Why Christian Music?: A look at the Christian music scene

Tuesday 1st August 2000

Tony Cummings quizzes two veterans of the Christian music scene, rock musician and pastor Glenn Kaiser and broadcaster and pastor Chris Cole to glean their thoughts in the debate.


Tony: Those who criticise the Christian music industry claim that all it is producing is the same kind of consumerism and hedonism that exists in the non-Christian world. Do you agree?
"Yes and no. Musical (and. other) offerings are produced with various motives, and likewise shopped for and bought out of various individual motives. Does God use much, perhaps even most, of these bits of music, etc? Certainly. Has he ORDAINED all of it? Certainly not. But I think it would be too sweeping of a statement to consider it all pure commercialism and only fit for the rubbish tip."

Tony: When was the last time you went to Nashville?
"HA HA HA! Good one Tony! Well, I was last there about two months ago, responding to an invitation to lecture a group of about 60 musicians who are studying the gamut of how to truly be music ministers and, in general, Christ-centered artists, some working in other media besides music. It was well received, and when I speak it is often quite like a root-canal at the dentist, so I was thankful."

Tony: One gets the impression that today's CCM industry is dominated by huge secular multi nationals. This influx of cash has given the Christian music marketplace unprecedented opportunities to expand but has brought with it major ethical and moral problems. Is that a fair appraisal?
"Yes and no. We don't need unbelievers to bring the sin factor into the Christian church/music industry, etc. It was there before they got here, because it's in all of us. I would say that major ethical and moral problems are a bit more 'out of the closet' and being discussed more freely than before as a result of the changes, and that, for the most part, is good. Look, I don't think the Christian music industry (and that includes praise and worship, evangelistic/missions-oriented lyrics, etc) is redeemable in the first place! If the whole thing blew up in the morning it wouldn't be much of a loss in one sense. It's the PEOPLE in the industry that Jesus died for, not the form. People are so concerned about artistic output and financial 'blessing' (I'm frankly gagging at this point) that often the actual human beings doing the work (artists, shopkeepers and everyone else) are not being cared for. It's the growth or lack of personal holiness, biblical discipleship, accountability and both spiritual and musical integrity, skill and a few other foundational things that are at the core of what's right AND wrong with Christians, so-called Christian music and the rest."

Tony: Every recording artist wants to maximise their audience. Isn't it true that if Grrr Records were approached tomorrow by EMI who wanted to put Glenn Kaiser and the Resurrection Band and the Crossing and the other Grrr artists into every American Christian bookstore and quite a few mainstream record shops, you'd jump at it?
"Ha! You really know how to hit the mark. Tony, I truly couldn't care less. First off, to simply have mass distribution only means you have to deal with more returns. For the reader's sake, 'returns' are what CDs and cassettes, etc are called when they don't sell in a shop after X amount of time, say 60 or 90 days or whatever. Someone pays for the shipping, and it's either the record label or the artist or whomever. This is how debt is often incurred.

"To have huge distribution is a bit like saying you have a book in a huge amount of libraries in the world. If there isn't a ton of visual and other PR, if you don't do a lot of book tours, lots of press interviews, etc, etc, you simply have more potential to be seen and heard - there's zero guarantee that you will have more sales or impact than if you had little of none of this infrastructure. Remember, there are thousands of books (recordings) in that library or shop or in that internet spot. All of this costs real money and every company involved is sure not working daily to lose money! "In the end, it may make more sense to take time, pray, save the needed cash and do a simple CD on a friend's digital recorder, press up however many CDs you can afford and just make it available at concerts, on the Web and in a few outlets where someone might even care a little! This is not the solution for all artists, but it really seems to be for many. Furthermore, even if a huge recording corporation wants to sign you, it could just as easily be death for you. For some, it's a great help, but one must really pray, and carefully read the fine print and consider the possible downside of a deal. A LOT of Christian music veterans can tell you why that's important - in a hurry!"

Tony: Steve Taylor once wrote a line of a song, "I only drink milk from a Christian cow," lampooning the dualism that exists in the Christian subculture. If the Church needs big bucks to market Michael W Smith or Point Of Grace or whoever to sell 500,000 copies plus, isn't it an irrelevance whether those bucks come from a secular corporation or a company purporting to be a Christian ministry?
"I suppose I'm the wrong guy to ask such a question, in that huge financial outlays are often NOT needed so much as wanted, so there is a sense in which, beyond a certain basic point, the amount of money tossed into a project isn't really the issue. I happen to think it largely irrelevant where the money comes from but extremely relevant what strings are attached to it by those giving, or more accurately, investing or loaning it to an artist. Again, fine print, motives, prayer, what are we all trying to really accomplish by doing this project or series of projects? To the extent that the money in some way strongly influences an artist's ability to biblically share the truth of God's Word and a Gospel message is HUGELY important. Too many artists want the payday and the financial security (whatever that is... I don't really believe there is such a thing in this life - for anyone) and so are basically 'sold to the highest bidder'. Who are we, who are we trying to reach, in terms of content, what are we trying to reach them with? These are the issues that also determine (or in my view, should) who we work with. There is no question that Christian or not, they want to make some profit, and of course must or they cease to exist as a business/ministry/call it what you will."

Tony: If record companies lie and cheat and hype, it may be distressing but really is that any different from huge book publishers who publish and sell Bibles yet also publish soft pornography? Doesn't mass merchandising inevitably bring ethical compromise?
"My answer to your first question here is, 'No, period.' But I would offer the same answer to your second query. Mass merchandising mean in essence, mass distribution, advertising and possible sales, basically. There is no absolute guarantee of solid biblical ethics or the lack of them in the form itself, at least not as I see it. Ethical compromise surfaces in the other issues I've mentioned here, ie, bad motives, selfishness, greed, etc. It's a matter of the human heart and what the Word calls 'old nature, flesh, the old man'."

There is a song on 'Time Will Tell', "Ya Don't Say", which critiques the vacuousness of contemporary pop music. But surely there has always been a great deal of simple-cum-simplistic music around. Look at all those stereotyped blues songs in the 1920s. Look at some medieval folk music. Hasn't banal music and great art always existed side by side? "Certainly. But that lyric had more to do with people who are more interested in artistic expression than serving their audience in biblical ways... and an artist or, really, human being who spends a great deal of time expressing without actually serving God and others with/in/by/alongside their art is in my view living a banal life, regardless of how 'great' their art may be. If you have or develop some sense of skill or gifting, art is the easy part. Get a life!

"It may seem impossible to some, but I have known and studied a great many artists' lives (musicians and others) who technically and aesthetically speaking gave the world a great deal... but were themselves spiritually and often morally, ethically and in terms of biblical character, bankrupt. Great artists do not automatically equal great human beings, and I'm convinced the world and Church need FAR more of one than the other. Let's pray and work at becoming both."

Chris Cole
Chris Cole

Tony: What is your take on the part big business plays in today's Christian music?
"I don't think the business community has to justify itself but it certainly has to be accountable to appropriate spiritual oversight as we all should be. If we're about the Lord's business we CAN be in the marketplace, indeed we should be in the marketplace. But I passionately believe that the Christian music industry, like any other business which claims to be about God's business, must be accountable."

Tony: Isn't that a little bit naive, thinking that is always going to happen?
"Yes, it is a little naive. As the Apostle Paul says, whether the Gospel is preached out of selfish ambition or whatever, at least the Gospel gets preached. Clearly there are going to be some people involved in the Christian music industry whose motives are far from pure. But those passionate about the Kingdom of God can't ignore stories like Jesus casting out the moneychangers from the Temple. If we genuinely have a zeal for the integrity of the Church and the honour of Jesus' name, I don't think we can sit quietly back while greed and competitiveness and all kinds of things are allowed to fester in some parts of the Christian music world."

Tony: In some church circles there's been a lot of talk recently about Kingdom approach to business. What exactly is that?
"Well, on a personal level, in its early years Cross Rhythms magazine, festival and syndicated radio show was resourced from an advertising and marketing business called Cornerstone House. The profit of that company was used to under gird the ministry. There is an example of a Kingdom of God approach to business, using the profit to finance activity, like publishing a small circulation Christian music magazine, which clearly couldn't stand alone without financial help. Ours is not the only model. I could show you others. Finally, the model is less important than the attitude of heart of the businessman governing that business. What we're all fighting is that awful dualism which has tragically permeated the Church. We need to be striving to be in the world but not of the world. In most of the West the Church has chosen one of two wrong options. Either it's not in the world at all or, in its clamour to embrace an imagined relevancy, it's become compromised and worldly. What Glenn Kaiser has been so powerful in critiquing and what Tommy Tenny has identified in The God Chasers, is that we've got a lollipop prosperity. But this DOESN'T mean that money shouldn't be made in the Kingdom. It's not money that's evil, it's the LOVE of money."

Tony: Do you think the Christian music industry is too locked into worldly concepts of success and ambition?
"It's hard to talk about the morality, or lack of morality, of an industry. God came to save and sanctify individual human beings, not an industry, and we need to look at the level of sanctification of each individual Christian in a given company. I don't think ambition is a wrong ambition as long as it is submitted to God. But, as the Bible warns us, we must do nothing out of personal ambition. If all we're doing is running a major Christian music company in order to drive flash cars or get kudos in a supposedly glamorous industry, we're missing the mark. As I've emphasised on many occasions, we're in serious error when it's our job, record company executive, radio broadcaster, working in a shoe shop, which gives us our sense of worth. It's our walk with Jesus which should be our source of satisfaction."

Tony: So, on a personal level, running a radio station or being the publishing editor is no big deal?
"My sense of worth is in Christ, not what I do. What I do has got some value but I'm not mesmerised by my own PR. I'm the kind of Christian who's looking for the Kingdom that I've been told by my Bible is within. So my idea of 'success' is to become a disciple of Christ, having by his grace, his attitude, his character, his courage, hearing from Heaven the way Jesus did, having the REAL empowerment of a spiritual life. Now part of the outworking of that will be effective interacting in the real world."

Tony: Absolutely, but living in the real world means we're real with our emotions. We feel things. That's not easy. For instance, doesn't it irritate you that Cross Rhythms, a magazine trying to bring a certain spiritual perspective alongside its music information, sells 3,500 copies while Juice, an advertorial financed by the big four Christian record companies in the UK sells 10,000?
"It irritates me that we don't have the consensus within the music industry over here that we can work a little bit more intelligently. Things would be so much better if there was the trust and there was the dialogue. The difficulty is getting the key players together to work it through for the benefit of the Kingdom. I'm very aware that many record company executives believe that they are serving the Kingdom by supporting a selected number of musicians and selling product for them. I don't have a problem with that. But there's more to the Kingdom than expanding a market or increasing your market share. They need to look beyond their own self-interest. Where do the activities of other record companies and the hundreds of independent artists fit into the equation? Where does TV and radio fit in? Where does the Church fit in? We need a dialogue, which we're not currently getting. So I'm frustrated when we can't work intelligently in a spirit of unity."

Tony: I know that you've been very envisioned by Glenn Kaiser and the whole Jesus People USA church. What do you think they can teach the Christian music industry?
"They're a very faithful remnant of the Jesus Movement. As Kevin Max of dc Talk correctly identifies in the book Jesus Freaks, contemporary Christian music grew out of the late '60s when converted hippies became part of a revival, the Jesus Movement. What I like abut JPUSA is they're very holistic, they're very balanced, and they've never lost their love affair with Jesus."

Tony: Back in the 70s the late Keith Green staggered the record industry by releasing a record using a pay-what-you-like system. Do you think there's anything we can learn from that brave experiment today?
"I think the technological revolution is the catalyst to allow something similar today. It can spur on thousands of independent musicians. I think that's very healthy. Thousands of artists are developing do-it-yourself marketing via the internet and getting their own mailing lists. For most it will remain small time. But every now and again this new approach will enable a Newsboys or a Delirious? to come through. What the Newsboys did in the USA, what Delirous? did here in doing their own marketing, building their own database is very healthy." "Clearly, the technological developments - cheap midi systems, CD burners, internet websites, MP3, etc - have caused a revolution. Where once only a tiny fraction of bands and soloists could ever get to make a recording and today anybody with enough determination can, with a relatively small financial outlay, make 'a recording' and get it out to the public. There is both a downside and an upside to this. The downside is that the music CD marketplace gets absolutely flooded as thousands of musicians put out demo/independent releases of music, of which a high percentage are bound to be mediocre and derivative. The upside is that it puts a degree of control back into the artists hands."

Tony: But an artist doing the whole thing themselves... Going out and doing concerts, beginning to build up a database of people at their concerts, that's a long, hard slog. And even if they do all that, they can only go so far. If they're to eventually aspire to the heady heights of selling 300,000 copies of an album or whatever, in order to achieve that they have no choice to go to the huge multi-nationals. And that brings its own tensions.
"Yes it does. I know when the Newsboys signed with one big record company they took in a database of 400,000 supporters. Now a record company is interested in any band who's built up that level of support. At the end of the day it's marketing. We're now in a culture which like never before is into buying and selling. It's a worldwide, global economy. And the Church has got to wake up to that and begin to pick its way through the ethical minefield, being effective in selling millions of albums or reaching millions of TV viewers, without getting polluted and compromised in the process." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


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