As a working musician for going on 20+ years now and a Christian for going on 5 years now a question has plagued me recently. Why is the musicianship, songwriting and overall quality of the music released under the “Christian” label so often inferior to that in the secular world?
In my youth, I grew up listening to a very eclectic blend of music. My dad, being a locally popular country performer introduced me to George Jones, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. Additionally, because of his penchant for crossing genres in his music, I was introduced to country acts with a little rock flavor and also the inverse. I learned to love Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Seger, ZZ Top and the grandfathers of all three chord bar bands Creedence Clearwater Revival, with their genius singer/songwriter/guitarist John C. Fogerty.
Later, as I developed my own subjective tastes I began to delve into Hendrix, Clapton, Led Zeppelin and the like. As you might figure, I came to realize that all these great performers were rooted in the blues, which lead me to my greatest “discovery” at age 13, Stevie Ray Vaughan. My eyes were opened and I was onto something that hit me in the souls like a ton of bricks…The Blues. I was hooked and it has infected my listening habits and playing style on several instruments since then. I fell in love with Freddie King, Johnny Winter, Robert Cray, Muddy, The Wolf…all of ’em.
As a high school student in the mid 80’s I began to hear some other styles. My classmates were into Ozzy, Metallica, AC/DC plus all the “hair bands” from the era. Poison, Cinderella, Winger. That’s when I realized I was able to discern good music from bad. The hair bands were invariably bad in my book. To each his own I guess. I vaguely remember a couple of “Christian” bands from that time. Literally a couple. Petra and Stryper. That’s it. And I remember not knowing much about either of them as the Christian marketing machine was not yet in motion. I remember seeing a Stryper video abnd thinking “wow, Christian hair bands are just as bad as the others.”
Now, let’s vault forward a few years. I spent many years from high school into my late 20’s immersed in the bar band scene in my area. Lots of long nights, heavy drinking, drugs, unprotected sex and, in there somewhere we made some really good music. I was living pretty wild and loose for a young guy in my twenties. I sort of lost sight of my love for the music and began to value the partying more, particularly my quest for a new girlfriend for the night. Anyway, this was my life for a solid 10 years.
Then I met my future wife. Things began normally enough. We were both music lovers, she of the hair band variety and me being me. We fell in love at some point along the way and in 2001 became engaged. This coincided with me discovering that there was something wrong with my life morally and, long story short, I accepted Jesus Christ soon after 9/11. We were married in April 2002 and I also began attending SonLight Community Church, where we both are active. I met a great friend and musician there named Dave Everly, who was the worship pastor at SonLight. We got to know one another and I joined the band. I was first of all blown away by the level of talent on that team. Dave was and is a gifted vocalist, keyboardist and guitarist as well as a tremendous friend.
I will always remember that first Sunday morning I attended, not knowing what to expect, never having attended any church for any reasons but weddings and funerals. The first song I heard was “Good Day Sunshine” by the Beatles. Who plays the Beatles in church? I was dumbfounded. I was confused. I was expecting boring hymns or Sandi Patti-esque music. I got neither. As time went on and I joined that group, we played many secular covers. Evrything from U2 to Springsteen to Linkin Park. It was wonderful. Who knew. I was then made aware that this has been recently and continues to be the trend. “Culturally” relevant churches. I liked it. Of course we played hundreds of “modern” praise and worship songs over the years. I was happy because it was so different than what I was expecting to be playing. I saw that there was a different way to worship God musically.
Then it hit me. This “modern” music we were playing really wasn’t very good music in comparison to what I felt we were capable of. There were exceptions of course. I loved what artists like Lincoln Brewster, David Crowder and Todd Agnew were producing. There were songs that challenged us musically, said to God what we needed to say and had inventive melodies and arrangements. But these were the exceptions. I asked myself why. There are millions of Christians, of which a large portion are musicians and this is the best we have to give God? Why does there not exist in Christian music an answer to Eric Clapton? Why is there no Christian Rolling Stones? My current favorite guitarist is a semi-obscure artist named Joe Bonamassa. I can not think of a single Christian artist who is on a par with him musically. That seems wrong to me. Now the ideal solution and the one that would please God the most is to reach ALL these great musicians and get them on our team so to speak. Imagine Mick Jagger hearing the Gospel and becoming a follower of Christ. Imagine that first worship album. My intent here is not to minimize this issue, but we ARE called to make the Good News available to all and that sure would be fullfilling that commission wouldn’t it?
In the course of serving as a worship team member I have heard numerous comments from members serving with me who feel that what we are doing is “good enough” or it’s praise and worship music and thus not performance-oriented. That’s an excuse for mediocrity and a lame one at that. We are playing to the ultimate audience. We need to be BETTER than what we are seeing on MTV or CMT. We should be the trendsetters and not trend followers and emulators.
The current climate in Christian music is that we see what the people, particularly young people, are buying and we produce a Christian facsimile of it. We have Christian version of Eminem and many other rap and hip hop artists. For every Blink-182 we answer with a Relient K. We have a dozen bands getting airplay now that are interchangeable with any number of secular bands we already hear. In most cases they are rehashing melodies and hooks and guitar riffs that have already been done, and usually better, by a secular band. We need some groundbreakers and some original voices. It’s time that those of us who sing and play to that heavenly Audience are performing something worth hearing.
Yes I am painting this with a broad brush and there are some exceptional bands under the Christian umbrella, particularly in the last 5 years, but in general terms my opinion seems easy to validate, even considering the subjective nature of what constitutes “good” and “bad” music. It would be hard for me to argue that the great Phil Keaggy isn’t one of the best guitarists in the world. I have to admit that The Newsboys are a great band with a unique voice. There are a handful of others. And of course the recording techniques and production values have increased as they have across all genres. When I play a band to a non-believing friend and I get a “it’s ok- for a Christian band” it makes me furious and it makes me feel like I have missed a witnessing opportunity. We need non-believers to realize that becoming a follower of Jesus Christ is a decision which will actually increase their level of enjoyment of life. Many believe that they will have to stop having any fun. How much more off-base can they be? I find joy in places I didn’t know it could be found. But solely listening to “Christian” approved music is not one of those places. I almost feel guilty for saying that. I can hear my wife gasping in the other room (she doesn’t share my opinion).
But here is my litmus test. I think of a great band or musician. I then try to find a Christian equivalent. It is nearly impossible to do. There is not a single guitarist in Christian music who is on a par with Joe Bonamassa. Not a single band on a par with the Beatles ot the Stones. Is the talent not there? Is it a matter of record labels and the radio industry unwilling to stray from “proven” formulas? Is it that Christian artists are afraid to delve into experimental or edgy material for fear of being labeled as heretical? Christians ae not called to be cowards. We need to write and produce music that challenges, inspires, impresses and yes even angers the Christian establishment when necessary. Imagine the music Jesus would have produced had hat been his medium? I assure it would not have been Creed or Switchfoot. It would have blown everyone’s minds and it would have been like nothing else in the world.
Whether I am gifted enough to be an effective catalyst for change or not, even locally, I can not answer. But I know there are those out there who do have the gift and the desire to make Christian music valid, relevant, and radical. I am calling them to action. The most effective “Christian” music being produced today is by U2, a band who doesn’t even identify themselves as such. Maybe THAT is the future of Christian music- finding God’s message in any music, defying labels and tradition to speak to people. Maybe we need to produce music in general, as Christians, that honors our Lord, spreads His message and inspires others to do the same.
In the interim, I have stepped away from the worship team for the moment as I am searching my heart and my will to determine where I need to be to use my gifts to glorify His name. He has a place for me to be. I know the God who invented music wants to hear it done right and I’d like to oblige Him.