Watered-Down Love the Secularization of Christian Music

When the name of Christ is constantly reduced to 'you' and 'him,' and artists look and act no different from their secular counterparts, then it is nothing more than nonreligious ear candy.

I'm getting into you/ because you got to me/ in a way words can't describe ... " sings Christian alt-rocker Matt Thiessen from the band Relient K, crooning his way onto MTV on their big-time crossover hit "Getting Into You." The song has both an angst-filled urgency and poetic grace. It's filled to the brim with melodic twists that stick in your head. And, it's definitely a cool song.

Unfortunately, it also seems to continue a disturbing trend. By watering down the message of salvation, the band has pushed into the mainstream and garnered a legion of ecstatic fans, while almost completely missing the opportunity to share their faith.

A Relient K concert? Lots of jumping around and screaming, but very little spiritual insight and outspoken biblical exhortation. Most songs are so blatantly secular that it makes Bruce Springsteen look spiritual.

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And it's not a new trend. Christian music mainstreaming is an attempt to attract new fans to religious-oriented music as a way to sell more records. Some call it evangelism; others call it heresy. A funny song about chapstick and chapped lips by Relient K will attract secular music fans to the full album so they can eventually find deeper truths in other songs.

At least that's the theory.

On Relient K's new album, Two Lefts Don't Make a Right ... But Three Do, you get about 40 minutes of crazy alternative rock ("Mood Ring" is about predicting a girlfriend's mood swings; "Gibberish" is nothing more than a bunch of weird words strung together) followed by a couple of watered-down songs about God.

Or, are they just about a human relationship? Who knows. The message is just spiritual enough so that the songs are included on Christian radio rotations, and just generic enough to be featured on extreme-sports videos and MTV.

"If an artist is trying to contrive a song that could be sung either to God or a girlfriend, the art may lack integrity," says John W. Styll, president of the Gospel Music Association. Styll, the original founder and publisher for CCM magazine, noted that the trend to change God's name to "you" has been a long-standing issue. What has changed, however, is that the music is being positioned for success with Christians and non-Christians alike.

Case in point: Evanescence. This hard-rocking band, featured on the Daredevil soundtrack, was positioned by the label as a Christian artist with a large fold-out display at Northwestern Book Stores and other Christian music retailers. At the same time, the band's hit song "Bring Me to Life" was featured prominently on secular airwaves.

The problems started when an interview with Evanescence was published by Entertainment Weekly where they denied that they were even a Christian band, using frequent profanity to make the point. Wind-Up Records pulled the album from Christian retail shelves, but the damage had already been done.

"Bring Me to Life" is frequently played on Christian radio. Is the song­and the album--really that harmful? Evanescence talks about a goddess lover (on "Imaginary") and makes some blatant sexual references (on "Haunted"). Christian music fans have been duped into buying the record, and have ended up hearing lies and deceit.

Changing the message of the gospel to fit the patterns of the world­is harshly criticized in the Bible. Colossians 2:8 warns us to "beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ" (NKJV).

In the end, when Christian artists reduce the powerful truths of the Bible to nothing more than a positive or hopeful message, they are confusing their listeners, and opening the door to all kinds of vague viewpoints.

"The teachings of Jesus have certainly been sanitized in Western church culture," says Paul Colman of the alt-rock band Paul Colman Trio, on Essential Records. "Radio stations talk about being 'upbeat and positive,' which only represents one aspect of Jesus' personality. The verses about blessing, comfort and grace are most popular. The verses about suffering, caring for the poor and poverty are not really sung about."

Although all entertainment should be judged acording to the standards outlined in the Bible, the assumption is that, if a record is sold at a Christian music store, someone, somewhere decided to market that product to Christians.

Interestingly enough, one of the collaborators on Evanescence, Paul McCoy, released a self-titled album with his band 12 Stones that is remarkably outspoken for Christ. Songs such as "Broken" were written with the deep spiritual truth of our weaknesses ultimately glorifying Christ. Yet, the album is not intentionally marketed to Christians.

Some of the most blatantly Christian bands, such as P.O.D., are more interested in reaching the lost than being sold at Christian music stores. Typical P.O.D. shows include a segment where band members share their testimonies.

In some ways, the secular bands are doing an admirable job of helping other Christians start spiritual conversations with their non-Christian friends. P.O.D. doesn't use the title "Christian band." Other secular bands, such as Big Dismal and Creed, are leery of the stigma because it makes them seem better than other bands, or brands them in a market dominated by Steven Curtis Chapman and Michael W. Smith.

Christian bands are crossing over to the mainstream in an effort to attract more listeners and increase their exposure. One example is the alt-rock band Switchfoot. For years, their albums have been marketed by a Christian label and sold to Christian stores, but they recently released an album on Columbia Records and were distributed to Best Buy, Tower Records and other secular music stores.

The band "switched" gears and now writes songs to get people to think about spiritual topics, as opposed to making any blatant assertions. On "This Is Your Life", off The Beautiful Letdown album, the challenge is to think about whether you have really become the person God intended you to be.

Still, while the change in focus has led to increased sales and several songs on A Walk to Remember soundtrack, the band doesn't seem to desire anything but a passing identity with Christian contemporary music. Their Web site at www.switchfoot.com doesn't even mention previous contemporary Christian records or their personal faith in Christ for that matter.

When Christian artists change their message to appeal to a wider audience, the loss is ultimately felt by the Christian music listener, who may need to hear the hope of Scripture and the bold facts of Christianity stated in clear terms. Artists such as Relient K and Switchfoot may be helping non-Christians think about Christian ideas, but do little to promote the kingdom of God.

Fortunately, for every Relient K, there is a complimentary Christian artist who has decided to stick close to the bold message, such as the new rock band Seven Places, who has a new album debuting on BEC Recordings. The name comes from the seven places that Jesus bled on the cross, including His hands, feet and side. Lead singer Tyler Jones touched on an important point about how some artists try to remove Christ from Christian music.

"Christians are as vulnerable to the struggles of self-doubt and weariness as those who have not found Christ," Jones says. "However, those without Christ can explore and even glorify their angst in a way that is often unfit for believers. But what happens to the Christian songwriter's lyrics when his walk is dry and he feels far from God?

"There are often deadlines to be met and a songwriter can feel pressure to finish songs and get them recorded, but if those feelings of doubt and melancholy have not been brought back to the truth of God's Word, then they remain only feelings. The failure to filter our thoughts and feelings through the Word is one way that Christian music can become watered down."

Jones noted that Christ simplified His message to attract bigger crowds. "I don't see how removing the cross from the music assists in carrying that 'cross over' into the general market. What people long to hear is that same truth that Christ spoke into existence over 2,000 years ago. Like Jesus said, 'I have come to the sick.' So why would those of us who have found the cure hide it in an attempt to be more accessible to those who are still dying from the disease?"

Tooth & Nail Records has been criticized for signing bands that are not extremely outspoken for Christ, yet they have recently reversed that trend­if it even existed in the first place. Sometimes, the deep insights of bands such as Dogwood are just obscured by heavy drums and thumping bass. One of the most popular Christian bands of the last year is Kutless, who released their self-titled debut album on Tooth & Nail last year. Even though some Christians may frown on their grungy rap-metal sound, the lyrics on many songs are openly evangelistic.

"I feel the lyric issue has improved dramatically in recent years," says Dean Diehl, a vice president at Reunion Records. "The popularity of worship music has demonstrated to the labels that consumers want Christian music to be, well, Christian. As a result I have heard stronger Christian content coming from artists of all styles of Christian music."

He's right. While the trend to limit the power of Christ in music continues, so does a new trend in Christian music to write more music intended for God, rather than just about Him or about how He has touched our lives.

In the early days of Christian music, there was always a clear separation between the worship music of church and what you hear on Christian radio. Now, artists such as Michael W. Smith have decided to leave their original music releases behind, and focus on becoming worship leaders and help people seek Christ in concert settings.

Other artists are mixing the genres of Christian entertainment music with worship music. The Violet Burning, a band with a long-standing career in contemporary Christian music, has a unique ability to entertain with catchy alternative riffs and lyrics that are filled with brilliant spiritual lessons. Third Day is another band that has been tempted by crossover success but has decided to release worship albums and write songs for their original albums that are solidly grounded in Scripture.

Entire record labels, such as Integrity Music and Vineyard, are focused on releasing worship albums with songs that can be sung in churches across the globe. No watering down here. One recent Vineyard Canada release, You and You Alone, is filled with songs that lead the listener right to the throne room of Christ, knees on the altar, hands raised in worship to the King.

Listening to an Integrity or Vineyard release is nothing short of riveting. The music keeps getting better and better, but the words are mining deep into the canon of Scripture. Songs like these can easily restore your faith in the concept of Christian music leading you to a place of reverence and awe before Christ.

And, in the end, that's the greatest achievement of this genre of music. Sure, it can entertain, and there are places for bands such as P.O.D. to help introduce the Bible to people who have never even heard the name of Christ before. And remember any Christian--no matter who he is or how loud he screams it--who utters the name of Jesus and points people to Christ will receive the same reward as a pastor or an evangelist who uses the spoken word instead of the pounding, bass-thumping rhythms of music.


Artists argue that there's value in Christian music that's covert.

As Christians bring their faith into the mainstream, the distinction between contemporary Christian music and secular music is blurring.

"Eventually it will be gone altogether," predicts Cameron Strang, founder of Relevant Media Group, which has published works on the spirituality of U2 and Bob Dylan. He adds, however: "There will always be a need for purely Christian music. Worship music engages my spirit; praise recharges me. I'm just not sure the more contemporary stuff, the rock and rap, belongs in that box."

The masses are listening­and scarfing up wholesome CDs like potato chips. Contemporary Christian music (which includes bands such as P.O.D. in its statistics because Christian retailers stock them) is now one of the hottest genres in the entire music industry, with $747 million in record sales in 2000.

Christian music crossover artists such as Sixpence None the Richer and Dan Haseltine (Jars of Clay) have shown a skeptical public that a believer's idea of a melody line is not the sound of a thumping Bible.

Strang thinks there's another element at play here: a backlash of sorts. "Dark heavy metal and violent rap was the soundtrack of school shootings and skyrocketing divorce rates and an often ugly youth culture," he says. "Society as a whole­kids and adults­is ready for something better."

Says Paul McCoy of 12 Stones (which toured with Creed and garnered a radio hit with the post-grunge rock song "The Way I Feel," from its self-titled debut ): "Instead of thriving on negativity and the feeling that there is no way out, we aim to express through our music that one can stay strong and weather the onslaught of difficult times."

Fewer believers are sticking with safely labeled "Christian music." But does working in the secular world relieve these artists­or any believer­from the obligation of proclaiming the grace of Christ?

In his book, At the Crossroads, musician/producer Charlie Peacock writes: "You can own a coffee house without justifying its existence by naming it a 'Christian' coffee house, while at the same time ministering to others in the name of Christ. Better that our colleagues and customers know us as Christians by our love and good deeds rather than by our letterhead."

"The Christian music industry has been almost too effective at defining itself," says Jay Swartzendruber, rock aficionado and manager of public relations for Gotee Records. He says: "The term 'Christian musician' no longer means a musician who happens to be Christian. It connotes a genre in which Jesus Christ is praised or specifically addressed. When these artists say they are not 'Christian musicians,' they're not trying to deny their relationship with Christ­they're saying, 'I don't make that kind of music.'"

Should musicians of faith make only music that specifically mentions Christ? "That's an old debate," Chris Seay, pop-culture expert and pastor of Ecclesia Church in Houston, says. "Some say yes, but in my view as long as a song honors the things God cherishes, you can write it, perform it or listen to it."

The upshot is that positive messages have reached ears that may have never heard a sermon.

"My music is spiritually based," Jason Wade of Lifehouse told Rolling Stone magazine, "but we don't want to be labeled as a 'Christian band' because all of a sudden people's walls go up and they won't listen to your music and what you have to say."

Sonny Sandoval of P.O.D believes that God's Spirit works through the band's music. "We don't have to read Scripture to make it known," he says. "God is going to touch who He plans to touch, whether it is one person in the audience or every single person. We have to lead with the faith that God is doing this, not us."
By Bob Liparulo
Originally appeared in New Man Magazine

John Brandon is a freelance writer for New Man and several technology, travel and entertainment publications. He runs a popular Christian music Web site, www.christrock.com and plays guitar in a worship band at his church, located in Buffalo, Minnesota.

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