The White, Conservative Faith That Controls Christian Music | Sojourners

The White, Conservative Faith That Controls Christian Music

Fans pack near the stage to cheer the band The Afters at the Creation Christian music festival near Mount Union, Penn., June 29, 2008.  Mike Segar/Reuters

Leah Payne often hears the same question about modern worship music: “Have worship concerts just become rock shows?” In her new book, God Gave Rock and Roll to You: A History of Contemporary Christian Music, Payne reframes that question. “I wanted to flip that around and say, ‘No. The original rock ‘n’ roll show was actually a revival meeting,’” Payne said in an interview with Sojourners.

Contemporary Christian Music is technically distinct from praise and worship music, though the categories exist and intermingle in the same evangelical continuum. Using her expertise as a scholar of American religious history and a 2023-2024 Public Fellow at the Public Religion Research Institute, Payne details the creation, proliferation, and decline of CCM, tracing the industry’s relationship with conservative evangelical Christianity.

“The question that guides this book is: What can one learn about the development of evangelicalism by looking at CCM, one of the largest, most profitable forms of mass media produced in the twentieth century?” Payne writes in her introduction. 

God Gave Rock and Roll to You begins over a century ago amid tent meetings, Christian songbook publishers, and early radio revivalist preachers like Aimee Semple McPherson. “Under revival tents, preachers sought to breathe new life into supposedly dying forms of American Protestantism,” Payne writes. Then, a new generation of talent in the mid-20th century embedded “nostalgia, appropriation of Black Gospel music, and patriotism” in their music, as well as “the apocalyptic anticipation of their Holiness and Pentecostal forebears.” The Jesus Movement of the 1970s, a Christianized counterculture with roots in California, has a connection to denominations that still exist today, especially Calvary Chapel. “Jesus musicians often reveled in the notion that the savior of the universe was giving them personal attention,” Payne writes.

CCM is about more than a listener’s personal connection to Jesus, though. Payne helps readers — even past or current CCM listeners — better understand the music’s tether to the United States’ social and political climate. “If you look at the charts year to year, Contemporary Christian Music is a lot like country. It’s overwhelmingly white,” Payne told Sojourners. “One of the reasons why I think it makes sense to start in the early-20th century is you recognize that [CCM is] an industry that is born in the segregated South.”

While CCM is a field historically dominated by white performers, the 1990s saw higher church attendance among “Black and Brown Protestants,” but “CCM labels made only halting steps toward embracing new listeners,” Payne writes. On a deeper level, in even more recent history, those with power in the CCM industry have rarely wielded their influence to publicly advocate for communities facing discrimination, prejudice, or racial injustice.

Payne recalls Grammy-winning, contemporary gospel music artist Kirk Franklin’s award acceptance speeches at the GMA Dove Awards, an award show started by the Gospel Music Association in 1969, recognizing worship and CCM talent. “When police are killed, we need to say something. When Black boys are killed, we need to say something. And when we don’t say something, we’re saying something,” Franklin said in 2016. In 2019, the artist mentioned Atatiana Jefferson being killed by a police officer. These topics were cut from the respective broadcasts. “Someone of his stature still running into that, I think, says a lot,” Payne said. 

The author doesn’t shy away from CCM’s moral expectations or scandals, either. Sexual purity was one value the music perpetuated for young listeners, as seen in BarlowGirl’s song “Average Girl,” which Payne cites in her book. “No more dating, I’m just waiting / Like Sleeping Beauty, my prince will come for me ... God is writing my love story,” the group sang. CCM artists were held to a standard of abstinence before (heterosexual) marriage, as exemplars of evangelical Christian faith in action. Those deemed out of step with evangelical values could be exiled, especially if they were women. Payne told Sojourners that by the ’90s and 2000s, “in many cases, the target customer was your mom, not you, because the idea was that moms were regulating media. And so, a lot of times, from a marketing perspective, it’s like, ‘Well, what do moms want?’” 

The CD aisles at Christian bookstores allowed for self-expression in terms of genre, as CCM developed into an industry with its own pop, rap, and rock groups. However, self-expression was self-contained in an evangelical bubble, a subculture with music, books, T-shirts, posters, everything you might need to absorb a specific spirituality and let it absorb you.

Payne’s discussion of Christian rock acts, such as Petra, Stryper, and DeGarmo & Key, crystallizes the way CCM could engineer a young person’s understanding of following Jesus: “Chart-topping CCM rockers were those who could flip the script and reframe traditional white evangelical mores as the true form of rebellion.”

Stryper, a CCM glam metal band whose discography includes songs of salvation and hope in Christ, also performed a track called “Soldiers Under Command”: “Are you a soldier under God’s command? / Help fight the good fight, join us while you can.”

DC Talk doubled down on themes of Christian resistance in the ’90s with their “Jesus Freak” music video. In the video, as Payne describes in her book, “Nazi salutes, communist party symbols, [and] civil-rights protesters in the American South” are projected in a sequence that includes Christian imagery. DC Talk dramatizes being under arrest, essentially “compar[ing] the life of a young American evangelical to the life of someone living under persecution from fascists, communists, and segregationists.”

Given that Christians are the largest, most historically influential religious group in the country, it is hard to reconcile calling U.S. Christians a persecuted group. In a new millennium, Payne details “the waning of CCM and the waxing of worship,” the shifting of culture under a Democratic presidential administration, and the defecting of evangelicals who see ways to live a Christian life beyond conservative evangelicalism. Megachurch worship collectives take the lead, from Hillsong and Elevation Worship to Maverick City Music, which Payne described to Sojourners as “an overt mashup of white megachurch worship music and Black church sounds.” As collaborators, Elevation and Maverick City are more reflective of a shifting multicultural landscape. 

However, charismatic worship in the age of Trump has also garnered significant influence in detrimental ways. “Pentecostal and Charismatic worship leaders like [Sean] Feucht, [Kim] Walker-Smith, and Kari Jobe — once a group with a brand too ‘fanatical’ for the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene — are now at the vanguard of conservative white evangelical activism in the United States,” she argues.  

With maskless rallies, “Feucht framed his opposition to COVID-19 restrictions as a form of rebellion and branded his work as part of the legacy of the Jesus movement,” Payne writes.

Yet all hope is not lost for the future of Christian music. LGBTQ+ artists are changing the conversation around Christian music and using their voices to impact an industry that has historically excluded them. Semler, an artist who performs contemporary music reflective of their experience as a queer Christian, is at the forefront.

“I think Semler is a really incredible example of the fact that the traditional gatekeepers can no longer establish the boundary around what makes Christian music,” Payne told Sojourners. Semler and drag queen Flamy Grant have topped the iTunes Christian music charts. In a digital, post-Christian-bookstore era, it is harder to gatekeep the increasingly amorphous and accessible genre of CCM.

PRRI reported the findings of their Health of Congregations Survey in 2023, sharing that 30 percent of U.S. survey participants who switched from one religious tradition or denomination to another did so because of their former “religion’s negative teachings about or treatment of LGBTQ people.” Even though some CCM stars, like Amy Grant, have expressed acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals, Payne observes that “breaking with evangelical teachings about homosexuality was a bridge too far” for the institution of CCM. Industry leaders are collectively failing to establish a standard of acceptance, but new artists continue to redefine what Christian music is and who can sing it. 

There is room to reexamine music that shaped us in the past, and to encounter the artistry of musicians who aren’t receiving airtime on K-LOVE — a national Christian radio network. In the streaming landscape, people can discover music that meets them in their imperfect lives and their growing faith. Maybe that’s a piece of the future in Christian music: an honest balance between real human experiences and hope in a savior whose love is bigger than what CCM would have us believe. 

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