The Common Good
January-February 1999

High Fidelity Faith

by Susan Hogan/Albach | January-February 1999

Contemporary Christian music and its accent on celebrity

Kayla Hammerud said that it was the biggest day of her life. All morning, the Osceola, Wisconsin fifth-grader tore through her closet fretting over what to wear. By noon, she'd settled on a flower-print jumpsuit and was headed out the door with her mother. Two hours later, on a mild summer's day, they walked into a Christian bookstore in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota, where hundreds of people were gathering.

Shortly before 9:30 p.m., after hours of waiting, the object of the hoopla—four conservatively clad women flashing lipstick smiles—stepped onto a small stage in the store's coffee shop. That set off a chorus of cheers and flashing cameras. Tears streaked down Hammerud's cheeks as she came face to face with her idols—the Christian pop quartet Point of Grace—who sang songs and signed autographs.

Scenes like this one used to be the domain of mainstream pop stars. But with Christian music now a growing force, religious rockers are behaving a lot like celebrities and their fans like starstruck groupies. This isn't sitting well with some Christians, who fear the evangelical music industry has created golden calves out of its artists. Christian rockers may sing about God, they say, but who are fans really worshiping?

Some of the harshest criticism comes from within the industry. "In these autograph lines, you're not going to see a lot of ministry," said Mark Stuart, lead singer of the Christian rock band Audio Adrenaline. "You're not going to see anyone getting saved. You might pray, but generally it's just kids caught up in this frenzy. It's like collecting Beanie Babies."

Contemporary Christian music (CCM) emerged in the late 1960s as a no-frills way to spread the gospel. At first, churches either scoffed or condemned the electric Jesus music. Today, it's the country's fastest-growing genre of music—a billion-dollar industry with its own record labels, fan clubs, awards shows, CD clubs, music videos, Internet chat rooms ("Amy Grant shops at Kroger!!!"), and People-like magazines that showcase the comings and goings of industry stars.

Many of those stars have become wealthy from their music; many more peddle trinkets and T-shirts at their concerts to stay afloat. Some lead lavish lives; others live well below their means and give thousands of dollars to help others. At the peak of his career, the late Rich Mullins left Nashville, the locus of the industry, and moved into a small trailer on a Navajo reservation to live in solidarity with the poor.

"You've got people like Rich Mullins, who was sworn to poverty," said Eddie DeGarmo, an executive with Forefront (Christian) Records in Nashville. "You've also got some people who wear so much gold on their hands that it's hard to believe that they can pick their knuckles off the floor."

FRANK BREEDEN, PRESIDENT of the Gospel Music Association in Nashville, is unapologetic about the industry's commercialism. Christians are engaged in a culture war, he said, and to save America's youths from the "negative influence" of mainstream rock, they must battle back using the media that appeal to teens. Rather than selling out to culture, Breeden insists Christian music is refusing to surrender to secularism.

Indeed, Christian concerts often seem like wholesome versions of their mainstream counterparts. Body surfing and mosh pits are in, alcohol and profanity are out. At a Christian music festival that drew 12,000 teens to Willmar, Minnesota, in July, dress ranged from grunge to punk, complete with tattoos and navel rings. Some teens had Christian symbols such as crosses and fishes cut out of their hair, or wore T-shirts with a Generation X spin on crucifixion: "Body piercing saved my life."

"It's hard-core music for hard-core Christians," said Jake Scheele, 15, of New Prague, Minnesota, whose hair was painted in the colors of the rainbow. "It makes it not so nerdy to be a Christian." At one point, festival security used supersized spray guns to keep fans from rushing a stage where the trio dc Talk was performing. Toby McKeehan, a singer in the group, said he worries about being put on a pedestal by fans. "We need to try to let them know that we're just ordinary men and women trying to make music that serves God," he said.

Rev. Scotty Smith, pastor of Christ Community Church near Nashville, which draws many industry artists and executives, doesn't believe Christian music has done a good job of reflecting on what the cult of celebrity means. Part of the problem, he said, is that the culture has replaced heroes with celebrities. In the past, heroes were usually people of great character, renowned thinkers, or, in the Christian tradition, martyrs.

"There's a lot of naivetT about the Christian music industry being a devotional hothouse," Smith said. "Things are always complicated when money is involved. Here we are singing about God and all of a sudden you're seeing artists making six-figure salaries. If we are being faithful, we will ask the hard questions. The question is how do we maintain good heart and good art?"

What distinguishes Christian music from most Top 40 songs isn't the sound, but the lyrics of faith. Some lyrics are deeply spiritual; others are merely spiritual clichTs—a Mcfaith for a culture that likes its religion as fast and easy as its food. The music reflects evangelicals' emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus, but it's largely a soft-sell gospel devoid of social justice themes.

And because musicians sing about faith, fans often revere them as spiritual icons. While veteran singers such as Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant easily articulate a faith, many young musicians are unwilling or unable. "I'm a guitarist, not a theologian," snapped Tony Palacios when an interviewer asked him to describe his faith.

FERNANDO ORTEGA, a singer-songwriter from Laguna Beach, California, said that he's bothered by the superficial theology pervasive in the industry. "Some musicians actually believe that they're called to play Christian pop music on the same level as the calling of a pastor—as though it's a ministry to the church," said Ortega, who attends a Reform church. "You hear people say all the time that 'God gave me this song.' That's preposterous. Because if God gave you this song, then your little pop song is on the same level as God-breathed scripture."

Researcher George Barna's studies seem to back evangelicals' impulse to reach youths through popular culture. In interviews with hundreds of Gen Xers in the early 1990s, Barna discovered that only half of them defined themselves as "religious." Turned off by institutional religion, they've tuned into a pop culture in which movies and music are rife with eclectic spiritual images and themes, such as Joan Osborne's transcendent pondering, "What if God were one of us?"

Pam Hammerud said she ordered her daughter Kayla not to listen to anything but Christian music after seeing the 11-year-old "obsess" over the Spice Girls, whose foul language and skimpy outfits seemed over the edge. If Kayla idolizes Christian music so be it, Hammerud said, because she's being influenced by positive role models.

"At first it was hard for her to give up the Spice Girls," Hammerud said. "But because the Christian music is structured so much like the mainstream, after a while she didn't feel like she was missing anything. She could have the same sounding music, watch videos, and stand in line for autographs just like she could any rock star. Only as a parent, I feel much better now."

The Christian music industry often measures its impact in terms of record sales or how much mainstream attention it garners. But a more interesting gauge might be found in autograph lines. At the suburban St. Paul store, dozens of girls like Hammerud easily rattled off endless trivia about the Spice Girls, even down to their lipstick shades, but few knew similar details about Point of Grace. Yet most could recite the faith lyrics of many of their hits, which music industry advocates say indicates that Christian teens are more attached to the music than the musicians.

"I used to like the Spice Girls until Point of Grace came into my life," Kayla said as she inched forward to the table where the popular Christian quartet was greeting its public in front of a wall of posters of themselves. "My hero used to be Baby Spice because she doesn't show her body or talk bad like the other Spice Girls. But my mom says the Spice Girls are a bad influence."

Although Jesus never had a publicist, a booking agent, or a marketing manager—part of the entourage of many Christian musicians—he had fame. Crowds followed him. They cheered and waved palm branches. They expected miracles. Christian singer Michael Card believes these New Testament illustrations can be instructive for how musicians should handle fame. In a 1996 article for CCM magazine, he argued that Jesus disregarded his "stardom."

Instead of celebrity, Card said Jesus' posture was that of a servant who washed his disciples' feet (John 13) and cooked them breakfast (John 21). He didn't build a worldly kingdom or live garishly. "The follower of Jesus must always choose truthfulness over fame," Card wrote. "Given the choice, we must wash feet, not do encores. The true purpose of Christian music, which many have still not forgotten, is to spread the fame of Jesus Christ, to proclaim him by celebrating him."

SUSAN HOGAN/ALBACH, a reporter for the Minneapolis StarTribune, writes "Otherworldly Unplugged," a weekly column on the Christian music industry.

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