Tony Cummings reports on Britain's Christian music scene.
In the light of the controversy, which sees the long established Greenbelt Festival in painful conflict with its new rival Junction 1, Cross Rhythms takes a two-part look at the theological and historical roots behind the controversy. It speaks to industry figures and Christian musicians, examines the history of Christian music festivals and the contemporary Christian music industry, and asks probing questions about the conflicts between selling product and saving souls, building the Kingdom and building empires.
In his classic 1993-published book The Contemporary Christian Music
Debate: Worldly Compromise Or Agent Of
Renewal?, Steve Miller wrote "Hailed by some as a fresh moving of the Holy Spirit, maligned by others as blatant compromise with the world, contemporary Christian music has become one of the most controversial issues facing the church at the close of the 20th century." If that was true in 1993 it is even more so this new millennium. The staggering sales growth of American Christian music with secular multi nationals moving in to snap up all the major Christian record companies; the moral indiscretions of a number of CCM artists; the birth of thousands of new independent artists propelled by internet; all these developments have kept the controversy raging in* America.
In British church circles the debate has been slow to re-ignite since the mighty controversy caused in the early '80s with the publication of the book Pop Goes The Gospel by John Blanchard which attempted to convince church goers that the raucous rhythms of pop and rock music was an unholy thing doing untold harm to the church. Now another issue, the glaring tension between the desire to minister the Gospel (in evangelism, worship, teaching or encouragement) and the desire to maximise profits has come to a head. The catalyst for this new controversy has been the announcement of a new festival to feature many top CCM names to be held on August 25th-28th.
Two Festivals One Weekend
The news that a major new Christian music festival, backed by Britain's two biggest Christian music companies, would in normal circumstances have been greeted with an entirely positive response by UK supporters of Christian music. The event certainly seemed to have evangelical credibility. It was announced that Compassion UK, the Oasis Trust and Evangelical Alliance were partnering with Word Music, Alliance Music and Christian retailer Wesley Owen in putting together Junction 1. Duncan Banks, of the Oasis Trust and programme director for Junction, enthused, "J1 is a pure music festival. Wall to wall tunes, bands, dance and tracks. It's aim is clear - to help disciple young people through the medium of contemporary Christian music. I don't think the Christian music scene has ever been so exciting as it is now and this festival will be a showcase of the very best on the planet."
Nigel Saunders, Junction 1's administrator, explained how the event came into being. "Junction 1 has been a dream or passion that I and a number of others have had for the past three years. It was sparked by a conversation that I had with a friend and we came up with an idea of running a festival that was music centred. The concept was presented to Spring Harvest in September 1997 and from that, Freestate which unfortunately did not happen was birthed. When Freestate was cancelled I still had a passion to promote a festival and so I put a plan together and started to get some key players involved. Alliance and Word and the other parties started to work together because they were asked to. It was very simple. The site in London came about because a minister from a Baptist Church in Hillingdon, Uxbridge was asked by the council to put on a Christian event. We has a conversation and it went from there."
However, Junction 1's announcement that they were to hold the event the same bank holiday weekend as Britain's longest running Christian arts festival, Greenbelt, brought forth a furore of criticism in the Christian media. Martin Wroe, a former Greenbelt board member, told Christianity magazine that the decision to host Junction 1 on the same weekend as Greenbelt "looks intentional and makes a mockery of any talk of broad based Christian ministry. Indeed, talk of ministry is a sham; it is all about music companies getting sufficient exposure for their bands. EA are dressing up a commercial venture with religious language...and why the same weekend? I'm not sure they realise how vulnerable a charitable arts festival is. A drop in attendance of 600 could be the difference between success and failure. Some of these people...(would) prefer Greenbelt to be blown out of the water."
Only a little less critical was Elaine Storkey, a frequent Greenbelt speaker but also a member of the 85-strong council of the Evangelical Alliance. "At the moment there is a tension over the whole positioning of Junction 1 and I'm sorry that that's happened. I think it's a pity that we are treading on their toes because Greenbelt needs encouragement to get its act together after it has gone through difficult times."
Joel Edwards, EA's General Director, defended the decision to put on Junction 1 the same weekend as Greenbelt. "The reason why we put our weight behind Junction 1 is that many of the players are EA members and the event was going to be very different to Greenbelt," he told Christianity. "This is a music festival for young people without the same sort of line up of seminars and creative arts as Greenbelt. That's very attractive to us because EA wants to access younger people with a view to influencing their thoughts on evangelicalism and on what it means to be a disciple in the 21st century."
Nigel Saunders of Junction 1 thinks that the suggestion that Junction 1 is primarily about selling product is unfair. "Word and Alliance obviously want to profile the artists that they represent. They believe that the music they sell can change lives, make a difference and is also pretty good fun to listen to. It is very difficult in the UK to get a CCM artists profiled, and I hope that Junction 1 goes someway in raising awareness. One of the very important aims for the Junction 1 team is to use CCM in helping to disciple Christian young people. A multi media Seminar programme will be running in the mornings of the festival entitled Sense. This will use music, video and artists themselves to discuss, debate and teach Christian discipleship issues. We want to help young people make life work in a positive and fun way. Music is a very powerful medium to help do this. The other partners involved with Junction1 would not put their names to the event if it was just about selling records. I don't think it is a fair criticism."
To understand the Junction 1/Greenbelt controversy one must grasp how vigorously the Nashville CCM scene is opposed by many of Greenbelt's staunchest supporters. Said James Stewart of the BritLinks Christian internet resource, "There is a very real effort by the British Christian record companies to create a duplicate of the American CCM scene here. That's what Junction 1 is all about. Turning as many young Christians into subculture consumers as possible." At the root of these objections is the belief that Christian music has no validity as a phrase or a separate market niche.
"We have come to believe that there is no such thing as 'Christian music'. It is bad business, but more importantly, it is bad theology. Nowhere in the Bible are we taught to separate activities into the artificial categories of 'sacred' and 'secular1. All activities are to be done to the glory of God. Satisfactory biblical justification for calling one song 'Christian' and another 'secular' based on such factors as the spiritual status of the employees at the record label or the number of times the name of Jesus is evoked in a song is dubious at best. In place of the old secular/sacred distinction, we suggest a new standard modelled on Nee's exhortation to believers to stay in the culture and transform it."
The above quotation did not in fact come from a Greenbelt seminar though it could easily have. In fact, it came from the collective pens of America's MUM president Mark Joseph, Dr Patrick Kavanaugh author of The Spiritual Lives Of Great Composers and Kerry Livgren, founding member of the rock band Kansas.
Seeing only the art but ignoring its potential to minister, or seeing the ministry but ignoring the aesthetic realm, are clearly both incomplete Christian views of art. In his article An Ad-Mission Statement in 1996, Cross Rhythms' Chris Cole identified a group of young people for whom CCM wasn't an unthinking consumer response to buy produce pushed at them by religious marketing men, but a spiritual lifeline. "We are endeavouring to chronicle the journey of a generation afflicted with an identity crisis who in some degree have found a lifeline in CCM that makes cultural sense out of their times. For them there is no appeal in shallow Christian consumerism and Christian music star hero worship. They are hungry for spiritual substance. Music, like drama, the visual arts, literature or any creative endeavour points to the Creator particularly when emanating from the Church. Being a Christian music supporter can be much more than merely a sub cultural alternative to the world's obsession with entertainment. It CAN be a means of developing intimacy in worship, an openness to the prophetic in life, renewing zeal for social justice and increasing focus on the things above."
The potential problem that exists is that, in Britain, for CCM to become a major spiritual element in the growth of young Christians for more than a tiny number of people, there needs to be a major expansion of the market place. That means offering the scene to companies motivated by money, not ministry. Commented John Bedingfield, one of the London core leadership for YWAM in London and closely involved with grassroots Christian music ministry having for several years been the manager of the group The DNA Algorithm which contained his son and daughters, "The fact is, Britain is lagging far, far behind the USA in its development of Christian music. There's been a woeful lack of resources put into the scene over the last 20 years. In the minds of the record companies it is simply good marketing strategy to develop an event like Junction 1. Although I can understand Greenbelt's distress, they have effectively shot themselves in the foot over and over again with actions which are simply unacceptable to the majority of evangelical Christians. Having lost the support of evangelical youth group leaders they clearly weren't going to win them back. In many ways Junction 1 is a great opportunity if Christianity is really going to reach this generation, obsessed as it is with style and culture. Contemporary Christian music has got to have some big money put behind it."
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