A[nother] Jesus Movement in Music

Over the years I’ve spent quite a bit of time with artists and musicians who have done their best to move away from the label “Christian” so as not to be associated with what is now known as the “Contemporary Christian Music Industry.”

I get it.

It’s hard to adopt a label that may lump you into a category or style that you don’t fit. And all artists despise being mislabeled or misunderstood.

It’s tricky to avoid “Christian,” though. How can an artist separate his/her true self from his/her creative work? How does one maintain integrity if one is intentionally distancing themself from their true identity?

I’ve heard a lot of opinions on this, here are a few examples:

“I don’t want my lyrics to be explicitly Christian. I want those who want to hear the undertones of faith to be encouraged but I don’t want to put off those who have been burned by Christianity or religion.” (I appreciate the intention behind this sentiment.)

“I want people to have to really think and search for the meaning.” (Perhaps these songs are meant to be parables?).

“I write some songs that reference Jesus, but most are just about life.” (Can a Christian separate faith and life?)

A song doesn’t need to have the name of Jesus in it or have explicitly “Christian” lyrics to be holy, just as a painter doesn’t need to put a cross in every painting, or an author pen stories only taken from Bible stories. (Madeline L’Engle, “Walking on Water” is a great resource for this conversation.) But the very definition of integrity is, “the state of being whole and undivided.”

James describes being double-minded as being tossed back and forth with the wind. This can mean many things but in this context it would be safe to say that being tossed by wind would be bouncing back and forth between cultural / cultural Christian expectations and whatever the Lord has inspired us to create.

If we’re going to create we must approach it from a place of wholeness; we can’t be double-minded in intent or direction. I’ve heard some Christian worship music labeled, “manipulative”—as in, “intentionally crafted to evoke emotion to produce a specific result.” But I would argue that it is just as manipulative to intentionally clothe a song in layers to avoid association with a living God whose presence is transformative. I realize that those who are choosing to distance themselves are usually trying to distance themselves from the icky stuff and not God himself. But it’s far too easy to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” so-to-speak. If Christian artists are stepping away from the CCM industry because of a perceived lack of integrity, we need to be careful we aren’t losing our own in the process.

Have we forgotten what happened during the Jesus Movement of the 60’s when professional musicians had transformative conversions / encounters with the Lord and then couldn’t stop singing about him? Keith Green, Larry Norman, Mylon, Resurrection Band, Phil Keaggy, Paul Clark, Dion DiMucci, Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul, and Mary; Randy Stonehill, 2nd Chapter of Acts, etc.. all experienced radical transformation and as a result new music began to flow out of them. These incredibly talented creatives began writing and producing counter-cultural music that shocked not only the world but the church. They were true artists and musicians who had been brought from darkness and into the light. They became disciples of Jesus, laying aside the old self and putting on the new. This changed the content and direction of their music immediately, not because they had an agenda, but because they had been changed. They were writing just as honestly about their lives as they had before—but Jesus was now their life. He was everything. And they were compelled by his spirit to share with others what he had done for them. They were not ashamed of their newfound love and, unlike many of us, they did little to nothing to hide it.

These artists didn’t “fit” the mold of rigid religious music of their time nor did they fit in to the mainstream music industry.

The mainstream world thought, “Who wants to hear a song with “Jesus” in it? Who wants to hear about a religion that demands a change of lifestyle? There’s no way to market such a thing.”

The church was terrified—the sound was too mainstream. They worried these radicals would cause too much of a shift in their own culture so they rejected and even banned many from playing in their churches.

The artists of the Jesus Movement were “in and not of” both church and secular culture. But neither the church or the world could deny the power and effectivity of their creative endeavors. People were coming en masse to hear their songs and testimonies to such an extent that some very smart folk (with the best intentions) began starting labels to support the work, give them a greater platform, hoping the gospel message would expand and that more lives would be changed.

It was only when Christian music became a multi million dollar industry that things began to shift. Some were burned by the business side, so badly, in fact, that some left the faith entirely. Others couldn’t handle the fame and money that came along with mixing ministry and career. They found themselves back in the darkness and away from the light that had inspired this new music in the first place. Mainstream companies bought out the Christian labels and signed artists were encouraged to produce music that fit within a formula to ensure it would sell. Those with integrity winced as industry was prioritized over artistry and authenticity and many slowly started to abandon ship. Some opened smaller Christian labels, others became independent artist, others quit making music altogether. Then digital took over. And here we are.

What is a Christian who is an artist to do now? Many (myself included) have done everything we can to distance ourselves from the CCM label. Others have simply taken a deep breath and entered anyway, committing to maintain integrity in an industry where integrity is almost an impossibility. Others have abandoned the idea of being a Christian artist at all and have chosen to write about everything other than Jesus, keeping their lyrics clean, focused on beauty, justice, love and light—without mentioning the author and perfector of those things.

What’s the “right” path here? I’m not sure any of these, including the one I have chosen, are “right.” As the years have passed I am realizing that instead of looking around and trying to figure out where we’re going wrong and what we can do to repair, we need to shift our mentality. We don’t need a shift in style or words, we don’t need to start something new, we simply need to invite the Creator back into the creating.

Streaming services and social media are saturated with music, including worship music. There is so much out there—yet our society still groans under the weight of anxiety, depression, fear, confusion, chaos, dissension and violence. War is both present and imminent. There are protests left and right about everything . . . and nothing. Racial tensions are high. We need music that will be a healing balm; music that will point us in the right direction.

Writers, songwriters, musicians, singers, worship leaders, and everyone else involved in music production: we need to come back to our first love—the Love who awakened and rescued us from darkness and invited us to be a part of his redemptive work on the earth. The Love who inspires us to create, compels us to share, and makes our heart burn to do it “the right way.”

We need another “Jesus movement.” Not a revival but an awakening that enables us to feel his pulse again so we can function as he has designed us to function in the Body. Only then will we experience the fullness of life that flows when his body is fitly joined together.  Only then will the world not be able to point to a lack of integrity or authenticity in what Christians create—because there won’t be any lack. When we stop asking God to bless our endeavors and instead choose to join him in his, the healer of the nations will overshadow our art. His powerful presence will animate each lyric and note and hearts will begin to “prepare him room.”

When we return to our first Love we’ll feel the same the urgency those pioneers of Christian music did. “For I am compelled [that is, absolutely obligated] to preach the gospel.” 1 Cor 9:16

Wherever we find ourselves right now, whether in or out of the industry or church, we have an obligation to freely give what we’ve been given. There are no moments left to spare. No appropriate excuses for withholding the living bread and water from those who hunger and thirst.

The God who is able to transform even the most drug crazed hippie into a messenger of a peace is the same God who says he is more than able to heal a brokenhearted, depressed, anxious, confused, fearful and sin-sick society. It’s an honor, privilege, and a joy to be invited to sing some light into this dark world. It’s time to let the pulse and presence of God back into our music.

We need more Jesus music, not less.

1 Comment. Leave new

  • I came to Christ through Keith Green and his music. I am now a worship pastor.
    Amen to you heart beat and your words of truth.


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