Climbing out of CCM Purgatory

Bonnie Keen was on stage doing what she does best -- singing harmony -- when she heard an alarm clanging in her soul.

As a member of the trio First Call, she was singing behind one of gospel music's superstars. While Sandi Patty held the spotlight, Keen found herself paying especially close attention to many details of the concert.

Everyone talked about freedom and letting God take control, while the tightly choreographed show marched in lock-step with studio backing tapes. The stars sang about praising God, while bathing in the crowd's adoration. The show looked like entertainment, while people called it worship.

"It was like something hit me," said Keen, recalling the scene. "I thought, `What is this supposed to be? Is this a concert? Is it a worship service? What is this?'"

These soul-searching questions remain just as relevant today, as Keen and her veteran vocal partner Marty McCall begin climbing out of gospel-music purgatory.

It has been two years since the tabloids went wild covering First Call member Marabeth Jordon's extramarital affair with Michael English, who was gospel's rising star. Jordon was pregnant. Then came the divorces and news of a miscarriage. Gospel retailers yanked English's recordings off shelves and he has since begun a secular career. Jordan has quietly returned to studio work.

Keen and McCall were blindsided. While most stores kept selling the trio's music, one insider's words to an industry journal captured the mood: "As far as we know, two-thirds of the group is still on solid ground, as far as ministry goes." All outsiders need to know about the Twilight Zone called Contemporary Christian Music, or CCM, is summed up in those words, "As far as we know." That was the bottom of the pit.

"We were changed forever by what happened," said Keen. "The majority of people in the industry pulled away and that hurt -- deeply. ... Our experiences just didn't fit into anyone's little pigeonholes for how things were supposed to go."

After two years of silence, Keen and McCall recently finished a new album as a duo, with the simple title "First Call." Its opening song talks about life's burdens, while the chorus is both hopeful and defiant: "You gotta trust in the power of God, when nothing makes sense. ... In the wake of the tears of the innocent, let the healing begin."

The tears began long before 1994's scandal tore the roof off the sanctuary. In the early 1980s, First Call toured with the young Amy Grant. In recent years, Grant and her husband, singer Gary Chapman, have openly talked about how they saved their troubled marriage. Meanwhile, many Christians still attack Grant's profitable leap into pop music. First Call also sang with Russ Taff, who rose to stardom while doubting his faith. Even Sandi Patty got a divorce and married her lover.

Keen has watched the drama unfold in a business in which revelation can be part of the stagecraft. Industry leaders continue to debate where "ministry" ends and "performing" begins. Some insist that CCM is about "evangelism," while others admit that most of the music is entertainment for a Christian niche market.

It all comes back to that question: "What is this?"

Obviously, CCM artists are professionals who make their living performing on stage and in the studio. But for whom are they performing and why? They are not ministers. Yet it's clear many listeners look to them for spiritual inspiration and insights. They are rarely evangelists. Yet, like most clergy, they spend most of their time preaching to people who already believe.

"I think we're Christians who speak to other Christians ... about our own faith and what it means to try to live out that faith," she said. "But we're going to have to be honest about that. If we've suffered pain, if we've suffered loss, we need to admit that. ... Maybe the fact that we're still here -- after all we've been through -- can serve as an encouragement to people who have suffered loses of their own."