Wednesday, December 22, 2010

An Analysis of Jesus in Contemporary Christian Music by J. Andrew Lockwood

This is a paper that a friend of mine by the name of Andrew Lockwood wrote. I have been contemplating this very thing for some time and I though that his analysis really rang true. I take no credit in writing or contributing to his incredible work and I do thank him for allowing me the opportunity to share this paper on my blog.

The Jesus of the airwaves has been a fairly dynamic character in the music industry for the past half century. From the origins of contemporary Christian music (CCM) industry in California during the late 1960s to the modern day, billion dollar music business that spans multiple genres, Jesus remains central to the themes and messages of much of the music. Despite all the CD sales and notoriety that the CCM industry has gained though, even Jesus might be a little puzzled at the artist’s messages and motivation for doing so. Needless to say, the CCM industry has revolutionized and impacted the way that modern day followers of Jesus minister, fellowship, and worship together.

Growing out of the Jesus Movement that started during the hippie era of the late 1960s and early 1970s, contemporary Christian music started as a counterculture to the hippie movement within various sects of Protestantism (Powell, 2002). Musicians would convert to Christianity and instead of changing their style of music, they would simply change the subject of their lyrics. According to one writer that interviewed Daniel Davison of the rap-metal band Luti-Kriss, “We weren’t really sure what to do. But we figured we should stop cussing so much in our songs. And….maybe we can write songs about God!” (Powell, 2002).
It was out of those origins that the industry of self-proclaimed ‘Jesus Freaks’ was born (Powell, 2002). More and more artists from the hippie movement simply changed the lyrics in their songs to reflect their new found salvation to give society a new look at the Jesus of the 20th century (Davis, 2007). A new Jesus entered society, most accurately described by writer Erik Davis as ‘communal, earthy, spontaneous, and anti-establishment’ (Davis, 2007). As the contemporary Christian music community grew in the 1970s, it stayed very loosely organized and centered around the Jesus Movement’s revivals through various churches in the western United States.
The first Christian rock label was launched in 1971 when pioneer Chuck Smith started Marantha! Music as an outlet for the bands that played at his church, Calvary Chapel, in Costa Mesa, California (Enroth, Erickson, & Breckenridge Peters, 1972). It was a stark contrast to the traditional music of the church and a change that was not endeared by all. In fact, Bob Jones University of South Carolina was one of the first to openly oppose the new ‘Christian rock’ music (Residence hall life, 2010). In fact, the ‘What Not to Bring’ list for the freshman of the university still includes items such as: rock, rap, jazz and country music, as well as religious music that borrows from these styles (Residence hall life, 2010).
As Smith launched the first Christian rock label, other followed suit as the contemporary Christian music continued to reflect the music of the day. In the 1980s, the music permeated other popular genres, including rap, urban gospel, contemporary country, and pop (Jones). Popular artists emerged as pioneers of Christian rock during the 80s, including Petra, Stryper, Bloodgood, and Undercover (Jones). The 1990s were perhaps the largest period of growth for the industry, so much so that the music labeled as ‘CCM’ totaled for $1 billion in sales during 2001 (Powell, 2002).
With a flowering business emerging from the ‘Jesus Music,’ others quickly began to take notice. Billboard Magazine started to keep track of CCM artists, deeming Carman the first ‘Contemporary Christian Artist of the Year’ in 1990 (Jones). Rolling Stone reviewed a sample of 30 Christian rock songs and said, “The Christian songs were no more insipid or derivative than 30 songs randomly selected from the Billboard Hot 100 in a given week.” (Powell, 2002). Time and Newsweek dedicated entire spreads to finding out the secret to the CCM industry’s rapid success, evident in a 2001 cover that read ‘Jesus Rocks! Christian Entertainment Makes a Joyful Noise’ (“Newsweek cover: Jesus”, 2001). The magnitude of the industry even grew beyond its own borders with artists like U2 and Creed that performed songs ‘spiritual in nature,’ but not associated with the contemporary Christian movement itself (Powell, 2002).
It was during the early 2000s that many started to question that message and intention of the music. Detractors and critics have been present in mass for much of the 50 year history of the CCM industry, but as the money driven business continues to gain a larger share of the American music industry, more and more people wonder about the purpose behind the lyrics and CD sales. At the heart of the matter lies the question: Is the music to be used for worship or entertainment? This question, addressed in Donald Ellsworth’s Christian Music in Contemporary Witness, provides insight into the struggle of the modern CCM listener.
To add to this question, some experts feel that the message of the music is not exactly on target with the doctrines of the church or the scripture’s teachings. One expert noted, “Though lyrics in most contemporary Christian songs fall within the boundaries of orthodoxy, a small but growing percentage of Christian songs have lyrics that are either shallow, confusing, doctrinally errant, or even blatantly unbiblical” (Rhodes, 1989). Song lyrics have long been criticized for their lack of subtly – and lack of many other things as the ‘Happy-in-Jesus’ songs provide listeners with a shallow meaning. Many would argue that the Jesus of the campfire songs is neither scripturally correct or a sustainable message for believers. In arguing such a point, the character of Jesus within CCM song lyrics has then not changed for the past 50 years despite the musical overtones.
Andrew Lockwood receiving graduate honors
Revisiting the original matter of the use of the music, opinions are as varied as the genres of music on its purpose. For some, the expansion of CCM in society is the key to understanding its purpose. One author points out, “Christian music has gone farther than the church and can be found on radio, TV, in concert halls and at huge rallies and festivals” (Jones). Ellsworth notes that it is not the church’s responsibility to provide an escape from reality but to give answers to problems through ‘legitimate, biblical means,’ noting that the soft rock styles allow for communication of scripture (Ellsworth, 1979). A common, reoccurring theme in response to the question of CCM’s purpose is that of current societal problems.
Appealing with a ‘Christ against culture’ message, much of the industry’s music touches on current day issues in connection with a message of hope through Christ (Powell, 2002). Over the years, this message has changed significantly within the lyrics and musical delivery. During the 1980s, an attitude of ‘militant triumphalism’ was present, evidenced by three different songs by three different artists entitled “Armed and Dangerous” with a theme of killing one’s spiritual enemies (Powell, 2002). Critics of the lyrics saw Jesus in a ‘militant leadership’ role, one that could defeat sin at will. For many, the songs lacked in application to practical living and were in a medium between worship and odd entertainment. The 1990s showed a particular emphasis on social issues, ranging from abortion to prayer in schools (Powell, 2002). One expert noted that at least five CCM songs were written from the prospective of an unborn fetus, albeit with adult-like logic in that they wanted Jesus to save them before they were aborted (Powell, 2002).
With such a plethora of lyrical messages coming through the CCM industry, the issue of purpose is still a somewhat divisive issue to this day. Artists such as Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, and Indelible Grace draw from traditional church music and mirror common doctrines and scripture taught throughout most of America’s protestant churches. One expert notes that these artists among a few others make up “10% of current CCM that could be categorized as ‘theologically mature’ while another 10% can be written off as sensationalist trash marred by a kind of ignorant extremism” (Powell, 2002).
In today’s CCM, a huge emphasis is also placed on God’s omnipresence and sustainability. When speaking about the target audience, one songwriter/author noted, “People desperately need something or someone bigger than themselves and all that they face in order to cope. They want to feel like God is here and now, not some dusty relic from the dark ages that can’t possibly understand the issues of today. The new Christian music in our churches and on our airwaves reaches out to us on a level that we can understand and feel”(Jones). In essence, the Jesus demanded by CCM listeners is one of relevance and hope, a sustainer.
Sometimes, in an effort to convey a hope through Jesus, artists write lyrics that don’t exactly sync with biblical truth on the character of Jesus. Scriptural accuracy issues with divinity, means of salvation, and end-of-times are often hidden within the lyrics of an otherwise ‘positive Christian’ song (Rhodes, 1989). Newsweek even pointed out the fact that as the industry creeps closer to being considered mainstream, the music starts to omit the word ‘Jesus’ and ‘spends as much time blowing up buildings as saving souls’ (Newsweek cover: Jesus, 2001). In an effort to create music that will reach broader audiences, artists have toned down the religious aspects of their songs, including the references to the central character of their music, Jesus.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the comparisons between the pop culture music industry and the CCM industry continued to grow, so much so, that record labels recommended their artists as safe alternatives to the general market (Powell, 2002). This industry propaganda included posters that read, “If you like this artist, listen to this Christian artist.” As if the CCM industry could not stand on the merits of its own music, comparisons seemed warranted in order to increase music sales. “If you like artists Counting Crows and Sister Hazel, try 10th Avenue North,” said one source (Passarell, 2009). The same source also gave plenty of other comparisons, such as, “If you like Taylor Swift, try Francesca Battistelli” (Passarell, 2009). Campus’ Life magazine even offers a weekly column to suggest Christian artists over other alternative artists (Powell, 2002). The strategic marketing by the CCM industry intends to move listeners to their industry and exhort them to listen to exclusively Christian music (Powell, 2002). To do otherwise, would be considered ‘living in the world’ by the faithful listeners of CCM.
Contrary to their marketing efforts, some Christian artists have enjoyed success in the general music market, causing a rift to form between recording labels and popular acts. Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith were the first ‘cross-over’ starts to appeal on the pop charts in the 1990s, ushering in an era in which CCM labels were recognized as more than a niche market (Balmer, 1999).
One popular band, Switchfoot, made an unprecedented change when they moved from Chrisitan label Re:Think Records to Columbia Records, part of Sony BMG in 2003 (Kimball, 2007). The band cited the reason for the move was that that they claimed to be, “Christian by faith, not by genre (Kimball, 2007).” Another ‘rap-core’ band, P.O.D., enjoyed huge cross-over appeal with the mainstream music listeners, even performing with Ozzy Osbourne during his Ozzfest tour (Powell, 2002). With little support coming from the CCM industry, P.O.D. sold millions of albums laced with spiritual messages that dealt with societal problems (Powell, 2002). Gospel and R&B singers BeBe and CeCe Winans hinted of racism allegations within the CCM industry, openly questioning whether or not to move to the general market (Powell, 2002). Even industry mainstay Caedmon’s Call has had their share of frustrations with CCM, confessing that the lyrics in the hit song ‘This world has nothing for me’ had an ironic meaning, alluding to the fact that ‘this world’ meant the ‘world of CCM’ (Powell, 2002).
The theological differences can be just as varied when comparing the vast array of modern CCM artists. Some broadly categorize CCM as missing the mark, exemplified in three lectures given by John Makujina at the William R. Rice Lecture Series at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary in 2005. Within his lectures he argued, “CCM’s Pelagianist aesthetic autonomy, its pop Jesus, are desecrations of God majestic, and its error needs to be re-categorized as theology miscarriage, even heresy, rather than just aesthetic immaturity” (Aniol, 2009). Makujina added in his closing remarks, “CCM’s theology of music should be ranked among the theological aberrations of modern evangelicalism and be confronted from a doctrinal standpoint” (Aniol, 2009).
Others argue that certain artists are ‘more mature’ in the theology of their lyrics. Christianity Today was even inclined to say that Calvin and Martin Luther would agree with the theology of popular CCM band Jars of Clay’s music (Balmer, 1999). In one Jars of Clay song, Love Song for a Savior, the group writes lyrics portraying Christ as a ‘relentless pursuer’ in agreement with the Apostle Paul’s writings that sinners earn salvation through God’s grace alone through faith (Balmer, 1999). Summing up the group’s guiding theology, Jars of Clay member Matt Odmark told Christianity Today, “I believe that I have nothing to do with my salvation [and that Jesus has everything to do with it]” (Balmer, 1999). This theology, present throughout the group’s lyrics, runs in stark contrast to the theology of older CCM songs, much like the 1965 Doobie Brothers hit, Jesus is Just Alright.
Like the band Switchfoot, some popular artists that proclaim to be Christians prefer to stay with a secular recording label rather than sign with a CCM label. The country music genre contain songs with lyrics about Jesus, such as Carrie Underwood’s Jesus Take the Wheel and Josh Turner’s Long Black Train, but are not generally considered to be contemporary Christian songs. Their portrait of Jesus is muddled in some cases, but in most song lyrics outside of the CCM realm he is held in high standard as a Savior.
Perhaps one of the most engaging arguments about CCM’s role in society regards the use of the music by the church. The works of some popular CCM artists and hymn writers are considered ‘too shallow’ to be sung as worship music in church. One worship leader noted, “Over the last three decades many congregations have divided over the issue of contemporary worship. Within mainline churches, the music of the contemporary worship movement is often dismissed as too touchy-feely or manipulative, too shallow, too patriarchal, or too theologically untenable” (Kadidlo, 2007). He continued though, offering another view of contemporary Christian worship music by saying, “On the whole, however, I believe that the mainline church’s long tradition of worship that is primarily head-oriented has limited members’ firsthand experience with the deep, heartfelt contemporary worship that thrives within the broader church” (Kadidlo, 2007).
Another Christian rock star offered his point of view in an interview concerning the worship versus entertainment debate by saying, “I’m not trying to change what goes on in church. I think it would be a bad idea to make worship more entertaining. I just want to make entertainment more worshipful” (Powell, 2002). While artists and worship leaders may see CCM music in different lights, it has undoubtedly found its’ way into the worship program of many evangelical churches.
While Jesus remains at the center of the message in the booming industry of contemporary Christian music, more and more listeners ponder the question, “What would Jesus think about today’s industry based of his life figure?” It’s a legitimate question to ask about Jesus, whom biblical scriptures claim to be the divine son of God and man, who turned over the tables of the moneychangers and cleansed the temple in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 21:12-13). Is the contemporary Christian music industry really about the message of Jesus? The answers are as numerous as the endless lists of CCM genres.
The booming CCM business was built on the Jesus that was attractive to the musicians in the 1970s, one of independence and freedom. Jesus became the ‘devil slayer’ and gladiator of spiritual warfare in the 1980s and much of the music for the past two decades has reminded us of Jesus’ compassion and tender love. While all of these aspects of Jesus’ character can be found in biblical scripture, one has to wonder if the musical lyrics are about Jesus’ message or simply songs about Jesus that draw on certain aspects of his character in order to sell albums. Does the CCM industry supply listeners with a message about Jesus or do listeners demand a certain message about Jesus? It’s an interesting rhetorical question on the nature of Jesus within the contemporary Christian music industry.
Works Cited
Aniol, Scott. (2009). CCM’s theology of music should be ranked among the theological aberrations of modern evangelicalism…. Religious Affection Ministries, Retrieved from
Balmer, Randall. (1999, November 11). Hymns on MTV. Christianity Today, Retrieved from
Davis, Erik. (2007, July 31). I'd like to dedicate this next song to Jesus. Slate, Retrieved from
Ellsworth, P. (1979). Christian music in contemporary witness. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
Enroth, R., Erickson, E., & Breckenridge Peters, C. (1972). The Jesus people: old-time religion in the age of aquarius. Grand Rapids, MI: Cambridge University Press.
Jones, Kim. (n.d.). The changing face of Christian music. Retrieved from
Kadidlo, Phil. (2007). Heading towards a heart of worship. Lutheran Partners, 23(3), Retrieved from
Kimball, Joshua. (2007, August 16). Switchfoot cuts ties with record label. Christian Post, Retrieved from
Newsweek cover: Jesus rocks! Christian music makes a joyful noise. (2001, July 8). PRNewswire, Retrieved from
Passarell, Megan. (2009, April 8). Christian music offers alternatives for music lovers. The Stylus, Retrieved from
Powell, Mark. (2002, December 18). Jesus climbs the charts: the business of contemporary Christian music. The Christian Century, 20-26.
Residence hall life. (2010). Informally published manuscript, Bob Jones University, Greenville, South Carolina. Retrieved from
Rhodes, Ron. (1989). Confusion in Christian music?.Christian Research Journal, 31.


  1. The statistics on income was just astounding. I also loved how one author was talking about the CCM being more over reaching than the church in that it was everywhere while at the same time another author noted the lack of theological study in the lyrics.

  2. I appreciated some of those same things Rob. I don't think all or even a majority of Christian musicians put income as a first goal openly, but I think they have largely fooled themselves. It is also almost certain that those who organized it's corporate bodies did so with a financial motive.


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