Christian Music

Art, Liturgy, and the Future of Music: A Q&A With Gungor


Editor's Note: Last week, Sojourners’ Associate Web Editor Catherine Woodiwiss caught up with musical collective Gungor at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Here’s what Michael Gungor has to say about art, liturgy, and the future of music.

This interview has been edited for length and content.

Catherine: So what brings you to South by Southwest (SXSW)?

Gungor: I guess we thought it was about time to experience the circus.

Catherine: A couple of years ago there was talk of SXSW becoming a destination for "Christian techies,” and Donald Miller premiered his popular film, Blue Like Jazz, at the film portion of the festival. Do you consider yourself part of a Christian “witness” here at SXSW?

Gungor: We are here to make some music, have a good time, and perhaps make some friends along the way. We certainly aren't here to proselytize or advance some secret religious message or anything.

But anywhere we go, we do have a desire to live the sort of life that Jesus invited people to live.

Troy Bronsink’s 'Songs To Pray By' Travels To Wild Goose

Troy Bronsink, photo via Andrew William Smith
Troy Bronsink, photo via Andrew William Smith

Troy Bronsink’s meditative live album Songs to Pray By stretches its sonic arms to embrace every listener with expansive words of spirited awe and awesome humility, with ecstatic waves of audio grace and rhythmic gravity.

Bronsink and his band bring to church what we’ve seen out on the festival circuit for years: a shimmery and psychedelic use of sound and language to elevate listeners who choose to inhabit a song as if it were wings, the place where the spirit soars and the heart sings. We don’t often associate noodly guitars and trippy percussion with the worship sound, which is exactly why this album is such a perfect addition to the praise genre.

A solo Bronsink will be presenting his musical work tomorrow at the Wild Goose Festival. We both took a break from packing and planning our journeys to North Carolina for this email interview.

Catholic Rocker Matt Maher Finds Cross-Over Appeal Among Evangelicals

Photo courtesy Matt Maher
Catholic artist Matt Maher. Photo courtesy Matt Maher

Growing up Roman Catholic in Newfoundland, Matt Maher never imagined that his childhood interest in music would lead to a career as a Grammy-nominated, chart-topping Christian rocker — let alone a crossover artist featured on Christian radio and in evangelical worship.

After he stopped going to Mass as a freshman in high school, Maher wasn’t even sure about his own faith. The idea of maintaining a personal relationship to God seemed a foreign concept.

“Where I grew up, evangelical Christianity really hadn’t made any strides,” said Maher, now 38, describing the mainline religious culture of his wind-swept Canadian homeland.

Listen to any of his catchy, guitar-driven pop-rock anthems, such as his new single, “Lord, I Need You,” and it’s clear God is never far from Maher’s mind these days.

Modern Hymn Writers Revive a Lost Musical Art

Hymnals at a church, Alexander A.Trofimov /
Hymnals at a church, Alexander A.Trofimov /

Most songwriters in Nashville want to get their songs on the radio. Keith and Kristyn Getty hope their songs end up in dusty old hymnbooks.

The Gettys, originally from Belfast, Ireland, hope to revive the art of hymn writing at a time when the most popular new church songs are written for rock bands rather than choirs.

They’ve had surprising success.

One of the first songs that Keith co-wrote, called “In Christ Alone,” has been among the top 20 songs sung in newer churches in the United States for the past five years, according to Christian Copyright Licensing International. It is also a favorite in more traditional venues — including the recent enthronement service for Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

Hearing that hymn sung by a boys’ choir with a brass ensemble and thousands of worshippers was a thrill for Keith Getty, a self-described classical nerd.

Former ‘Jesus Freak’ Traces the Evolution of Christian rock

Photo courtesy Bob Gersztyn
Bob Gersztyn wrote “Jesus Rocks the World—The Definitive History of Contemporary Christian Music.” Photo courtesy Bob Gersztyn

Bob Gersztyn owned a fine collection of 300 rock ‘n’ roll albums in 1971, the year he accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior. Among them were some choice 1960s vinyl from Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Mothers of Invention.

But all of a sudden, this was the devil’s music.

“I destroyed some of them with a hammer and took the rest to a used record store,” he recalled with a laugh. “I think I kept 10 classical music albums that I decided were not anti-Christian.”

Gersztyn retained his love of rock ‘n’ roll, but limited his listening to Christian rock, a genre that was just getting going in the era of the hippie-inspired “Jesus freaks” and the hit Broadway musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

He joined a Four Square Gospel Church in Los Angeles, enrolled in Bible college, and became a Pentecostal preacher. He also started emceeing and booking concerts for such Christian artists as Keith Green to 2nd Chapter of Acts.

Power Ballads for Jesus

MAKE NO MISTAKE: David Stowe glorifies longhaired hippie Christians with acoustic guitars. Moreover, he loves their successors, Christian rock stars who fill stadiums and blow out speakers with eardrum-shattering songs about living in the light. In his new book, No Sympathy for the Devil, Stowe doesn’t just hail the way that evangelicals effectively embraced aspects of 1960s popular culture to suit their needs. He celebrates the Jesus-loving leaders of the era who carved out a place in contemporary worship practice, where many believers felt estranged from mainstream values and society at large. Using music to spread their message, 1960s evangelicals began experimenting with rock and roll and folk music as a way to reach deep into—and beyond—their base. Stowe believes their work was both transformative and highly successful in making worship relevant to the post-World War II generations of believers.

Stowe’s premise is that the imagined conflict between evangelism and popular culture, in the 1960s or the present day, is just that: imagined. Rather, a symbiotic relationship between the two means both flourish, dependent on the other. Accordingly, Stowe dives into his animated, comprehensive history of the rise of Christian rock the way some believers might dive in for an ocean baptism. His chronicle begins in 1967 California, when the Summer of Love and the Jesus Movement sprang up harmoniously parallel to one another. He lovingly describes a time when Beatles songs were appropriated for covers such as “Jesus in the Sky with Angels,” and notes that many young Christians “found it easier to give up (or never try) free love and drugs than to give up rock music.”

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Nashville's New Groove

Derek Webb wants to dig latrines for Jesus. And he’s looking for a few thousand friends to lend a hand. In a world where as many as 8,000 people die each day from waterborne diseases, he says, it’s the Christian thing to do. To get the word out about his latrine campaign, Webb, a Nashville-based Christian singer-songwriter who doesn’t mince words, is planning to launch a new Web site— The name, he said, is meant to startle people into action.

“The twin towers fall every day in Africa for lack of clean drinking water—7,500 or 8,000 people dying every day and the church does not appear to give a shit,” said Webb, echoing evangelist Tony Campolo’s provocative challenge to churches.

That’s something Webb, who helped found the contemporary Christian band Caedmon’s Call before launching a solo career, is determined to change. And he doesn’t mind offending people in the process, if he can get their attention.

“Part of my job is to take language and redeem it and to use it for good,” says Webb. “This is a great opportunity for me to use language creatively to stir people to action.”

Webb is one of a growing number of Nashville-based Christian musicians who are combining their faith with a commitment to social justice. Rather than simply playing benefit concerts or becoming celebrity spokespeople for charity, they’re taking a hands-on role in serving some of the poorest people on the planet and advocating for social change.

“Rather than ‘I’ll play your benefit,’ which is the most natural thing for us to do, there is more of a desire to be involved,” said Grammy Award-winning artist Ashley Cleveland, a veteran of the Christian music scene in Nashville.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2009
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Bridging the Church Music Gap

At a seminar last year, composer and liturgist Marty Haugen led clergy and church musicians in portions of a new Lenten liturgy he composed with Susan Briehl. He noted dryly that after years of hearing from people who use his Holden Evening Prayer for midweek Lenten services, he thought it time to compose an actual Lenten piece, one that drew from the appropriate texts and themes. Guilty as charged, I glanced at my pastor; others shifted uneasily in their chairs.

That Haugen’s Evening Prayer (GIA Publications) should be a popular choice for Lent—the season during which many congregations hold their only regular evening services—is logical. It’s a lovely vespers; its combination of traditional texts with reverent and fresh settings has struck a chord with many.

What is less clear is why more American churches don’t include a good deal of music like this in all their services, particularly since its engaging mix of tradition and innovation gives answer to the relentless “traditional” vs. “contemporary” debate. Churches expend tremendous energy discussing the relative merits of ancient hymns and radio-ready choruses, and compromises—when they exist at all—are usually problematic. “Blended” services designed to please all the people some of the time are often jarring in their stylistic hairpin turns. And holding two separate weekly services with substantially different music segregates churchgoers based on cultural comfort zones and, especially, age.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2006
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Fiddling While Rome Burns

My, how time flies. It's been 30 years, more or less, since Larry Norman provided the sonic backdrop for the Jesus Movement, radically merging rock melodies and instrumentation with scriptural content, proving to all but a few kooks that rhythm and syncopation and electric guitars are not the devil's exclusive domain. Yet what passes as Christian music today feels oddly safe, even boring. What happened?

Three recent books attempt to answer that question, chronicling the emergence and critiquing the status quo of the trademarked phenomenon known as Contemporary Christian Music or CCM: Mark Joseph's The Rock & Roll Rebellion, Charlie Peacock's At the Crossroads, and Jay Howard and John Streck's Apostles of Rock. That's a lot of ink, a combined 834 pages, devoted to a musical format that many assiduously avoid while scanning the radio dial.

Taking different approaches, the authors nonetheless share a common assessment. What Norman and scores of other artists pioneered has since morphed into a behemoth, an industry that rings up nearly $1 billion a year catering to the evangelical bookstores that speckle the strip-mall landscape of the suburban marketplace. The notion that Christian artists could use their talents to challenge the dominant culture has given way to a musical genre that is all too content to carve out its niche among converted middle-class consumers eager for edification and encouragement.

Joseph's Rock & Roll Rebellion takes the harshest tone of the three and is the weakest of the lot. He begins with a poorly chosen metaphor, the Negro baseball leagues, in which great talent traversed the bush league backwaters, consigned to asterisks in the record books and posthumous Hall of Fame recognition. Joseph claims CCM is a similar ghetto, that believing artists have been forced to ply their craft in isolation from the mainstream, to the great economic boon of the CCM business elite.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2001
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