Tony Cummings looks at British CCM, yesterday, today and tomorrow.
I was puzzled recently when I got a letter from an American Christian musician enthusing about the Cross Rhythms Experience tapes. "We've got nothing like these programmes in the States," the letter bubbled. Here was a letter from a muso in a country where seemingly every city and town has its own contemporary Christian music radio station raving about a programme made in Britain which featured 80 per cent American album tracks. It didn't seem to make sense. Then I read a column by US journalist and contemporary Christian music commentator John Fischer.
He wrote about driving across Florida listening all the way to a Christian hit radio station. The focus of almost every song was the love of God, but at the end of this two-hour marathon I can't say I found out anything distinctive about God's love, except that it was real, it drowned me in the sea, it flowed all over me, it put its arms around me and held me close. But the most disturbing fact was that most, if not all, these things could just as easily come from someone other than God. There was no cross in this love. No sin. No guilt. No redemption. No grace. No sacrifice. No obligations. No commitments. No cleansing. No forgiveness. No blood. No death. No Heaven. No Hell. No Saviour. No need to be saved. Just love. Lots and lots of it oozing out all over. These were not songs about God's love, they were songs about love in general, with God named or implied as its source."
What John Fischer was encountering of course was the downside of Christian music's colossal growth in America. In an era when huge media multinationals buy up Christian record companies and where hundreds of Christian artists are looking to sell 200,000 copies plus of an album watering down the message of the Gospel to maximise mass appeal seems almost inevitability. The cross with its profound message of a sacrificial life abandoned to God is bound to be in conflict with the drive to sustain a mass audience looking to feel good about itself.
But that is America and this is Britain and in Britain many of our problems seem to relate to the smallness rather than the bigness of the marketplace. Christian music has always been small-time here. It's been around quite a while though. British CCM's birth goes back to the 60s when evangelical churches festooned their crypts and backrooms with fishing nets, called them Christian coffee bars and formed Christian beat groups to ape the style of the Beatles and the Searchers with songs full of Jesus died for me at Calvary' couplets. It must have seemed an obscure little cultural ghetto. But even then Christian music functioned at two levels, in the obscurity of selfless ministry where youthful idealism would overcome small crowds and poor facilities to communicate a Gospel message; and as a genuine musical underground. As is their nature, undergrounds will occasionally throw up hit artists into the mainstream. Even in the 60s British Christian music managed two - the Joy Strings and Parchment.
By the 70s Christian music in Britain was diversifying into several streams. Stream one, and the one which was to dominate the perspectives and practices of the bulk of Christian music buyers, was the growth of charismatic renewal in Britain's churches. The renewal, with its emphasis on new, dynamic forms of worship far removed from the hymn-prayer-hymn sandwich of dusty traditionalism, threw up whole congregations keen to imbibe, and purchase, new worship songs and choruses. Within a few years a record company/music publisher Kingsway Music which had struggled to survive when recording the naive outpourings of the Christian coffee bar artists, was the praise and worship market leader with its Songs Of Fellowship songbooks and albums.
Stream two in the 70s was the development in America of contemporary Christian music and the slow growth in marketing the same in Britain. CCM emerged out of a mini-revival among Californian youth in the late 60s. As a point of history putting Christian lyrics to the pop and rock of the day had been going on as long, or longer, in Britain (with the Christian coffee bar beat groups) as in the USA. The major difference was the US had a communications infrastructure that could be utilised for CCM's growth. The American authorities had for decades allowed active Christian participation in radio, while in Britain laws were in place both to actively restrict the number of radio stations and to keep an overt Christian message restricted to marginalised 'religious' slots. So CCM began to grow as America's Christian radio stations began to give more and more airtime to an ever-increasing shoal of Christian pop and rock albums, while in Britain it stayed in a much smaller pond. Denied radio play here, CCM relied on tours of artists like Larry Norman and Honeytree, home-grown artists like Kevin Gould and Garth Hewitt, the print media (namely the pioneering Buzz magazine) and Christian festivals.
Stream number three in the 70s was what could be called The Movement Against Evangelical Utilitarianism. The Greenbelt festival had in its earliest years shown many of the traits and theological blind spots inherent in the evangelical thought of the day. For many evangelicals, art was something to be "used" in the service of The Great Commission. In such thinking, winning souls was the all-important goal and Christian music was perceived as a useful tool, usually one of pre-evangelism (or softening up) before the Word was preached and (hopefully) a harvest reaped. The theologians and thinkers within the Greenbelt committee became increasingly unhappy about such a perspective which for them expressed an unhealthy dualism. Quoting theologian Rochmacher, "Art needs no justification", a debate began to rage (it still does) and Greenbelt effectively became a Christian Arts Festival with the emphasis on Arts rather than Christian. Many of the theological arguments passed blithely over the heads of the Greenbelt punters while Greenbelt continued to attract significant numbers of down-the-line, preach-the-Gospel evangelical musicians. But what Greenbelt's theological input did in time implant to a British religious stream of artists and music buffs was a perspective which rejected the old assumptions of the church/entertainment world collision (if you sung songs about God you were saved/if you sang songs about other subjects you were backslidden); had problems with a phrase like 'Christian music', and preferred lyrics which spoke obliquely, if at all, about their faith.
The 70s breakdown into differing streams of Christian music supporters inevitably restricted market growth. Only the market for the new wave of worship material encouraged by an upsurge of Bible week celebrations both denominational (Dales) and non-denominational (Spring Harvest) showed substantial growth. By the late 70s, early 80s 'praise and worship' had become the dominant stream within the major sales outlet for Christian music albums - Christian bookshops - to the extent that any British bookstore's Top Ten wouldn't contain a single album of Christian pop and rock CCM now being released in the UK in growing numbers. The growth in popularity of music written for congregational worship had an upside and a downside. The positive was that the songs, and the whole Renewal from which they sprang, represented a sovereign work of God where tens of thousands of people were rescued from the dry religious ritual of merely 'singing hymns' and brought into a supernaturally charged experience of God inherent in genuine worship. The negative of praise and worship's growth was the praise and worship tape consumption encouraged a utilitarian attitude towards music just as potentially dualistic as the old evangelical attitudes (music is valid only when it is used for congregational worship): and worship leaders and record companies placed such import on the inherent supernatural quality of the material ("the anointing") that transparent deficiencies in the aesthetic quality of song and performance were often overlooked.
In the early 1980s CCM in the UK gave off confused signals. The gigantic market growth of CCM albums in America was underway. Stateside albums like 'Age To Age' by Amy Grant and 'Songs For The Shepherd' by Keith Green broke all kinds of sales records and CCM began its unrelenting inroad into the US record marketplace (which was to take CCM from less than one per cent to over 11 per cent of the American record marketplace in a 10 year period). But in Britain such growth, or even a viable support base for Britain's few full time Christian musicians, seemed a pipe dream. Word (UK) Ltd, who had established themselves as the biggest Christian record company, were experiencing a phenomenal increase in turnover and profits. But such growth was achieved by selling a relatively few copies of each of an increasing number of albums rather than a relatively large number of a few albums. Examining the UK sales of individual Christian music albums makes for fascinating reading. They show that in 1972 an "average" Christian music album sold 2,500 copies in Britain. This figure was the same in 1980. And it was still the same in 1985. What had dramatically increased was the number of different albums released. Because of the huge proliferation of labels, artists and albums in America's CCM scene, Word were able -through licensing from dozens of US companies - to build up a gigantic catalogue which at its height represented nearly a thousand albums and represented a 'Who's Who' of American CCM. One of Word (UK)'s triumphs was the establishment of its record club. With the Premier advertorial, it was able to go direct to consumers and with an aggressive pitch to find new consumers at Christian events Premier had by the 90s built up a mailing list of over 25,000 customers who, theoretically at least, would occasionally buy a Christian music album.
When Cross Rhythms was launched in May 1990 CCM in Britain seemed to be floundering in a trough from which no one could wrench it free. Half a decade before, Buzz magazine had published an article documenting the decline in the British gospel tour scene pointing out how the big high-profile gospel tour had vanished. Since then things had got worse. Once virile Christian record companies like Pilgrim/Marshalls, Window and Ears And Eyes had gone bust. The number of full time Christian artists had dwindled to a tiny handful. Average Christian music sales were still stagnating around 2,500 or less per album. And negativity was rife. This was demonstrated when I visited the two Christian record companies, clutching a mock-up of Cross Rhythms' first cover and a pitch for them to advertise. "It won't last three issues," was how one record executive responded to my idealism.
He was wrong of course. The mistake that that executive made is one which has been repeated by many involved in the Christian music industry both in small time Britain or Big Business USA, the mistake that the only way to perceive and participate in Christian music is as a business where the rules of pragmatism and the market place dictate all decision-making and actions. There is a higher way, the way of vision and faith. Over the years as a Christian journalist I'd interviewed a number of men and women who lived by faith, who were prepared to do all kinds of crazy, impractical and sometimes downright dangerous things for no other reason than they had an inner certainty that this was what God wanted them to do. In the Midlands I'd become friendly with a Christian musicianary called Roly Johnson Bell who was living just such a life. Little guaranteed income or church support didn't stop Roly's fruitful ministry in schools and missions. I was profoundly affected by Roly. So it was not altogether surprising that it was this musician who brought me a confirming word from Scripture when I was trying to assess whether my 'idea' for Cross Rhythms was simply that or a vision from God or that, in the first issue of Cross Rhythms, Roly Johnson Bell should be featured in a cover story.
The early months and issues of Cross Rhythms were emotionally gruelling, spiritually demanding and financially catastrophic. But they threw up a number of men who bled sacrificially into keeping a magazine - that from a mere business perspective was a licence to lose money -alive. Printer Mark Golding, travel company director Bob Fleming, businessman Alan Barker and a team of contributors put up with all manner of trials and disappointments for the sake of a vision from God.
But what was the nature of that vision? Was it that CCM in Britain would build to a similar market level as that achieved in the USA so that London, Manchester, Birmingham and a dozen other places had stations pumping out 24 hour CCM; that albums sold, on average 30,000 to 40,000; or that hundreds of gifted British musicians could make a living from performing spiritual songs? I don't think it was these things, though I for one would be thrilled if such events in time came to pass. I believe the vision all those Cross Rhythms workers and supporters had less to do with the specific, than with the general, less to do with market shares and radio station proliferation and Christians making fine music; and more to do with the Kingdom of God, the Lord's return and the wind up of the age.
Some years ago, shortly before the Lord spoke to me at Greenbelt and pointed at Chris Cole as the man with the gifts, integrity and destiny to lead the Cross Rhythms ministry, I had a vision of a packed football stadium of young people lost in worship as they sang praises to Christ. I'm still hazy about the specifics of that vision. The music was contemporary but I can't recall the style. The stadium was packed but I can't recollect its location. And I have no clear idea of the timeframe before I was to see this astonishing sight actualised. But what that vision did was indelibly implant a belief that contemporary music would be a spearhead for revival, revival in Britain, revival in Europe, a worldwide revival of Holy Spirit power. Just as in Old Testament times when the kings called for musicians when they wanted to hear God, I believe that more and more the Church throughout the world will be calling on prophet musicians to come into God's presence and receive his Word.
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