Contemporary Christian Music

Has there really been a 'truce' in all those bitter Protestant worship wars?

Has there really been a 'truce' in all those bitter Protestant worship wars?

If newcomers walk into a Protestant church on Sunday and hear an organ playing, and see hymnals, the odds are good that between 50 and 250 people will be in the pews.

If a church's attendance is larger than 250 -- especially if it's 1,000-plus -- visitors will usually see pop-rock "praise musicians" on stage, including a drummer. The hall will feature concert-level lighting and video screens displaying song lyrics. 

But here's a news flash from the front lines of what church leaders have, for several decades, called the "worship wars." According to a LifeWay Research survey, there's evidence of a "truce" between the "contemporary" and "traditional" worship forces. Then again, it's possible that church leaders have made up their minds and old debates inside many congregations have calmed down.

"We're not really talking about two enemies negotiating a cease fire," said Mike Harland, director of the LifeWay Worship team. "What I've seen happen in the 20 years that I've been part of this story is that the distance between the traditional and the contemporary churches has narrowed a bit. … People on each side of the divide have become more willing to compromise with the other."

This survey (.pdf here) was built on random telephone surveys of clergy in a variety of Protestant traditions during 2018, with the results weighted by church size and region, seeking balance.

A key finding was that only 15% of these American clergy said the biggest challenge they face linked to music and ministry was "navigating the varying preferences of members." A higher percentage (21%) said it was a bigger challenge to find vocalists and musicians to handle essential roles in worship.

When talking with individual pastors and worship leaders, Harland said he frequently hears them admit that their flocks simply don't contain members with the talents necessary to create a pop-rock band or "praise team" that can, week after week, perform contemporary Christian music at semi-professional levels. Thus, in many Protestant settings, individual talents -- not church tradition -- help shape a local congregation's worship "style."

Many pastors voice variations on this theme, he said. "We would love to sing all those new songs, but we don't have anyone who is talented on guitar and we don't have a drummer."

There is no question that, in addition to denominational worship traditions, some musical "style" questions are linked to church size.

Spiritual journeys: Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson's instrumental art on strings and keys

Spiritual journeys: Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson's instrumental art on strings and keys

While recording his "Beyond Nature" album, Phil Keaggy spent many hours doing three things -- playing acoustic guitar, taking long walks in the woods and reading books by C.S. "Jack" Lewis.

"I took all that in and it influenced the music, which was quiet and contemplative and that fit with that moment in my life," said Keaggy, in a recent interview. "All of that was connected. … I think you can feel a spirit behind that music."

So it isn't surprising that this 1991 classic included song titles such as "Brother Jack," "Fragile Forest" and "Addison's Walk," referring to a Magdalen College footpath that Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Oxford friends often walked while discussing literature, faith and life.

While "Beyond Nature" was an instrumental recording, the liner notes included this Lewis quote: "Nature is mortal; we shall out-live her. … Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites me to use. We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects. And in there, and beyond Nature, we shall eat of the tree of life."

So this was a "Christian" album, one inspired by the apologetics of Lewis? That's the kind of question musicians often hear after recording instrumental music during an era in which "Christian music" debates almost always focus on lyrics.

"I just play," said Keaggy. "I don't try to analyze all that."

In recent years, Keaggy has recorded a series of instrumental albums with keyboardist Jeff Johnson, who -- like the guitarist -- has for decades mixed folk, rock, jazz, classical and Celtic music into a style that writers struggle to label. Both record most of their music in home studios on their own terms. Both draw the attention of critics outside the "contemporary Christian music" niche.

The duo's latest work, for Johnson's Ark label, is "Cappadocia" -- taking its name from an arid, volcanic region in what is now Turkey. Early Christians hid in this isolated haven during persecutions and the Apostle Peter addressed his first epistle to "exiles" in several places, including Cappadocia.

Johnson visited this region in 2017 and was stuck by remnants of Christian life, from pieces of frescos and engravings to a rose-shaped window in a sanctuary carved into a hillside. Thus, the disc includes song titles like "Chapel of Stone," "Parousia (A Presence)" and "That Which is Hidden."

Larry Norman: Trapped in Contemporary Christian Music walls he helped create? (Part 2)

Larry Norman: Trapped in Contemporary Christian Music walls he helped create? (Part 2)

When Larry Norman died in 2008 there was one thing the critics -- secular and religious -- agreed on: The controversial singer and music maven helped create the "Contemporary Christian Music" industry.

For Norman, that was not good news.

"In China, if you become a Christian, you may be imprisoned," said Norman, offering a cynical aside during his last concert, in New York City. Seven months later, his fragile heart failed one last time.

"In India, your parents may disown you. In the Middle East, they might execute you. But in America, if you become a Christian, you just have a broader selection of Christian CDs to choose from."

Norman lived to see the fiery folk-rock style he pioneered in the early 1970s -- part "Jesus Movement" evangelism, part social-justice sermons -- evolve into a suburb-friendly genre in which "Christian" was attached to safe versions of old fads in mainstream music.

The album Norman considered his bravest -- "So Long Ago the Garden" -- infuriated many "CCM" consumers because of its symbolic, mysterious language. Then there was the semi-nude, Edenic cover image of the singer.

While writing his Norman biography, "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music," philosopher Gregory Alan Thornbury dug into the singer's papers and found an impassioned defense of that album, in a letter to angry fans.

"All of the songs I write are Christian songs, because I am a Christian," wrote Norman. "Is a man any less a Christian because he is a car mechanic instead of an evangelist? … Some people are so conditioned that if a song doesn't have some religious clues like 'blood of the lamb' or 'the cross,' they are unsure of its spiritual qualification."

Part of the problem, said Thornbury, is that Norman had "a glorious way of speaking out of both sides of his mouth. He never wavered from his desire to write Jesus songs. …Yet at the same time, he was constantly blasting Christian music people about making music that was propaganda -- with no art, or poetry, or mystery at all. …

"Larry thought you could be very, very clear on Jesus and the Gospel and, at the same time, go way out there on the edge in terms of art."

Alas, it was hard to be a commercial, secular success while doing both those things.

Larry Norman and the never-ending culture wars over 'Christian' music and art (Part I)

Larry Norman and the never-ending culture wars over 'Christian' music and art (Part I)

When Larry Norman released "Upon This Rock" in 1969, its rock-star sizzle and blunt faith put the album in the soundtrack for millions of lives as the "Jesus Movement" revival surged onto the cover of Time magazine.

Music industry pros were used to hearing The Beatles on Capitol Records. Now there was a longhaired guy on the same label belting out: "Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation to every man and every nation. Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation and let the people know that Jesus cares."

Norman's work did more than shake up church youth meetings. His early success convinced some Gospel music executives to turn up the drums and guitar solos. Soon, "Contemporary Christian Music" grew into a billion-dollar industry with its own written and unwritten rules.

Now it was time for Norman to freak out Christians as much as he did secular-music people in the early years when he shared concert bills with Janis Joplin, The Doors, The Who and others. What were Christian radio stations supposed to do with "The Great American Novel," a song that addressed racism, war, poverty and other hot-button topics?

"You kill a black man at midnight just for talking to your daughter, then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water," sang Norman. "And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on, at every meal you say a prayer; you don't believe but still you keep on."

Norman "overloaded lots of people's circuits" and, eventually, even his own, according to philosopher Gregory Alan Thornbury, author of a new biography named after one of Norman's most famous tunes -- "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" The subtitle hints at future darkness: "Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock." Norman died in 2008 at the age of 60.

Thornbury calls Norman the "Forrest Gump," a true "holy fool," of American evangelicalism. The scholar — and guitar player — doesn't hide Norman's struggles in business and his private life, adding a painful backstory to a career that put the singer shoulder to shoulder with everyone from the Rev. Billy Graham to President Jimmy Carter, and lots of colorful people in between. As a young man, Vice President Mike Pence was born again at a Christian rock festival -- headlined by Norman.

FM radio reality in church

The clock is ticking and soon Jeff Crandall while face the challenge of selecting the right music for the Christmas services at High Desert Church.

This will be tricky, because Christmas is what the 70-member staff at this megachurch calls a "federal" event. This means that these services will unite worshippers from the three radically different services that are held week after week at this booming congregation in Victorville, Calif., about 90 miles outside of Los Angeles.

"Christmas may be the only time when people want to hear traditional music, no matter what age they are," said Crandall, the church's 46-year-old "worship pastor" and the former drummer in a rock band called the Altar Boys. "Even kids who are totally into hard rock what to hear a few carols, which makes it easier to put together a service that pleases everybody. ... We try to do the same thing during Holy Week and Easter."

In recent decades, many churches have been shattered by the intergenerational strife that researchers call the "worship wars." If you want to split a national church, change its teachings about sexuality or salvation. But if you want to split a local church, you toss the hymnal, hire a drummer, unleash the teen-agers or make some other musical change that rocks the pews.

But High Desert Church is the kind of church that has turned this equation around. Its goal is to build a multi-flock ministry that unapologetically offers all rock, all the time, but with bands that appeal to different packs of young people, as well as bands for believers from an earlier g-g-g-generation or two.

Now, this nondenominational flock is poised to become the poster church for this FM-radio-dial approach to worship, after being dissected in the hallowed pages of the New York Times.

"When you start a church, you don't decide who you're going to reach and then pick a music style," senior pastor Tom Mercer told America's newspaper of record. "You pick a music style, and that determines who's going to come."

On one level, the music divides this church. But on another level, the music is at the heart of worship services that create zones of comfort for people who have been raised in a culture in which consumers define themselves by their musical choices.

Thus, High Desert Church offers a "Classic" service for Baby Boomers and others who came of age during the "Jesus rock" explosion in the '60s and '70s. This service offers a softer brand of acoustic rock -- think Byrds or the Eagles -- that is easier on the delicate and even damaged ears of older worshippers, said Crandall.

Meanwhile, other musicians focus on the "Harbor" service for people between the ages of 30 and 50. It features the kind of soaring, inspiring rock that most people would associate with U2 and classic bands from the 1980s. Then the "Seven" service cranks things up another notch, with what Crandall described as a "dark" and "moody" mix of postmodern music for the young.

The bottom line: Church leaders use different technology to create different music for different generations who choose to attend different services.

The music unites and the music divides. The challenge for church leadership, Crandall said, is to unite these flocks around a common vision when doing evangelism and missions -- primarily through 18-person cell groups that focus on fellowship and prayer. Then there are those "federal" events that take place several times a year.

There are still Protestant and even Roman Catholic churches that are trying to create "blended" worship services that appeal to all ages at the same time. "Blended" is the term used to describe a mix of traditional hymns and rock music, switching back and forth between a pipe organ and those electric guitars.

Their intentions are good, said Crandall, but the results are guaranteed to offend people whose musical tastes are simply not compatible. Thus, he believes that "blended" services drive people away rather than pulling them together.

"This is reality," he said. "Everything is about the music. When you go to the mall, you can even tell what kind of people are supposed to be shopping in the different stores just by listening to the music that is playing. Can you imagine kids wanting to shop in a store that is playing the music that their parents listen to? No way."

The ultimate movie stigma

As a rule, movie producers do not enjoy seeing America's most influential newspaper crucify their films.

"Reeking of self-righteousness and moral reprimand," spat Jeanette Catsoulis of the New York Times, a movie entitled "The Ultimate Gift" could be considered "a hairball of good-for-you filmmaking coughed up by 20th Century Fox's new faith-based label, Fox Faith."

Wait, there's more, because this "cinematic sermon" makes sure that its "messages -- pro-poverty, anti-abortion -- are methodically hammered home."

There were other reviews, good and bad. Still, the nastiness in strategic corners of the media caught veteran producer Rick Eldridge off guard, in large part because he truly thought that he was producing a mainstream movie, with mainstream talent, that was going to have a chance to reach a thoroughly mainstream audience.

What he didn't count on was getting stuck with two dangerous labels -- "Fox" and "Faith." Those words can turn your average media insider into a pillar of salt.

That's what happened to "The Ultimate Gift," turning this quiet cinematic fable into a cautionary tale for others who want to make movies that can appeal to viewers in Middle America, including folks who frequent sanctuary pews.

"I really felt this story had strong values that would hit home with the general market," said Eldridge, who is now pushing to promote the DVD of his movie. "I thought this was a moral-message film, but I was determined to make a movie that would speak to a wide spectrum of people. ... Then we got pigeon-holed into this little 'Christian' niche that really limited who would get much of a chance to see this movie."

The pivotal moment was when this 20th Century Fox project was moved to the new Fox Faith division, which meant "The Ultimate Gift" was sent to theaters with all kinds of faith-based strings attached. As the Fox Faith website bluntly stated: "To be part of Fox Faith, a movie has to have overt Christian content or be derived from the work of a Christian author."

Thus, mainstream critics were determined to find those moral messages and make sure potential moviegoers were warned in advance. This also meant that mainstream performers such as Academy Award nominee James Garner, veteran character actor Brian Dennehy and the young actress Abigail Breslin of "Little Miss Sunshine" discovered that they were -- surprise, surprise -- starring in a "Christian movie."

Crucial scenes were, as a result, seen through this lens.

The movie opens at the funeral of Howard "Red" Stevens, an oil tycoon who left behind both an impressive portfolio of good deeds and a bitterly divided family. The minister at the graveside, in addition to reading scripture, quotes the famous British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge as saying, "Every happening, great or small, is a miracle by which God speaks to us and the art of life is to get the message."

At another pivotal moment, the prodigal grandson whose coming-of-age story drives the plot is shown in a Catholic hospital chapel, consoling a leukemia patient. The girl is thinking about butterflies, heaven and her stressed-out single mother's future -- while facing a large statue of Jesus with his arms open wide. "I don't know much about God or Jesus, but I can promise that those arms are meant for you," says the young man.

But the statement that upset critics the most is offered by the young mother, as she describes their struggles after the girl's father abandoned them. The one thing she knows for certain, she says, is that her daughter Emily is the "best decision I ever made."

There is no need to deny that the movie contains religious and moral themes, said Eldridge. But for generations, Hollywood executives made successful mainstream movies that contained these kinds of words and images. Those movies were aimed at a broad, mainstream market -- not a narrow, political, sectarian, "Christian" niche.

"I told the Fox people this movie was going to resonate with the Christian audience and that's fine with me, because I am a Christian," said Eldridge. "But I was worried that this movie would get tagged as a little 'Christian' movie, like that was some kind of Good Housekeeping seal for the Christian marketplace. ...

"I think it's obvious that this is what happened and that caused some people to distance themselves from this movie. There was no need for that to happen."

Faith, doubt and Nickel Creek

NASHVILLE -- The crowd was dancing as soon as the bluegrass trio Nickel Creek went on stage, with hot-shot mandolinist Chris Thile careening around like a possessed marionette.

The opening number "When in Rome" was an edgy tale about lost souls trapped in a cold world where the doctors can't heal, people burn books for heat and no one answers distress signals. By the time Thile reached the apocalyptic last verse, he was raising questions about life, death and life after death.

"Where can a dead man go? The question with an answer only dead men know," he sang, briefly frozen in a stark white spotlight. "But I'm going to bet they never really feel at home, if they spent a lifetime learning how to live in Rome."

The crowd rocked on. There were tattooed youngsters in the aisles, dancing next to hip home-schooling parents with their children. There were bluegrass purists offering whoops of praise, sitting near some NASCAR fans wearing Birkenstock scandals.

The Nickel Creek crew -- guitarist Sean Watkins and his sister Sara on fiddle, along with Thile -- are hard to label and so are their fans. One reason for that is the band's Grammy Award-winning fusion of bluegrass roots with rock attitude. Nickel Creek often veers from Bill Monroe traditionalism to MTV Nirvana without blinking, with stops in John Coltrane and Beach Boy territory along the way.

But there was another reason the crowd in War Memorial Auditorium was unusually diverse. Nickel Creek offers a unique mix of old faith and modern doubts.

The trio has been together 16 years, beginning as children in devout Christian homes in San Diego. Early on, they recorded a gospel-bluegrass album called "Here to There" before heading into the mainstream with the help of superstar Alison Krauss.

It's crucial that bluegrass is one form of music in which artists are allowed to sing about Sunday morning as well as Saturday night. Thus, the members of Nickel Creek have been candid about their beliefs, while staying light years away from the prison called "Contemporary Christian Music."

Faith isn't an artistic curse if it stays honest, said Sean Watkins, who has written most of the trio's songs that wrestle with religious issues. It's interesting that old hymns are often more candid and searching than today's gospel pop songs.

"I'm so sick of sugar-coated songs from the Christian perspective," he said, in his online journal. "One of the most comforting and inspiring lines to me is from the last chorus of 'Come Thou Fount' where it says, 'Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.' Not many un-watered-down songs make it through the filter of the Christian music industry mafia these days."

But honesty is a two-edged sword.

That's why Thile -- at the ripe old age of 24 -- was standing in a harsh spotlight singing songs about death, despair and divorce. One of his new songs is called "Doubting Thomas" and includes these poignant lines: "Can I be used to help others find truth, when I'm scared I'll find proof that it's a lie? ... I'm a doubting Thomas. I'll take your promise, though I know nothing's safe. Oh me of little faith."

Thile said he hopes to live his life as if death is not the end, struggling to "keep one foot in this world while sticking one foot out of it, just to get ready." At the same time, it's hard to avoid the kind of burned-out, shopping-mall confusion that leads so many young people to feel alone and disconnected, even while they crave relationships that will last.

Thus, this Nickel Creek concert closed with the trio sharing one microphone, gently singing this lullaby: "Why should the fire die? My mom and dad kept theirs alive."

"We are tempted to distance ourselves from the things that are truly powerful and beautiful in life," said Thile. "Faith is certainly one of those things. Faith is huge, and so are friendships and our family relationships. ...

"Anything that is truly worthwhile is both powerful and dangerous at the same time. Anything that is truly beautiful and lovely can also turn twisted and ugly. But we can't hide from all of that. That's what is real."