys sang about Captain Crunch, Switchfoot mentioned Elvis’ mom, and Audio Adrenaline talked about heavenly football games. The content was safe, the melodies were catchy and Relient K taught us about mood rings.

Everyone Is Worshiping.

The mid-2000s were all about worship. I remember the first few times I heard “Here I Am to Worship” by Tim Hughes, and suddenly the music at my church and on the radio began to shift. Artists like Chris Tomlin, David Crowder and Hillsong led the charge, but eventually everyone was recording worship music. The music was definitely more centered on God, and it seemed to ignite a new passion in younger Christ-followers. As great as this was, the music also started to all sound very similar, and there was very little variety. Even edgier bands like Kutless and Seventh Day Slumber toned it down to release their own takes on modern worship classics. And if Hillsong or Desperation Band ever released a powerful song that wasn’t quite radio-friendly, you better believe our friends Phillips, Craig & Dean would swoop in and have it covered (literally).

This Is Different.

This leads us to today. Let’s review a few things that have happened just this past year:

  • Christian rapper NF landed a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart. Not the Christian 200, the overall Billboard (and apparently Eminem noticed).
  • Lauren Daigle’s new album Look Up Child debuted on Billboard ahead of Drake, Ariana Grande, Post Malone and Niki Minaj.
  • Grammy-nominated Tori Kelley (not typically regarded as a “Christian” artist) just released a new album called Hiding Place where every song is full of Christian themes, including one centered around Psalm 42.
  • Kesha—yes, Kesha—had a chart-topping song called “Praying.”
  • Avil Lavigne—yes, Avril Lavigne—just released a new single that many are calling a worship song where she pleads with God to rescue her.
  • Mumford and Sons has a new song where they continue their trademark move of subtly (or not-so-subtly) wrestling with faith.
  • Justin Bieber recently posted Instagram videos of him singing the popular worship song “Reckless Love” by Cory Asbury.

New Normal?

Over the past few years, the line between sacred and secular music has blurred arguably more than ever before. Christian artists like NF and Daigle are gaining national attention for their original and impressive releases, while mainstream artists seem more and more comfortable addressing matters of faith.

A recent article in the New Yorker referenced this trend, noting “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.”

In my opinion, this is really good news. Not necessarily because “Christian” music is “successful,” but because more and more people are willing to talk about matters that were seemingly taboo even a few years ago. We should be ok with and even celebrate artists like Avril, Kesha and Mumford when they are vulnerable enough to publicly wrestle with faith. Yes, some of their songs also include cursing and themes not necessarily endorsed by the Bible, but I think it’s important for us to remember: We’re all on our own journeys, and it can be dangerous to judge and hypothesize about the faith of rock stars from afar.

I hope the trend continues where we get to experience really good music, regardless of how it got marketed. I hope Christian artists feel the freedom to explore topics other than the worship genre, like Daigle and others like Needtobreathe have done so masterfully. I also hope mainstream artists follow the lead of Bieber and even Chance the Rapper where dialogue about faith in Christ is scattered throughout their lyrics and their lifestyles—even if we don’t agree with everything they say.

In this case, I believe that blurry line between sacred and secular can lead to natural, interesting and helpful conversations about faith that may not arise otherwise. It’s true many of these mainstream artists have room to grow in their faith and no one knows their motive behind these faith-based songs, but as Paul wrote to the Philippians: “Whether out of false motives or true, Christ is proclaimed. And in this I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18).

Besides, as Larry Norman (another CCM trailblazer) famously sang in the 70s, “Why should the devil have all the good music?”

Answer? He shouldn’t.

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