Where the Road and Sky Collide: Reclaiming CCM by Duane W.H. Arnold PhD
“When we come to place where the road and the sky collide
Throw me over the edge and let my spirit glide”
Long, long ago, in a land far, far away there was a time and a place where contemporary Christian music mattered.
It had started slowly. It had not been planned. No one thought of it as an industry and there weren’t too many rules. It arose in the most unlikely places and, for the most part, many of the early pioneers were only vaguely aware of each other. It came out of Hollywood and the first solo albums of Larry Norman. It came out of the Pacific Northwest with the band Wilson McKinley. It broke the surface in Ohio with the All Saved Freaks Band and a local club band, Glass Harp, featuring a guitar player named Phil Keaggy. At Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, bands like Love Song and singers such as Karen Lafferty emerged, encouraged by their pastor, Chuck Smith.
Within a very short time, other new voices were heard. The Calvary Chapel Maranatha roster filled out with new bands and solo artists. Norman began to think of a Christian alternative label, modeled on David Geffen’s Asylum Records. His first recruit was a wiry young singer/songwriter named Randy Stonehill. In the midwest, Petra, headed by Bob Hartman, emerged as a genuine Christian rock band from Adam’s Apple (an outreach of Calvary Temple in Ft. Wayne, IN). Meanwhile, north of Chicago, Glenn Kaiser began assembling Resurrection Band.
So it all began. Musical stylings ranged from Laurel Canyon inspired singer/songwriters to Led Zeppelin influenced bands to country rock devotees. Venues ranged from Saturday night concerts at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa to small fellowship coffeehouses in rural Ohio to the Love Inn in upstate New York. Yet, in the midst of this diversity there was a unifying purpose – evangelism to those outside of the Church, a prophetic message to those within – and all of this laced with addressing the human condition. It was not safe. Venues, songwriters and bands were taking risks and, by the way, if as a musician you led worship, it was pretty well limited to the Church or a Bible study group. Worship was a part of the life of faith, not a commercial musical genre.
That’s the way it was when contemporary Christian music still mattered.
Now, this is not to envelop that time with a “heavenly glow”. There was a good bit of craziness that went on back in the day. For every good band or songwriter, there were always a good number that were really bad! I know, we heard them. Perhaps the difference between now and then, is that back in the day we could say, “they’re really bad” and not be consigned to outer darkness. I wish that I could remember the number of times that someone was on stage singing, having prefaced their performance with the assertion, “The Lord gave me this song”, only to hear someone else seated near to me say, “They ought to give it back…” Now, this was not said with the finality of the Last Judgement. It was simply said as a matter of reality. What mattered was authenticity and, what we all admired, musical expertise and lyrics that were clever and communicated something real.
That reality could stretch across a variety of musical stylings from Larry Norman’s Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music (remember the first time you heard it…) to John Michael Talbot’s Would You Crucify Him? to Keith Green’s Your Love Broke Through. All that mattered was that it was authentic, musically competent and real. And that is why we would ask a non-believing friend to go to a Larry Norman concert with us. It’s why we would ask a non-believing guitarist to come along and see Phil Keaggy. It’s why Resurrection Band could set up and play in a public park to a largely secular audience. They weren’t involved in the exercise of “in-speak” in terms of the Church or coded religious language – they were speaking to the culture, as well as to those believers who were reaching out to the culture. We did it at the time, because few others were willing to do it. We did it because when we looked at so many of the large evangelical and charismatic churches all we saw were people perpetuating a “ghetto mentality” of “in-speak” and “worship behind walls” that failed to interact or even to speak to the world in which we lived.
And now, almost a lifetime later, we’re back in the same place.
It’s important to realize that mega-churches and worship events are not a new phenomena. They are a continuation of American folk religion that stretches from the late 18th century Great Awakening through the revivalism of the 19th century, the fundamentalist and charismatic revival of the mid-20th century on to the current expression of this ideal in the early 21st century. Even in the late 1960s and 1970s, the off campus “revival meeting” was a staple of American religious life, replete with gospel quartets (most from the South and usually based in Nashville) that all sounded the same, the occasional soloist who had a “gift” for leading worship and the obligatory sermon, ending with an “altar call” mainly directed to those who were already well aware of the Christian message. The format, of course, found its way into the regular Sunday services of most large evangelical and charismatic churches with in-house quartets and soloists doing the same music as had been done at the revival meeting. And it was all the same music. You could change the performers, you could change the lyrics, but it was all the same. It existed in a cultural and theological vacuum that held little or no attraction to those of us who had just heard Only Visiting This Planet or Awaiting Your Reply, much less those on the outside who were listening to Jackson Browne, the Stones or The Who on their car radios or were tuning into their favorite FM station to listen to Springsteen, The Eagles, Black Sabbath or, by the mid70s, that new band from Ireland, U2.
Fast forward to 2016 and, yes, here we are again, back to the model contemporary Christian music and most of us had rejected – a model that had failed, and continues to fail, in engaging the culture.
In the current incarnation, the model is much the same. Worship events are staged (I use the word advisedly), the bands (most of whom are based in Nashville) come on with every riff that might be stolen from The Edge. The soloist by self definition is a “worship leader” who leads the crowd in singing the lyrics on the overhead screens. The lights flash like a Vegas casino show; the fog machines add the air of mystery, drama and ambience and the crowd sings along. The “positive and encouraging” message is given and the altar-less altar call is made to the thousands that have made their way to the venue in church chartered buses. All that remains is making one’s way to the merchandise tables on the way out the door for CDs, t-shirts, glow sticks and whatever else might sell. They return to their churches expecting a localized version of what they have experienced and, sure enough, next Sunday in the auditorium (you could not call it a sanctuary) they will experience their very own praise band with the same U2 chord progressions, the stage lights, and the “theology-lite” encouraging message.
Welcome to early 21st century folk religion. Welcome to the Christian music ghetto.
So now “we come to the place where the road and the sky collide”. We see what has happened, but what can we do about it? Nostalgia for something that is gone will accomplish little. There are, however, concrete actions that we can take to make a change.
Firstly, we can reject the “ghetto mentality” of the current contemporary Christian music scene. It can take place at a grassroots level. If you want to support and encourage emerging faith based singer/songwriters and bands, give them a venue, a place to play. Currently, when someone comes forward in a church with any sort of musical gift, the first instinct is to “put them in the praise band”, and the pattern of performance, influence and expectation are completely based upon the current worship scene. Instead, take a listen to their music, their gift, apart from a singular expectation of what they might do in the praise band or as a worship leader. Have them offer a song as special music. Consider setting up a small venue or coffeehouse on set evenings where music can be shared. Live music is still valued and will find an audience, but people need a place where it can be experienced. Once you set a venue, bring people in – audience and performers – who are not necessarily part of your particular faith community. If you want to break out of the ghetto of the current Christian music scene, then break out of your own siloed off community by bringing in musicians, singer/songwriters and bands from the outside. Who knows, you might even end up with a small circuit of venues which might enable you to invite an artist to do a small tour. It may seem risky, but one thing is certain – if we wait for the corporate side of contemporary Christian music to reinvigorate the genre, we will die waiting because it simply will not happen.
Secondly, if you don’t like hearing the same twenty or thirty songs on Christian radio, repeated over and over again, TELL THEM! Two corporate entities, Salem Web and Air1, control almost 95% of what is programmed to be played on Christian radio stations in the United States. Email your local Christian radio station with your thoughts, concerns and suggestions. Copy it to their corporate headquarters. They may or may not respond, but let them hear your voice. Their self-described demographic for listeners they are reaching is a narrow band of mainly women between the ages of 13 and 30. The music has to be safe and, of course, “positive and encouraging”. So, we get praise and worship songs… no edge… no prophetic voice and, in the main, very little artistry. When combined with a careful, but thinly veiled conservative political agenda (see the politics of Salem in their publishing arm) it is a stultifying combination. All that being said, the corporate entities are businesses that have to be concerned with their market and their market share. If enough listeners say “no”, there is at least a chance to make a change.
Finally, support the artists that speak to you. In the most basic terms this means buying their music. Whether paying for a download from iTunes or ordering a CD (or vinyl album) from the artist’s website, you are supporting their art and, in the case of Christian musicians, their ministry. Streaming may work for Kanye, Drake or Taylor Swift, but it does very little to nothing for most indie artists, especially Christian indie artists (and not much more for Christian artists that are signed to labels). If you are part of a faith community, tell the leadership how you feel about the music you hear week to week. Make them aware of other emerging artists that you are listening to and want to support by providing live music or concert venues. Offer to help with setting up a concert series or volunteer to assist in outreach ministries that involve music.
It is really up to us, artists and listeners alike, to reclaim the vision of what Christian music can be at its best. Then, maybe, we will no longer have to say, “Long, long ago, in a land far, far away there was a time and a place where contemporary Christian music mattered.”
Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD