Christian Music Grows Up
As the success of bands like Switchfoot and Relient K prove, Christian acts are gaining more mainstream appeal.
BY: Jeff Diamant
Religion News Service
Kevin Gallagher, guitar-maker, musician and self-professed born-again Christian, remembers when religious friends first tried to push Christian rock music on him, in the 1980s.
"They would say, `Hey, listen to this, and make sure you pay attention to the words, because that's what's important,"' recalled Gallagher, of Saylorsburg, Pa. "I always said, `I can't get past the lack of quality and production.'
"But that's changed now. There's not a CD being produced by any Christian label right now that I'd be afraid to hand to anybody," said Gallagher, 46, once the lead guitarist for a now-defunct band called "The Suspects."
For the second straight year, Gallagher was planning to attend Saturday's (Sept. 2) "Revelation Generation" concert on farm grounds in Kingwood Township, N.J., with his wife and four children. The concert, scheduled to go on regardless of weather, was expected to attract at least 8,000 people.
"Revelation Generation" is one of many Christian rock concerts popping up around the country in recent years as Internet publicity and better productions have boosted the genre of Christian music beyond its original evangelical base.
Christian music as a whole -- a broad category including Christian rock, Christian pop, gospel and "praise and worship" music, among others -- has become the sixth most popular type of music in the United States. Based on sales, it is behind only rock, hip-hop, R&B, country and pop music, and is ahead of jazz and classical, according to the Gospel Music Association.
Through four decades of growth and the popularity of singers like Bill Gaither, Amy Grant and Steven Curtis Chapman, Christian music still accounts for a small percentage of total music sales -- about 6 percent -- according to Nielsen SoundScan, an industry group.
But recent young Christian rock groups like Relient K, Switchfoot, Further Seems Forever, Newsboys and MXPX have highlighted the growth of Christian music sales by 11.6 percent in the first half of the year, compared with the first half of 2005, at a time the total number of albums sold nationally declined 4.2 percent.
Why the increase in mainstream popularity? Industry experts credit high production quality and music from Christian artists that attract people who care about more than just lyrics.
That's different than in the past, when Christian listeners were so happy to have popular songwriters on their spiritual level that "as long as it sounded somewhat like what was going on in the (mainstream popular) culture, but talked about Jesus right out front, it was considered OK," said Tom Tenney, who oversees a Christian rock station for XM Radio.
And their Christian fan bases, once appalled that singers like Amy Grant tried to appeal to mainstream audiences, have become more patient with such "crossover" acts, said Deborah Evans Price of Nashville, Tenn., who writes about Christian music for Billboard magazine.
"Over the years," she said, "people have really come around to the fact that the primary reason most artists make Christian music is to spread the gospel, and that if they can spread it to the wider audience, that's a good thing, not a bad thing."
While many songs sung by Christian rock artists don't mention Jesus or salvation, many do have lines designed for Christian tastes. Relient K, in "Be My Escape," sings "I know to live, you must give your life away."
Newsboys, in "He Reigns," sing about Christians in Africa, Asia and South America, "all God's children singing Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, he reigns."
Last year's concert drew about 4,000 fans. Organizers expected at least twice that crowd this time due to better publicity -- more than 100 churches have helped spread the word and are coordinating trips -- and the June rainout of "Creation Festival," a top Christian music concert held almost annually in Pennsylvania since 1979.
Most of the attendees were expected to come from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, organizers said.
Jennifer Gover of Frenchtown, N.J., who attended last year and planned to do so this year, is typical.
"I've been a Christian all my life, so I've kind of grown up with (Christian music)," said Gover, 15, who downloads Christian rock from iTunes and listens to a Christian music station broadcast from Zarephath, N.J.
Like many of the concertgoers, Gover likes both Christian and non-Christian music. She said she is proud that Christian groups have found more mainstream success while eschewing lyrics that promote sex, violence and drugs.
"There's actually some real good (Christian) bands," she said. "Christian music has better lyrics. Non-Christian music sometimes has better music, but not all the time. Switchfoot and Relient K have really good music."
The Afters, Salvador, and Brian Littrell of the Backstreet Boys were expected to appear. Speakers, including actor Stephen Baldwin, were expected to talk about their religious lives.
Hearing thousands of teenagers singing religious lyrics together can be emotional, said Paul Gover, Jennifer's father, who attended last year and said the concert might lead some people to become more religious.
"Oftentimes, through the messages in the music, people get opportunities to commit their lives for Christ and oftentimes to change some of the lifestyles they've been involved with. With that commitment, lives are changed."