For those of us who support the creed and basic manifesto of Chalcedon, seeing Christendom impact all of culture should be the driving force in our lives. Indeed, God Himself mandated that Christians take the message of the gospel (the entire message), to all parts of the world (Mt. 28:18-20). Perhaps the very most relevant expression in culture today takes place in modern music, certainly as it pertains to the younger generations (ages 10 - 25). I have been privileged to work in the contemporary Christian music industry since I began my professional career nearly eight years ago. It is my firm conviction that those of us who seek dominion need to become aware of what Christians are doing in modern music, the problems that exist that impede the success of such an industry, and the goals and objectives Christians must have as they move forward.
Contemporary Christian music has been the fastest growing genre of music in terms of certified sales for nearly five years now (replacing country music) on Billboard's official sales charts. Artists such as Sixpence None the Richer, P.O.D., Jars of Clay, etc., have achieved remarkable success in the real world of commercial radio and video airplay. Artists who used to sell from 10,000 to 20,000 albums in Christian bookstores are now able to move over 150,000, and even 300,000 albums, all in the tiny world of Christian bookstores. Between concert ticket revenues and album sales, the Christian music industry is a $1 billion industry and still growing.
For the purposes of this article, I am not referring to such traditional adult contemporary artists as Sandi Patty and Amy Grant, and I am not referring to the long-established industry of Black gospel and Southern gospel music. In terms of the musical genre that kids often embrace on their local "secular" radio station or on MTV, the "cutting edge" genre of music is exploding in the Christian world. For those of us who seek cultural dominion in classrooms, hospitals, politics, science labs, financial markets, and the arts, this should be seen as an exciting prospect. My late father, Dr. Greg Bahnsen, used to refer to rock n' roll music as a "rite of passage" for the youth culture. Indeed, having been a teenager less than ten years ago myself, and now working with bands that sell in excess of 1 million records, I can certainly testify to the validity of the claim that music has a tremendous impact on the thinking and lifestyles of teenage and college-age audiences. Idolatry is sinful no matter what form it takes, and I certainly do not advocate kids replacing their spiritual lives or their personal education with a sinful obsession in the culture and lifestyle of rock music. However, music is a part of this society, and Christians are remiss to ignore their responsibility to use it as a tool in our dominion calling and as a means of glorifying our Heavenly Father.
What holds back the growth of the Christian music industry? Why has it taken so long for some of these highly talented groups to gain the exposure and success they have deserved? I list several concerns below, and I hope that the readers of the Report will not be guilty of any of these.
There is a general attitude in the Christian music world that also permeates the thinking of a good portion of retailers, radio stations, and concert promoters. It is the age-old Arminian fallacy that unless the message and purpose of the music and the musicians are specifically evangelical and geared towards what they call "soul-winning," it is not worthy of the label "Christian music." I have managed several groups over the years that were outlawed from performing at certain events because they did not do altar calls. The idea that any Christian person who writes songs or plays an instrument has a further obligation to deliver a John 3:16 message each night is preposterous, yet I assure you that it is a common attitude in the Christian music industry. Some retailers will base their product order of new releases on how many times the word "Jesus" appears in the album lyric sheets. The reality is that a Christian person writing a song about his parents' divorce, or about the love he has for his wife, or about a confusing predicament he is dealing with in his life is just as legitimate as one who chooses to write a more evangelistic song. Thank God that David and Solomon were not inhibited by the standards set in today's Christian music industry. Furthermore, there is a general fundamentalist attitude that all rock n'roll and all dancing were prescribed by Satan and, thus, are not appropriate for Christians. Although this attitude is shrinking, it still exists far more than it should, particularly in certain parts of the country, and is a destructive and naive attitude that eliminates Christians from a chance to permeate culture with good music. The theological shortcomings within the industry are frightening.
Quite frankly, for years and years, the music being produced by Christian artists has been so substandard that it has not been worthy of attention within culture. I believe that is changing, but some of the theological fallacies I mentioned above have severely cramped the quality and talent that should exist in Christian music. Just as God requires doctors who are believers to be the very best in their profession; and just as God expects pastors to be very thorough, precise, and articulate in their preaching; God calls musicians who are believers to write good music and to perform it in a way that glorifies Him. I read articles constantly from other Christians who claim that "all Christian music is terrible." This stereotype was well deserved in the past, so I am moderate in my criticism, but I am confident that the landscape is changing, and I encourage the readers of the Report to evaluate some of the music that is now available. It is a constant battle, but the talent levels are higher than ever before, and there is unbridled opportunity for Christian dominance in the fields of songwriting and performing.
In addition to poor theology, I believe the industry has suffered immensely from incompetence in the business aspect of this trade. Poor decision-making, bad allocation of resources, staff mismanagement, incomplete marketing plans, etc., are common in this business. Unfortunately, the poor business practices I refer to are often justified by claims that "this is just a ministry any way" or "I am not in this for the money." The underlying assumption being, "I am doing this for God, so it does not matter how well I do it" the very antithesis of what the Bible teaches. As the Christian music industry improves its caliber of executives, its wisdom in financial investing, and its sophistication in production, marketing, and distribution, more doors will open for those who are serious about seeing music impact culture for Christ.
Last, but not least and certainly the most depressing of all the categories I believe the industry is massively impeded by poor ethics in the lives of many of the business figures and musical celebrities that make up the industry. Personal scandals, terrible family lives, financial fraud, etc. are all too common in the industry that carries the name "Christian" in its title. As is often the case, Christians can be the worst at practicing what they preach and there is certainly massive need for reform and piety in the personal lives of all those in the Christian music business who profess the name of Christ.
For myself as a Christian man and as an executive in the Christian music industry, I believe that in order to move forward in the industry, we must remedy each of the above problems. For a "would-be" consumer who is skeptical about Christian music, I encourage you to reevaluate what is available in Christian music today. The Internet has gone a long way toward increasing the national exposure of select Christian artists and this will only increase in years to come. This is by no means a perfect business, but any one who really does desire to see their community impacted for Christ, let alone society at-large, music is going to be a massive tool in that regard. If Christians do not use music to make a statement, someone else will. By the grace of God, may Christian songwriters improve their craft, may Christian music businesses improve their skills and savvy, and may consumers of Christian music open their minds to the good material out there. Most importantly, may all of those in and out of the industry desire to live sanctified lives, so that when the message does hit the hearts of our culture, it will not be perceived as empty. Music as entertainment, music as a message, and music as creative expression, are all valid goals may it be the Christians who dominate in all of these categories for generations to come.
- David L. Bahnsen