The Worst Thing About Quality Christian Rock Nick Alexander

The Worst Thing About Quality Christian Rock

It has been 18 years since I last attended a seminal event in my twenties; the Cornerstone Music Festival. Dubbed “The Christian Woodstock,” it was something to truly behold in wonderment. An annual event where Christian music fans camped out in the middle of a many-acred farm in Western Illinois, and listened to music.

And by Christian Music, I don’t necessarily mean what you would hear on Christian radio. Christian rock, Christian blues, Christian punk, Christian new wave, Christian rap-core, Christian Celtic, Christian jazz, Christian ska, Christian swing, Christian blues, Christian folk, and even some Christian stuff that wasn’t easily categorized.

Don’t get me wrong: there were Christian radio friendly artists there; it was the last chance I got to see [sniff] Rich Mullins before his unexpected passing, mere weeks later (He was there to promote a musical about St. Francis of Assisi). Other up-and-coming radio acts were there, including Switchfoot, Caedmon’s Call, and Plumb.

Sadly, the Cornerstone Festival is no more. It shuttered its doors in 2012. The digital boom of music has made alternative festivals of this sort all but obsolete. Unfortunately, much of the Christian rock of my youth has not been converted to digital, and is in danger of being forgotten.

What the Music Does For Me

Music is a wonderful tool. Too often we relegate it to the sidelines, ignore it, put music on the background. It sticks with you. It gives life to words. It motivates you.

There’s a great running gag in the new Pixar movie “Inside Out” (see it at all costs). The movie centers upon the emotions and thoughts that dominate a normal twelve-year old girl, giving you a vivid, creative framework as to how your mind works. The gag involves a silly jingle of a bubble gum commercial, that dominates her mind at the most inconvenient times. What is that song doing in my head?

When I was in my teens and twenties, there was a time where I had very little outward support for my faith. I would go to a Sunday service, and there was very few others there who were my age. It was a most lonely time.

But when I discovered Christian rock music, it gave me a shot in the arm. It reminded me that I was not living this faith alone. I suddenly had ear candy that had helped me through my day.

But I still believe
I still believe
Through the pain
And through the grief
Through the lives
Through the storms
Through the cries
And through the wars
Oh, I still believe
-”I Still Believe (Great Design)” The Call.

It is known that many athletes would listen to a series of specific songs that helped them get into the zone, before a competition. Conversely, I know many speakers who listen to a specific song list that gets them into a similar zone before stepping foot on stage. It provides energy, mood, and drive. It does the same for me.

The Worst Thing About Christian Rock

There is a dark side to the Christian music industry, and it saddens me.

In short, one can subscribe to a satellite radio service and be catered to, with many musical formats. Forget about the decades; you have different shades of rock, from album-cuts, to punk, to new wave, to college radio, to thrash. You have different shades of folk, blues, bluegrass, country, and classical.

Christian music is mostly relegated to one or two types of stations. There is a MOR station that relies upon the “K-Love” model. And there is a Gospel format, more specific to black gospel artists. If you search further, there is a Southern Gospel format, catering specifically to fans of that genre. And maybe—maybe you get a Christian rock station, catering specifically to fans of contemporary rock, rap, and other songs outside of the MOR model.

Catholic radio has all but abandoned music; it is too expensive to play, and they get a whole lot more mileage out of talk. Plus, they get to bypass the worship wars; they don’t have to cater to both traditionalists (who prefer Gregorian chant and sacred classical music) and contemporaries (who prefer guitars, keyboards and percussion instruments).

But if you don’t have satellite radio, chances are, the only songs you know of Christian music are from the “K-Love” channel. This channel caters to a specific type of patron: a thirty-something soccer mom. Their mantra is “Safe for the Whole Family.”

No Heritage, No Diversity

What is missing from their playlists are those songs that helped define me when I was growing up.

It’s not that they don’t play oldies on Christian radio. I suspect that they are more than happy to play one or two such classics every hour. But these classics are most likely those songs that fit within that framework: more MOR songs. Twila Paris survives, Larry Norman doesn’t. The Imperials survive, Steve Taylor doesn’t.

What makes this all the more disconcerting is that it gives a wrong impression about Christian music. That it all sounds the same. That it appeals to only a certain demographic, a certain musical style, somewhere inbetween The Carpenters and whoever-is-popular-at-the-moment.

If you don’t fit the model, you may have the most incredible songs, but you are all but ignored.

This has infected not just Christian entertainment, but it has also seeped into our worship. Ever since the mid-90s, when groups like Delirious, Sonicflood and Passion had copied the musical stylings of U2, and incorporated them into praise and worship, suddenly the only musical style that matters is one which follows this sound. There is a same-ness between all flavors, which is crushing creativity.

In the last few weeks I was re-ignited with my love of the Christian music of my youth, after listening to an episode of Full Circle Podcast. In it, they focused on Christian New Wave music. And forgotten songs of my youth came back to me.

I remembered how great the music was, how seminal it was to help me in my walk, and how diverse the music was. I immediately went to iTunes to purchase some of these songs.

They weren’t there. The musical offerings of Christian rock from my youth were all but forgotten. The labels probably went bankrupt. The artists never caught on.

That is the problem of basing a musical genre entirely upon the content of its lyrics. It has nowhere to go when the musical style has passed, become enconsced in some collective memory, and doesn’t fit the current homogenous format.

What I Desire Instead

How I wish Christian radio will embrace musical diversity.

By embracing musical diversity, they will have a far greater reach than the single-gendered, single-decaded avatar that they have crafted for themselves. They will ignite new memories of evangelistic fervor, crafting new sounds that will motivate, teach, and stretch our creative impulses. They will demonstrate that being a Christian doesn’t mean being put into a box.

I heartily recommend that if you like Christian music, then dig deep and discover your roots, discover music outside of the box. Listen to Full Circle Podcast, or read books like God’s Not Dead (And Neither Are We) or Mark Allan Powell’s masterful Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music.

If you do not listen to Christian music, I would give it a try. Ask yourself what musical stylings that best motivate you, and find a Christian counterpart. Or better yet, take your favorite, most motivational Scripture verse or thematic sentiment—those phrases that most motivate you at encouraging you to be your best, and search iTunes or Spotify to hear those songs from artists that have tackled this subject.

It has often gotten a bad rap over the years as being a substandard copycat, but I couldn’t disagree more. There have been an incredible wellspring of music being made, over a period of decades.

We are losing our heritage. We are losing our diversity. This must stop.

What are your memories of Christian music? How does it help you in your walk? If you are unfamiliar with the great diversity and artistic excellence of Christian artists, what ways does this article encourage you to reconsider?

I am in the middle of crafting a number of online courses that will help assist Catholics and Christians in their walks. You can help me by answering a few questions.

Enter the Conversation...

3 Responses to “The Worst Thing About Quality Christian Rock”
  1. Theodore M Seeber says:

    During my cradle catholic 20 something wandering away from the church, I was a volunteer comedy DJ on a college radio station- playing comedy on a station that had been heavy metal for 20 years. It was hard to find stuff in the stacks, but I had friends who were into Christian Rock, and they introduced me to the heavily Calvinist artist Carmen, who was hitting his popularity at the time. At Halloween, I even played his quite scary near-spoken-word-drone Witches’ Invitation ( a very thinly disguised attack on famous Satanist Isaac Bonewitz).

    Even today, I have exactly two Christian Rock artists on my MP3 playlist- Nick Alexander and Carmen (even if I cringe a bit at Carmen’s theology now).

    • Nickpod1 says:

      I can’t say I’ve ever been a fan of Carman. He’s more of an entertainer than a musician, and as an entertainer, he pretty much plays to the Christian base in a manner that rubs the wrong way with me. I like two of his songs: Revive Us O Lord (written w Steve Camp) and Sunday’s On the Way. The rest sounds a little shallow for me.

      I had to craft a new playlist: the artists that I added were: Steve Taylor, Sheila Walsh (most of her super early stuff, the best of three-to-four albums worth, of which none of them survive on iTunes), David Edwards (an inspriation to Steve Taylor, also not on iTunes), After the Fire (you know them from Der Kommissar, but they’re a Christian band), Weber and the Buzztones, The Call, Code of Ethics, Crumbacher[!!!], Daniel Amos (their four-volume Alarma Chronicles, and Darn Floor Big Bite), Mad At the World, Tonio K’s Romeo Unchained, 4-4-1, Undercover, and The 77s. (And there’s even lesser known artists beyond these).

  2. Perry says:

    Great article! I’ve been a bit frustrated about Catholic music for similar reasons to what you are saying here. When I was really young our parish was still singing in Latin. As a teenager I found myself listening to everything from The Damians to Petra alongside the secular music I enjoyed. I now serve a Parish that has very dedicated music groups. All three provide different genres of music for our congregation yet we all get along very well and value each others contributions.

    I think part of our challenge as a church though is that we SAY we value quality music and some even pine for the old days when we had chant and organs. Now take a look at our Catholic schools and youth ministries and show me where we emphasize anything musical. I see Catholic schools who love to tell themselves how great their once or twice per week music programs/classes are but then wonder why music at mass is declining or becoming “less Catholic”. I think it’s because we lie to ourselves about our support of a Catholic/Christian music culture within our church, schools and youth programs. We can look to the glory days of 600 years ago for only so long. At some point we will need to encourage our youth to become musicians for Christ and give them a culture in which to create as God leads them. I don’t see that happening quite yet though.

    Thanks, Perry

  • Nick Alexander wants your next event to be awesome!