Contemporary Christian Music #1: Worldliness

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While many Christians may concede that most popular rock music is out of bounds for God’s people, “Christian rock” or Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) is often treated as a separate category. It is often seen as a great, God-honouring alternative to secular rock and often various arguments are raised in defence of CCM. Not surprisingly it has been embraced by various religious bodies and anecdotal reports indicate that it is making inroads into Reformed churches too.

So, what are the arguments used to justify it? Well, some Christians view opposition to CCM as unjustified conservatism. The church always resists everything new, they say, but once the novelty of CCM wears off, the church will adopt it. What is now contemporary will one day be traditional. Innovation, they add, is always resisted, but it need not be.

Another position presented in favour of CCM is that of aesthetic relativism. In this view any artistic (including musical) preferences are entirely subjective and only a matter of taste. Applied to CCM, it would reject any judgement of the musical style. In other words, they say that as long as the lyrics, the words, are acceptable the musical style should not be a problem.

Still another argument used by many CCM defenders maintains that it is a vital tool for evangelism. Is employing CCM not “becoming all things to all men,” as Paul would have us do? CCM is far more attractive to the world than a traditional liturgy, and we must use the most effective way of winning people for Christ!

However, on closer inspection none of these arguments are sound. The clear Biblical guidelines that we have do not permit CCM – neither in the church or for the sake of evangelism nor in the personal lives of the Christian, as I hope to demonstrate in the following three articles.

But first of all, I must define CCM. I will be using Rev Eric Moerdyk’s definition: “The name ‘CCM’ refers to the movement originating in the 60’s and 70’s which deliberately took the new style of music called rock & roll (in its various sub-genres, both the mild and the more extreme) and adapted it as Christian by adding new lyrics.”1 The term CCM, then, does not denote all Christian music composed in the last fifty years but refers specifically to Christianised rock and its subgenres. A new psalm melody or a new hymn, for example, would not fall under the category of CCM. The main stylistic elements of rock (such as a heavy beat, repetition, and high volume) and its instruments were also adopted. Thus the difference between secular rock and CCM is essentially reduced to the lyrics.

The first argument often used in favour of CCM is that it is a great alternative to mainstream rock. Condemning CCM will only cause young people to turn back to secular music, it is said. Such a view is, unfortunately, ill informed, but it has also justified secular rock for many Christians. How can you condemn the one and not the other?

Many CCM artists also adopt the secular rock culture and dress style. Photo: John Cooper of the ‘Christian rock band’ Skillet.

Many of the problems with secular rock apply just as much to CCM. That is hardly surprising, considering that it is a direct adaptation of secular rock. “The genre itself was born out of a desire to blend the message of the church with the popular sounds of the times and reach beyond the isolation of its culture. It was born out of a desire to fit into the mainstream. Today, nothing has changed. CCM cannot exist in isolation; it relies on the existence of other genres and popular musical trends to define its current state.”2 Many CCM artists regularly listen to secular rock (not barring even the most profane and vulgar) to get inspiration for their own music. It is even less surprising that worldliness has permeated the CCM industry when you see the crossovers between secular and Christian rock: CCM songs appearing on mainstream charts, secular musicians producing Christian music (or music with lyrics so ambiguous that they can potentially be interpreted to be Christian consequently end up on CCM charts), and artists producing both secular and Christian songs.

Given the association between CCM and mainstream rock, we can expect comments like this one: “Quite frankly as I look at a lot of contemporary Christianity, I don’t see much that I would define as holiness. On the contrary, I see a very disturbing trend of people seeking to be accepted by the world, applying the world’s methods and standards to Christianity, rather than the other way around… I see a lot of letting down of the standards, a lot of permissiveness, and a lot of watering down of the gospel, especially in the field of Christian music.”3

What we have in CCM is secular rock (with all the things that make it attractive) but with Christianised lyrics. John Makujina points to some of these problems, saying, “Sadly, moshing [a violent mode of dancing], stagediving, and body surfing also take place at Christian concerts […] and more regularly that one could wish to imagine.”4 Really, when these things happen at Christian concerts, it is much worse than if they happened in secular concerts. Not only does it cause God’s name to be blasphemed because of them (they are not witnessing of God’s holiness to the world), but it also shows an inexcusable lack of reverence towards God.

Another revealing comment on CCM comes from Adam Clayton, a member of U2. He says, “The prim and proper people call it gospel music, but the people who know what it’s all about call it sex music, because that’s what it is.” In the meantime, listeners were saying things like, “They are the most profound Christian contribution to the pop culture in the last forty years” and “[the record] is so full of Biblical truth it is like having a Bible study every time I listen to it.”5 These listeners were naively accepting the superficial Christian front that these singers were putting up. Yet, in reality, U2 is no better than its secular counterparts.

Commercialism is another problem with secular rock that also applies to CCM. Rev Moerdyk asks the pressing question, “Is the work of these artists ministry or entertainment?” As part of his response, he quotes from April Hefner, who was at the time the editor of CCM Magazine: “The truth is that, whatever else it may be, Christian music is very much a part of show business. While many fans would prefer to call it a ministry, the fact of the matter is that we are immersed in the entertainment industry.”6 He also notes that occasionally “secular companies are eager to buy out these ‘ministries’ because of their tremendous money-making potential.”7 Today (as it has been for some decades), CCM is a multimillion-dollar industry. While some might object that the success of CCM should not be viewed as a weakness, the point is that when profit becomes a motive, the truth suffers. One only has to think of the harm done to the church because of Roman Catholic simony in the Middle Ages.

Commercialism also produces people pleasers rather than God pleasers. Allan Bloom called rock music “perfect capitalism”,8 and that does not exclude CCM. Artists create what sells; the consumer determines the type of music. And frankly, although CCM is making inroads into Reformed churches, CCM’s biggest consumers are not Reformed churches. Instead, CCM’s most significant customers tend to be Charismatics and Pentecostals – even the world to some extent – who consequently determine what music the CCM industry produces.

These motives (to be accepted by the world, commercially successful, and socially popular) have resulted in a watered-down Christianity. Richard Peck, for example, writes that “CCM may change a great deal if record companies find that watering down strong Christian content makes CCM acceptable to a larger audience.”9 In her study on CCM’s success in the secular domain, Megan Carlan claims, “the genre of Rock was found to possess the greatest degree of mainstream success. Rock also, however, was shown to have a very low tolerance for theological language, contrasted with the high tolerance of Country. As such, it is reasonable to question whether Mainstream Christian Rock is even really Christian at all.”10

Or to take a specific example, I quote form Tyler Huckabee: “[Amy] Grant was especially revelatory, a comely teen whose lyrical vagaries left it a very open question as to whether she was singing about God or boys. It was a potent strategy, and it led to several Billboard-topping singles and the first Christian album to ever go platinum.”11

While there are undoubtedly exceptions within CCM to every one of the problems mentioned thus far, it needs to be noted that these are not peripheral problems but sit right at the heart of the industry. It would be impossible for a devoted CCM listener to altogether avoid worldly bands or songs promoting a shallow gospel.

To be continued.

References

  1. Eric Moerdyk, 2021, p. 6; emphasis original. (The paper I refer to is hitherto unpublished. Used with permission). Moerdyk does acknowledge that “any definition will be inadequate, because there are some songs that will fall outside of it.” He also notes that, given the diversity within CCM, any analysis would be complicated and necessarily use generalisations since there will always be exceptions.
  2. https://digitalcommons.pace.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1213&context=honorscollege_theses p. 12
  3. Dallas Holm, 1983, quoted by Eric Moerdyk, p. 14
  4. John Makujina, Measuring the Music: Another Look at the Contemporary Christian Music Debate. Old Paths Publications, 2002, p. 51
  5. John Blanchard with Peter Anderson & Derek Cleave, Pop Goes the Gospel: Rock in the church, Darlington: Evangelical Press, 1989, p. 132
  6. CCM Magazine, July 1999 p. 6, quoted by Eric Moerdyk, p. 17
  7. Ibid, p. 20
  8. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987
  9. Richard Peck, Rock: Making Musical Choices. Bob Jones University Press, 1985, p. 77
  10. https://digitalcommons.pace.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1213&context=honorscollege_theses p. 1
  11. Ibid, p. 7