Writing to the first-century Church of Corinth, the apostle Paul said to the Corinthians, “by all possible means that we might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22, NIV), referring to his commitment to reach all types of people with the Gospel.
Talk to today’s contemporary Christian musicians and most—if not all—will say they view their art as a means by which to share the Gospel with those who don’t have a relationship with Christ.
But while these artists have the intent and the desire to share, is Christian music—often relegated to Christian radio stations, church stages and Christian music festivals—really reaching the unchurched? Or are the Christian music artists of today primarily using their art to challenge and equip Christian youth and adults to share Christ with their peers?
A third option: Is Christian music evangelistic at all—for any audience? While it’s certainly, in many cases, a far cry from the convcting songs of Keth Green 25 years ago, is Christian music in the 21st century and the artists who create it still talking about reaching a lost world?
JUST PREACHING TO THE CHOIR?
According to the Gospel Music Association, last year’s summer music festivals drew more than 800,000 people to cities nationwide, and more than 50 million Christian music CDs flew off store shelves. Over the past two decades, the Christian music genre has grown exponentially, increasing both in sales, radio play and visibility.
With that growth, a handful of artists (Michael W. Smith, P.O.D., Kirk Franklin, Sixpence None the Richer and most recently MercyMe, Switchfoot, Jump5 and Stacie Orrico) have broken onto mainstream radio station playlists, invaded VH1 and MTV music video countdowns and even garnered mainstream music awards.
Based on the numbers and escalating exposure, it’s fair to say that Christian music and its message are making an impact nationwide. But while the exposure has increased and the content, by nature, may be evangelical, whom is that message really reaching? The unchurched? Or are Christian music artists just preaching to the choir?
“I don’t know if you’d call it ‘preaching to the choir’ or if you’d call it ‘empowering the body of Christ,’ ” says MercyMe (mercyme.org) lead singer Bart Millard whose single, “I Can Only Imagine,” climbed to the tops of Christian and mainstream radio charts in 2003. “Some bands like Switchfoot are actually playing in a very mainstream environment, but are singing about truth and hopefully holding a light to a world that needs to see it.”
However, it’s not a “bad thing,” Millard says, when other artists and worship leaders play primarily to the body of Christ. “Hopefully, that body is going to feel encouraged or empowered to do its part.” But now when he writes songs and talks to crowds—churched and unchurched—Millard keeps his audience in mind to make the Gospel relevant to someone who’s never heard it.
“We’ve all of a sudden had to shift gears a little bit as we found ourselves in the middle of a mainstream audience,” he says. “We always sing about truth and about Christ, but sometimes now our message is simpler than it was before. We sing about Christ and the cross and try to find a language that’s easier to understand. There’s no reference to the ‘blood of Christ,’ or ‘the lamb that was slain’ in our lyrics. There’s not anything wrong with that verbiage, but it can be a little confusing to people who don’t know what it means. We just want to tackle the simple idea of Christ being our only hope and our only answer.”
As part of Christian music group NewSong (newsongonline.com), vocalist Michael O’Brien admits that the group’s audiences are filled with churchgoers, yet he still sees evangelism as a key part of the group’s ministry.
“The Billy Graham organization put it pretty plainly in a statistic they released not long ago that said 80% of people who go to church on Sunday are lost,” O’Brien says. “It doesn’t shock me that a lot of people are going to church but don’t know why they’re going. I was like that. I regularly went to church from age 11 to 17 yet had no relationship with Christ. So I believe [Christian music] is making an eternal impact regardless of who’s in the audience.”
Nicole C. Mullen (nicolecmullen.com) writer and singer of the 2000 anthem, “Redeemer,“ takes a harder edge, challenging Christian artists to get out of their comfort zones and take their art to an audience that needs it.
“I don’t think [Christian music] is impacting the unchurched the way it should,” she says bluntly. “There are very few of us in Christian artist circles who are reaching the unchurched. A lot of times we are sending the same message back to the same people who already believe the same thing.
“Staying in front of our churched audience is easy, it’s safe and it costs us very little emotionally,” Mullen continues. “After a while (and I include myself in this), it’s easy to sing to the Church. We know the right jargon to use and the right exclamations to put after a phrase to get the right response.”
Christian artists and their music, she says, should be reaching the same types of people Christ took his message to—those who didn’t know Him.
“I think that’s what we’re called to do. I’ve said it a thousand times, and I’ll keep saying it until it comes true: I feel like my mission is to make sure I have my feet planted firmly in the Church so that I can reach over into the world and pull people out without falling in. I want to tell them how He’s saved me, healed me, changed me and walked with me through the hard times in life. I want them to say, ‘Hey, if there’s such a person in the world who can do that, then that’s what I want.’ ”
OUTREACH FROM THE STAGE
Regardless of who the Christian music audience is, there’s little question that music has been used as a powerful tool for effective evangelism and pre-evangelism, whether it’s through a song lyric or a testimony.
But are today’s Christian music artists purposeful about evangelism when they’re behind a microphone? If so, what does that look like? While groups like MercyMe and NewSong don’t end a concert without doing an altar call, other artists recoil at the thought of an altar call from stage, opting for other ways to share their faith from the stage.
MercyMe’s recent “Imagine” tour no doubt drew some mainstream, unchurched fans due to the band’s increased presence on Top 40 and Adult Contemporary mainstream radio stations. But the diverse crowd didn’t deter Millard from boldly sharing his faith from stage.
“For MercyMe, Christian music is evangelism,” Millard says. “Hopefully there’s something that draws people in and reveals something that’s bigger than the artist or the song.”
The band, which tours throughout the year, offers an altar call at each concert.
“We always make it a point to let people know that it’s all about Christ, or it’s pointless,” Millard explains. “We never want to be guilty of making Christ the center of attention, and then not explaining why. We don’t want to risk somebody walking away and saying, ‘Wow, I never felt that way. I wish I knew what that meant.’ ”
Christian teen pop sensations Jump5 (jump5.com) have also tested the mainstream waters through their active involvement with Radio Disney and tours with mainstream artists Aaron Carter, Baha Men and more.
“Not many people go to the mainstream world and still sing about what they believe, and it’s even been tough for us sometimes,” says Jump5’s Lesley Moore, 16. “But we really believe in what we’re doing and saying. I love being out there singing for people and watching them get to that point of realization where they understand what it is that we’re singing about.”
Adds Jump5’s Chris Fedun, 17: “From the beginning, it’s always been about reaching people. And it’s always going to be about that for us.”
On the road with dc Talk, frontman Toby McKeehan (now hip-hop artist tobyMac; tobymac.com) made it a priority to address the crowd at the end of each night, sharing his testimony and leaving the audience with spiritual food for thought.
“If you give me a microphone for an hour, or even just a few minutes, my heart is to tell people about the hope I’ve found in Christ,” he says.
Yet McKeehan tempers his evangelistic passion, keeping in mind the venue and his audience. “I’ve got to be wise and respectful of who’s handing me that mic and how to approach the time I’m given,” he says. “But I absolutely expect my songs to inspire the body to go out and have more of a desire to impact culture. I absolutely expect my songs to cause a non-believer to ask, ‘Hey, how do I relate to this guy and what he’s talking about?’ If that’s not happening, then something’s wrong.”
Over the past 20 years, NewSong has become known as a Christian music group that doesn’t shy away from sharing their faith on stage and asking audiences to make decisions for Christ. The group believes that all artists who sing about Christ should share that boldness.
“I may be a little bit radical,” says NewSong’s Michael O’Brien, “but I would have to question anyone who got into Christian music and doesn’t use that platform. Part of being a disciple of Christ is telling people about Him and not just letting your music speak for itself.”
He recalls a recent concert tour with Christian punk music group Relient K who brought a completely different audience of teens than the youth who usually come to a NewSong event.
“You could even pick these kids out in an audience. They’d stand there with their arms crossed, not wanting anything to do with anyone but Relient K,” O’Brien remembers. “But when I did the altar call and those who came forward had gone back to be counseled, I realized that the Relient K fans were also back there, giving their hearts to Christ.
As Christian artists, we need to give people an opportunity to respond to the Gospel.” But Christian rockers Third Day (thirdday.com) take a different stance, opting not to offer an altar call during concerts. Yet they are quick to share their faith from stage several times throughout the evening, says drummer David Carr.
“I’m not going to make any bones about it,” he asserts. “Our concert is a show. It is a night of entertainment. But we’re still Christians. In our hearts we love God, and we’re trying to work out our own salvation. I think that should shine through everything we do.
“And while we’ve found that the altar call is not necessarily the most effective thing for us, we’d be remiss to not give some sort of encouragement, to point out how much is going on in the world today and how we all need to be the hands and feet of Jesus. That doesn’t mean we have to go knock on people’s doors, it just means to stop being selfish and to start loving people and serve them. You don’t have to give an altar call to do that. It gives us a great opportunity to say, ‘It’s Christ in me who does this. I’m just trying to live out my life the way He wants me to.’ That sets more of an example than anything else.”
SHARING THE MESSAGE
While outreach from stage often yields immediate, visible results, other Christian music artists are sharing their faith in less public ways through personal conversations after concerts, e-mailed responses to fans, on their Web sites and in media interviews—especially those artists who have entered a new realm of mainstream exposure.
Christian rock band Switchfoot has been building huge momentum in mainstream circles over the past year, following the release of its now gold-selling album The Beautiful Letdown. The group’s breakthrough single, “Meant to Live,” has become a favorite at modern rock, alternative and pop radio stations, and has helped put the band in front of national TV audiences on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” “On Air with Ryan Seacrest,” “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and more.
“We’re Christian by faith, not genre,” Switchfoot bassist Tim Foreman told Rolling Stone last year, acknowledging the group’s Christianity while separating the group ever-so-slightly from the Christian music industry. The subtle move brought some criticism of the band in Christian circles.
But a message board thread titled “What Do You Believe?” is posted on Switchfoot’s Web site (switchfoot.com). In it, fans discuss topics like salvation, Christianity and evolution, among others.
Another thread, “Tell Switchfoot,” offers further evidence that the band’s music is affecting lives. A few weeks ago, “Liz” wrote: “The other day my friend told me he was so unsure of God’s existence. I quoted the ‘Dare You to Move’ (from A Beautiful Letdown) lyrics, because he’s going through really hard times. After he read them, he said, ‘I think I believe in God a lot more now’ and asked me to pray for him, which is an absolute miracle! He never asks for help—ever.”
“A lot of people expect a ‘Billy Graham’ calling to be on a Christian rock band, but it might not be there,” observes tobyMac, who’s had his own share of struggles in that arena when dc Talk hit the mainstream. “Do we all as believers have a calling to share our faith in one fashion or another? Yes. But maybe that lead singer in the rock band is called to share his faith in a more personal setting, not when he’s got a mic in his hand. I encourage both.”
Who’s hearing the music and what’s happening on and off stage are relevant questions to ask when considering the impact of contemporary Christian music artists. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s the stories of people who have been drawn to Christ through the records, the concerts, the Web sites and e-mails that ultimately answer the questions.
Third Day’s Carr shares an e-mail from a young girl who wrote after seeing the band open for mainstream Southern rockers Lynrd Skynrd. After the show, she e-mailed the group: “I’d never heard of you guys before, but I loved your set so much that I bought your record for my birthday. Some of the songs really encouraged me, and I’ve started reading my Bible and am trying to get my life in order.”
Jump5 members spend time after every show greeting fans, usually staying until they’ve spoken to the last person in line. Surprisingly, the letters and e-mails they receive aren’t always from kids. “We’ve heard from moms or dads who have written and said they brought their kids to the show and were really impacted by what they saw,” says Jump5’s Brandon Hargest. “That’s such a cool thing for us to see that we can really reach people of all ages.”
A recent post to Christian rapper TBone’s site (houseoftbone.com) thanks the former gang member-turned-artist: “You are one of the reasons that I am saved right now … I heard your testimony, and that helped me through a lot of things. Thank you so much.” Another post on his site says, “I work a lot with younger people, sharing my testimony, and I use your music to help share.”
O’Brien says he is constantly amazed at the stories NewSong hears during the group’s altar calls. “One night a youth pastor who’d been dealing drugs to his kids came forward and gave his life to Christ,” he recalls.
Switchfoot vocalist/guitarist Jon Foreman echoes O’Brien’s experience: “I recently had a kid come up to me and give me a big hug because he was so affected by ‘Dare You to Move.’ Apparently, he was going through some really rough times and wasn’t sure if he wanted to live anymore, but he heard the song and was inspired. It’s moments like that when you realize you’re part of a bigger story than your own.”